Friday, May 26, 2017

"Nothing to do with Islam"

It is a sad fact of contemporary life that 'response to atrocity' is becoming one of the major genres of public discourse.  In the aftermath of Paris, I wrote something critiquing some of our standard responses, and it feels like that could be meaningfully trotted out again.  I just wanted to pick up on one particular response, which I've heard a fair bit of in the last couple of days (from, for example, Andy Burnham, who to be fair has done a generally fantastic job and would surely have hoped not to be tested so severely at such an early juncture): "this has nothing to do with Islam".

Why do we react like this?

Firstly, I think we have a deep-seated habit of regarding religion as something like a hobby, and people just don't do this sort of thing for a hobby.  In the West, broadly speaking, religion is not thought to be about reality; we are agreed that reality is the empirical stuff around us, accessible to scientific explanation.  That is the realm of facts.  In the realm of belief, one can hold more or less whatever one likes, so long as one does not make the mistake of thinking that one's beliefs have anything to do with facts.  With this sort of mindset, it becomes simply inconceivable that anyone would kill or die for belief.  We can't imagine it.  I've seen more than one commenter remark that one would have to be mentally ill to be a suicide bomber - so impossible is it for us to imagine that anyone might take the promise of Paradise seriously.

Secondly, there are (to a certain extent good) social and political reasons to want to cut the conceptual link between Islam and terrorism.  It seems pretty clear that one of the aims of the Islamic State is to stir up strife between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Western nations.  The presumably hoped for result is that Muslims in the West will end up feeling (more) isolated and alienated, and will find the position of IS more plausible as a result - "they said we couldn't live together in peace, and look, they were right".  We know that there are non-Muslims in our society who already regard Muslims with suspicion, and would not take much persuasion to believe that every Muslim was a potential fifth columnist in some global apocalyptic war.  We would prefer to avoid that.

Thirdly, most of us are aware that the overwhelming majority of Muslims don't want this, don't want to be associated with it, and don't recognise it as a part of their religion.  We want to embrace that perspective, of course, and so we universalise it.

Fourthly, in certain quarters there is a belief, connected to my first point, that a deeper explanation must be found for terrorism, and that the reason is Western oppression.  That is a plausible perspective, because goodness knows there is plenty of guilt in history.  It is made even more plausible when read through a broadly Marxist lens, which denigrates ideas as mere ephemera, masks for social and economic reality.

Can I suggest a couple of reasons why this response won't do?

Firstly, it is the worst kind of patronising.  There is no need for us to take what terrorists say about their motivation entirely at face value - such would be highly naive - but I also cannot see the justification for so completely ignoring the reasons which they themselves give for their actions.  They think they are serving God, they really do.  Unless we take this seriously, we are claiming to know them and their motives better than they know themselves, which is quite a claim.  We are claiming that although they appear to think differently from us and value different things, in fact they must be the same as us underneath - they must really, at some level, know (just as we do) that religion is not about reality.  Or perhaps they don't know, because we are more enlightened than them?  However we frame it, we're making the claim that what terrorists do and say must be parsed through our worldview before we will take it seriously, which is a sort of epistemological imperialism.

Secondly, it's historical nonsense.  I do not really see how anyone can argue that religiously-motivated violence has not been present as a strand in Islamic thought and action from the beginning.  Islamic State could make a claim, I think not entirely incredible, to represent that strand.  Of course, they wouldn't accept that this was only a strand; for them, it's the whole deal, and if you're not on board with it you're not a proper Muslim at all.  In that, they're clearly in error: there is broad tradition of peaceful Islam, which can make at least as credible a claim to stem from the earliest stages of Islam.  But that broad tradition does not mean that there isn't sufficient material in the foundational documents of Islam to justify religiously-motivated violence.  (Can I recommend on this Tom Holland's excellent recent documentary Isis: The Origins of Violence?)  Given the history, I don't see how we in the West can legitimately set ourselves up as the judges of what is and isn't genuine Islam.

Thirdly, and this is the point at which I feel most uncomfortable and least certain, it does seem to me that there are ideological/philosophical/theological reasons to think that Islam and terrorism are linked.  To me, as someone who tries to be informed about Islam but inevitably has a limited understanding and perspective, there seems to be some fit between the radical monotheism and the call to unconditional submission in Islam and religious violence.  Again, I'm not saying that Islam necessarily leads in this direction; just that, to me, it makes sense that it might.  I'd like to do some more reading on this, and if anyone could recommend anything I'd appreciate it, because I think this is really important.  You see, religious violence comes from lots of places.  There is no denying that Christians have endorsed religiously-motivated violence in the past, and in many places in the world still do; but I think there is sufficient material in Christianity's founding documents and in the broad theological tradition to critique this pretty thoroughly.  I'm not sure there is in Islam.

None of this is to say that there is not a complex web of issues leading to terrorist attacks.  The failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq war, the failure to act on Syria - these foreign policy failures have surely made the Islamic State's reading of Islam more plausible, for example.  And of course the individuals involved will be motivated by many different things.  But to claim that religiously-motivated violence has nothing to do with religion is a foolish thing to do, which will inevitably misdirect our practical responses to terrorism.

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