WAR AGAINST THE UNBELIEVERS
Prior to the destruction of New York's Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon, which was as we discovered later the culmination of years of planning by the dedicated terrorist group al Qaeda, there had been other lethal incidents - from an earlier land based attack on the New York twin towers to the Kenya and Tanzania US embassies in Africa bombed with a large loss of life, mainly African passers-by. Also a military target, the USS Cole attacked by sea in Yemen. The previous Clinton administration had reacted using missiles on known and suspected al Qaeda positions. This limited conflict, the world was told by Osama bin Laden, was being aimed at the Americans for having their military within the sacred land of Saudi Arabia - US army boots defiling that sand which once knew the sandaled feet of the prophet.
Then came 9/11. The world's media gave us pictures of the destruction and death and in addition showed how the news was received around the world. Arab leaders showed horror and sympathy. The Arab street did not! It is easy to recall the triumphalism in the streets of the occupied territories of Palestine, with excited teenagers noisily rejoicing. It might well be that they conflated the USA with Israel which should surprise no-one, but nevertheless it appeared to most non-Arabs as an outrageous reaction to a large scale terrorist action, aimed mostly at civilians.
The US president seeking the appropriate response to the events of 9/11 included two unfortunate statements, speechwriter soundbites par excellence, both of which caused dismay to many western sympathisers. He called for a "war on terrorism" and he said that the action his nation would take was nothing less than a "crusade."
The word crusade is specifically Christian deriving from crux the cross. Although lost in the mists of history for many in the west, it refers to a two hundred year period ending seven centuries ago, during which a series of unprovoked Christian military invasions of the middle East took place, starting at the end of the 11th century. The conflict pitted the forces of Christendom (as Europe was then described), against those of Islam, although it was as much to do with territory as with religion. It was a major threat to Islamic governments in the region, a key event in their history, and it took them several generations to finally expel the Europeans whence they came, It therefore impinged much more in the consciousness of middle eastern Moslems, than of western Christians (and hardly at all of those in America, which was not to become a nation until centuries afterwards).
The concept of war in this context is also a challenge. It can certainly explain the steps - focusing a nations military effort, moving armies across the world, intervening in a civil war, as in Afghanistan - of how the US would react. This is probably what George Bush intended. But at the same time the term 'war' is used in the context of nation states and is inevitably two or even many-sided. It implies whatever else, that there will be gains and losses in territory and violent acts in response, ratcheting up, until historically at any rate, one or another side loses, or a peace is declared. It was hardly appropriate in the context of an intangible concept where blows have to be taken as well as given - where one side is recognisably territorial and the other equivalent to an idea, an attitude of mind. To term it 'war' dignifies and to them even justifies, the squalid cowardly acts of these dedicated killers against unaware civilians.
Yet the al Qaeda people believe that they also are at war but within their concept, of the 'faithful of God' against the unbelievers. The 'crusade' expression of George Bush suited them exactly. Osama bin Laden and his Arab followers first came to prominence in Afghanistan, where they had volunteered to fight alongside their co-religionists against the invading godless Soviets. They also turned up in Bosnia and in Chechnya, again to fight with their fellow Moslems, although to the Bosnians and the Chechens, who after many years of communist-forced secularism were by then 'moslem-lite', the issue for them was really political and all about independence. The war that al Qaeda are fighting is a global one as 'believers', against the US and allies, as the leading 'non-believers'. If the reaction of the west to a series of terrorist outrages were to be directed against the Islamic communities in their midst - leading to racist riots, then that would perfectly suit the ideas of bin Laden who seeks just that confrontation.
Because al Qaeda and other like-minded extremist groups can only progress by decentralising - not offering themselves as targets, they are reduced to clandestine organisation and the strategy of a hydra-headed, franchised, approach to acts of death and destruction. In other words their movement does not need the direction of planners or of communications with a supreme HQ, somewhere in the mountains. TV coverage of all significant events offers a copycat route for imitators. The web supplies much more of the detail.
