"In illustration of the dark side of absolutism, I mentioned the Christians in merica who blow up abortion clinics, and the Taliban of
Or, switching to Christianity, I could have cited those American 'rapture' Christians whose powerful influence on American Middle Eastern policy is governed by their biblical belief that Israel has a God-given right to all the lands of Palestine.133 Some rapture Christians go further and actually yearn for nuclear war because they interpret it as the 'Armageddon' which, according to their bizarre but disturbingly popular interpretation of the book of Revelation, will hasten the Second Coming. I cannot improve on Sam Harris's chilling comment, in his Letter to a Christian Nation:
It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver-lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves - socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the
There are, then, people whose religious faith takes them right outside the enlightened consensus of my 'moral Zeitgeist'. They represent what I have called the dark side of religious absolutism, and they are often called extremists. But my point in this section is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.
In July 2005,
Why did these cricket-loving young men do it? Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, or their kamikaze counterparts in
The answer to this question is obvious - if only because it has been patiently articulated ad nauseam by bin Laden himself. The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Why did nineteen well-educated middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of humans so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation?134
The respected journalist Muriel Gray, writing in the (Glasgow) Herald on 24 July 2005, made a similar point, in this case with reference to the London bombings.
Everyone is being blamed, from the obvious villainous duo of George W Bush and Tony Blair, to the inaction of Muslim 'communities'. But it has never been clearer that there is only one place to lay the blame and it has ever been thus. The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself, and if it seems ludicrous to have to state such an obvious reality, the fact is that the government and the media are doing a pretty good job of pretending that it isn't so.
Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against 'terror', as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure 'evil'. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith. Sam Harris quotes a failed Palestinian suicide bomber who said that what drove him to kill Israelis was 'the love of martyrdom . . . I didn't want revenge for anything. I just wanted to be a martyr.' On 19 November 2001 The New Yorker carried an interview by Nasra Hassan of another failed suicide bomber, a polite young Palestinian aged twenty-seven known as 'S'. It is so poetically eloquent of the lure of paradise, as preached by moderate religious leaders and teachers, that I think it is worth giving at some length:
'What is the attraction of martyrdom?' I asked. 'The power of the spirit pulls us upward, while the power of material things pulls us downward,' he said. 'Someone bent on martyrdom becomes immune to the material pull. Our planner asked, "What if the operation fails?" We told him, "In any case, we get to meet the Prophet and his companions, inshallah." 'We were floating, swimming, in the feeling that we were about to enter eternity. We had no doubts. We made an oath on the Koran, in the presence of Allah - a pledge not to waver. This jihad pledge is called bayt al-ridwan, after the garden in
If I had been 'S', I'd have been tempted to say to the planner, 'Well, in that case, why don't you put your neck where your mouth is? Why don't you do the suicide mission and take the fast track to
As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason why I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.
It might be said that there is nothing special about religious faith here. Patriotic love of country or ethnic group can also make the world safe for its own version of extremism, can't it? Yes it can, as with the kamikazes in
Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to 'respect' it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and 'community leaders' (who elected them, by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the 'true' faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert?
Ten years ago, Ibn Warraq, in his excellent book Why I Am Not a Muslim, made a similar point from the standpoint of a deeply knowledgeable scholar of Islam. Indeed, a good alternative title for Warraq's book might have been The Myth of Moderate Islam, which is the actual title of a more recent article in the (London) Spectator (30 July 2005) by another scholar, Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. 'By far the majority of Muslims today live their lives without recourse to violence, for the Koran is like a pick-and-mix selection. If you want peace, you can find peaceable verses. If you want war, you can find bellicose verses.'
Sookhdeo goes on to explain how Islamic scholars, in order to cope with the many contradictions that they found in the Qur'an, developed the principle of abrogation, whereby later texts trump earlier ones. Unfortunately, the peaceable passages in the Qur'an are mostly early, dating from Muhammad's time in
the mantra 'Islam is peace' is almost 1,400 years out of date. It was only for about 13 years that Islam was peace and nothing but peace . . . For today's radical Muslims - just as for the mediaeval jurists who developed classical Islam - it would be truer to say 'Islam is war'. One of the most radical Islamic groups in
Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in
More generally (and this applies to Christianity no less than to Islam), what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them – given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by - to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. Immunized against fear by the promise of a martyr's paradise, the authentic faith-head deserves a high place in the history of armaments, alongside the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the cluster bomb. If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of
If you have a reasoned response to this Lycidas, feel free to post it- with appropriate evidential references- in the comments. If not . . . . well, you know where you can go.