The English-language media often highlights the links between terrorists (such as the Boston Bombers) and Islam. The implication is that the Islamic faith breeds or encourages terrorists. This, of course, is simply not true. So, what is behind all this?
Not a Jewish conspiracy either
Some people see conspiracies everywhere and many people have pointed out that several media outlets in the so-called “western world” are owned and led by Jews. To these people, the Jews manipulate public opinion by emphasizing content that favors their interests. Personally, I don’t believe in a Muslim conspiracy to dominate the world, just as I don’t believe in a Jewish conspiracy to manipulate public opinion against Islam. Call me naïve.
Unfortunately, there are radicals in every religion. Radicals tend to be filled with hate and try quite hard to contaminate everyone around them with such hate. They use religion (any religion) as an excuse to disseminate hate and acts of violence “in the name of God”. They are behind every “holy war” (what a contradiction in terms!) from pre-historic times to the 21st Century. If there is a basic struggle between Good and Evil, I would say that it is actually about Life and Destruction, or about Love and Hate, cutting across all religions and faiths.
Personally, I don’t like any of the religions I see around me. I like the Dutch 17th Century philosopher Spinoza who basically denied validity to all religious factions, saying that the relationship between any person and God is something very personal and individual; it should not be “regulated” by any other person determining the “right” and the “wrong” way of praying or talking to God.
I don’t need a person in funny clothes telling me what I should believe in. I find it quite absurd that in this day and age priests of any religion still go about telling people what to wear and what not to wear, how to behave and what to think and say. I find it disturbing when some of these priests actually burn books that profess a different religion and incite people to kill people of different faiths.
I don’t consider myself an atheist, as someone who does not believe in the existence of God. The God I believe in, for the record, is not an old bearded man in a robe, condemning people who behave or dress in a certain way. My God is the principle of Life (and of Love as a corollary), not the guy who will help me pass my mid-term exams.
Religion and terrorism
Religions are also community phenomena, they exist as social and political movements. They bring people together not only to adore God(s), but to fulfill a need for identity and of belonging to a community. That, of course, is a major drive for distortions such as. “it’s us against them, but don’t worry because God is on our side!”
This brings us to the links with terrorism. A terrorist, by definition, is someone fighting a personal war against enemies that cannot be vanquished through direct confrontation. The terrorist resorts to killing and hurting innocent people, spreading terror among the enemy population, as a war tactic used because the terrorist is unable to win his/her war using other methods.
Whether the person involved is labeled a “terrorist” or a “hero of the resistance” depends largely on which side is doing the labeling. During WWII the French who sabotaged the German occupying army were labeled as terrorists by the Germans. Since the Allies won that war, today they are hailed as heroes. The “terrorists” are the ones who did the same acts, but were on the losing side of the conflict. History is always told by the winning side.
In the 21st Century there is a global conflict between “the haves” and “the have not’s”. In most countries, “the haves” end up having even more as time goes by, and the “have not’s” have even less. This, of course, is not new. This is the stuff Marx was writing about and that drove the clashes between Capitalism and Communism in the 19th and 20th Century. As it turned out, it appears that Communism as a political system failed, in practice. The issue of inequality, however, persists; and if we don’t resolve it, somehow, we will have other revolutions to deal with, and they may end up making the Russian revolution of 1917 seem tame by comparison.
The world is going global. This is not just about buying McDonald’s burgers when you’re in Malaysia and eating Sushi in Moscow; it’s also about Chechnyan immigrants fleeing Russian dominance in their homeland ending up in America, and American mercenaries fighting in Africa. People are moving around all over the world.
The French Revolution was 99.9% French, as the American Revolution resulting in independence in 1776 was also basically a local phenomenon in terms of geography. You can’t say the same in 2013: the revolutions in the Arab World (Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria) have people from all over the world involved directly and indirectly, fighting in them, spying, providing arms and information, taking advantage of trading opportunities, advising all sides involved or simply discussing them as if they were part of their neighborhood. Everyone’s involved.
Similarly, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement spread to a dozen different countries in a week. What started out as local quickly was replicated in different places and became a multi-national movement of “the 99%” everywhere.
What is driving all these movements is not religion. What drives them is discontent with the status quo, which is perceived as unfair and unchangeable. Against an insurmountable enemy, terrorism is employed as a tactic.
The “enemy” is whoever is perceived as maintaining the status quo. In a world in which the United States is perceived as being the dominant force, whose military budget exceeds the sum of all other military budgets on the planet, the US is also labeled as “the evil force behind all that is unjust in the world”. This labeling is one of the many burdens of Empire.
Every American leader becomes a Darth Vader. The Saudi leaders? “Maintained by the evil American Empire.” Mubarak in Egypt? “A puppet of the Americans.” The governments of Argentina and Chile? “They owe their survival to the Americans.” Central America and Mexico? “They are America’s backyard, financed by American money.” Central Asia? “All dependent on America, except the ones who became American enemies, such as Iran.”
