Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
The startling rise of the group now calling itself ‘the Islamic State‘ (IS), which took control of a considerable part of western Iraq in late June, has put the topic of al-Qa’eda-style violence back at the centre of global concern. IS, previously known as ISIS or ‘the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant’, is actually in dispute with the core al-Qa’eda organisation, and has defied the authority of the current al-Qa’eda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who threw IS/ISIS out of al-Qa’eda in February. As well as declaring an Islamic empire or ‘caliphate’ on 30 June, the IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, laid claim to the supreme position of caliph, or ruler of all Muslims throughout the world.
The infighting between IS and al-Qa’eda (in particular the al-Qa’eda affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front), the contest between IS and other Sunni insurgent groups within its territory, and the challenge IS is making to the Muslim governments of Syria and Iraq, all tend to contravene the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis put forward by Samuel P. Huntington over twenty years ago.
Huntington, who died in 2008, predicted in his 1993 Foreign Affairs essay that ‘the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations’, and that ‘The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future’. Huntington defined a civilization as ‘the broadest level of identification’ with which a person ‘intensely identifies’, setting out eight major existing civilizations: Islamic, Western, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and African.
Leaving aside the incoherence of these concepts, notice that Huntington divides ‘Christian civilization’ into two components: Western and Slavic-Orthodox. While the Harvard professor recognised some division within Christianity, he did not recognise division or complexity within what he called ‘Islam’, ‘Confucianism’ (later ‘Sinic’ civilization) or ‘Hinduism’. Huntington referred to Islam as a single territory – one with ‘bloody borders’.
(We might notice in passing that Huntington did not share the widespread alarm in the early 1990s over the possibility of violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine, particularly over Crimea: ‘If civilization is what counts, however, the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low’, as they are both Slavic-Orthodox nations.)
This kind of reductionism, homogenisation and monolithic thinking is the essence of prejudice. In the West, the widespread fear and hatred of Muslims as a group, and of Islam as a religion, has been given the name of Islamophobia.
In 2007, a poll for the Financial Times found that over a fifth of people in all the polled countries admitted to finding the presence of Muslims in their country as ‘a threat to national security’ (France 20%; the US 21%; Spain 23%; Germany 28%; Italy 30%; Britain 38%). At this time, Britons were more suspicious of Muslims than other Europeans or people in the US. Only 59% of people in Britain thought it was possible to be both a Muslim and a citizen of their country.
In the past seven years, non-Muslim Britain seems to have become more accepting of its Muslim population, according to a Pew Global survey in 2014. The poll still found that a quarter (26%) of Britons had an ‘unfavourable’ view of Muslims in Britain. Attitudes were slightly harder in France (27% unfavourable), and much harder inGermany (33% unfavourable), Spain (46% unfavourable) and Italy (63% unfavourable).
Across the Atlantic, a poll for the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute in September 2011 found that nearly half of respondents in the US (47%) believed the values of Islam were at odds with ‘American values’. Almost as many (41%) were uncomfortable with having a Muslim teacher at their elementary school.
I should stress that these are all attitudes expressed towards Muslims as a whole, not towards fundamentalist groupings, or to Muslims committed to anti-Western violence.
We find Islamophobia in the mass media as well as in popular attitudes. For example, in the treatment of faith-based violence. It is common (in academia as well as in the media) to describe groups such as al-Qa’eda or the Islamic state as ‘Islamist’. This term is often chosen by groups committed to the establishment of brutal and repressive legal systems based on a harsh reading of the Qur’an (Koran) and/or the use of violence to achieve such ends. The implication is that Islam is inherently brutal, repressive and violent, and the ‘Islamists’ are committed to a pure or ‘extreme’ form of Islam.
In contrast, someone who is committed to the establishment of the brutal and repressive legal system described in parts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, or who is committed to the use of violence to see such laws enacted, is never described as a ‘Judaismist’ or a ‘Christianist’.
In central Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been fighting for more than 20 years to impose the laws of the Old Testament on the unwilling. Nine years ago, a small laboratory test of media reporting of faith-based political violence was conducted in the Observer, the most liberal newspaper on social issues in Britain. These two short items appeared, just as they appear below, one above the other on page 21 of the newspaper on 25 September 2005, also reprinted online:
Lord’s Resistance Army rebels killed in bloody gun battle
Ugandan troops killed 15 rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in a gun battle in remote southern Sudan, the military said. For 19 years the cult-like LRA has terrorised isolated communities on both sides of the border, uprooting 1.6 million people in northern Uganda alone and triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Algerian rebels kill 10
Al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist militants have killed 10 people, including seven soldiers, in separate ambushes in Algeria, newspapers reported yesterday. The attacks came a week ahead of a national referendum on a partial amnesty aimed at rebels fighting for a purist Islamic state. Assuming that these reports are accurate, why are the Algerian militants ‘Islamists’, but the LRA not described as ‘Christianist’? Why are the Algerian militants described as fighting for ‘purist Islam’, when the LRA are not described as fighting for ‘purist Christianity’? Why are there two references to Islam (as well as one to al-Qaeda) in relation to the Algerian militants, but no reference at all to Christianity in relation to the LRA? Why are the LRA described as ‘cult-like’, distancing them from Christianity? (Is the Algerian militant group free of ‘cult-like’ features?)
These short reports encapsulate, in around 100 words, the poisonous assumptions which skew reporting, and deepen public fear and hatred of Islam.
In an interview in 2006, Joseph Kony engaged in this exchange:
Asked what he was fighting for, he replied: ‘We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy. We want our leader to be elected – but not a movement like the one of Museveni.’
Was he also fighting for the Ten Commandments? ‘Yes, we are fighting for Ten Commandments,’ he replied. ‘Is it bad? It is not against human rights. And that commandment was not given by Joseph [Kony]. It was not given by LRA. No, that commandment was given by God.’
Let’s turn to what the Christians call the Old Testament:
‘Moses saw that the people were out of control, for Aaron had let them get out of control, resulting in weakness before their enemies. And Moses stood at the camp’s entrance and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites gathered around him. He told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘Every man fasten his sword to his side; go back and forth through the camp from entrance to entrance, and each of you kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and about 3,000 men fell dead that day among the people. Afterward Moses said, “Today you have been dedicated to the Lord, since each man went against his son and his brother. Therefore you have brought a blessing on yourselves today.”‘ (Exodus 32:25-29)
One response to this kind of behaviour, and to the ‘Christian’ justification offered by Kony, might be to divide the Old Testament very firmly from the New, and to focus on the sayings of Jesus and his apostles as the real heart of Christianity, quite divorced from the massacres of earlier Jewish history. Unfortunately, this would fly in the face of quite explicit statements by Jesus himself:
‘Don’t assume that I came to destroy the [Jewish] Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:17-20)
If we adopt the literal, ungenerous approach to the Christian Bible that most non-Muslims tend to take towards the Qur’an, this means Jesus adopted every single aspect of existing Jewish law as part of his own teaching.
One particular part of that tradition says: ‘If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or mother; his blood is on his own hands.’ (Leviticus 20:9) Jesus invoked this law when he was challenged over his dietary practices by the Pharisees:
‘He also said to them, “You completely invalidate God’s command in order to maintain[a] your tradition! For Moses said: ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or mother: “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is Corban”‘” (that is, a gift committed to the temple), “you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. You revoke God’s word by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many other similar things.”‘ (Mark 7:9-13)
In other words, Jesus criticised the Pharisees for not following the Mosaic law and putting disobedient children to death. (The story is also told in Matthew 15:3-6.)
One of the particular features of the LRA is the use of child soldiers, who are often forced to kill their own relatives before being abducted and recruited into the army. It is commonly estimated that thirty thousand children have been abducted by the LRA. It may seem unbelievable, but this behaviour of the LRA does actually have a basis in the words of Jesus himself. Speaking to his apostles, and urging them to be confident in their speech if they are put on trial for being Christians, he predicts these consequences of their divinely-inspired preaching:
‘But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you should speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, because you are not speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will even rise up against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of My name. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered.’ (Matthew 10:19-22)
There are no doubt a number of different ways of interpreting these and other passages. That is the variety of belief. Within any religion, there will be different ways of absorbing the messages of sacred writings, and different elements will be stressed or censored by different communities within the one faith. Somehow, this plurality is thought to disappear with Islam. Outsiders believe that they know the true ‘essence’ of the scriptures and therefore of the religion.
