‘Islamist’ violence.

By Frank Armstrong and Michael Smith.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks by individuals purporting to represent Islam once again linked that religion to violent behaviour anathema to Western, liberal values. From stoning of adulterers to beheadings and burnings alive of infidels, flogging bloggers and even female genital mutilation, a picture registers of a religion stubbornly rooted in a barbaric past, even if those practices have little or no real justification in Islam, and are abhorrent to most Muslims.

What we generalise as ‘Islam’ is a constantly evolving and diverse set of beliefs influenced by the varying settings of its over one billion global adherents. A range of interpretations of Islam can be found, many of course self-consciously malign. Nevertheless most Muslims in the West find little difficulty reconciling their lifestyles with the norms of their societies, albeit they may be highly critical of the foreign and domestic policies of their governments.

Muslims may embrace the uniquely dangerous doctrine of Jihad the place of which in Islam is mysterious to heathens.

Care is needed as the term Jihad for some refers to spiritual as well as military conflict and where military it implies defence not attack. Nevertheless again, some of those hostile to Islamists have cynically used the term to their advantage.

There are also various views as to whether Sunnis and Shias differ on the concept. In Shia Islam, Jihad is one of the ten Practices of the Religion, (though not one of the Angel-Gabriel-revealed mandatory Five Pillars).

With the Islamic revival in the eighteenth century a fundamentalist movement preaching Jihad was perpetrated by the Wahhabi movement which spread across the Arabian peninsula starting in the 18th century, emphasising Jihad as armed struggle. Wars against Western colonial forces were often declared Jihad. For example the Mahdi in the Sudan declared Jihad against the British and the Egyptians in 1881.

In the twentieth century, one of the first Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, emphasised physical struggle and martyrdom in its credo: “God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; struggle (Jihad) is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations”.

The group called for Jihad against the new Jewish state of Israel in the 1940s, and its Palestinian branch, Hamas, called for Jihad against Israel when the First Intifada started in 1987.

In the 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood cleric Abdullah Azzam, sometimes called ‘the father of the modern global Jihad’, opened the possibility of immediate Jihad against unbelievers. Azzam issued a fatwa calling for Jihad against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. In 1996, al-Qaeda announced its Jihad to expel foreign troops and interests from what they considered Islamic lands. Osama Bin Laden issued a Fatwa (compulsory religious edict), calling for war against the US and its allies.

Before rising to indignation about this it is instructive to recall Christianity’s history of justifying the Crusades, the Inquisition and oppression of minorities. The Bible was even used to justify slavery before the American Civil War. The corpora of works that constitute both Christianity and Islam contain a wide range of possible interpretations, though the era and ethos of crusading are now remote.

So what at a minimum does religion mean for violence?

Sociologist Emile Durkheim claimed that religions are: “a system of ideas with which the individual represent to themselves the society of which they are members”. This follows Aristotle’s dictum that: “men create the gods after their own image”.

A contrasting view, articulated by another sociologist, Max Weber, is that religions of themselves generate socio-economic conditions: most famously he argued that the Protestant work ethic led to modern capitalism.

This brings us to the important question of whether religious violence is a product of the religion itself or emanates from the wider society.

The Christian Philosophical Anthropologist, René Girard, identified a universal tendency towards what he termed “acquisitive mimesis”. By this he meant that humans copy each other’s consumption (a version of monkey see, monkey do) which naturally leads to rivalry over scarce resources.

Unlike other animals, from quite early in our evolution we developed a capacity to employ weapons, beginning with stone projectiles. With this capacity for wreaking destruction early humans found it necessary to resolve potentially fatal conflicts brought about by competition for resources.

Girard identified the mechanism of the scapegoat across a whole range of cultural contexts.  It serves to pacify the violent tendencies that bedevil human societies. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion is an obvious example, but he found this to be a near-universal feature of tribal societies.

Religions play a prominent role in scapegoating. According to Girard: “The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence”.

With this apparent paradox in mind we may explore the origins of violence in Islam in its socio-cultural context.

The harsh desert environment of post-nomadic Saudi Arabia where literacy was rare and violence endemic preserved religious practices that we in the West consider barbarous. The discovery of enormous oil reserves after World War I thrust unimaginable wealth into the hands of the new state, and the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam has been used by the ruling Al-Saud family to legitimise its rule.

Weber’s view of religion resonates here. The often intolerant Wahhabi teachings emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last decades have had a strong and worrying influence on many of the global Islamic community and on Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The values of a violent, desert society remain influential.

Reflecting on the nature of, and differences between, global religions is instructive. One distinguishing feature of the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism is they firmly place man at the centre of the universe with dominion over all life.

This anthropocentrisim drives how they consume food – a fundamental part of their relationship with the earth. It allows or mandates carnivorousness.

Rene Girard observed: “Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation”. He argues that animals were first domesticated for their use in sacrifice, not for their value as food, and believes that: “What impelled men to hunt was the search for a reconciliatory victim”. And he concludes: “The common denominator is the collective murder, whether attributed to animals or men, rather than the hunted species or various techniques employed.”

US-funded Israeli bombing of Gaza. 2014
US-funded Israeli bombing of Gaza. 2014

In contrast most forms of Buddhism and other Eastern traditions see humans as one among other animals and advocate restraint on the unnecessary killing of other animals for food.

