Always keen to learn new things, I enrolled on a short online course given by the University of Groningen entitled Religion and Conflict. The lecturers were Dr Kim Knibbe, Dr Erin Wilson and Prof Marjo Buitelaar, above.
My special interest was one particular religion and conflict and I put in my student profile that I was “hoping to be dissuaded of my expectation of a coming catastrophe in Europe due to religious fanaticism”.
This was true although I couldn’t say I was very hopeful. More realistically I hoped to gain an insight into why academics invariably give Islam such an easy ride. Even in that I was disappointed. The “why” must remain a subject of conjecture but I did come to understand something of the “how”. They minimise the content of the various religions and maximise the many extraneous influences affecting their believers then claim to have come up with a more nuanced understanding. Simple, really!
The course consisted of 6 weeks worth of short lectures, videos, interviews and assignments, each with the opportunity for discussion with fellow students. I had expected a bit of friction in the discussion forums and so it turned out, though no worse than a rough night in the Guardian comments sections. One fellow student was decent enough to say that I probably wasn’t a bad person, just having problems with my shadow (he was a Jungian).
A handful of people gave me a hearing when I challenged the arguments of our tutors and I took the opportunity to inject some real information about Islam into the debate, including a comprehensible presentation of the Koran, a manual of Sharia law, an abridged version of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Mohammed, an explanation of al wala wal bara, the Hamas charter (see article 7), a dynamic battle map of historic Jihad and the Crusades and a British government report on the Muslim Brotherhood.
We spent Week 1 defining our terms.
Firstly religion and the difference between substantive definitions (what it is) and functional definitions (what it does). The reassuringly basic “Religion is the belief in supernatural beings” was an example of the former and the charmingly silly “Religion is society worshipping itself” represented the latter.
Both approaches were discussed and backed up with academic pedigrees but then, out of the blue and with no explanation, we were told that we would be taking a third approach:
“In this course, we will mainly look at religion in a third sense, as something that can mean different things to different people in different contexts.”
Uh oh, I thought, that sounds suspiciously like non-essentialism, the fashionable and specious academic view that anything can be anything, or to put it more formally “for any given kind of entity, there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must possess”. By taking the view that things, even religions, have basic inherent characteristics, for instance that Allah will never be part of a trinity and God does not live on Mt Olympus, I consigned myself to the essentialist camp. If you think this merely a big end/little end distinction confined to the ivory towers of academia I invite you to consider the skirmish going on elsewhere on the cultural battlefield over whether people with penises should or should not be allowed to use female toilets.
Secondly violence, and here we continued to drift away from commonly understood meanings. Violence apparently can include non-physical violence. Examples of structural or symbolic violence, which is committed by no individual and which leaves no bruises, include the shorter life spans of lower class people, the lower incomes of women and the oppression of Muslim countries by the West. All of these have other possible explanations and the one-sided selection of some of the left’s favourite victims seemed to suggest a leftist bias. At any rate I felt a little cheated out my share of victimhood since the fact that men do not live as long as women failed to make the grade.
Week 2 was about the link between religion and conflict. We prepared the ground with items about framing a conflict as religious, the significance of definition and scholarly understandings of the link between religion and conflict.
Then we started to get down to business in an interview with external Professor Jose Casanova. Since I had been boring everyone with my dreary essentialist concern with what various religious texts actually say, it was encouraging to hear him say “we have to get the facts in a hermeneutic, relatively sensible interpretation of each particular conflict as a first step”.
Since hermeneutics is the interpretation of scriptures, I expected at least a superficial examination of Islamic sources. But no, it turned out that there was no need. He simply dismissed the idea that Islam has an authentic role in Boko Haram’s activities because in other places Muslims and non-Muslims live peacefully together.
In a later interview, citing state-formation as the underlying cause of some instances of violence usually attributed to religious differences, he said that “…Jews, Muslims and Christians could live together in Spain convivencia under Muslim and Christian kingdoms”. Professor Casanova, himself a Spaniard, is talking here about the Convivencia.
It is my understanding that the word refers only to the supposedly harmonious co-existence of the three groups in mediaeval Spain under Muslim rule. With regard to that the professor is wrong. The Convivencia has been officially declared a myth by historians who have found no evidence for it. But even if he was right he would still be wrong because the issue at the heart of the civilised world’s concern about Islam is not whether Muslims can be benign when in power but whether they can, with religious sanction, live as equals with the infidel when they are demographically powerful enough to do otherwise. After all, Allah tells them that they are “the best of peoples” and we are “the vilest of creatures”.
In Week 3 we learned of the many factors that can contribute to religious violence. They include:
State-formation, state-failure, the end of the cold war, the decline of secularism, globalisation, the need to reduce ambiguity, uncertainty and insecurity, Western-backed dictatorships, injustice, unemployment, teenage rebellion, alienation, identity problems, existential anxiety, ontological insecurity, othering and collective memories.
But nothing about what the various religions’ holy texts actually say. How strange. You might think that they could give us a clue as to why there are so many Islamic terrorist groups and so few Jainist ones.
Week 4 included a study of ISIS. Our tutors made it clear what they considered primary in the conflict currently being played out in Syria and Iraq:
“The historical background of present day clashes in Iraq and Syria indicates that rather than civilisational or religious clashes, what we are in fact witnessing are conflicts over economic and political hegemony….Earthly struggles are placed in a framework of cosmic warfare between truth and evil.”
and what they considered secondary:
“…there is no causal relation between the contents of authoritative religious texts on the one hand and specific religious views and practices of adherents to a specific religious tradition on the other. Actors choose from a rich body of transmitted texts those that most adequately answer their existential questions and provide them with concrete scripts for action.”
