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All religious texts face both ways

This article is over 18 years, 3 months old
Recent liberal commentaries on Islam and violence are shot through with simplifications and double standards, writes Michael Rosen
Issue 1964
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

The bombings (or attempts) of 7 and 21 July seem to have thrown commentators and politicians back yet again to endless ponderings on what it means to be British.

Into this steaming pot are thrown various statements about religion, culture, nationhood and patriotism.

And since these particular terrorists happen to be Muslims, at first glance it would seem completely appropriate to examine the Koran for any possible link to what happened.

But there are problems with this. We can quite reasonably ask the question of why Islam should be probed for its links to terrorism, when Christianity isn’t probed for its links to IRA bombings and Judaism isn’t probed for its links to the Zionist terror of 1946?48 in Palestine? It rather looks as if something selective is going on here.

Now as it happens, ancient religious texts are immensely fertile places to go — if you want to produce arguments about almost anything. In them you can find statements glorifying the smiting down of opponents — alongside others that demand we should all be forgiving, loving and merciful.

You can find laws that give permission for war, holding others in slavery and treating women as the property of men.

Alongside are others that say we should not want what others have, that if we have nothing we should be content, and indeed that the most holy of people are the ones who have absolutely nothing, not even sexual experiences.

It may well be that terrorist groups have been able to find suitable lines from a sacred text to justify bombing a tube station in 2005, a pub in the 1980s or a hotel in the 1940s.

But those lines originate in fights and battles many hundreds of years earlier. And saying that an almighty divine figure, beyond questioning, was backing them no doubt gave them resolve.

To my mind, what’s really in doubt is the degree or amount of relevance of the text in question. This is because religions are much more than their originating sacred texts.

They are the total body of their believers, leaders, interpreters, holy places, pilgrimages, disputes, schisms, wars and economic activities.

When it comes to individuals and small groups who say that they are of this or that religion, the local outlook, way of life and conditions of existence are part of the picture.

In other words, any explanations of these recent London bombings, IRA bombings or the Irgun and Stern gang attacks in 1946-48 are to be found in the mix made up of the conditions of existence, the state of the religion as an institution and, to a limited extent, what’s to be found in the sacred texts.

If all this sounds hopelessly abstract, then something much more concrete was expressed (so it’s said) during the times of African struggles for independence from British, French, Portuguese and Belgian rule. An African says, “First we had the land and they had the Bibles. Now we’ve got the Bibles and they’ve got the land.”

What I love about this is that it’s not an argument with what is or is not in the Bible. It’s not even an argument about the way in which individual Christians on either side may or may not have behaved. It cuts to the chase and points out what has happened to the means by which Africans made their living.

But very suggestively, it points out that something was going on that linked economic power to religion.

Religious conversion is what seemed to be going on, but meanwhile the really important exchange took place — land.

What’s more, it even shows us that those without land or wealth so often “possess” sacred texts and, we might add, “find consolation” in them.

Meanwhile our commentators and leaders offer up hints that there’s a problem with Islam, or that it’s some kind of “enemy within” — while their own religions are fine and without need of any scrutiny.

You would have thought that any comment about terrorists, religion and nationhood would, in the name of balance, include a few observations about the particular religious sect and ideological constituency that Tony Blair’s ally George Bush finds so inspiring.

These people are able to find in Christian texts justification that we are heading towards a day of judgement where all the sinners (non-Christians) will fry, the predestined good (Christian) will go to heaven and that the preconditions for this are that all the Jews will go to Israel, a second messiah will come, and…well, that’s it for humanity.

Now I wouldn’t say that this is why Bush and Blair went to war and killed many, many more than were killed in London on 7 July or in the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001.

But what’s amazing is that so few of our liberal commentators can offer even some kind of even-handedness in their look at what they think are links between religion and mass killings.


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