October 2, 2014 by James Crossley
An old anarchist critique of the state and its institutions is that its power depends on the idea of God or a higher authority. This was a criticism I hadn’t previously taken too seriously when looking at contemporary politics but there are certainly instances where this critique rings true, or at least can be modified. No contemporary politician can invoke God too much but grounding political views in a vague, and not overtly supernatural, understanding of ‘the Bible’, ‘religion’, or ‘Christianity’ has been carried out by Prime Ministers and leading mainstream politicians over the past 40 years. Indeed, Thatcher has been the most consistently explicit figure in recent English politics. She was convinced that the Bible and Christianity were at the heart of specifically Anglicised capitalism (along with, she argued, a specifically Anglicised view of democracy, human freedom, charity, individualism etc.) which has set the West apart from Communism and Soviet Russia (along with, she argued, tyranny, oppression, excessive state support, collectivism etc.). There are a number of parochial and localised reasons for politicians using the Bible (e.g. to risk getting a good press, not to annoy Christian voters unnecessarily, to keep certain pressure groups happy etc.) but there is no serious ‘Christian vote’ in the UK yet it is a constant feature of Prime Ministers such as Thatcher, Blair, Brown, and Cameron to have their core political beliefs somehow grounded in the Bible. And a reason for this is that it gives their views an authority and justification that they might otherwise lack.
Let’s take David Cameron’s recent speeches (one transcript is here) concerning IS(IL):
For clarification, in what follows I am obviously not arguing what is, or is not, ‘true religion’, ‘true Christianity’, ‘true Islam’ or the like but, rather, what I am trying to explain are some of the assumptions underlying such essentialist language in political discourse and what these assumptions are masking and obscuring.
Cameron’s speeches contain all the usual clichés about what religion and Islam really ‘is’ or ‘are’:
They are killing and slaughtering thousands of people—Christians, Muslims, minorities across Iraq and Syria. They boast of their brutality. They claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters.
It is fairly obvious what Islam must not be for Cameron (and virtually every major politician in the UK). So if IS is not True Religion or True Islam then what is it? It is a ‘fanatical organisation’, a ‘warped ideology’. For Cameron, the emergence of IS also represents a battle between Islam (‘on the one hand’) and ‘extremists who want to abuse Islam’ (‘on the other’). In fact, Cameron argues that it is ‘vital’ that ‘we make this distinction between religion [Islam] and political ideology’ [‘Islamist extremism…often funded by fanatics…who pervert the Islamic faith…’]’. Fairly obvious too is what True Islam should be for Cameron: ‘Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. It is a source of spiritual guidance which daily inspires millions to countless acts of kindness’. In fact, this binary of violent and brutal versus peaceful and being kind is important for Cameron (and virtually every major politician in the UK) when it comes to how they categorise religion and the state. This is confirmed by what Cameron thinks ‘we’ are: ‘We are peaceful people. We do not seek out confrontation’; ‘Britain is an open, tolerant and free nation’; ‘adhering to British values is not an option or a choice, it is a duty for those who live in these islands’.
But what happens when a British national behaves how they ought not? Cameron presents this as a shock, as much a deviation from True Britishness as it is from True Religion:
People across this country would’ve been sickened by the fact that there could have been a British citizen—a British citizen—would could have carried out this unspeakable act. It is the very opposite of everything our country stands for.
But already Cameron’s construction is starting to get complicated. ‘We’ too are prepared to use violence but do so when provoked and in a ‘calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination’. Here the subtle invocation of Christianity (assumed to be about ‘peace’) becomes important. Cameron mentions the persecution of ‘minorities, including Christians’ and brings in an allusion to the Good Samaritan (rather than to Dionne Warwick):
…but we cannot ignore this threat to our security…there is no option of keeping our heads down…we cannot just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe…we have to confront this menace…we will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination
Underlying this is a long political tradition of the Bible being assumed to be part of ‘our’ tolerant, democratic heritage. Cameron uses Christianity and the Bible to his bolster his assumptions about who has the legitimate monopoly on violence. Little wonder that Obama played the game of flat contradiction in claiming that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a State, with assumptions including that which is deemed to embrace True Religion and those which are deemed to be non-rogue states being the ones that may use violence:
The driving narrative is of further importance when the opposition is categorised in metaphysical or fantastical terms. For Cameron, IS are not Muslims ‘they are monsters’ and IS are ‘an organisation which is the embodiment of evil’.
There is going to be a sympathetic audience for this rhetoric, particularly given the beheadings which are brutally horrific just to comprehend. But this simplistic notion of the world of True Religion versus Evil has another function: it covers over the complexity of the situation. There are all sorts of reasons which would help us understand the rise of IS (‘evil’, incidentally, is not one of them), such as (among many) the decline of secular nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa, the rise of slums and population growth, the role of oil in economic growth and crashes, a range specific issues (e.g. ideological, material) relating to Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath (which, tellingly for someone invoking ‘evil’ and a ‘warped version of Islam’ as an explanation, is denied as a ‘source’ or ‘root cause’ for the rise of IS by Cameron). Moreover, George Monbiot has recently pointed out that if we followed the logic of the rhetoric of morality in foreign policy, we might find ‘ourselves’ bombing quite a lot of people, including ‘our’ allies:
Let’s bomb the Muslim world – all of it – to save the lives of its people. Surely this is the only consistent moral course? Why stop at Islamic State (Isis), when the Syrian government has murdered and tortured so many? This, after all, was last year’s moral imperative. What’s changed? How about blasting the Shia militias in Iraq? One of them selected 40 people from the streets of Baghdad in June and murdered them for being Sunnis. Another massacred 68 people at a mosque in August. They now talk openly of “cleansing” and “erasure” once Isis has been defeated…What humanitarian principle instructs you to stop there? In Gaza this year, 2,100 Palestinians were massacred: including people taking shelter in schools and hospitals. Surely these atrocities demand an air war against Israel? And what’s the moral basis for refusing to liquidate Iran? Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged there last week for making “innovations in the religion” (suggesting that the story of Jonah in the Qur’an was symbolic rather than literal). Surely that should inspire humanitarian action from above? Pakistan is crying out for friendly bombs: an elderly British man, Mohammed Asghar, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, is, like other blasphemers, awaiting execution there after claiming to be a holy prophet… Is there not an urgent duty to blow up Saudi Arabia? It has beheaded 59 people so far this year, for offences that include adultery, sorcery and witchcraft. It has long presented a far greater threat to the west than Isis now poses…
So why really choose IS here and now and not others? Why not explain why IS came to be in a way other than just ‘evil’ or a ‘warped ideology’? Whatever the reasons, the implicit authority for such simplifications, and ultimately for carrying out violence, is grounded in, and justified by, a given politician’s construction of, and assumptions about, the Bible, religion and Christianity. A higher authority, it seems, is still needed in political discourse.
PS: If you want to witness competitions based on similar assumptions about whether IS is or is not Islamic, or just a nice piece of data for the critical study of religion, try this debate from Fox: