Obliviousness Will Be Our Doom

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 whackjob  religious fanatics, scorched earth retribution becomes more palatable.

See how that works?


15 thoughts on “Obliviousness Will Be Our Doom

  1. Terrific article, Barbara. I am going to share amongst people I know who will want to discuss this.

  2. The Middle Eastern countries sometime support these religious fanatics in order to focus their attention on America or Europe, rather than the root problems at home:
    Most of their countries money is in the pockets of a few families. And these people rule with a tyrannical iron fist.

    Oh, and like you, I was 14 and oblivious to terrorist until the Munich Olympics in ’72.
    And in the run-up to the take-over of the US Embassy in Tehran, they NY Times was warning about a possible takeover for a week before it happened.
    And then, when the takeover happened, the CIA said, “Who could have known? Who could have predicted that?”
    Well, maybe you guys if you bothered to read the front page of the NYT’s!

    And the CIA said the same thing when the USSR collapsed.
    They really are a useless agency – except to provoke trouble.

  3. I have not read Maha’s book but I agree religion is not the problem but is justification for the horrific acts. I also have not read the Koran or even the Bible but I am aware of some passages in the old testament that just floor me. Such as God testing Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son. And there is one passage where God urges the Jews to go to war and when they win to collect the booty, kill all the men and “used” women and keep the virgins for themselves. Really? Is this how an all-powerful God acts? I cannot remember where this is but I do remember reading it. When I worked as a psych nurse, the most dangerous psychotic patients were those who received messages from God.
    I think it all boils down to what Maha said: We are all Buddhas but since we don’t recognize it, we can be jerks and sometimes really big jerks. How do we get people to recognize it? Not by war, not by reason.

  4. Chris Hedges is on point about this in A Message from the Dispossessed:

    The terrorist attack in France that took place at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was not about free speech. It was not about radical Islam. It did not illustrate the fictitious clash of civilizations. It was a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury….

    …Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures. This is why France’s far right, organized around Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant Front National, has so much in common with the jihadists whom Le Pen says she wants to annihilate.

    When you sink to despair, when you live trapped in Gaza, Israel’s vast open-air prison, sleeping 10 to a floor in a concrete hovel, walking every morning through the muddy streets of your refugee camp to get a bottle of water because the water that flows from your tap is toxic, lining up at a U.N. office to get a little food because there is no work and your family is hungry, suffering the periodic aerial bombardments by Israel that leaves hundreds of dead, your religion is all you have left. Muslim prayer, held five times a day, gives you your only sense of structure and meaning, and, most importantly, self-worth. And when the privileged of the world ridicule the one thing that provides you with dignity, you react with inchoate fury. This fury is exacerbated when you and nearly everyone around you feel powerless to respond….

  5. The closing paragraph from Hedges’ article (I got ahead of myself):

    It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.

  6. And yet, moonbat, the people who should read Chris Hedges and Juan Cole, don’t.
    Or if they do, they don’t “grok” what they’re trying to tell them.

  7. Thanks for that, Moonbat. Very right on. My take on religion is that it should be a comfort. Forget the beliefs, they don’t really matter. Perhaps people need beliefs but the bottom line (IMO) is that there is a higher power which all of creation is a part of. Let’s just call it God. God is everything, nothing is outside of God. And God is love and I’m not talking about the romantic kind. If a religion teaches and expresses God’s love, everything would be in balance. But they get caught up in beliefs and start arguing, etc. etc.
    How do we recognize God’s love? We see it in nature in all the beauty of this earth. We see it in the mother cat who repeatedly goes back in a burning building to rescue her kittens and gets severely burned in the process. We see it in the unusual friendships of different species of animals. We see it every day in the small kindnesses given to the less fortunate and the needy. And we see it in a human who risks his life to save an endangered animal. These do not require belief, only surrender to the divine. Nature has no problem with this, only humans.

  8. grannyeagle,
    Ancient societies worshipped nature. They often spoke of Mother Earth, and looked upon the seasons as being reflective of a human’s life-cycle.
    They often had Gods and Goddesses of the sun, water, wind, rain, etc…

    Then, some societies made these Gods into human form. I’m thinking of the polytheism/pantheism practiced by the Greeks and Romans, and other societes.

    And then, came monotheism – I believe it started with the Egyptians, and Akhenaten (best know as the father of King Tut) – and over the centuries, it went from Mother Earth, to ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

    This is, of course, a very simplistic take on this situation.
    And I haven’t read any books along this subject in a very long time.
    So, simplistic is all I’ve got anymore… 😉

  9. I was on campus through most of the 70s too, in Buffalo, but had a different experience; I knew a couple of Palestinians quite well, from a pickup soccer game, and some Iranians vaguely, and all of them were politically angry (Arabs about Israel-Palestine, Iranians about Mossadegh and the torturing Shah and his secret police) but none of them were religious; the only devout Muslim I met was a very touchy Egyptian who didn’t talk politics and was probably working for his government. And none of them were terrorists, but the terrorists of Fatah as it was in those days or the Abu Nidal group weren’t religious either, everybody was more or less a Marxist, and everybody in my group drank at least a little beer, and one Palestinian had a Jewish girlfriend who was naturally much more fiercely anti-Zionist than he was.

