Religious Violence – Not in God’s Name

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a man of astounding learning and, at last count, sixteen honorary degrees.  When he writes a book with the above title, and the sub-title Confronting Religious Violence, we really should take note.  Not least because his conclusions will frighten you out of your wits.

…the world will be more religious a generation from now, not less…It has to do with demography.  The more religious people are, the more children they have.  The indigenous populations of Europe, the most secular continent on earth are committing long slow suicide…..Within religion, the most extreme, anti-modern or anti-Western movements will prevail.  This is happening in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The old marriage of religion and culture has ended in divorce.  Today the secular West has largely lost the values that used to be called the Judeo-Christian heritage….Losing its religious faith, the west is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic…..The moral relativism that prevails today in the secular West is no defence of freedom…..In a world of relativism, what talks is power….So there will be more terror, more bloodshed….The West, indeed the world, has never faced a challenge quite like this.

As it happens, although I am as unreligious as you can decently get, I agree with every word.  As I think the author says elsewhere, the threat is not so much between the religions as within them – or at least the three that we most focus on.

The book looks at the origins of violence among humans, develops a theory of sibling rivalry, and offers explanations for some unsavoury parts of the bible.  I offer a few comments.

First, in looking at history, theology, philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis – Freud is prominent – not to mention the huge literature of Judaism, it is not surprising if we get spread a bit thin.  For example, the author finds that we are subject to ‘two sets of instincts, honed and refined by many centuries of evolutionary history’ – the readiness to co-operate within our own group and to fight those in another group.  Darwin’s theory of evolution supplies the answer.

Let us put to one side that some people – a substantial part of the US Congress – do not accept that theory, what part does God have to play in our propensity for violence, whether we started in the Garden of Eden or in the backblocks of Africa?  It is a little disconcerting that when the author comes to Nazi ideology, he says it was pagan and propped up by ideas thought at the time to be scientific – including ‘social Darwinism’ the theory that the same processes operating in nature operate in society also.  The strong survive by eliminating the weak.’

It is not surprising that the process, whatever it is, continues in us, since we are its current end product, but it is a little worrying that the author’s starting point on human violence is the same theory.  Similarly, the author flirts with the suggestion that violence does not come from religion – religion comes out of violence.  That is a dangerous place to go for a man of God.

Secondly, Muslims are not the only ones with long memories when it comes to the Crusades.  The author dates the massacres of Jews before the first crusade as the time when Jews became a scapegoat leading, for example, to the Black Death.  ‘That period added to the vocabulary of the West such ideas as public disputation, book burning, forced conversion, Inquisition, auto-da fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom.’

Thirdly, Freud figures largely in the theory about sibling rivalry being at the core of the problem of violence.  Any parent of more than one child knows about this.  When she was about three and her sister about twelve months, our number one, a propos of nothing, picked up a handful of sand and pushed it firmly into the face of number two on Green Island, and number two let the mainland know.  A few years later, on Christmas Day, I heard number one pick up a broken toy ukulele and say ‘that one’s buggered – it can be Amy’s.’  But how do you verify the theory that this rivalry is at the core of violence between groups?  And where does it lead you?  Well, one thing it tells you is that it is madness, moral madness, for a parent to treat one child differently to others without good reason

That leads to the next point.  To deal with the complaint that God plays favourites by doing special deals with people he likes, Lord Sacks develops a distinction between the universality of God as Creator and Sovereign, and the particularity of the covenant with Abraham, Moses and the Israelites.  There are two covenants – one with Noah and the rest of us, and the other with Abraham and one particular people.  One represents universality and justice; the other particularity and love.  There is a dualism – a spectre elsewhere for the Rabbi – in Hebrew spirituality.  ‘It accepts the inevitability of the here-and- now.  We are not all the same.  There is an Us and Them.  But God is universal as well as particular, which means he can be found among Them as well as Us.  God transcends our particularities.’

Why in heaven’s name does He bother?  I had thought that excessive, sense-defying intellectualism was a virus peculiar to Christianity.  If it is silly for me to second-guess Einstein, why should I try it on with God?  Does the ordinary member of the congregation understand or accept any of this?

