January 21, 2015 by James Crossley
More of the same but…
Two recent stories about religion, Islam and violence, and religious ’causes’ of violence.
First from the Guardian:
Appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, on a panel titled “Religion, a pretext for conflict?”, the former prime minister [Tony Blair] was accused of helping to create the current turmoil in the Middle East.
Audience member Henning Zierock, president of Society, Culture of Peace, won scattered applause when he told Blair: “I think you have a great responsibility for the conflicts we have now.”
Blair tried to rebut the charge, arguing that the causes of religious hatred predate his alliance with George W Bush. He pointed out that extremism has risen in France, despite its opposition to the second Gulf war at the time.
“My view is, you can debate the political decisions … but at some point we’ve got to understand that this extremism has grown up over a long period of time, over decades. Its roots are deep within a perversion of religion, a perversion of the religion of Islam,” Blair said.
The story continues with Blair’s conveniently simplistic (to put it mildly) presentation of the Middle East today and Islam, but note the typical Blairite claim of ‘a perversion of religion, a perversion of the religion of Islam’. Much more on this is available here but Blair’s understanding of what non-perverted ‘religion’ and ‘Islam’ might be perfectly coheres, unsurprisingly, with his views on liberalism and democracy, and even foreign policy and interventionism. Blair’s understanding works with the assumption that there is a pure (liberal and democratic) religion/Christianity/Islam that somehow got sullied, rather than (say) material interests or some complex mix of issues, caused all sorts of problems we have to live with today. This idealistic narrative is obviously useless in terms of historical analysis but its logic helps Blair justify (to himself?) why the impurity must be extracted (or bombed, or perhaps dealt with through white phosphorus).
But this way of extracting some kind of strict history of ‘religion’, seemingly free from the complexities of human societies, was also found on BBC2’s Newsnight in Emily Maitlis’ interview with director of the Tudor drama Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky (available on iPlayer in the UK for the next 29 days; it begins around 41 mins) where they managed to discuss a question on ‘radical Islamism’. Kosminsky pointed out that Islam ‘is about 500 years younger than Christianity as a religion’ and Wolf Hall was set around 500 years ago and so Christianity, then, was about ‘the same age as a religion’ as Islam is today. He then talked about some of the ‘extraordinarily extreme things that radical Islam, jihadists are doing’ (e.g. beheadings) and disagreeing violently over seemingly arcane points of detail. And yet, Kosminsky argued, this is only the sort of thing Christianity was doing 500 years ago.
This appears to work with a peculiar assumption of a linear evolutionary history of religion which, like Blair, implicitly extracts it from the complexities of human society and hardly helps explain why ‘radical Islam, jihadists’ is/are a such an issue today and not (say) 50 years ago or why (say) certain people who identify as Christian (e.g. Blair) still use violence to further their ideological aims. It also classifies violence in relation to Islam and implicitly puts it in a category different from (say) state violence or sweatshops, and perhaps does not categorize in terms of who has access to what sorts of violent resources. Implying that religion gets peaceful after about 1800-1900 years might otherwise lead us to think that changes in human society and history, and long term developments in the nation state and liberal democracy, might be part of an explanatory model…
But given the range of (often unconscious) ideological interests at play, it might be a lot easier or convenient for some such as Kosminsky or Blair to think that the violence we do not approve of mysteriously comes from this thing ‘religion’ or a ‘distortion’ of religion. It is much more convenient to think that a problem to be tackled is simple and idealistic than begin to understand the uncomfortable complexities.
Update: some of the Kosminsky interview is quoted in the Church Times