A Perfect Storm – Militant Atheism and Fundamentalist Islam
Adrian Martinez on ‘the iron fist of short term thinking that always sees imposing control as the answer, rather than understanding the real issues that need to be addressed, and building the relationships needed to address them’.
The mother of Brighton jihadi, Ibrahim Kamara (19), was interviewed on BBC radio 4 on Monday morning. He is said to have died, along with five more British nationals, after a US air strike on Aleppo in Syria. His mother said that her son was a normal boy who had fallen in with the wrong people.
Last month, Nick Cohen complained in the Observer that ‘cowardly intellectuals’ attack “aggressive secularism” and “militant atheists”, when they should instead attack those who are really aggressive and likely to throw bombs, namely fundamentalist Islamists. He complained that it is the Christian right who may “encourage a future Conservative government to repeal the Human rights Act”.
Nick Cohen misunderstands the problem. Militant fundamentalists and so-called militant atheists are not separate issues/extremes. They are connected and related strands of thought with contrasting expressions of intolerance. One is clearly murderous and violent, and that is also an expression of context. There is a more causal relationship between the two than many atheists would recognise or allow. It is not a matter of ‘moral equivalence’ as Cohen would have it, it is more a matter of whom we are talking to.
If and when I condemn the violence of Islamist groups I am not talking to or arguing with them. They are not members of a community to which I belong and I cannot talk to them in the same way I talk with and to my peers.
I can argue with Muslims and atheists about what religion is, what fundamentalism is, and how best to engage with the problem of fanatical Islamism; and we may agree that we mutually detest the murder and deaths that such groups inflict on mainly their own neighbours and some of our young men and women.
There is no shortage of people lining up to condemn groups like the Islamic State. This is already part of the tired, hyperbolic rhetoric of condemnation that our politicians ritualistically engage in: ‘brutal’, ‘barbaric, ‘medievalist’, ‘horrifying’ etc.
When I critique the aggressive rhetoric of the new atheists it is because these are people I call my own and I think that they might listen to me. Small hope I know.
When Cameron or Obama et al condemn the violence of groups like the Islamic State, this is more of a gesture to us in the West. It is a performance of condemnation for them and sympathy for us, rather than any speech act to IS or al Qaeda. It is what we expect, and it is for our benefit. Regardless of any genuine feeling they may have on the matter, they simply must perform such gestures of condemnation and sympathy.
These speech acts may be monitored by those they purport to address, but again, how they are heard and understood is a matter for conjecture.
If an IS captain has just ordered the beheading of a British NGO worker or journalist and listens to the British PM condemning those actions in the strongest terms, then that will be added to the evidence of a job well done. It may indeed legitimise their authority as a leader of a war against Britain and the US, since others will now see that they have struck home.
The very last thing such condemnation is likely to do is to give pause for thought, to lead to a re-evaluation of principles or to open negotiations, but then, that was never its purpose. There are other channels for those purposes, and they are seldom reported.
Of course, these performances happen on the other side of the conflict too, on YouTube, via CDs and DVDs, on the radio, or in the field. From what I have seen, these condemn western imperialism, violence and neo-colonialism in the Middle East using the language of the ‘caliphate’. Again, this is often delivered by an apparently pious Muslim as if a religious sermon or discourse. It isn’t so much for our benefit, except perhaps to give imagery to our fear of ‘the other’; but truth be told, who can argue with a critique of multinational and neo-colonial manipulation of the Middle East in order to gain control of raw materials and further western business interests?
In ‘Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern’ John Gray argues that we misunderstand ourselves as much as ‘the other’ (and those we are ‘othering’ – some are our own sons and daughters) when we represent these groups as throwbacks, primitive, barbaric or medieval. This is a similar misunderstanding to the notion that we are involved in a ‘clash of civilisations’. Before packing their bags for Syria wannabe Jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who both pleaded guilty to terrorism offences in July, ordered from Amazon ‘Islam for Dummies’ and ‘The Koran for Dummies’. Such was their knowledge and understanding of Islam.
Anthropologist Scott Atran, in his testimony to the US Senate of March 2010, said:
“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world”.
He described would be jihadists as “bored, underemployed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer . . . thrilling, glorious and cool”.
A briefing note prepared by MI5 on radicalisation leaked to the Guardian in 2008 concluded that;
“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could… be regarded as religious novices…. a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”.
Both al-Qaeda and the IS represent a break from traditional Muslim philosophical grounding and owe more philosophically to Nietzsche, Camus, Fanon and 20th C European Bolshevist, Nazi and anarchist movements in their utopian idealism to remake humanity. As such they are products of modernity and modern globalisation. Egypt’s grand Mufti, spokesperson for Wahhabism, one of the most conservative and fundamentalist strands of Sunni Islam, has condemned ISIS for parting from Muslim norms and values (even if, ironically enough, it has funded its birth).
John Gray and Mary Midgley both critique the western modernist myth that the world is involved in an inevitable path of ‘progress’, which suggests that we will become more reasonable and more alike (more liberal and secular), that humanity is perfectable.
The utopian belief in ‘perfectable progress’ is shared by radical Islamists who believe in something very similar.
Our Western myth is informed by the positivist secular religious dream of Auguste Comte and Saint-Simon who believed that science would end all human ills, a dream which has led to the promulgation of global capitalism as a manifestly rational way of ordering society, and it has led to totalitarianism whether in its capitalist, fascist or socialist forms. All of them promoting a supposedly rationally managed method of achieving the same.
