Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Place of Religion in Peace and War

Last week's Sociology Research Seminar Series slot at the University of Derby addressed itself to the ambivalent role played by religion in modern wars. Given by Paul Weller, Emeritus professor and former head of the Centre for Society, Religion, and Belief, his paper, 'The Politics of Fear: Religions, Conflict, and Diplomacy' wasn't just a survey of how religion is implicated in conflict but was also a consideration of the historic role it has played in overcoming them - and what it can do in the future.

Beginning with the Cold War, as the two great power blocs confronted one another all political and cultural questions were, to greater or lesser extents, overdetermined by the stand off. As such, it asked religion which side it was on. The West was the upholder of individualism, capitalism, and styled itself as irreducibly Christian. The East was collectivist, socialist, and atheistic. Surely it would be an easy decision? From the standpoint of Eastern Europe's Stalinist monoliths, the Catholic Church was eyed with some suspicion (and, as we know from the Polish experience, they were right to be worried). Simultaneously, there were conscious efforts to rally Christianity to the banner of anti-communism. Yet there were resistances on the part of Europe's faith communities to being co-opted either way. For example, the Church of the Czech Brethren offered their own imminent critique of East and West by singling out anti-human tendencies in both systems, while declaring for neither side. There were also serious efforts at Christian/Marxist dialogues spearheaded by a number of Western Communist Parties, and the Conference of European Churches and the Christian Peace Conference worked at cross-bloc communication aiming at de-escalation.

The end of the Cold War led to a new world order, and one in which ideologues rushed in to define the new foe. In his hubristic The End of History and the Last Man, the once-notorious (and now largely forgotten) Francis Fukuyama, capitalism and liberalism were declared triumphant. Communism was gone, fascism long-dead and so we'd reached the end. There is no competitor as our way of the world had proved its superiority over all-comers. In his arrogance, Fukuyama however did note that Islamic fundamentalism presented something of a challenge, but it was one rooted by geography and could not pose as a global alternative to the West. Others were less discerning. Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations clearly located Islam as the West's new Other, a thesis that obviously gained much traction after the September 11th attacks. The establishment attitude to Muslim communities in its midst varied from country to country, but at least in the British and American context officialdom's political and security discourse differentiated between 'good' (moderate) and 'bad' (extremist) Muslims. The latter were positioned as utterly unusual because of their uncompromising religious/political positioning, desire to afflict mass civilian casualties, and utter disregard for their own lives in the commission of terrorist operations.

Moving specifically to IS, for adherents their "caliphate" is the only place it's possible to live properly Islamic lives. In their cod theology, they see themselves as a state actor setting about the work of constructing something new that could attract Muslims from all over. Therefore it and its co-thinkers in Boko Haram have temporal and territorial aims. They want to create a space that removes uncertainty and indeterminacy and forces Muslims to choose between the land of belief and the lands of unbelief. They also look toward eternity in the belief this brings on the end times: in sharpening the confrontation between IS and the West via terror attacks, the more that is being done to bring on the final battle and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

For Paul, the problem the West has is all military action does is feed their theology. Long-term, particularly here, there has to be the creation of alternative religious narratives that prioritise negotiations between Muslims and other faiths, while all the time challenging the apocalypticism underpinning IS and other species of Islamism. For example, the present bete noire of the Turkish government, Fethullah G├╝len argues that rather than opposing a liberal Islam to their fundamentalism, one needs to centre on the critical resources within the belief system and articulate an agenda of critical questioning. IS justify their atrocities according to convenient scriptural authorities, but at the same time it may contain the seeds of their demise.


MikeB said...

"...rather than opposing a liberal Islam to their fundamentalism, one needs to centre on the critical resources within the belief system and articulate an agenda of critical questioning..."

Although I am struggling to understand this distinction - or indeed the sentence - both options seem to imply that religious allegiances are susceptible to rational argument. As if some sort of expert Socratic dialogue will turn a jihadist into a liberal secularist.

Instead, religious allegiance - like secular political allegiance - is surely more influenced by how the environment shapes our unconscious brain and emotional functioning. Religious allegiances flow from this as a result of the wish to ally oneself with with a compatible social group/identity.