In these scenarios, the “have not’s” look for meaning, like all people from all cultures have always done. Religion becomes a message of hope, of consolation, a crutch or supporting stick to help people continue walking on their journey in an unfair world.
Religions have a way of explaining the situation as being a conflict between “spiritualism” versus “materialism”. We, who are of the same religion, are the “spiritualists”; they, who are different from us, are materialistic and godless creatures, unworthy and evil.
This dichotomy is not only portrayed between East and West; inside the United States it is portrayed as what Nixon described as “culture wars”: the spiritualists are the farmers and small town inhabitants of the Midwest; the evil materialists are “the city folk” who live in the large metropolitan areas and no longer pray to God, they just think of making money 24 by 7.
It’s worth noting that, just before WWII broke out, the Nazis portrayed themselves as the spiritualists with a noble cause; the enemies were the materialistic Jews, Americans, French and English, who “only thought of making money” and who were “all soul-less creatures.”
Islam for spiritualistic revolutionaries
Islamic faith has recently become a receptacle for all those who feel treated unfairly by a materialistic society dominated by money-worshipping “false Christians”. Just as Christianism blossomed 2,000 years ago to provide consolation and hope for those who suffered domination by the Roman Empire, Islam is perceived by many as “THE” religion to provide similar consolation and hope against domination by the American Empire.
The Romans treated the early Christians as radical revolutionaries and fed them to the lions; the Americans treated the Muslims as radical terrorists and sent them to Guantánamo.
Reality, of course, is much more complex than this “black and white description”. It was also much more complex in Roman times.
Christianity was actually a peaceful religion that asked people to “turn the other cheek”. Islam, similarly, was also a peaceful religion professing the love of thy neighbor and even respecting other faiths.
Somewhere along the line of history the peaceful origins of these religions got diverted by radicals who totally perverted them. As a result we had the Protestant Reformation and afterwards a split into numerous sects within Christianity, all fighting bloody battles against each other. The Spanish Inquisition was just one such example of distortion. There were mass murders of people from different faiths also in France and in England. We don’t even have to go back that far in history: just look at the hate that was going on in Ireland until a few years ago. And all this is just among Christians.
Muslims have their own bloody internal struggles, such as the ones between Sunnis and Shiites. These have been going on for centuries; it’s just that before mobile phones and the internet, people in the West were not that much aware of what was going on in the Arab World, and vice-versa. Now that we are practically all interconnected, suddenly these conflicts are shown in your living room; now that we move to live anywhere on the planet, the mosques are not only in Cairo and the cathedrals in Paris: there are temples of every religion everywhere, and people of different faiths live and work in the same environment. Geography is not what it used to be.
The chicken or the egg or the priest?
Having said that Christianity provided hope against the Romans and Islam now provides hope against the Americans, let me stress that it is not religion that breeds radicals, but rather the other way around. Radicals of all faiths need a sense of purpose for themselves and they need religion to manipulate the masses in their favor and to convert skeptics into followers. It’s much easier to find followers if you are speaking “in the name of God”, rather than just for yourself. Radicals of all religions distort God’s message in their own image; there is no better example of “man creating God in his own image”, instead of the other way around.
Some radicals become priests. That’s when you have certain “imams” inciting jihad and certain pastors burning the Koran. Fortunately, they do not represent more than 1% of the congregation. It is the radicals, usually very vocal, and the press, who amplify their eloquence, who distort religions. It is not religion that turned peaceful citizens into terrorists; rather, it is radical individuals who turned to religion as a way of justifying their hatred for others. This is a fundamental distinction that needs to be made.
Terrorists are basically ill and their illness is very destructive: it destroys people around them and it destroys them as well, hence the link to suicide missions and actions that are essentially suicidal.
There is an important parallel to be made with dependent personalities and addiction.
People in general tend to underestimate the emotional and ethical reasons for people’s behavior. That is because it is much more difficult to explain and control behavior in terms of emotions and values. Therefore, people prefer explanations that are “rational” and/or explanations that blame “objective/external” factors for undesired behavior.
We blame alcoholism on alcohol; we blame drug addiction on drugs. Actually, what happens is that some people have “dependent” personalities, or are afflicted with a psychological disorder known as “dependent reaction”. Such people have a tendency to become addicted. They may become addicted to alcohol, to drugs, to religion, to sex, to loving another person. The problem is not the object/subject/person of their addiction; the problem is inside them.
Drug addicts cannot ever be “cured” from their addiction simply by removing access to the substance they are addicted to. They must either be “cured” psychologically through psychotherapy that basically strengthens their ego, their self-esteem, their balance; or (in most cases) the substance of addiction is replaced by something else, which is often religion. Drug addicts become addicted to religion and go out in the world proclaiming that “Jesus Saves” or the equivalent of that in whichever religion they adopt. Certainly religion is usually a much better and socially accepted form of addiction compared to drugs; it is much less harmful to a person’s physical health, in most cases.
