January 13, 2015 by James Crossley
Among the latest commentary following the Charlie Hebdo murders was a discussion on the BBC programme, Daily Politics (13/1/15, available on BBC iPlayer for a while). The discussion was billed as concerning ‘religion and terrorism’ and ‘religious extremism’. There was no expert in the field of religion and terrorism (or indeed, say, a French social historian) and it instead featured a sort of religious and non-religious liberal balance of Richard Dawkins (introduced ‘scientist and atheist’), Nabila Ramdani (introduced as a ‘French-born journalist…who is a Muslim’), and Giles Fraser (introduced as ‘an Anglican priest’, though, as the guest for the whole of the show, his role as priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington and Guardian columnist was noted). The segment opened with a montage of Islam, terror and violence and the debate was, fairly typically, about whether religion was inherently violent, whether Islam was at this time especially violent, whether the Paris murders were a ‘masking’ of ‘true’ Islam, the importance of free speech and the cover of today’s Charlie Hebdo, whether ‘extreme’ nationalism or patriotism might likewise be just as violent as religion, and whether Hitler’s actions should be classified alongside ‘religion’ or not, though there were some suggestions (particularly by Fraser and Ramdani) that there might be some postcolonial legacies, as well as more cultural complexity, behind the Charlie Hebdo murders.
With this in mind, I have a list of questions I would, if I were Andrew Neil, like to have had the participants discuss in more depth.
But first, a disclaimer that should not have to be mentioned: I am not interested in judging whether or not something is or is not ‘true religion’ or who has got the best religion or whose religion is most likely to be violent or that religion does or does not cause violence. Is it possible to do such analyses anyway? Probably not. I am interested in the assumptions made, and interests at play, in these (hardly untypical) discussions, though I should qualify this by adding that I am not questioning or analysing the personal motivations of Ramdani, Dawkins, or Fraser but rather seeing them as conduits of ideological positions which they may or may not be aware of. It is more-or-less a truism that such media discussions simplify the complexities of the events they report. So, what I am also interested in is what is being downplayed and ignored in such simplifications. With this in mind, a final qualification that should not have to be mentioned: I (obviously) know that some of the following questions are absurd but that’s a reflection of the questions being asked across public debates.
Having written that, I’m not going to give any answers (apart from an implied answer at the end) but instead I will pose some questions which, in a different world, Daily Politics discussion might have provoked its participants to have discussed (and this applies more broadly across the mainstream media, of course–indeed I have taken the liberty of broadening the scope of the questions beyond what was talked about today).
- Is free speech really the freedom to attack things you don’t like or the freedom for things to exist that you find really unpleasant?
- How do we, or can we even, ‘measure’ the rise and falls of when a given religion is more-or-less violent?
- When people ‘measure’ how much and when a religion is more-or-less violent, are they doing it with expertise across historical periods and different social and localised settings, or are they working with received clichés?
- If there is a masking of ‘true religion’ or ‘true Islam’, what is ‘true religion’ or ‘true Islam’? Can we even isolate this essence of religion? Is there really something in human evolution that can be isolated as ‘religious’?
- On the subject of which, who decides if something is ‘true’ or ‘false’ religion? Isn’t this the claim of the believer rather than the analyst?
- If Islam and Christianity both have long histories of peace and violence, then isn’t it problematic to say that either are inherently peaceful or inherently violent?
- Are the explanations along the lines of ‘religion (to some degree) causes bad/good things’ themselves cover over hugely complex geopolitical, social, economic, local, ideological etc. issues that are easier or more convenient to ignore?
- Tony Blair has been clear in claiming religious motivations and the authority of the Bible, as have George Bush, David Cameron, and Barak Obama. All of these have been centrally involved in decisions where, to greater or lesser degree, a lot of people have died (at least comparatively), including in situations where white phosphorus has been used. Why is all this rarely discussed as ‘Christian violence’, or even a ‘distortion’ of ‘true Christianity’, at least in the mainstream media in a sustained way? Is this to be factored in as a part of the ‘measurement’ for understanding how violent a religion currently is or is not? Or should it be dismissed because it is not the sort of thing Christianity is assumed to be about?
- bin Laden, al-Qaeda, the 7/7 bombers, Woolwich murderers, and plenty of others have explicitly claimed (no matter how inaccurately and no matter how exaggerated) that the sanctions on Iraq, Palestine, drones, Abu Graib, Iraq War, Afghanistan War, ‘foreign policy’ in general etc. should provoke, or has provoked, Muslims to arms. There has been a dramatic rise in slums globally, including in the Middle East and North Africa and cities with a significant Muslim population (see Michael Watts). The Paris murders are part of a complex history which doesn’t always mention religion. Might even these brief points suggest that there is more complexity to the issue than ‘religion causes x, y or z’?
- Is a particular religion more inherently violent when participants don’t passively accept their lot?
- Is Buddhism really ‘all about’ peace and non-violence? What if Buddhists did do something violent?
- Do people who talk about Buddhism (and non-violence) always know much about the history of Buddhism? Or do they think they already know what it ‘really means’?
- iGuru Steve Jobs identified as a Buddhist and Apple has been criticised for its use of sweatshops and causing suicides. Given the lauding of Steve Jobs’ charisma and influence at Apple, are we allowed to make a connection between his Buddhism and Apple’s use of sweatshops? For tolerating this, can we classify Jobs as a ‘religious extremist’? Or are suicides not the right kind of violence and not to be classified as terror and extreme? Can someone who holds liberal democratic values not count as a religious extremist? Could we go one step further and ask ‘the British community’, ‘the American community’, ‘the Western community’, ‘the Christian community’, or ‘the Muslim community’ to stand up to the known practices of Apple instead of tacitly supporting them by buying more iPhones?
And, finally, a rhetorical question:
- Are media outlets and political discourses just making up what ‘religion’ is (and is not) in relation to ‘terror’ and ‘violence’ in order to suit certain ideological interests?