If they do, where does it take us?  God still does a special deal to single out one child from others and that is what inflames sibling rivalry – which the author says is the fount of all our problems.  And if you want to see sibling rivalry in action here it is in the author’s own words:

For all the natural pride we feel in being part of our group – the people of the covenant, a holy nation we are brought face to face with the fact that others may respond to the word of God better than we do.

If I may say so without offence, that remark gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘patronising’.

It seemed to me that a chicken-and–egg issue runs through a lot of this.  You shift the problem back one stage, but the problem or question remains.  Take the wars of conquest.  The author has to confront the problem lawyers know so well: ‘Whatever else a verse means, it means what it says.’  The Promised Land was taken by people like Joshua with appalling slaughter of men, women, and children, what today we call ethnic cleansing, ordained by God.

As I understand Lord Sacks, he says two things.  First, the victims were offered peace but refused it.  Secondly, the nation of the sword became the people of the book.  It is not hard to envisage a Palestinian response to either suggestion; indeed, as to the nation of the sword becoming the people of the book, I can imagine the reaction of most of Tel Aviv – most of them have to work for a living and help to defend the same nation; neither is within the contemplation of the people of the book.

So, we need some good news, and the author has it.  He refers to the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust.  He might have referred to the remark of Angela Merkel that the state of Israel is part of Germany’s raison d’etre, but he does quote the present pope: ‘God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and… through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God.  And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity.’  The author says that ‘this may be the first time that a pope has publicly recognised that in staying true to their faith, Jews were being loyal to God, not faithless to him.  That is a statement capable of changing the world.’

People outside the religious circle may not be so optimistic.  The author elsewhere describes the exodus of Jews from across Europe – largely, as it seems to me, in response to Muslim migration, to put it softly, and the inevitable demographic consequences.  It is not a world that I will be sorry to leave.

May I conclude with perhaps just another example of Us versus Them?  I could hardly claim that Immanuel Kant is a mate of mine, but I will certainly look up if he is attacked.  Having referred to a throwaway line by Voltaire about the Jews (‘Still, we ought not to burn them’), Lord Sacks says that Kant ‘spoke of the Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and called for ‘the euthanasia of Judaism.’

Kant is revered as a leader of the European Enlightenment, and is widely seen as the best placed to fill the ethical void left by the decline of religion.  We know that Konigsberg, where Kant lived, was the home of a large and successful Jewish community, and that Kant was very proud of the width of his friendships across the city.  (His best friend was an idiosyncratic English merchant.)  We know that Kant had almost a life-long and amicable correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn, a prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian, and the father of the composer.  We know that Kant conducted this correspondence and publicly defended Mendelsshon in a major controversy out of a deep intellectual respect – Mendelssohn had beaten Kant for a big prize.  We know that Kant backed Jewish students to overcome their disability with the establishment, and that he expressed his admiration for the achievements of Jewish students.  We know that Kant was warned off by the Prussian Establishment for his dangerous views on the state religion.  We know that Kant said that both sides would seek to make something out of the preservation of the Jewish people and religion.

One man sees in the continuation of the people to which he belongs, and in his ancient faith which remained unmixed despite the dispersion among such diverse nations, the proof of a special beneficent Providence saving this people for a future kingdom on earth; the other sees nothing but the warning ruins of a disrupted state which set itself against the coming of the kingdom of heaven – ruins, however, which a special Providence still sustains, partly to preserve in memory the ancient prophecy of a Messiah arising from this people, partly to offer, in this people, an example of punitive justice visited upon it because it stiff-neckedly sought to create a political and moral concept of the Messiah.

Kant was a supreme moral and intellectual heavyweight, and is not to be reduced by some gnat straining at a camel.  It is therefore disappointing that Lord Sacks does not give any context at all for the words alleged against Kant, and this in a book which labours the obvious point that context is indispensable in looking at statements that are controversial, and it is more than disappointing that when we go to the notes at the end, it appears that the author is not relying on the primary German source, but a citation by someone in Princeton in 1990 in a book about revolutionary antisemitism.  Really, my lord, third party sledging is not smiled upon in the universities that we most admire.  This might fairly be said to be a sample of the loose thinking and casual smearing that lie at the heart of the whole bloody problem.