I disagree on both counts but particularly on the second (did you spot the non-essentialism?). There may be no 1 to 1 relation between religious texts and views and practices but it is absurd to suggest that there is no causal relationship at all. Religious texts are not Rorschach tests. There are limits to what you can pull out of them. You will find plenty about spreading the faith by fighting and killing in Islamic texts but precious little in Buddhist texts. Accordingly we find not just ISIS in Syria but jihadist groups fighting expansionary wars in most of the countries on the borders of Islamdom from Mali to the Philippines to the Caucasus, and now of course in Europe. By contrast if there are Buddhist groups doing something similar then they are keeping it very quiet.
I suggested in the discussions that we should make some attempt to ascertain whether the jihadis’ understanding of Islamic supremacism (the end) and jihad (the means) is actually consistent with the mainstream Islamic tradition or not. It seems to me to boil down to the question of whether the undisputed jihad verses in the Koran are to be understood only in the context of the battles Mohammed happened to be fighting at the time they were “revealed” or are valid for all time until the whole world is under the rule of Islam.
Those fellow students who had an opinion on the matter all took the contextual view for granted. I put forward in support of the timeless view:
a) The example of Mohammed and his immediate successors.
b) Mohammed’s threatening letters to surrounding kings and emperors.
c) The views of the great mediaeval commentators (eg “Allah the Exalted and Most Honored said, while delivering the glad tidings to the believers that the Messenger will triumph over his enemies and the rest of the people of the earth“ Tafsir of ibn Kathir).
d) The various schools of Islamic Law (eg “It is apostasy to deny that Allah intended the Prophet’s message to be the religion followed by the entire world” Reliance of the Traveller).
I also pointed out that I had been unable to find any support for the contextual view in the Islamic tradition before the late 19th century (and that was from the Ahmadiyya, generally regarded as heretical) and asked for examples. None were forthcoming. If you could provide some I would be most grateful.
Nor was any attempt made by our tutors to consider whether ISIS’s beliefs and actions had any connection to those of Mohammed and his immediate successors as they claim. I pointed out that ISIS didn’t pluck robbery, ransoming, beheadings, crucifixion, sex slavery, forced conversion, stoning, immolation, throwing homosexuals off rooves, jizya and takfir out of the air and offered to give details but got no takers.
The only time the tutors ventured anywhere near the theology they got it wrong. In attempting to absolve Islam from some of ISIS’ more extreme brutalities they claimed that there is no justification in the Islamic tradition for beheadings and immolation. In fact, since Mohammed did both they are sacralised as part of the Sunnah, the example of Mohammed. If you doubt it check out chapters 18, 20 and 25 here.
Week 5 was about peace building, but focussed on attempting to bring about reconciliation after wars had already burned themselves out.
What could have some effect on the currently warring parties in Syria? Seminars about existential anxiety perhaps?
I suggest the only thing likely to make a difference would be the discovery of a new “world’s oldest Koran” with a previously unsuspected verse at the end of Sura 9 abrogating everything prior, something like:
“And remember boys, when all Arabia is under your control cut out the jihad stuff and make it up with the Jews and Christians…they’re not such a bad lot after all”.
Week 6 involved a couple of assignments and finished with this message to students:
“It is now your job to share with your friends, your family and your colleagues through
social media and conversations in daily life, that religion, or a particular religious
tradition, is NOT either “good” or “bad”, violent or peaceful, but like other strong ideologies, the symbols, rituals and stories found in religion provide the tools for people to make sense of and respond to the world and the issues they have to deal with.”
There are a few things to note here:
1. Six weeks and not so much as a verse from any religious text. Would our tutors take such a hands off approach to the “other strong ideologies” which they equate with religious traditions? Would they say, for instance, that Nazism was “not either violent or peaceful” and would they look everywhere but in Mein Kampf to understand it? If so then they would be taking a very different approach to that of political scientists who analyse to death the texts of political ideologies.
2. How does our tutors’ message that particular religious traditions are not either good or bad, violent or peaceful translate when it filters out to the less rarified atmosphere of public discourse? Why, that no particular religion is more violent than any others of course. And, despite the daily evidence to the contrary with regard to one particular religion, that is what we continue to hear from our journalists, politicians and church leaders.
It is academia which has created the intellectual climate which allows such nonsense to be taken seriously, and which in turn stifles attempts to name our enemy and take realistic precautions. That is why I say that our tutors, along with so many other well meaning academics, were culpable in the slaughter in Brussels which took place during the course and will be culpable in the many more atrocities which we must look forward to in the coming months and years. Perhaps it will take a beheading in the canteen at Groningen University to burst their bubble. Probably even that would not be enough.
3. Nothing adduced in the course justified the claim that particular religious traditions are not either good or bad, violent or peaceful. A very superficial knowledge of different religious texts is enough to show that it is simply wrong. Most religions have both good and bad, violent and peaceful teachings, varying in their proportion.
One fellow student, in discussion, offered his own largely peaceful religion as one also containing some very violent content. He thought he was disagreeing with me but in fact he was agreeing with me and disagreeing with our tutors since “both…and…” is entirely different to “not either…or…”.
What a feat to convince people who disagree with you not only that they agree with you but to spread your message for you. It can only be done by ignoring the obvious and confusing the dupe with irrelevancies which they won’t understand (ontological insecurity…ye gods!). Not that I am accusing our tutors of deliberately deceiving their students. They in turn have allowed themselves to be bamboozled by others or managed to bamboozle themselves. This is how the marketing of “the cloth so fine that only the most intelligent can see it” proceeds. The question is are we to side with the emperor or the child who points out the obvious?