BEARDED MAN: Could you be quiet, please? What was that?
WISEGUY: I don’t know; I was too busy talking to Big-nose.
SPECTATOR: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
BEARDED MAN’S WIFE: What’s so special about the cheesemakers?
BEARDED MAN: Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
–– Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979
The scene takes place at the edge of a crowd, which has gathered to hear – or to try to hear – Christ deliver the Sermon on the Mount. The punchline is delivered with a knowing air, as if nothing could be more natural than that Jesus would decide to set out his creed with a certain amount of poetic obfuscation. “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally …” And yet, as we know, much ink will be spilled over precisely how literally to take Christ’s words, and the words of many a prophet besides. Much ink, much blood, and an ocean of tears …
As I write this, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport is a scene of devastation and chaos. On Tuesday evening, local time, three attackers armed with guns and explosives laid siege to Europe’s third busiest airport in what appears to be a well organised operation, one calculated to maximise casualties. The victims include people from Iraq, China, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran and Ukraine. Most of them, of course, were Turkish citizens. At this moment – around 1 am GMT on 29 June 2016 – the death toll stands at 42, though some outlets put it at 41. Hundreds are injured. Thousands are grieving. The Turkish people are in shock, again.
In the coming hours certain statements will be made. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will come on television to say that this was a crime against humanity and an attack on Turkey’s national soul, or sentiments to that effect. He will urge unity and resolve in the face of intimidation. Turkey must not give in to terror. He may well say that the dead are martyrs. Such platitudes are to be expected, and not all of them are to be despised.
In the days that follow this atrocity, however, the public discussion will broaden and deepen. What responsibility does the Turkish state bear for the terror attack in Istanbul? How is it related to Turkey’s involvement in Syria and the Middle East more generally? The attack has been blamed on Islamic State, which doesn’t sound unreasonable: it bears all the marks of that revolting outfit. But methods are one thing and motivations are another, and while the former can sometimes give a clue to the latter, the question of what Islamic State is – why it exists, what its members look forward to, how they justify their acts to themselves – is one freighted with political difficulty. Is this latest atrocity revenge or nihilism – a punishment for a particular policy, an attack on a way of life, or both? Much depends on the answers to questions such as these, and it is impossible to predict how the debate will play out. But one thing is almost certain to be said: at some point in the next few days someone will say, and be reported as saying, that whatever Islamic State represents it does not represent Islam.
The idea that religion is not to be blamed for the degradations of Islamic extremists now enjoys a sort of semi-official status in discussions about (or around) this issue. Here, for example, is Erdogan himself, addressing an audience in Chile earlier this year:
Islam never allows terrorism; this is one. Secondly, Islam and terror cannot be mentioned together. Third, ISIS is a terror organisation and it has nothing to do with Islam.
Remarkable only for the way its amplification reveals the flimsiness of the case beneath, this sentiment is, in all other respects, entirely typical of the rhetorical genre. Six days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush declared that, notwithstanding the often violent divisions within the youngest of the world’s three major monotheisms, Islam was “a religion of peace”. “Islam and terrorists are two words that do not go together” said the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick, after the 2005 bombing of the London Underground. The murder and attempted decapitation of British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby in London in 2013 was a “betrayal of Islam” said the British Prime Minister David Cameron in his statement to the House of Commons. “Their hatred, their barbarism, has nothing to do with Islam” said the Imam for the Paris suburb of Drancy in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. Thus “true” religion is counted amongst the casualties, while words like “evil” and “barbaric” serve to distance the perpetrators from their own motivations – to recast ideology as pathology.
To a large extent, such assertions are aimed at preventing anti-Muslim sentiment – a noble and understandable objective. But it would, I think, be wrong to regard the mantra that this or that atrocity has “nothing to do with Islam” as merely expedient. After all, the idea that religious violence can be separated from religion in general is now popular, not just with politicians, but with many intellectuals too. The theologian Karen Armstrong has written of the “myth of religious violence”, while William Cavanaugh, in his book of that name, argues that this myth is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against the Muslim world. Other thinkers have gone on the offensive. Critics of the so-called New Atheists, for example, suggest that it is the atheists, even more than the faithful, who are the enemies of moderation. The journalist Chris Hedges and the philosopher John Gray, both of whom have sizable followings, have suggested that the commitment to science and reason evinced by writers such as Lawrence Kraus and Daniel Dennett is itself a kind of religious belief. “Is atheism the new fundamentalism?” ran the motion in Wellington College, Berkshire – the scene of an IQ² debate featuring Richard Dawkins and A. C. Grayling. In a neat reversal, it is the critics of religion who are themselves accused of practising blind faith.
They don’t, of course, and never have. But ignore for the moment this clumsy equivalence and consider instead the plonking irony at the centre of the argument that Islamic violence has “nothing to do with” – is antithetical to – Islam itself. For in asserting that there is one “true” Islam from which, say, Islamic State has strayed, the commentator who condemns that group is himself revealed as a fundamentalist. And while this fundamentalist is much less lethal than the black-clad figure careering through the Iraqi desert with a copy of Islam for Dummies in his backpack, the effect of his pronouncements is to keep alive the idea with which that figure comes armed – the idea of an infallible text to which we should, in the last resort, defer. It involves no equivalence of my own to suggest that in this way so-called “moderate” religion incubates religious extremism.
