Earlier today I read a comment saying that Islamic extremism started with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And of course that’s nonsense. The Iranian Revolution simply marked the point at which Americans noticed Islamic extremism.
I was as oblivious as anybody then. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1973 and worked for the university for a few years after that, so I was on campus until about 1977. From time to time middle eastern students would mark around with signs denouncing the Shah of Iran and calling for America to stop supporting him. I ignored them. I had started seeing these guys with their signs before we were done with Vietnam, and I thought they should go demonstrate in their own country.
And then came the overthrow of the Shah and the Iranian hostage crisis. This wasn’t the first time violence connected to the region had gotten in our faces, of course. I became aware of the existence of Palestinians when a group of them got eleven Israeli athletes killed during the Munich Olympics. Which, along with being an atrocity, was also one of the worst public relations moves of all time. But I don’t remember that Americans associated Middle Eastern or Asian terrorism with Islam until they’d learned to hate the Ayatollah Khomeini.
But after all these years we still have no clue. I now have some understanding how much of today’s conflicts have their roots in European policies in the region at the end of World War I, and how that damage was compounded by America’s proclivity for propping up unpopular despots who at least were reliably anti-Soviet, like the Shah; and for toppling legitimately elected leaders who displeased us, such as Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had nationalized his country’s oil industry; he had to go.
Even our recent colossal screw-ups don’t seem to register as a cause of discontent. Invasion of Iraq? Abu Ghraib? Hello? Nah — it must be their religion.
I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. She argues for something that I touched on my in book, Rethinking Religion. And that is that most of the time, the primary cause of “religious” violence isn’t religion, but something else that has caused fear and anger and a desire for violent action. And then the angry, fearful people get out their scriptures and look for Holy Permission to do what they want, usually accepting only those passages that could be interpreted to support their positions and ignoring those that don’t.
Most of the time, I argue, religion is not the cause of group violence but can act as an accelerant, allowing qualms and inhibitions to drop away. I think it can be argued that when an angry mob or violent movement persuades itself that God condones their violence, they might very well be more violent than they would have been. However, that doesn’t mean that if the religion factor were removed the violence wouldn’t have happened at all.
But what if the other factors were removed and just religion were left? Looking at all the religious violence in the world today and in history, I propose that religion alone doesn’t cause people to be violent. Religion has to be combined with something else, such as a deeply felt grievance. That grievance may have little or nothing to do with religion. And people of the Middle East have plenty of reasons to be aggrieved.
However, once an extremist religious movement has formed, attacking them, meeting anger with anger and violence with violence, just feeds it. It becomes more extremist; it attracts new recruits. Plus once the violence starts there are other groups of violent, angry people who want revenge. And if they can persuade themselves that their enemies have no cause for grievance and are just violent because they are crazy whackjobÂ religious fanatics, scorched earth retribution becomes more palatable.
See how that works?