    Deep piety, as we can learn from reading, was common among the less educated inside Iran, where it hijacked the Revolution on Khomeini’s return, as well as Turkey and Egypt and everywhere in North Africa, but that was never religious extremism like the kind that was being cultivated by Israel in Lebanon and the territories against Arab leftists (Hezbollah and Hamas respectively) and the US/Pakistan in Afghanistan against the Soviets (Taliban). Islamist terrorism as we have it today was a creation of the Cold War.

  10. The “leaders” of ISIL and other crime syndicates have one goal– the oil– like anyone else. The sick-in-the-head followers may feed their delusions by shooting cartoonists, strapping bombs to unwilling 10 years, and throwing acid in women’s faces, but, the followers are just pawns, cannon fodder. It does no good to spoon out liberal guilt about past wrongs the colonial powers have inflicted on the Middle East; it is the 21st Century now; it is time to move on. The Arab Spring took some good first steps, but it got bogged down during the execution. Assad was not toppled. Egypt toppled Mubarak, but “elected” the odious and wholly unsuitable Morsi, who had to also be removed. I think all the developed world should do at this point is to provide advice and air support, and let the nations chart a course with as little heavy-handed interference as possible.

    • //The “leaders” of ISIL and other crime syndicates have one goal– the oil– like anyone else. // I honestly don’t think it’s that simple. The Middle East has been jerked around, invaded, occupied, exploited, had its political decisions countermanded and its boundary lines redrawn for a century now. Islamic extremism is a reactionary movement fueled by a desire to return to an “ideal” past when the Middle East belonged entirely to Middle Easterners. If you can imagine foreign powers doing the same thing to North America you might appreciate why some would feel that way. I’m not at all saying the terrorists are justified, just that culturally and psychologically the extremism shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

      //It does no good to spoon out liberal guilt about past wrongs the colonial powers have inflicted on the Middle East; it is the 21st Century now; it is time to move on.//

      Oh, please, do shove the “liberal guilt” line up your ass and keep it there. Guilt is pointless. And do note that what’s radicalized a lot of today’s Islamic terrorists happened in the 21st century, you oblivious fool. Invasion of Iraq? Abu Ghraib? Hello? Stop being an idiot.

      My point here is not to make anyone guilty or even to suggest that somehow the West can fix all this. It can’t. My point is to stop reacting in ways that make things worse, which is all we seem to be able to do. But making that change requires acknowledging that people are not attacking us just because their religions are telling them to. Do re-read the last paragraph. Thanks much.

  11. Gulag: I too have done a lot of reading on religion mostly because I have been obsessed with it most of my life. The ancients had nothing to guide them but nature. And they came up with stories and myths to explain things. Also, according to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, there are archetypes in our unconscious which get acted out. Jesus is the hero archetype and of course there is the great mother which is Mother Mary. There are many others. It does get complicated and I prefer simplicity but we’re still evolving. Humans need their rituals in order to express the deep emotions that are part of our nature that we don’t understand and prefer to ignore. I think that’s why beliefs are developed. Of course there’s always the power and control issue. And that leads to religions. Can’t let those humans run amok.

  12. Consider the three declarations for their political result.

    1) We are at war with Islam.

    2) We are at war with radical Islam

    3) We are at war with the individuals and organizations that commit or plan random acts of violence in the name of Islam.

    The first two declarations put us at war with a RELIGION or with a faction of a religion. The third statement is nuanced – a declaration for the benefit of the 1.5 Billion Muslims in the world who are not radicalized that we have no quarrel with their beliefs. This is not PC – it’s politics. We recruit for radical Islam when we create fear among non-radical Muslims that we are after them.

    I think this statement can be made publicly by Obama and should. I think Obama should get world leaders and religious leaders to sign on. Push back against the conservatives (globally) who would drive the entire world into a war drawn along religious lines.

    Some conservatives expect that non-radical Muslims can be forced to turn against the radical factions of Islam by coercion. We have over a decade of experience that says it’s not a workable strategy – abusing radical Muslims or threatening the non-radical Muslim population is exactly what extremists can recruit from.

  13. Off topic, but this is to good to pass up… http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/john-boehner-bartender-planned-poison-fbi-article-1.2076806
    The funny thing is,is that Boehner’s liver is probably so deteriorated from all the alcohol (wood alcohol, after shave lotion, sterno) he’s put down over the years that even an autopsy wouldn’t be able determine what substance did him in. His bartender could have gotten away clean.

    My lawyer, my doctor, my accountant, my personal trainer…my bartender? Maybe that says something about the pickled Boehner

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