By this I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all those who derive comfort from the idea of a god are responsible for religious intolerance. Of the people who describe themselves as religious, many, if not most, would scorn the idea that there is a set of divinely dictated instructions, infallible in point of meaning and morality. In Europe especially, the effect of the Enlightenment has been to smash the authority of religious institutions and make a laughing stock of their principal claims. Increasingly, people who believe in God do so in a personal way, with no recourse to religious scripture or institutions. Such believers are in no way “fundamentalist”.
But problems arise when those other believers – the ones for whom ultimate truth is reducible to holy books like the Bible and the Qur’an – are accorded more or less respect on account of how “moderate” or not their interpretation of their particular holy book happens to be. For in that case we are merely condescending to those whose approach to life and morality is close enough to our own to be unthreatening, while at the same time refusing to challenge the idea that there is an ultimate, divine source of meaning and morality. To refer to religious “moderates” is thus to invite a category mistake. Such believers may be moderate in the sense that they are not violent or intolerant. But the claim they make is just as big as the claim made by extreme religionists. This is the claim to know, not just that God exists, but what He asks of humanity. As long as that claim remains uncontested, descents into religious violence are inevitable.
That this problem is as pronounced in the “Islamic world” today as it was in sixteenth-century Christendom is, or should be, obvious. That is not to say, of course, that colonialism, nationalism and economic imperialism play no role in the range of conflicts currently tearing the Middle East apart; or, indeed, that the role these things play can be easily separated from religious violence. But any explanation of those conflicts that fails to take account of religion, or that accords it only a secondary importance, is a very poor explanation indeed. Those who say that Islamic State represents a perversion of the Islamic faith are saying, in effect, that religious faith is not the problem. But not only is the notion of a perversion of faith a rather strange idea to begin with (how is possible to pervert a concept that scorns objective justification?), it is also exactly the idea advanced by those who would kill in the name of religion. In this sense, both Islamic State and those who criticise it in the name of Islam are different sides of the same denarius.
Such interpretative fundamentalism is certainly not peculiar to Islam; it runs through all the major monotheisms. Consider the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” – the one misheard in Python’s film. It sounds like an endorsement of pacifism; but many scholars suggest that “peacemakers” was commonly used to describe the Roman Emperors who presided over a period of stability in Judea. In fact, it was from exactly this interpretation that Saint Augustine derived his notion of “just war” – the idea that a war is justified if it brings about a larger peace. So, there are some circumstances in which “Blessed are the peacemakers” can be read as “Blessed are the occupiers” and even “Blessed are the war-makers”. Knowing what we know of Christ, and of his belief that the world was coming to an end, it is difficult to think that he would have approved of such a “pragmatic” interpretation of his words. But then who is to say?
The point is that the specific meaning of such preachments is a secondary consideration; the primary consideration has to do with their truth. And the claim to know the truth is no less grandiose when it comes from a “liberal” scholar of religion than when it comes from a holy warrior with a Kalashnikov. It isn’t enough to view the Bible – or the Qur’an or the Torah – as “metaphorical” or “contextual”; all that does is shift the burden from literalism to interpretation (“It’s not meant to be taken literally …”) Do the Qur’an’s imperatives to wage “jihad” relate to a personal struggle against sin, to a political struggle against the infidel, or to both? I’ve no idea, and scholars can’t agree. But it you believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, your statement about what is meant in this instance is necessarily a statement about what is true. Clearly, the “moderate” understanding is agreeable than the “extremist” one; but both are fundamentalist in the sense that they take a holy text to be the infallible and unalterable word of God.
There is a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s TV series The West Wing in which US President Josiah Bartlett is attempting to win Congressional backing for his proposal to legalise gay marriage. One conservative Senator is proving difficult to convince, and so Toby Ziegler, an advisor to the President, attempts to reason with him personally. The Senator has religious reservations, which he puts in the form of a question to Toby: “Do you believe the Bible to be literally true?” Toby, who is liberal and Jewish, replies: “Yes, sir. But I don’t think either of us is smart enough to understand it.”
This injunction against hubris sounds sane and bracing. But its effect lasts only as long as we choose to forget that there are many people in the world who do consider themselves smart enough to understand the word of God and who presume to tell the rest of us how to live in accordance with it. The Christian who accepts the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – but ignores Christ’s injunction to “take no thought for the morrow” is, finally, only temporising. And while it’s his right to try to have it both ways, he can hardly affect surprise (or can he?) when his fellow Christians call him out as a heretic. Religious violence has complex origins and one cannot reduce the extermination of the Amalekites, the holy wars of Christendom and Islamic fascism to a single cause. But nor can one remove from this equation the strange and fantastically powerful idea that when it comes to questions of ultimate truth one book has it over all the others. People who believe that are always predisposed to intolerance; and people who are predisposed to intolerance are always predisposed to violence.
And here they come again, with their bombs and their guns, insisting, upon pain of death and damnation, that “Blessed are the cheesemakers” means exactly what it says.
This was first published at 3 Quarks Daily.