And that comes back to the old saw that lived experience determines consciousness; words change hardly anything.

Speedy said...

It is easy to fall into the trap, isn't it, that one cultural group view the world the same way that you do, but I have only once met a Muslim atheist, and he was a refugee because of his atheism. People are not just pretending: to the vast majority I suspect that belief in God is just as self-evident as it was in medieval Christian societies. But if our predecessors had had access to the technology of today, what do you think would have happened? Well, that's what's happening now across the Muslim world and as it interacts with us, and I doubt we have 500 years (albeit that Islam itself is different to Christianity and may never reform along the same lines: the Arab "Renaissance" around the 8/900s was crushed and fundamentalism became a rule that has rarely been broken, except in Turkey) to work it out.

BCFG said...

I guess there is nothing wrong with attempting to ask what is religions place in the world today. The problem comes when it is dripping in the assumption that Western values are not up for criticism and not up for discussion. So this article looks at the problem from the point of view of Western civilisation. So the issue is presented in the context of how does this affect the West, how do the West respond to this etc etc

The big problem with this is that Western values are utterly corrupt, and far more destructive than anything Islam can throw at the world.

I think the left have to confront the utter poverty and venality of Western values before they attempt to tell the natives where they are going wrong.

I would probably go further and say religion is helpless to stop war in a world system that to quote Marx is a war of all against all. The realities of capitalist competition, the endless need to accumulate, the extension of the market, the insatiable need for raw materials to feed the insatiable, unthinking and irresponsible Western consumption can only lead to endless conflict. And the more these destructive values are spread around the globe the war intense the conflict will become and the more stress will be placed on the planet.

I would love to see the left start speaking about the Western masses in the way they speak about the beleaguered, shattered victims of imperialism, or IS adherents as some would call them. Let us start talking about the adherents to mass consumption at any price, including environmental catastrophe, let us talk about these adherents to imperialism who think they can go on consuming the same level of energy endlessly, even though physicists have shown this is not possible as things stand. The only way it would be possible is if the West enjoyed continuing supremacy and that production was mainly carried out for the Western masses.

In order to keep this supremacy and delay the inevitable imperialism murders, thieves and rapes its way around the world and dresses up this supremacist criminality of humanitarian intervention. And sees fit to pontificate about the shortcomings of those who do not share in these spoils!

At the very heart of Western values is a denial of science at a fundamental level, which is the irony of all ironies! Strip away the crap that Western values say’s about itself and you are left with a religion devoid of any compassion.

Speedy said...

Here's an interesting question: what are NOT Western values?

One could say the values of the "Islamic world" are not Western, and compare the two.

But are the Chinese, Russian, South American, Indian values "Western"?

If India, say, were the world's superpower, like the US - or indeed China - would it act differently? If Indonesia or Egypt was, would it?

Were the values of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, "Western"?

As BCFG says, I think it is a mistake to see the world through the prism of our own culture, but would any other culture be any different and what values do we share? Venn diagram time!

BCFG said...

Just to reiterate the point about world energy consumption:

Brian Cox articulated the problem in his “Can we make a star on earth”. It is on you tube for anyone to see. Though his chirpy centrist optimism obviously couldn’t locate the central problem as being one of Western values. This is understandable as it is Western science that has given us the tools to look at these issues.

Here are the facts, the average American uses 11.4kw of energy. The global average is 2.2kw.

Global energy consumption is 13 terawatts.

Brian Cox posed a question, what would it take to give everyone 5kw each (less than half the amount of the average US citizen)? He didn’t bother to ponder whether the US would ever allow that to happen!

This would require 5000 new nuclear reactors, 2% of the worlds land would need wind turbines, 250 sq meters increase of solar cells every second for the next 25 years etc etc etc etc

In other words a massive global effort and a radical change.

Does anyone truly believe that Western values can bring this about? Does anyone truly believe that the motives of the West are anything other than to simply keep this energy inequality as it is? Does anyone seriously believe Western values being spread throughout the globe would be anything other than a catastrophe?

Can anyone deny that Western values continually carry on and ignore the stark scientific realities?