BY Jim Harding
I was reading Karen Armstong’s newest book, Fields of Blood, on religion and the history of violence, when the French satirists were murdered. Armstrong is a world renowned writer on religion, best known for her A History of God. Her new book written in the aftermath of 9/11 can help us keep a somewhat sane world.
The more you know about religion and violence the more difficult it is to accept the anti-terrorist rhetoric spewed in the aftermath of such attacks. Such hyperbole as Hollande’s statement that we are now at war with radical Islam or Harper’s that global jihad has declared war on western civilization will just dig us into a deeper hole.
Ignorance won’t get us out of this mess. Near the end of her 500 page Magnum Opus Armstrong says “we have created an interconnected world. It is true that we are dangerously polarized, but we are also linked together more closely than ever before”. Earlier she wrote that “We are living in such an interconnected world that we are all implicated in one another’s history and one another’s tragedies.” Pursuing this could be considered today’s “higher calling.”
There’s been a huge outpouring of support for freedom of expression in the wake of the Paris murders. “Je Suis Charlie” quickly became the slogan and thousands spontaneously gathered, holding pencils in the air, to affirm that the pen is mightier than the sword.
A birthplace of secular democracy, France, too is struggling with multiculturalism. It’s not a simple matter, for, as Armstrong shows so well, the rise of secular nationalism has been associated with some of humanity’s worst mass violence. Genocide against indigenous peoples, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Tutsi and others has been perpetrated in the name of nationalism. So, too, was the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan.
Certainly religion, or what we perhaps should call religiosity, has been partly to blame, especially when secular nationalism takes on a religious tone. This is dangerous wherever it happens: in Pakistan, Israel, or even Harper’s view of Canada. But there is a long history of religion being blended with power. Religious beliefs were interrelated with past agrarian empires that survived through structural violence, oppressing peasants and raiding other peoples for resources. Whether monarch or dictator, such rulers used religion to legitimize their rule. Sometimes religious views stood against such structural violence, as with the pre-Christians during the Roman Empire, though it didn’t take long for Christianity to be institutionalized by hierarchical power.
And an honest look at the rise of secular nationalism shows that the Golden Rule was never at the heart of the spread of western-style democracy. The French revolution that supposedly ushered in enlightened humanism also brought a reign of terror. Those who penned all the fine words about human dignity in the American Constitution had their own slaves. The New World was often colonized and brutalized in the name of Christian civilization. Canada’s federation was built upon its own version of Apartheid. So, as Armstrong says, it s time that we accepted that we are all implicated in one another’s history and tragedies.
Righteous anti-terrorist rhetoric will continue to be aired by politicians who know how to use the politics of fear to their advantage. But this won’t contribute to better security or the protection of human rights. To avert further polarization and escalation of violence we will need a deeper view of history.
We don’t have to go back very far to see western colonial democracy’s role in creating the conditions that gave rise to terrorism. In 1953 a CIA-backed coup ousted the secular nationalist government of Iran and reinstated the Shah, whose dictatorship ensured western access to the country’s huge oil reserves. The Shah ruthlessly ruled Iran with his secret police, Savak, until the 1979 revolution. Though the revolution was supported by secular nationalists, they lost out and Iran ended up as an Islamist theocracy. Democratic forces, however, grew and after 2009 Iran is more democratic than the west’s ally Saudi Arabia.
After the Shah of Iran was overthrown, the U.S. supported the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1980. The U.S. played geopolitics with any authoritarian regime, no matter the cost to local populations. One million or more people died in the 8-year Iraq-Iran war, many of them child soldiers.
When Reagan came to power he took this practice to a new level. He used right-wing Christian rhetoric, labeling the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and backed the Islamic Mujahidin in their successful repelling of the Soviets in Afghanistan. CIA resources and Pakistan training helped create the very “terrorist” capacity in Afghanistan that the west, including Canada, went to war against for 13 years, largely in vain.
A similar process is occurring in Egypt where the U.S. also backed the military regime, which repressed Islamic political groups fighting for more democracy. Though the Arab Spring brought more secular politics to play, the military has now deposed the elected Presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood. For decades Turkey has also been going through its own evolution of democratic politics within an Islamic cultural context.
Those who have been on the receiving end of western colonial democracy have typically seen more colonialism than democracy. This is especially true for those trying to survive the chaos and violence in the resource rich Middle East. That modernity and conspicuous consumption spread through wealthy, top-down oil regimes hasn’t helped. The contradictions are staggering. Al Qaeda was initially launched in protest of the pro-western repressive monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has exported the Wahhabism ideology, one of the most sectarian views within Islam, which treats other Muslims with as much distain as it does “infidels”. Yet, especially since the fall of Iran, Saudi Arabia remains one of the west’s main allies in the fight against the Islamic State.
Arabs and Muslims have judged the west more by its acts than words. This also applies to France, which has its own violent colonial legacy in places like Algeria. Freedom of expression, while there is rule by the secret police back home, can be hard to stomach. People who flee colonial oppression to live in the “free world” still know what’s happening in their family’s homeland.
We have to watch the terms being used out of ignorance. Armstrong notes that “jihad” doesn’t have anything inherently to do with violence, but is more about spiritual struggles. Muslims didn’t invent suicide bombing; this came from the Tamil Tigers, a secular nationalist group in Sri Lanka. That Islamist fundamentalists linked it with a misogynist view of Paradise has more to do with how trauma and delusion can get interwoven. This is not peculiar to Islamists; it applies to sectarian cults drawing on all religions.
Rather than blaming religion, terrorism is better understood as a co-construction of conflicting colonial and nationalist processes, both of which can engender religiosity to serve their purposes. In spite of the supposed separation of church and state, the West does this too. After 9/11 President Bush reassured the Afghan people that the U.S. invasion was not a war on Islam. Yet, he obsessively ended all his speeches with “God bless America”. At his premature declaration of victory after invading Iraq, he quoted from the biblical prophet Isaiah, repeating words that some believe were used by Jesus: “To the captives ‘come out’ – and to those in darkness ‘be free’.”
Not long after, U.S. torture was exposed at the Abu Ghraib prison and Iraqi’s insurgency escalated. The U.S. continued to back the Shia-dominated Iraqi government which was using violent counter-insurgency against the deposed Sunni minority. This is when the forces which were to evolve into the Islamic State began to coalesce.
Armstrong points out that Islam, like all religions, has many faces. Just as Christianity spans Catholic, Protestant and other denominations, Islam spans the Shia, Sunni and Sufi. Sufi mystics as far back as the 12th century believed that “a man of God was at home equally in a synagogue, mosque, temple or church”. It’s still rare to hear this inclusive a view from many religions. That is not to say that all religions can be united under one concept of God and then we can all get along. Rather, it probably means that continuing to create human rights that are not controlled by religions or states will be necessary for humans of many backgrounds to learn to live together peacefully.