Paris and Terror VI – Terror in History


Terror, as we saw, has a long history in the Holy Land – I refer back to the first post in this series.

Terror has featured in the history of Israel since before that nation was born. Terror was an essential part of the process of the birth of Israel. Evelyn Waugh spoke of the British successors to Allenby ‘decamping before a little band of gunmen.’ This led Paul Johnson to refer in his History of the Jews to ‘yet another contribution to the shape of the modern world: the scientific use of terror to break the will of liberal rulers. It was to become a commonplace over the next forty years’ – the book was published in 1987 ‘but in 1945 it was new. It might be called a by-product of the Holocaust, for no lesser phenomenon could have driven even desperate Jews to use it. Its most accomplished practitioner was Menachem Begin.’

Begin came from a Polish town where only ten out of 30,000 were not murdered. Names like the Irgun and Stern Gang were associated with religious fanatics who became serial murderers. ‘It was my faith against his faith.’ The celebrated bombing of the King David Hotel killed twenty-eight British, forty-one Arabs, and seventeen Jews. Was that rate of slippage acceptable? A sixteen year old school-girl gave a warning as part of the plan. Begin mourned the Jewish casualties alone. Begin later saw that two British sergeants were hanged and that their bodies were mined.

The massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948 was greeted by Begin as ‘this splendid act of conquest…..As at Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, thou hast chosen us for conquest.’ That is a piece of the book of Joshua and some see it as ‘relevant to the moral credentials of the Jewish state’. More than half a million Arab inhabitants fled Israel. Begin later became Prime Minister, but the Arabs, inside Israel or not, do not see any difference in the policy or practice of various governments, which they see as a policy of merciless expansion at their expense. Religious leaders on each side assure their followers that God is with them. The little area of Jerusalem might be the most accursed on earth.

It was the same with the war of independence that led to the creation of the republic which is the prime protector of Israel – and as the Arabs see it, the prime cause of the prolongation of their agony. The rebels in America who rebelled against their king were liable to be hanged for treason. Appalling atrocities were committed on both sides – as happened when an invading trained army meets guerillas defending their own soil. To see what their troops would meet in Vietnam or Afghanistan, American generals needed only to look at what happened to the British Army around Valley Forge and elsewhere. We are now familiar with the transition from terrorist to freedom fighter to liberator to national hero and founder of the nation – but you have to win. And in the meantime, as one American rebel said, you stick together, or hang separately

The second President of the US, John Adams, was severe early on about what to do with the oppressors: ‘This [the Tea Party] is but an attack on property. Another similar exertion of popular power may produce the destruction of lives. Many persons wish that as many dead carcasses were floating in the harbour as there are chests of tea. A much less number of lives however would remove the causes of all our calamities.’

When the war started, the American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered. Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists. There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’ Professor Gordon S Wood said that the ‘war in the lower south became a series of bloody guerilla skirmishes with atrocities on both sides’ (like Vietnam). But for the intervention of the French, this civil war – guerilla war may have gone on for years and degenerated into what would happen in Latin America with ‘Caesarism, military rule, army mutinies and revolts, and every kind of cruelty’ (like the Roman Empire).

The mention by Churchill of the atrocities in Ireland is interesting because until recently Britain was haunted by the spectre of Ireland and terrorism. Those crimes in turn ultimately derived from outrages committed by the English in Ireland over more than six hundred years. The ethnic cleansing effected by Cromwell at Drogheda and elsewhere was done in the name of God and against a native people that the English saw as racially inferior. Racism in religion is a potent driver of terrorism.

As for France, the use of the word terrorist still takes colour from the Terror that was invoked in self-defence by the young republic. Before the government instituted its own regime with the guillotine and the Law of Suspects, the people – the masses for some – had taken matters into their own hands by massacring suspected enemies like priests in the infamous prison massacres in 1792 remembered as the September Massacres. ‘Let the blood of the traitors flow. That is the only way to save the country’, croaked Marat. At various prisons men broke in to slaughter the inmates. From about a thousand to fifteen hundred people, mainly ordinary criminals were killed. It was common to set up a cruel mockery of a hearing where the suspect could be examined while listening to his or her predecessor being slaughtered behind the door. One survivor of the Abbaye recalled that they used to watch the butchery so as to try and learn how to die with the least pain when their turn came. ‘Man after man is cut down; the sabres need sharpening, the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs. Onward and onward is the butchery; the loud yells wearying into base growls. A sombre-faced, shifting multitude looks on; in dull approval; in dull approval or dull disapproval; in dull recognition that it is a Necessity.’