Can the behaviour of the LRA be used to condemn all Christians? The answer is obvious. Can these violent passages from the Christian Bible (both Old and New Testament) be described as ‘the essence’ of the religion, and used to condemn Christianity itself? Again, the answer is obvious. Can the (likely) Kony interpretation of the words of Jesus be regarded as definitive? Once again, the answer is obvious.
The problem is that even among the most liberal Western non-Muslims, it is difficult to apply the same standards to Islam that are applied to Christianity.
It is common to find references to ‘Islamic terrorism’. There is a strong argument that this is a coherent and useful category. There have been numerous acts of political violence which, in the eyes of their perpetrators, find justification in (a particular reading of) Islamic scripture, and whose intended purpose is to further or defend Islam as a religion, or Muslims as a community.
What is problematic about the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is not that the concept exists, or that it is used to cover a wide range of acts of political violence, but that it exists in isolation.
When Joseph Kony’s LRA forces are discussed, they are ‘rebels’ (BBC, 11 June 2014), ‘anti-government forces’ (Guardian, 12 January 2014), or ‘one of the oldest and most brutal armed groups in Africa’ and ‘a terrorist organization’ (Washington Post, 29 April 2014). None of these articles mentioned Kony’s Christian ideology.
The most recent article on the LRA in the Wall Street Journal at the time of writing (1 July 2014) reported that Ugandan forces searching for Kony had clashed with the Seleka group. There was no mention of Kony’s belief system, but Seleka was described as ‘a coalition of mainly Muslim rebels from northern Central African Republic’.
If al-Qa’eda and the Islamic State are referred to as ‘Islamic terrorists’, why is Kony’s LRA never referred to in the mainstream media as ‘Christian terrorists’?
When the FBI arrests nine members of a group (in three states) who were planning to kill police officers, carry out atrocities and initiate war against the United States, in order to ‘defend all those who belong to Christ and save those who aren’t’, and ‘to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive’, they are called ‘an apocalyptic Christian militia‘. The words ‘Christian terrorism’ do not appear in the Guardian article on the break-up of the group in 2010, despite the author drawing explicit parallels with al-Qa’eda. The FBI agent in charge of the investigation described the nine Christians as as example of the ‘radical and extremist fringe groups’ to be found in the US.
In 2003, US Lieutenant General William Boykin described the ‘war on terror’ to US evangelical Christians in the following terms: ‘We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God, have been raised for such a time as this’. He added: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I want to impress upon you that the battle that we’re in is a spiritual battle…. Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.’ In 2009, Boykin made things very plainin a speech to a ‘conservative’ conference: ‘there is no greater threat to America than Islam’. In February 2014, the general said that Jesus’s injunction to his followers to trade their cloaks for a sword was ‘NOT A METAPHOR’, and that Jesus would be returning ‘as a warrior carrying a sword’, with his clothes dripping with his enemies’ blood (invoking Revelation 19 from the New Testament).
Boykin is generally described as a ‘holy warrior’.
If we reversed the references to Christianity and Islam, and these words were uttered by a military leader in a Muslim nation (say Pakistan), I have little doubt that the general concerned would be lambasted as an Islamic terrorist aligned with al-Qa’eda. Somehow, it is difficult in the mainstream media to apply the same standards to Boykin.
When we discuss acts of political violence which, in the eyes of their perpetrators, find justification in (a particular reading of) Christian scripture, and whose intended purpose is to further or defend Christianity as a religion, or Christians as a community, the appropriate label is ‘Christian terrorism’.
We have a simple choice in discussing faith-based political violence: either abandon the use of the term ‘Islamic terrorism’, or apply the same standard to other religions, and take up and apply terms like ‘Christian terrorist’. That kind of consistency is a prerequisite to building something worth calling ‘Western civilization’.
Milan Rai is an atheist who was raised as a cultural Hindu.