Positivism influenced both Marxism and neo-liberal “free market” ideology, both of which adopted the idea that science (and via technology, history) is cumulative, universal, and “the One Way” to truth. The Christian doctrines of the redemptive direction of history, and the sole authority of Christian salvation were absorbed into the key drivers of 20th century politics.
The Islamist myth is both informed by the same philosophical roots, and is critical of the outcomes. A great summary of Gray’s argument is in his conclusion to his book ‘Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern’, where he paraphrases Karl Kraus’s definition of psychoanalysis:
‘Radical Islam is a symptom of the disease of which it is pretending to be the cure.’
The new wave of atheism is born of a frustration that the modernist enlightenment hope has not resulted in us becoming more rational and less religious, and has not resulted in us creating fairer and saner society. I suspect that to vent that frustration by arguing in the aggressive and entitled way we hear many new atheists doing is to pour petrol on a fire.
On the contrary, what is needed is more education, more support for youth and a capacity for critical thinking, reflection and empathy.
I suspect we are brewing a ‘perfect storm’ out of a confluence of major historical forces, ‘mundane’ policy choices, and our largely unquestioned worldview:
- Conquest: Historically we have invaded other lands and, because our system and its elites want their raw materials, we attempt to convert them to Christianity (or feminism, or democracy and now, atheism). This expression of colonial and neo-colonial imperialism has been succumbed to, resisted and accommodated in many diverse ways depending on which part of the world you go to. Al-Qaeda, Islamism, and the Wahhabi movement are just the last in a long line of reactions, some less enlightened than others.
- Rejecting religion as part of the plural mix: The lack of a nuanced and developed core curriculum in Religious Education (especially in englandshire) concerning religion, philosophy of religion and its corollaries means that there is very little comprehension of what it means to call oneself religious, and what it means to live in a plural society. It has even been claimed that many young folk cannot now even understand what ‘The Life of Brian’ is about, and what’s so funny about it.
- Refusal to integrate other ethnicities: Failure to integrate minority ethnic communities and ensure a quality education and opportunity for our own young second and third generation Asian and BME men and women (Cameron promised to do this when he took office and has effectively done very little). This political refusal means that, for those unmoored, the temptations to seek certainty and glory, instead of unemployment and binge drinking, are just a plane ticket away.
- Constant war, now justified by so-called humanitarian ‘liberal interventionism’ and imperialist projects across the Arab world involving the mass murder of (mostly) Muslims.
- Growing ‘secular’ intolerance of faith of any kind leading to breakdown of dialogue and increasing fracturing of debate and ghettoising on the internet.
- Anchorless Consumers: We have been raising our children in a neoliberal society in which they are defined as consumers first, where systems of values are privatised, where they are, “cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent” (Zygmunt Bauman).
- Ecocide: The myth of progress and continuous consumption are leading us to an ecological catastrophe which we are unlikely to survive, unless we can stop ‘fiddling’ and stop arguing about who is right, and instead understand our part in this drive for utopia (meaning no-place) that tears apart the fabric of the places and communities where we live and which we depend on.
So-called ‘militant’ atheists argue as if all that has to happen is for people to give up their childish, stupid superstitions and beliefs in “imaginary friends and sky pixies”. Such straw man arguments betraying just how little understanding they have of what they are attacking. They assume religion is one single thing (even atheism is not one single thing), and that it is backward or primitive rather than many different kinds of overlapping cultural phenomena.
Durkheim suggested, in one of many failed attempts to arrive at a definitive definition, that religion is:
“a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church”.
How many social phenomena might fit this definition?
Nick Cohen, and others advocating this new form of secularism, regard the widespread growth of fundamentalist Islam as something to do with our having been too soft and ‘polite’. I would refer him to the British orchestrated coup d’état which overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh from office and replaced him with a long line of puppet Shah’s which finally led to the Iranian revolution and the first fundamentalist anti-western power in the Middle East. This is a good example of how polite we can be when we really try. It is a good example of the iron fist of short term thinking that always sees imposing control as the answer, rather than understanding the real issues that need to be addressed, and building the relationships needed to address them.
I have yet to read a ‘militant’ atheist who understands:
- That religion is much more than merely a set of propositions which are self-evidently false;
- That religion also involves a set of practices structuring a day, a year, a life, concerned with identity, meaning, purpose and community;
- That it is a way or “form of life” (Wittgenstein), that it has no single essence but rather has “family resemblances” (ibid) to other religions and other less explicitly religious cultural practices and beliefs;
- That it is not merely a matter of individual choice, although it can be if that individual is well resourced. Religious faith is more to do with belonging and yet many belong to their religious communities without assenting to all of its tenets or proclamations of their faith leaders; and
- That there are many tensions within these communities up to and including atheist members of them.
Cohen wishes we had taken on militant religion and exposed its texts, decried its doctrines and found arguments to persuade young men not to go to Syria, as if these young men would engage in such arguments.
Surely, instead, we need to value those young men more, and give them more to live for than the narrow, materialist, commodified culture to participate in. A culture which defines them as consumers within that culture, even if they are unemployed or uneducated consumers with precious little capacity to consume the most delectable offerings capitalism has to offer. Dare I say: we should have loved them more?