The issue of Islam is once again centre stage in world news and public debate since the recent murders in Paris. Can the actions of Islamic extremists simply be put down to the nature of Muslim beliefs, or is there something more fundamental at work?
Typically, the debate has become polarized, and because simple explanations have the appeal of being easy to understand many people are being seduced by the binary, good versus evil simplicity of blaming the entire problem on the Islamic religion and Muslim people in general – much like the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons did. Their barbarity and intolerance is contrasted against the peacefulness and freedom of western civilisation, and provides a new opportunity for our leaders to portray themselves as valiant defenders of freedom, as opposed to what they actually are – corporate stooges and war mongering mass murderers who are increasingly spying on and restricting the rights and freedoms of people at home and abroad. From the right, calls for all Muslims to be deported are being made with renewed vigour.
Personally, I’d be quite happy to see a world without religion, although this issue isn’t the subject of this page. The point is though, that whilst it’s fine to attack religion itself, and discuss whether the ideas and beliefs that religions promulgate are actually true, that’s very different from attacking religious people, or worse, persecuting people of one particular religion regardless of their individual guilt or innocence.
There are many very violent Christians, and the Bible, if you read it, contains far more violence than the Qur’an. Parts of it are in fact very disturbing. Yahweh starts out essentially as a war god, defeating the enemies of the tribe which created him – the Hebrews. His character changes throughout the course of the text, gradually evolving as the ideals of the society he represents evolve, until we reach the apparent personification of goodness and love in Jesus – how much of this has been altered and revised by later writers is impossible to precisely quantify, except to say that it certainly was altered, added to and revised again in the process of constructing Christian mythology.
Despite this, historically Christianity has a very bloody and oppressive past, and that changed not because the Christian church decided to reform itself, but rather because its followers rejected the authority of those who led the Church along with the monarchies they legitimised. That change happened in spite of the Church, not because of it.
Based on the same Biblical Abrahamic roots as Christianity, I’m not convinced that Islam is “the religion of peace”, and it certainly allows for violence in defence of Muslims under attack. Like Christianity, which has many different branches and sub sects, so does Islam. They may all be based on the same book, but there are a wide variety of interpretations, most of which, especially in places where western imperialism has had less of an impact, are relatively harmless compared to the Wahhabi Islam which emanates from Saudi Arabia, our close and favoured ally. All of the Gulf States are essentially monarchies where there is no meaningful democracy. Religious laws are ruthlessly enforced and dissent isn’t tolerated.
In the West, the transition from monarchic theocracy to democracy was a long and very bloody one. First, there were the 100 years war and the 30 years war, which challenged the power of the Church of Rome to control the affairs of European nation states. The English civil wars gave rise to the Puritan movement, which was essentially a fundamentalist movement – they even banned Christmas, and were not unlike the Wahhabiist we see today in their desire to resist decadence and return to what they saw as the core values of their religion, and enforce that violently. They too rejected the opulence of the Church and the concept of “Divine Right” which legitimised an equally opulent and decadent monarchy. Where “Jihadi John” has allegedly beheaded journalists and charity workers, in England Oliver Cromwell beheaded King Charles I and slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians (which he claimed was “the righteous judgement of God”). In the years which followed, those Puritans unable to accept the compromises which resolved the conflict fled to the New World – now known as the Pilgrim Fathers, they founded the the oldest continuously inhabited English settlement in what was to become the United States of America, and at the same time established their ideals at the core of American folklore.
The second stage arose out of the Enlightenment movement which established reason, rather than religious dogma as the basis of knowledge, and civil consent, rather than Aristocratic heredity as the basis of power. It would perhaps be wrong to abstract this from changes in the economic sphere, where Feudal production was being replaced by Capitalist production, bringing the burgeoning capitalist class into conflict with the old order.
The French Revolution and the American wars of independence were both directly inspired by the Enlightenment. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre beheaded 16,500 people, and many others also died. In the end though, the nation states which emerged were founded on reason and democracy, and where the monarchy did survive their power was greatly reduced. Adherence to the edicts of the Church, now firmly separated from the state, became increasingly voluntary, until today where despite the clear influence of the Christian religion in society more and more people are identifying as non religious or atheist. Despite some resistance, moral values are being rewritten along more humanist, tolerant lines, and our view of our place in the universe and how we came to be here is being increasingly informed by science and less by mythology and superstition.
Christianity was able to make this transition without outside interference, which complicates the process enormously in the Islamic world. Cultures shape their resistance to internal oppression and external aggression depending on their existing cultural and religious beliefs, so it’s not surprising that forms of Islamic fundamentalism are born this way. It’s really got nothing to do with Islam, and everything to do with people, human beings and human society. The absolutism of religious ideals and the belief that somewhere an all powerful intelligence is somehow controlling events and will ultimately dispense justice is naturally appealing. In societies in turmoil and transition, these core values are often the first refuge of the oppressed.
In contrast to the way our leaders attempt to shape our perceptions, our wars today have nothing to do with assisting, or even impeding that process – they’re nothing to do with defending freedom of expression or democracy. They’re about access to markets and resources, as our alliance with the most oppressive monarchies of the Gulf States concurrent with the destabilisation and destruction of mostly secular Arab states, such as Libya, Syria and Iraq, clearly indicates. Radical Islam has been deliberately and cynically fostered to fight the cold war, to remove regimes unpopular with the West, and to create pretexts for invasions and military campaigns to advance global economic and military power.
Most victims of Islamic terrorists are Muslim too, and hundreds of thousands have also been killed as a direct result of western imperialist aggression. The world is a complex place, full of nuances and shades of grey. There’s good and bad in everyone, some more than others, but the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle where there is much common ground to be found. Most people simply want to live in peace, to be able to raise their families in safety and make a sufficiently good living to support them.
Real change happens in the world as a result of the battle of ideas, far more so than as a result of military conflict, which sometimes it can give rise to as power is shifted and resisted. Ideas emerge from the material conditions in which people find themselves and the economic relationships within them. The Middle East is far from immune from the very profound changes resulting from the rapid growth of both wealth and inequality which have occurred in that region over the last 50 years or so. Thanks to the internet, ideas are more fluid and move more rapidly than ever before, particularly amongst younger people, so change is inevitable.
The fight against the spread of fundamentalist Islam should be and needs to be an ideological one, exactly the same as the fight against western imperialism needs to be… and I guess that is what this page is about after all.