Saturday, January 02, 2016

Karen Armstrong: "As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.” I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion . . . Experts in political violence or terrorism insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the 20th century on to the back of “religion” and drive it out into the political wilderness."

"A religious tradition is never a single, unchanging essence that compels people to act in a uniform way,” Armstrong writes. “It is a template that can be modified and altered radically to serve a variety of ends.” "In one form or another religion is humanly universal, but it is also essentially multifarious," adds John Gray.

"The Renaissance is just one of several secular icons that Armstrong demolishes," writes Gray in his review of Armstrong's Fields of Blood. "Nothing is more commonplace than to read that Renaissance thinkers introduced a novel understanding of universal humanity. But Renaissance humanists were actually less sympathetic to the plight of indigenous peoples such as the Mesoamericans who had been violently subjugated than churchmen such as the Dominicans, who condemned the predatory behaviour of the conquistadores." 'The philosophy of human rights,' Armstrong notes, 'did not apply to all human beings.' In some ways, modern conceptions of rights were more inhuman than medieval religion. One of the founders of liberalism, John Locke, found it intolerable that the 'wild woods and uncultivated waste of America be left to nature, without any improvement, tillage and husbandry'. Involved in his own right in the colonisation of the Carolinas, Locke 'argued that the native ‘kings’ of America had no legal jurisdiction or right of ownership of their land'."

John Gray: "The ambiguities of secularisation are especially prominent in the Middle East. What does Islamic State stand for – an ultra-violent type of religious fundamentalism, or a radically modern politics? Clearly, it represents both. Armstrong provides some of the background to the emergence of IS when she discusses Wahhabism, the 18th-century Islamic movement whose founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, helped establish the first Saudi state. Since the influx of oil wealth, the Saudis have promoted Wahhabism worldwide. IS is one of the offspring of this project: an ogre that is now a deadly threat to the Saudi state. A potential for violence was present in Wahhabism from the start. But Armstrong tells us that it 'was not inherently violent; indeed, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab had refused to sanction the wars of his patron, Ibn Saud, because he was simply fighting for wealth and glory'. As an argument for the peaceful character of the movement, this is less than compelling. The clear implication of the founder’s statement is that war would have been justified if it had been waged in the service of faith."

"Armstrong performs an invaluable service by showing that religion is not the uniquely violent force demonised by secular thinkers. Yet neither is religion intrinsically peaceful – a benign spiritual quest compromised and perverted by its involvement with power. The potential for violence exists in faith-based movements of all kinds, secular as well as religious. Evangelical atheists splutter with fury when reminded that a war on religion was an integral part of some of the 20th century’s worst regimes. How can anyone accuse a movement devoted to reason and free inquiry of being implicated in totalitarian oppression? It is a feeble-minded and thoroughly silly response, reminiscent of that of witless believers who ask how a religion of love could possibly be held to account for the horrors of the Inquisition."

My comment: In the whole review, John Gray mentions no historical conjuncture and socio-economic context of the rise of IS: the structure of the Iraqi and Syrian societies and "development", the repressive regimes in those societies, class, the Western regimes backing of the region's dictatorships and theocracies. 

Source: The New Statesman

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