Terrorists suffer from a similar affliction. They feel victimized by an unfair world; they feel life has no meaning and that their situation is hopeless. In desperation, they turn to a cause, they seek to find purpose in religion. Islam is sometimes chosen simply because it is a very convenient receptacle for all their frustrations.
They may be frustrated because they want to be billionaires (like in the unfortunate song by Travie Mc Coy and Bruno Mars). Where should they take their frustration? If they go to a WASP church, the pastor will tell them that all they need to do is pray hard and work harder. They will hear a similar answer if they go to a synagogue. These answers formulated by Christian and Jewish priests are not so much about religion as they are about culture. Jewish and WASP cultures are all egalitarian, individualistic and performance-oriented cultures. As such, they have similar work ethics and they all endorse a message that (overly simplified, I concede) says: “do your best, have faith, work hard, and eventually things will be all right and you might become a billionaire someday; just keep working and never give up!”
Now, that message may work just fine for individuals who already shared similar values since childhood. However, if you had different values that you learned as a child, and these values were more hierarchical, rather than egalitarian; collectivistic, rather than individualistic; and caring & quality of life oriented, rather than performance-oriented, (which is the case for 90% of the world’s population, by the way) then you might be more open to a different message.
An Islamic priest might say something different, more like: “my child, forget about being a billionaire; money and riches are not important in this world, and that Bruno Mars song is stupid anyway; focus on God instead and fulfilling His will; don’t look for riches, look for a simple life and be content with it.” To our twisted potential terrorist, this may be more appealing. The underlying message is: “it’s not your responsibility, it is God’s will; you don’t have to work hard, just relax and enjoy a simple life.”
For millions of peaceful people, this is just fine. For a disgruntled individual, one who has been bombarded for years by TV commercials advertising that the most important thing in life is what you have, and not who you are, the message gets distorted in reception. The potential terrorist twists that around and finds justification for his anger: he tells himself that “it is God’s will to destroy materialism and to destroy all those who worship materialism”. In other words, it is not enough for him to renounce materialism; he must act against all those who are still addicted to materialism. The Americans, who have taken consumerism to its highest levels, are a natural target. Plus, “they are responsible for all the unjust distribution of wealth in the world,” right?…
Mind you, the rage this guy feels is not so different from the rage that Moses expressed when he came down from the mountain and found his tribe adoring a golden calf; nor is it different from the rage that Jesus expressed when he expelled the merchants from the temple. The problem is that most Jewish and Christian priests these days have focused their sermons on other aspects, especially in North America and Northern Europe. They are losing their faithful in droves and they fear that if they denounce materialism they will lose the contest they are having against “Big Brother” and “American Idol” for young people’s “share of mind”.
When you compare Islam to Christianity, Islam comes out as much more spiritualistic and less materialistic. Go visit a mosque and a cathedral; the differences are striking. Plus, a devout Muslim should pray at least five times a day, wherever he or she is; a Christian is only required to pray once a week, “in Church, wearing his best Sunday clothes”. Therefore, those who still have hope of “winning” in the material world, stick to Christianism and Judaism; those who have lost all hope of “making it” tend to be drawn towards Islam.
Don’t get hung up on the religion thing
Now, as I’ve said at the beginning, I am not a religious person myself, so please forgive me if I have offended those who are. I have a quite critical opinion of all religions, as I see too many selfish priests in all of them manipulating people to satisfy their own interests, rather than God’s.
My point here is simply to stress that it is wrong to think that Islam breeds terrorists. In many ways, you could argue that Islam is more evolved than Judaism or Christianism. It is the newest of the three, by about 600 years after Christ. The problem is not with Muslims, or Jews, or Christians (or Protestants or Catholics).
The problems we need to face are the growing inequality all over the world and the growing need for a sense of purpose. The combination of these two may result in chaos. We need to address both, focusing on one only is not enough.
We need to develop a new world economic order which will reduce inequalities. That order is probably not going to involve Socialism in its 19th Century connotation, but it will also not involve the reckless Capitalism that we’ve seen throwing the world into crisis in 2008. We need something different, smarter, more balanced and sustainable.
We also need to develop value systems which give people a sense of purpose. Again, this will not involve going back in time for 200 years and turning conservative. Most likely, we need something new and progressive that exalts life and love beyond traditional geographical borders. A new spirituality for the New Millenium, involving cross-border integration.
For further reading, I recommend “Occidentalism” by Ian Buruma; and “On Love: Towards a non-religious spirituality” by Luc Ferry. And, of course, my own book: “Take Off Your Glasses”.
See my book “Take Off Your Glasses” at amazon: