Saturday, 29 January 2011

Musings on violence, terrorism and hatred

It's been a bad few days for reason and decency. A suicide bombing in Moscow (1) is followed by the savage murder of a gay rights activist in Uganda (2). It looks like the strength of the forces of bigotry, unreason and savagery is waxing, not waning.

And if we look around just a little buit further, we don't lack for examples of unreasoned visceral wrath directed at The Other. You want to build a mosque where???

Of course, it's partly prespective. The ferocious and hatefilled invective printed in Ugandan newspapers, calling for the murder of David Kato - duly carried out by vigilantes convinced they are about 'God's work' - is a consequence of the courage of gays in Uganda in actually standing up for themselves. Human affairs aren't governed by the laws of physics, of course. For every action, there isn't always and equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes the forces of sanity and reason make a bit of progress, push back the barking batshit hordes of barbarians of all sorts and shades. And sometimes they do it to us. As happened in Uganda.

It's a strange perversion of the idea of community; as a western raised on the idea of individualism and individual responsibility, the idea that allowing gay people to live as they see fit might somehow taint the wider community is hard to comprehend. But it's a very simple, atavistic notion, and not at all alien to our own supposedly civilised western world. hell, som of us still have trouble coming to term with inter racial couples, let alone gays. There have been plenty of vicious acts carried out against gays in places closer to hand than Uganda.

Hatred, homophobia, racism, religion, may once have their roots in economic or material factors. It's important to regard your black slave as something less than a human, since otherwise it raises all sorts of awkward questions. A man who does not produce children is a long term liabilty to the community. And any excuse for hating the people in the next valley, will do, as it legitimises stealing their crops and cattle. But the persistance of these ideas is interesting. I think Marx said, somewhere, that an idea can actually be as crucial an imperative as material factors in shaping and determining character and action. This, of course, is generally overlooked by his critics in their efforts to paint him as a dull reductive materialist - an irony that might be amusing if it wasn't so tiresome.

There are strong nationalist movements in the North Caucuses, and religion is often tangled up in it. Dagestan is predominantly Muslim, but resisted an invasion by Chechen extremists in 1999, because they didn't want outsiders imposing their version of Islam. It may have been carried out by a Muslim but with nationalism / anti-Russian sentiment as its prime motive. It may well be Chechen militants are behind it, or some other religious organisation from the region, or it may be a solo nutjob, or it may be something else again. Whatever it is, it will probably provide the Russian authorities with an excuse to launch some military campaign against someone.

Religion can be a motivating factor in people's actions. It is not, however, the only or even the major factor for most people. The whole history of human hypocrisy is hereby submitted in evidence in support of this. All Muslims do not act in the same way. Some blow themselves up in order to kill infidels. Others live quite crap lives like the rest of us. Some write thoughtful articles that get published in The Independent (3). Point is, while they share - loosely - a religion (they'd probably dispute that, heatedly), the degree to which it motivates them, and what it motivates them to do, is dependent on other factors. But so many of the 'noises off' crowd of bloggers and commentators and rightwing ideologues are locked in this pitiful reductive world where everything boils down to the fact that they are Muslims and thus must act accordingly.

Some claim "Islam means XYZ and that you shouldn't be surprised if a muslim behaves in a way that corresponds to that" is simplistic, because 'meaning' isn't a given. Witness the different responses to the sixth commandment (fifth if you're a Catholic), about killing and/or murder. And even if we ever managed to agree what was covered by it, the fact that Christians have merrily killed and/or murdered for two about thousand years suggests that what is in a religious text is only important when it is convenient. Ditto the commandment around adultery - what is meant by that has varied a lot over time, from any sexual activity outside marriage, to the more limited definition of seducing another man's wife.

What the immutable word of God means varies in time and place, I mean.

It might be argued an attempt to examine the edicts of the Koran is just an effort to the deny the inherent militancy and creulty it contains. I disagree, in that I don't think that is a valid description of the book. It is, I would say, trying to put limits on human behaviours - as the road safety adverts say, it's a limit, not a target. It isn't a collection of reductive slogans, but a very complicated set of exemplars. The infamous surah 9:5, for example, does license killing of pagans - but only those who have broken treaties and attacked Muslims, who have ignored a period of grace to mend their ways or clear out. You can't muggle that into a general exhortation to slaughter non-Muslims, as some try to do.

Ah, respond the anti-Islam zealots, but what about abrogation - the doctrine by which the later revelations supercede older ones where there is a conflict. So exhortations to slay and force convertions cancel out the earlier protections given to Jews and Christians. Not so, I suggest. Abrogation but a mthod for resolving the contradictions within the Koran. But I don't think abrogating verses compeltely cancel out the older instruction; they simply outline an exception to the over-arching rule - special circumstances where the previous instruction is waived.

It's not at all uncommon for people attacking Islam and Muslims to draw a distinction between the old and new testaments in Christianity, claiming that the latter represented a new coventant, and a rescinding of all the nasty bits of the old testamnet that people would rather forget. But, again, the gamut of history shows that this is a specious distinction, as Christians have always sought justification in the bellicose parts of the old testament when it suits them, and have been happy to ignore all the fluffy stuff about loving and forgiving. "Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live" and "An Eye for an Eye" have proved to have enduring popularity down the centuries. As recent tragic events in Uganda suggest, the urge to commit violence against those pervceived as trespassing some arcane moral code isn't limited to Muslims. Jesus Christ was an admirable person; his followers aren't always. Mohammed, from my perspective, was a rather more ambivalent figure. His followers, on the whole, seem no better or worse than the followers of other skygods, or the worshippers of trees and strangely shaped rocks.

What I'm saying is, we've happily abrogated and de-abrogated parts of the Christian bible when it suits. Who is closer to Christ's teaching? The Caliph Umar, extending protection to the Jews and Christians of Jerusalem, or Simon de Montfort, ordering the mass slaughter of Cathars, men, women and children?

People have always been angry, hateful and violent. They'll find almost any cause for it, but it is usually rooted in some religious notion that some act is sinful and wicked, and it's occurance is so very wrong that allowing it to happen is tainting to others beyond those who indulge in it. We see that all over the world and it's dishonest to hyperbolise examples of Muslims behaving like this, claim it is because of their religion, and ignore massively relevant factors that also influence peoples actions because they weaken the thesis that there is something unique in essence about violence carried out by Muslims.
1 - "Russians name Muslim convert as prime suspect for airport bombing," by Shaun Walker. Published in The Independent, 28th of January, 2011. (
2 - "Fights at funeral of murdered gay activist in Uganda," unattributed Reuters article. Reproduced in The Independent, 29th of January, 2011. (
3 - "Arabs, Christians, and the lessons of history," by Dr Mohammed Abdel Haq. Published in The Independent Blogs, 25th of January 2011. (

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