The September massacres of 1792 are not just a case of inmates of gaols being no worse than their gaolers, or what might happen when power is given to those who are least to be trusted with power. Nor is it just a case of venomous force of envy and the cruelty of the revenge of the dispossessed. Nor is it just a case of the danger of rule by the people – it is a case of the danger of rule by people. The mainstay of the rule of law is that we are ruled by laws, not men and women. The September Massacres are the jurists’ final nightmare – lynch mobs licensed by a failed state.

France would be convulsed by uprising and terror time and again in the nineteenth century. In 1848, a revolution ended in a bloodbath that disgraces Western civilisation. That very great writer Gustave Flaubert left us an amazing picture of hell on earth that must test our endurance. ‘Nine hundred men were there, crowded together in filth, pell-mell, black with powder and clotted blood, shivering in fever and shouting in frenzy. Those who died were left to lie with the others. Now and then, at the sudden noise of a gun, they thought they were all on the point of being shot, and then flung themselves against the walls, afterwards falling back into their former places. They were so stupefied with suffering that they seemed to be living in a nightmare….Because of a fear of epidemics a commission of inquiry had been appointed. On the first steps, its president flung himself back, appalled by the odour of excrement and corpses. When the prisoners approached a ventilator, the National Guards on sentry duty stuck their bayonets, haphazard, into the crowd to prevent them loosening the bars. The National Guards were in general pitiless. Those who had not been in the fighting wanted to distinguish themselves now, but all was really the reaction of fear. They were avenging themselves for the journals, the clubs, the doctrines, for everything that had provoked them beyond measure for the last three months; and despite their victory, equality (as if for the punishment of its defenders and mockery of its enemies) was triumphantly revealed – an equality of brute beasts on the same level of blood-stained depravity; for the fanaticism of vested interests was on a level with the madness of the needy, the aristocracy exhibited the fury of the basest mob, and the cotton night-cap was no less hideous than the bonnet rouge. The public mind became disordered as after a great natural catastrophe, and men of intelligence were idiots for the rest of their lives.’

After the Paris commune of 1870 – the event that leads to the word Communism – about 20,000 communards were slaughtered. Emile Zola said: ‘The slaughter was atrocious. Our soldiers…meted out implacable justice in the streets. Any man caught with a weapon in his hand was shot. So corpses lay scattered everywhere, thrown into corners, decomposing with astonishing rapidity, which was doubtless due to the drunken state of these men when they were hit. For six days Paris has been nothing but a huge cemetery.’

So, violence, uprisings, and terror are part of the fabric of history of the West, and not just the Third World or failed states. The most august components of what we know as the West have had their share of terrorists. And that is without going to the Christian church – to, say, the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or the brutal murder and repression of natives in every land that western nations brought within their empires.

It will be adequate to refer to some well-known passage of Edward Gibbon on the crusades.

The cold philosophy of modern times is incapable of feeling the impression that was made on a sinful and fanatic world. At the voice of their pastor, the robber, the incendiary, the homicide, arose by thousands to redeem their souls by repeating on the infidels the same deeds which they had exercised against their Christian brethren; and the terms of atonement were eagerly embraced by offenders of every rank and denomination. None were pure; none were exempt from the guilt and penalty of sin; and those who were the least amenable to the justice of God were the best entitled to the temporal and eternal recompense of their pious courage. If they fell, the spirit of the Latin clergy did not hesitate to adorn their tomb with the crown of martyrdom; and should they survive, they could expect without impatience the delay and increase of their heavenly reward.

Gibbon then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit. Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God. In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion. At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian …. The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians: resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease. After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare. …. The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow. Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world; and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption. This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

Yes, the murderers of Muslems were offered the crown of martyrdom and an increase in heavenly reward, but does any of this tale of cruelty and misery have any meaning for terrorism being inflicted in the name of Islam now?