‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction,’ wrote Blaise Pascal. From General Lothar von Trotta’s extermination of the Herero to the Russian purges, the Holocaust and the Kymer Rouge, the twentieth century provided numerous examples of terrible violence and mass killing that did not have an explicitly religious motive, and which sometimes had no religious component at all.
Nevertheless in the last three decades the world has experienced an upsurge of violence that seems, at first sight, to bear out the French philosopher’s thesis, and much of it has been carried out by Muslims acting in the name of Islam. Religiously-inspired violence is by no means uniquely Islamic, nor is such violence the only form of violence in the world, even if it tends to dominate the headlines.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Muslims have been responsible for a succession of merciless and cruel acts of violence across the world. Again and again their actions have disregarded all established laws and customs of war and thousands of years of attempts to distinguish between military targets and non-combatants or other people considered to be innocent, harmless and deserving of immunity or protection.
Their targets have included entire villages and neighborhoods in Algeria, office workers and airline passengers in New York, Iraqi Shia and Sunni, tourists in Mumbai, Kenyan shoppers, and commuters in Madrid and London. In Nigeria Boko Haram murdered 59 boarding school pupils in April because they were receiving ‘Western’ education. Only last month, 28Kenyan bus passengers were shot to death because they could not quote verses from the Koran. In Iraq, Isis has butchered thousands of army prisoners and beheaded unarmed hostages as instruments of media warfare.
Even by the dire standards set by these groups in recent years, last week’s mass murder of 132 school pupils in Peshawar has established a new level of vile and amoral cruelty. The question put by one of the ‘militants’ who carried out this attack to his handler: ‘We have killed all the children in the auditorium. What do we do now?’ is further evidence of the extent to which so many individuals and organizations that subscribe to some form of jihadist ideology have abandoned all moral or ethical constraints to carry out acts of ‘virtuous murder’ in the name of religion.
Of course such acts take place in a wider context. In many cases the jihadist atrocities we hear about are part of a broader continuum of violence and cruelty that is often ignored – until some jihadist atrocity brings it to retrospective light. In Pakistan, for example, the Tehrik-i-Taliban splinter group that claimed responsibility for the attack on the military school has said that it was carried out in retaliation for the Pakistan army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb (‘Strike of the Prophet’s Sword’), which has been going on in North Waziristan since July.
In September the Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations branch claimed that it had killed 910 ‘terrorists’ in these operations. No one can tell how many of these casualties were really ‘terrorists’, but the army’s claims can certainly by taken with a massive dose of salt, given its previous record in Waziristan. Last month an NBC News on-the-ground report found that these operations had displaced at least 700,000 civilians ‘ and left entire towns rubble-strewn and virtually deserted.’
Unlike the attack on the school, these operations received little attention in the international media. So on one level the motive behind the attack on the school was simple vengeance, as well as demonstrating to the Pakistan army and government that the ‘Tangos’, as the army calls the Taliban, have not been defeated. The attack also fits into the ignoble but logical tradition of the ‘soft target’ used by weaker non-state groups against more powerful opponents.
But the FMLN in El Salvador were once subjected to equally destructive and bloody military sweeps and bombardments. They did not respond by murdering the children of their enemies. For the most part they fought the security forces, not compensatory ‘soft targets.’
The Tehrik-i-Taliban and its counterparts elsewhere are clearly operating according to an entirely different moral calculus, and religion has played a key role in this process. We cannot ignore this just because it is inconvenient. We are after all, dealing with a hit-team that posed with their guns in front of a white flag proclaiming ‘ There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is Allah’s messenger’ before going off with the intention of murdering as many children as possible.
They believed that God approved of what they were about to do, no matter what anybody else might say, and they believed that such approval gave them the right to murder who they liked.
Recognizing the role that religion plays in facilitating and legitimizing such atrocities doesn’t mean that we have to accept the essentialist view of Islam propagated by bigots and Islamophobes, who seek to portray such actions as uniquely or intrinsically Islamic. We do not have to believe that such acts are all the result of sexually-frustrated young men eager to get to heaven and have sex with virgins.
Nor do we have to sink to the ‘texts’ argument, which quotes the most bloodthirsty verses from the Koran to argue that all Muslims are somehow obligated to follow them and secretly agree with them. They aren’t and they don’t, any more than Christians are obliged to follow the equally bloodthirsty passages in Numbers or Deuteronomy just because they’re Christians.
Those who argue that Islam has some unique propensity to violence and atrocity in the modern world ignore the Buddhist monks who advocate the extermination of the Rohingya, or Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslim worshippers in a mosque in Hebron. The Argentine dictatorship of the 1970s was run by Christian generals who believed that torturing and murdering students and school pupils was part of some God-sanctioned task of eliminating Marxist ‘subversives’.
These practices were tacitly sanctioned by the Argentinian church and explicitly supported by some clerics, such as the bishop who believed that tossing drugged prisoners into the sea was God’s way of separating the ‘wheat from the chaff.’
The Tehrik-i-Taliban and many other jihadist groups belong to the same tradition. They may have adopted a very primitive form of Islam, like the GIA in Algeria or al-Shabaab or Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Some of these groups may have only the flimsiest understanding of what Islam actually is. Others may have found Imams and ’emirs’ who tell them what they want to hear, who have interpreted the Koran and the Hadith to justify the most vicious acts they feel are necessary.
Nevertheless, all these groups have been able to operate in a moral vacuum that makes them behave, quite often, like Nazis. In portraying themselves as God’s instruments or defenders, they have transformed actions that would normally be morally abhorrent into something sacred – in their eyes at least. They no longer have to take any individual moral responsibility for their actions, having handed such responsibility to God or some pseudo-theologian who can tell them that God approves of what they do.
Because God loves them and they love God, their enemies can easily be transformed in a subhuman ‘Other’ who can be killed without any qualms. In some cases their targets might be ‘kaffirs’, but the primary victims of jihadist/takfiri terrorism have been other Muslims, because killing for God enables you and you alone to decide what a real Muslim is or should be, and of course to murder anyone who doesn’t conform with your/God’s expectations.
Many of these groups also use violence as an essential instrument of social and political control, in propagating their reactionary version of the ideal Islamic society – a pseudo-utopia in which the control and subordination of women has become an ongoing obsession.
Once again, religion allows them to kill teenage girls who seek education, just as it allows them to blow up cinemas, or murder ‘heretical’ Shia or Yazidi or anyone else considered to be un-Islamic or impious. After all, if it’s in God’s cause, then what could be wrong with it?
I am not advocating secularism or atheism as some kind of panacea for this phenomenon. If we are ever to get out of this new age of cruelty, we ought to accept that all religions have a capacity to act as motivators for peace as well as violence, and Islam is no exception.
But we also ought to recognize that when religion is linked to the latter it can, as Pascal suggested, enable its proponents to do evil, and to do it ‘completely and cheerfully’, as Pakistan’s child killers proved so horribly last week.