Of course, Buddhism is not universally pacifist. Buddhist institutions supported Japanese militarism in their Russian war and World War II. Buddhist monks were involved in the killing of 200 Muslims in Myanmar in 2012.

At face value prohibitions on meat-eating may seem irrelevant to inter-human violence, but if a religion restrains all intentional killing the culture of inter-human violence in that society may not develop. Prohibiting violence towards animals may remove the need to scapegoat other humans. We might even begin to reverse the acquisitive mimesis that brings humanity to the brink of self-destruction.

We might expect to find that violence is pervasive in meat-eating societies (ie all those active in violence in the Middle East and other places where Jihad and colonialism reign) but that where religion is more central to people’s lives there might be a greater prevalence of sacrificial violence.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a form of politics divorced entirely from violence. This is the great achievement of Gandhi who guided Indians to throw off the shackles of the British Empire in India with non-violent resistance.

Pacifism and vegetarianism often go hand in hand. Leo Tolstoy was another who recognised the need to reverse the acquisitive streak in human nature claiming that: “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields”. The cycle of violence could begin at the dinner table.

Gandhi explicitly connected his political philosophy with how other animals were treated when he said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. This moral progress we assume involves the development of a society where other human beings are valued and not seen in competitive terms: a curbing of the tendency towards acquisitive mimesis.

Of course religion is not the only driver of violence in the Middle East or the other flash-points of violence at the nexus of the Western and Islamic worlds. In terms that progressives in the West identify with more readily it is certainly the case that would-be-terrorists observe a global environment where disproportionate wealth, power and indeed weaponry lie in the hands of Western states whose foreign policies have often been directed against Muslim countries. Jihad is tailored to suit these conditions: extreme and seemingly gratuitous violence balances the wealth and power differential between Western powers and Jihadists.

Many in the West affect understanding and liberal stances. For example, even Marie Harf, spokesperson for the US  State Department, proclaimed in February: “we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups. We can help countries work at the root causes of this – what makes these 17-year-old kids pick up an AK-47 instead of trying to start a business”.

Of course such rationalisation does not provide an explanation for the atrocities committed in the name of for example Osama bin Laden, who hails from one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia.

Australian conservative blogger Andrew Bolt, a former associate editor of the Herald Sun, disdains the very idea of  addressing “root causes” of Islamists’ “insatiable anger”: “Islamic State releases a video showing how gleefully it slaughters unarmed civilians and demonstrating that there is no root cause that can be addressed that doesn’t involve Jews and other unbelievers dying. There is nothing to talk about with such people, and the only rational response is to shoot them before they shoot you”.

Irish journalist Kevin Myers simplistically distinguishes followers of Chomsky who think that evil deeds must stem from some logical cause or grievance from those of Edmund Burke who know evil when they see it:

“On the one hand, there were the Chomskyites, henceforth the chumps, who felt that there was an underlying ‘reason’ for 9/11, which had been ‘created’ by US policies. And there were the others, the Burkians, who felt that 9/11 represented yet another occasion when evil had captured the souls of men”. He also believes that “within, it seems, all ‘moderate’ Muslim communities are some fundamentalists who hold the local franchise for the global grievance of Islam. And no one really knows what such Islamic fundamentalists want, because the demands change according to whatever market the local Islamic franchisee is operating in. … somewhere inside the greater Islamic mind is an absurd sense of victimhood: and where there is no local grievance, why then there is always ‘Palestine’, as if those few disputed acres in the vast Islamic landmass of Afro-Asia merited the unanimous and indignant global furies of all Muslims”. Of course this logic fails to explain why the sense of victimhood is absurd.

Effectively corroborating the Myers’ line, Philip Bobbitt, a law professor and nephew of President Lyndon Johnson wonders why, if terrorism is rooted in events-driven Muslim grievances about western support for Israel or engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, so few of those apprehended in the West for terrorist crimes are Palestinians, Afghans or Iraqis.

The reaction may not be sophisticated at all. For example, a 2010 report from the International Council on Security and Development showed that 92 percent of the Afghanis surveyed had never heard of 9/11. It also showed that four in 10 Afghans believed the US was on their soil in order to “destroy Islam or occupy Afghanistan”. The survey admittedly only canvassed men, and relied primarily on respondents from Helmand and Kandahar, the two most war-torn provinces in the country.

Nevertheless lack of sophistication is not needed in order to drive anti-colonialism or even anti-Zionism. There is coloniser-imposed injustice, enough to enrage a saint. The illegality of much of Israel’s settlement, the dubious ethics of the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which divided up spheres of influence in the Middle East among western colonisers and the Balfour Declaration (1917) transmitted from the British foreign secretary to Baron Rothschild imposing a new Israeli state in Palestine. And the barbarity of escapades like Israel’s assault last year on Gaza, justify anger and, for any thinking from a rational person inevitable rage.

There are cultural and religious reasons, rational and irrational motivations, driving antipathy to Western adventures in the Islamist world. Violence characterises much of contemporary ‘civilisation’ not just the Middle East or Jihadists. Beyond containment there are better ways to defuse violence and even some ethoses and religions, like Veganism, Buddhism and Humanism that enshrine them better than others. •