But it seems that the other key requirement, that of finding the volunteers to direct their energies towards killing and maiming on the grand scale, comes down to young men who have in common a zombie - like adherence to certain Koranic texts, as interpreted for them by Islamic scholars. It is not that any of them can believe that the effect of their bombs will scare all non-Moslems into converting to Islam and asking for sharia law. It is more that they are holding up the Islamic end in the "war" that "the crusaders" say that they are now engaged upon. But that confrontation notwithstanding, how is it possible that young men often well educated and concerned with social values, interpret multiple incidents of mass murder and mutilation of non-combatant women and children and men, as God's will?
IS ISLAM A HOMICIDAL RELIGION?
In the light of events dating at least from 9/11/2001, this has become a fair question for non-Moslems to ask? In the final analysis, it is a question that only Moslems can answer - and words alone won't do. It is even more to the point that only Moslems can bring it back from the brink of chaos. The ancient and lethal Moslem cult of the Assassins flourished in the same place and historical period as the crusades. After some two centuries of targeted murder and outrage, they were finally eliminated, not by the Christian powers, but by fellow Moslems, who regarded them as heretics and finally summoned up the resolve to deal with them.
The frequency and geographical spread today of incidents of murder, involving what we are told are devout if secretive, Islamic scholars and students, has now passed the point where other factors: job-opportunities, alienation of transplanted communities, unspecified anger, etc; can account for them. Why is it that the Moslem community worldwide, as distinct from all others, is producing cold-blooded killers, quite able to commit mass murder with apparently random targets, but mostly civilians, men, women, and even children?
It seems also that the Moslem community as a whole seems divided on whether and to what intensity these outrages should be condemned. The declaration of jihad - holy war- seems to be available to anyone who wants to declare their actions as 'covered' in that way. Jihadis hope for respect from their co-religionists even though the interpretations of particular texts on which their actions are based, are those of some vicious narrow bigot in whom common humanity has dried-up.
The concept of being God's warriors obviously sustains the new recruits.
Probably, as impressionable young men, their thoughts are of massive adrenalin-boosted excitement and suspense, culminating in a sudden blackout as their explosives go off in their act of destruction, finally for them to awaken in paradise. The reality, based on the record so far, is those that choose mass murder in the west are far more likely to fail and be captured, with every expectation of a dreadful life for a very long time to follow. They may spend twice or three times their present life span - forty or fifty squalid years - as hardly human, imprisoned 'things,' a focus of hatred in the prisons of the very community they came to injure; subject to anal rape and constant violence and humiliation, incarcerated criminals classified as dangerous to society with no hope of release - unless as men of the age of their grandfathers. Never again will they be able to experience male-female relationships, privacy, parenthood, the luxury of liberty, the fresh clean air, the joys of life.
The concept of 'martyrdom' is invoked by the activists, without it ever becoming clear what the martyrdom was for, how it was defined or what cause was served. Indeed this martyrdom is celebrated. One of the London underground bombers of 7/7, whose body appropriately enough, was vaporised in the explosion he set off, nevertheless had a family funeral service in his ancestral village in Pakistan. Crowds came from neighbouring villages, news reports of the time told us, to pay their respects to this martyr for Islam, whose headstone called him exactly that.
But this 'distinction' had been won because he had murdered and mutilated a carriage-load of inoffensive civilians of mixed race and nationality, on their way to their work. He was subject to no tyranny. His ancestral country was not in dispute with the country of his citizenship in which he committed his crime. His target was not the representatives of the armed forces or the leaders of the country, but a random selection of people for whom he would have had no answer, had they been able to ask him why he was murdering them. His village and neighbours it seems, felt no sense of shame or horror or disgrace on his behalf, merely a sense of loss and seemingly -pride!
Of the religions of which the world has experience, none other has had a death cult like this one, with youngsters celebrating, or even devoting themselves to orgies of killing, in which the victims really are innocents, in many cases not only with no animus against Islam, but from another culture, not even knowing anything about the religion.
Since the targets of choice are the softest ones, involving women, children and unarmed men going about their normal business, the killers seem to have the sole objective of killing or maiming the maximum number of these civilians in ways that will get the most news coverage. It is as though their God seeks the blood of innocents and will check via the media, to see what the harvest of shattered bodies stand at.
Of course, we cannot generalise about the motivation of the individuals who choose this approach to life and the hereafter - history can do the case studies later. But it is the non-religious authorities that seem to have to pick up the pieces - often literally. Given that 'reason' is not a common language here, self-defence calls for intervention - physically restraining or interdicting the adherents who have opted for homicide as the favoured way of making their obscure statement. But how to do that?
Before it even becomes necessary, it seems the essential element to counter the spread of extremism is to seek out hopefully charismatic moderates, those Moslem teachers who can save their religion from religious anarchy. Now impressionable Moslem youth must be saved from the hands of narrow textual scholars consumed by hatred who should be consigned to the oblivion they richly deserve, before this world religion becomes like those ancient Mayan cults, drenched in the blood of sacrificed innocents.
Islam has been hijacked by its militants - those who seek to provoke unbelievers into a final confrontation. Now it needs a great debate within that faith as to who, and with what weight, can meaningfully issue fatwas? Who can declare jihad? Above all, now that we are used to the concept of unworldly fanatics turning the blank minds of youth down the paths of violence, we need to see the good men, the strong characters, those that can see the desperate straits into which their faith has fallen, stand up and bring sanity back to blend with ancient religious observances. Where are the forces of light to convince the impressionable young that the holy texts of their faith do not authorise them to kill - that theirs is not a homicidal religion. Where are these preachers?
Most religions have a lot to account for on both the credit and the debit side, but for much of the world, there has evolved a civilised modus operandi. It is that those who wish to follow religious observances can do so, in ways that do not impinge on those who do not. So for example, many states now have taken the education of children out of the hands of the religious institutions that once enjoyed a monopoly in education. Also funding of the institutions is normally down to their adherents but secular funds do help out in the preservation of cultural treasures. Most even secular societies, revere their wonderful cultural inheritances of religious music, architecture, painting and sculpture, without necessarily subscribing to the dogmas and doctrines of the ancestral faith. It is a matter of personal choice and a glory of democracy that it should be so.
This has progressively come about since the dawn of the age of reason, but the latter-day events of religious terrorism have demonstrated that globalisation has taken us slipping and sliding back down the chutes of faith, rooted in the dubious evidence of supernatural events, with all of the extremist vigour of the dark days of the past.
RETREAT FROM THE AGE OF REASON
Good western history books give the period from the late 16th to the mid- 17th centuries as the beginning of the Age of Reason, roughly co-terminus in England with the reign of Elizabeth I. Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, all of whom illuminated the world of literature. Rembrandt demonstrated that there were other subjects, apart from soppy-faced saints, virgins and plump babies to immortalise in paint. Galileo pushed out the boundaries of scientific understanding of our cosmos, hitherto stultified for centuries, by the scriptural flat-earthers of the church. Descartes demonstrated that the human intellect should ride above banal religious doctrine. The characteristic of the age was that at last mankind was learning and daring to come out of his priest-ridden box. That at long last he was prepared to confront the orthodoxy of past millennia, via the objective approach of the sciences. It was a period whose principal offspring was to become the United States of America.
In the west, it was as though the Church, who through the long dark ages had been the sole fount of knowledge and scholarship and for centuries had terrified with frightful tortures and burning alive, those who sought to challenge its orthodoxy, had now run its course. Whether the challenge was through science or another doctrinal approach to liturgy, the established religion used its power to condemn and kill in the cruellest imaginable ways, those who swam against the authorised tide.
The inference now was that the baton of knowledge had been passed on to the unrestrained human intellect, which would now move it forward. And so it came to pass... or did it?
The problem with all of that, centuries later, is that the recognition around the mid-nineteenth century, that 'The Age of Reason' had arrived, was influenced by the fact that the historians who told us this, were almost entirely eurocentric. As a natural reflex, they simply conflated Europe with the world. It has since taken the subsequent centuries of globalisation, in terms of information, travel, war, trade, scarce resources etc; to bring about the realisation here and now in the 21st century, that a very large part of the world has hardly moved an iota towards reason, or away from its supernatural beliefs.
Specifically this is true of the world of Islam, where politics, in the sense of how lives are lived, is bound up with the texts of the Koran, and Haddith, the later 'teachings' of the prophet, both highly relevant to a desert tribal world of fourteen centuries ago, a world now so obscure as to need and to get an inevitably subjective interpretation, from whatever scholar gives the opinion as to what any particular passage can mean. It should logically be the affair of the adherents of that faith alone and not impinge on other people, but it is not, and it does.
They own a set of beliefs frozen in ancient time, which has incidentally resulted in stasis in the social, scientific, commercial and other forms of development of the more observant Islamic societies, then and now. They do not readily adapt to a changing world
Now one sees the fierce bearded faces of angry islamists - there was a fine display in the Guardian recently from what is now tagged Gazastan. These men are dangerous because they are angry, in this case they had terrified some arab youths sitting in a cyber cafe surfing the web, and they had come to smash the computers, which they did - 24 of them and all because there was no web in the times of the prophet, and these lads should be better employed, they said, praying.
Islamic zealotry recurs surprisingly regularly over the centuries, and this combined with access to oil-based wealth and high-explosive, has tipped large parts of the globe away from reason, or the private celebration of their beliefs, and towards spiritual confusion and the rule of religious upstarts.
These Islamic risorgimentos usually have focused on a Mahdi, a chosen one, largely unknown to a wider world, with the exception of that Mahdi who arose in the Sudan towards the end of the 19th century, (a part of whose story was the death of a British imperial hero, General Gordon). From early times until 9/11, the western world has been little troubled by the fairly frequent historic appearances of yet other prophets. Of course old age eventually takes care of the problem - if they don't perish violently. But whilst inevitably their appeal and actions historically were localised, modern communications have changed all that. The very existence of the modern media has redirected the targets of choice for assassination, to range from leaders at all levels, to death and mutilation of ordinary members of the general public, of all faiths including their own, or of none. The prize simply is that of publicity.
THE CURRENT PROBLEM
Islam is the youngest of the great world religions, which may explain a great deal. Christianity for example, six hundred years older, back when it had reached the same historical age of about a millennium and a half, was deeply rent between factions that were equally fanatical and lethal. Until perhaps only a little more than two centuries ago, it was still deeply intrusive in certain countries and the 'faithful' were still killing people of other Christian factions, for having 'wrong' elements in their belief system.
Islam stems from the same Abrahamic sources as Judaism and Chrisitianity, sharing those 'old testament' scriptures with them. Their interpretation of Christianity is that Jesus, like Moses was a prophet of God, followed later by Mohammed their own prophet, the last and greatest, in their telling. Christianity had already had its formative centuries in the closing period of the Roman empire, from which it emerged as the state religion and was widely established when the prophet Mohammed first preached in Mecca. His teachings concentrated on submission to God, and the correct behaviour of his adherents, lessons which he instructed them to spread, and if necessary impose on the rest of the world, which upon his death they proceeded to do to a large part of it with quite spectacular results.
The theology is simple. There is one god and one only. This god does not have sons. The same commandments given out by the prophet Moses obtain, as in the other two religions of 'the book'. Every devout Moslem can and should communicate with God through prayer five times a day. Certain rules are relevant, like pilgrimage, diet, fasting, etc. After that there are social codes about modes of dress, the place of women, justice, education, all fashioned for a desert and middle-eastern tribal community of the sixth century CE. In his own time Mohammed was a theocratic ruler. After his death there was immediately an upsurge of factionalism, largely based on who amongst his followers should be his successor. This quarrel has never ceased, its principal divisions being between Sunni and Shi'ia. Sunni represents the largest faction and is itself subdivided into various sects and traditional practices.
Partly from the recent exposure into the light of the hitherto static societies that largely make up the world of Islam, the re-weighting of those societies in terms of oil and the rearrangement of a geography made up of producers and consumers, has brought with it the realisation that the world's affairs are not after all essentially governed by rational processes.
A RETURN TO REASON?
Moreover, although in the west scientific endeavour had opened up unparalleled discoveries, and in most of the physical sciences progress has made a quantum leap, there have always remained the 'nay-sayers' whose agenda has been to insist, as each new page of discovery is turned, that this is no more than a part of a grand design from the grandest of all designers.
Only a few years ago, the most respected senior cleric in Saudi Arabia was asked to deliver a fatwa for believers precisely on the vexed question of the flatness, or otherwise, of the earth. The learned gentleman studied every scriptural reference, consulted his colleagues and the leading Koranic scholars of the land and pronounced. The scriptures, he said, were quite unambiguous. The earth assuredly is flat.
But this is Saudi Arabia, from whence came Osama himself and sixteen of the nineteen religiously fanatical hijack suicide-bombers of 9/11. Yet Saudi has also now emerged as the moderate leader of the Arab nations - their plan is perhaps the best hope for peace in Israel. It is the swing-state perhaps in resolving the sectarian war in Iraq, before they all kill each other. Its regional role in Sunni terms, as a counterweight to Shia Iran, is critically important. But above every other geopolitical consideration is that it has the world's most significant oil reserves and production, the very lifeblood of modern economies. Where, one might enquire, given this pot-pourri of characteristics might 'Reason' reside in that context?
At the same time we find that the President of the USA, leader of the free world believes that he is touch with the Almighty and like Moses, receives his instructions directly from Him. Nothing substantial has changed at that level then since James I, who four centuries ago, believed roughly the same thing. [It is worth remembering here that all three of the Abrahamic religions share the account of creation found in Genesis].
It is the case that this same USA, so scientifically advanced that they could put an expedition onto the Moon and recover all their people back to Earth intact, is also in the throes of a slow-burning revolt against education in science, on much the same principles of the Saudi 'flat earth' cleric referred to, in the form of creationism, a powerful reversion to the literalism of the biblical creation myth.
It is reported that there are US schools, where copies of Darwin's "Origin of Species" can be seen if at all, only in brown paper wrapping, and of state and town libraries, which are not allowed to stock them. US TV and radio fundamentalist Christian preachers, are world famous for their ferocity in denunciation and do not hestitate to mix-in to geopolitics. The famous preacher and spiritual advisor to George.W.Bush, Pat Robertson a founder of the Christian Coalition, on the grounds that "it is a whole lot cheaper than starting a war", advised the administration on his live TV show, to literally "assassinate" Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, who is famously hostile to the USA, yet also supplies 13% of their oil. Can this then be how the Age of Reason plays in the USA?
The world's number one public enemy is Osama bin Laden who has stimulated and organised dissident Arab youth, first to fight ungodly communism in Afghanistan, and then to resist ungodly America in the world at large This was and is the level of the casus belli between militant Islam and the west, which has enlarged to jihad to expel foreigners from Arab places, and to overthrow the 'corrupt leaders' now in charge of the Arab nations, equally important goals for the jihadists.
But the world has seen Mahdis rise and fall before and their campaigns peter out. With globalisation this may have changed - there is no experience as to how long this current madness will continue. A major factor will be the extent that the Islamic world itself will deal with this modern-day 'cult of assassins,' as their forefathers did. Until that is done, there can no longer be any assumptions that we have climbed out of the dark void of ignorance, and actually truly achieved the Age of Reason.
Clive Lindley - Publisher