Pope in Egypt 2017: The tangled roots of violence in the history of religion27 April 2017 | by Damian Howard As Pope Francis prepares to meet Muslim leaders in Cairo, a leading scholar of interfaith relations looks at the complex relationship between religion and conflict
Adrian Elms. Khalid Masood. A violent man who became a violent Muslim. Someone who once spurned both Islamic radicalism and the far Right, yet spent the last seconds of his life killing innocent strangers. He used no hijacked aircraft, no explosives, no guns, just a car driven along a pavement. There was no cry of Allahu akbar, no pre-mortem video; even the traces of his involvement in extremism took weeks to uncover. Until recently, the evidence was circumstantial that his rage was religious: he was a Muslim; he copied a method of slaughter commended by Islamic State; and did so in a place of symbolic significance.
Masood’s singular atrocity has provoked another round of the tirade about religion and violence which has been ongoing since the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York on 11 September 2001. Then, a caustic Richard Dawkins issued a diagnosis notable nowadays only for its fatuousness: “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns.” Causal analysis ideally should aspire to precision; blaming something as generic as “religion” provides no more insight than accusing “transport”. Worse still, Dawkins was not just offering theory: he wanted to influence policy. His avowed solution of eliminating religion was as impractical as it was ethically unthinkable.
It took public opinion a decade to get this out of its system, yet now we appear to be stuck in another, admittedly better rut. This time the issue is the causal relationship between Islam’s founding texts and violence. Is it Islam itself that engenders such savagery or are other factors to blame?
One side of the debate is dominated by Muslims, assorted secular liberals and leftists; its principal aim to absolve Islam of any guilt, its most effective weapon to cry “Islamophobia” whenever difficult questions surface. Writing for the news website, The Intercept, on 29 March, Mehdi Hasan seems to think that an action is only properly religious if religion is the chief intention operative in the agent’s mind. But, he goes on, since there is so much else that drives the extremist – “the role of social networks and family ties; issues of identity and belonging; a sense of persecution; mental illness; socio-economic grievances; moral outrage over conflict and torture; a craving for glory and purpose, action and adventure” – religion is but an inconsequential detail.
The argument has superficial plausibility. Reducing Islamist terror only to an Islamic substrate makes for an impoverished understanding and a lamentable counter-strategy. But no religious action is ever only religious. Religion is like politics; it works by infusing other domains. If, seeing the Queen, you asked “why is that woman waving at the crowd?” any number of reasons could be given – “because she’s friendly”; “it’s her birthday”. But to say that it had nothing to do with the exercise of power would be nonsense. Her gesture is laden with political symbolism.
Similarly, Masood’s attack was a minimalist rendering of a recently patented but innately religious act: the jihadi terror attack. He took a form which once required copious explanation and stripped it down beyond even its bare essentials, a few deft strokes capturing an instantly recognisable figure. It was a ritual enactment, rule-bound and hence intelligible. What he happened to be thinking about at the time almost does not matter. And if the form was religious, so too was the galvanising impulse; it was a religious narrative that grouped all the disparate factors on Hasan’s list into a co-ordinated whole greater than the sum of its parts.
On the other side of the debate is a mixed group of Christians, Jews and atheists who specifically target Islamic texts as the prime cause. Although some seek only to subsume Muslims in an incriminatingly sinister miasma, others, it must be said, are prepared to grapple with the detail. Among them, Douglas Murray, writing in The Spectator on 29 March, is convinced that Masood’s actions are to be explained by his adherence to “an ideology that is very religious indeed in the worst possible way”. Murray has long bemoaned the stubborn refusal of the powers that be, assuaged by bromides describing Islam as “a religion of peace”, to face the genuinely Islamic roots of jihadi violence.
Delve into the source texts, the argument goes. In the Qur’an you find warrant for killing non-Muslims. In the biography of Muhammad (the Sira) you will read of a man who led his followers into a series of bloody battles and massacred hundreds of Jewish tribesmen who had broken faith with him. If the Qur’an is the incontestable word of God and Muhammad beyond any criticism, a sinless object of emulation, Islam must be considered genetically prone to violence.
Again, this textual determinism seems persuasive. But the vast majority of Muslims do not implement the Qur’anic injunction to kill idolaters (sura 9:5). Why? Because the tradition links its meaning to the context in which it came to Muhammad; it is not for general application. Likewise, the practice of jihad, an important Qur’anic component of Islam, is legally regulated by tradition; clear conditions are laid down as to who can declare it and in what circumstances. Needless to say, Khalid Masood’s actions do not meet them.
In other words, understanding a living religious tradition involves much more than perusing its sacred texts. Scripture has to be interpreted, and Islam has pursued sophisticated legal exegesis for centuries, factoring in political and social considerations unforeseen by the ancient text. This rich, classical tradition must be studied before judgment can be passed about any innate inclination to violence. Ironically, Murray and other proponents of sola scriptura make the same move as the extremists: discarding the living tradition to get back to the raw sources.
Problematically, the temper of modern Islam is to underrate its tradition. Islam’s rendezvous with modernity has led to Muslims coming to understand their faith in a far narrower spirit than was the case even a century ago. In a remarkable recent book What is Islam? (Princeton University Press, 2016) Shahab Ahmed puts this down to the marginalisation of the heritage of the Turkish- and Persian-speaking empires with their intellectual daring and vivid spirituality. He laments a bowdlerisation of his faith, forgetful of the poetry of Hafiz, the philosophy of Ibn Sina and the mysticism of Ibn ’Arabi, beholden instead to a narrow jurisprudence, literalism and a denial of the internal diversity, ambiguities, contradictions, even, of Islamic history.
The most destructive outgrowth of this general trend is the phenomenon known as “Islamism”, a tendency in Islamic thought that not only rejects the expansive tradition but instrumentalises the religion itself, twisting and exploiting it for political purposes. Islamists are the ones who, today, believe in imperial jihad and who have declared war on the West. For adherents of the classical tradition, the actions of violent Islamists are an ideological monstrosity, rather like the case of a Catholic who commits adultery but piously declines the use of contraception. The gesture is identifiably a Catholic one, its implementation chaotically incoherent. Likewise, jihadi violence may be recognisably Islamic, but that doesn’t make it legitimately so.
It is fair to say that a consensus is gaining ground that Islamism rather than Islam is to blame for jihadi violence. Even Mehdi Hasan recognises that Masood probably felt justified by “a distorted, simplistic and politicised form of Islam”. But the classical tradition is not entirely without its problems, one of them being that is so complex. Islamic law was originally formulated in empires in which Muslim dynasties ruled over Muslim subjects as well as Christians, Jews and people of other religions, hardly an arrangement comparable to modern societies. With a de facto Muslim ruling elite but no concept of citizenship or rights in the sense we think of them today, non-Muslims were accorded second-class status. Islamic jurisprudence has reflected this context, discriminating against non-Muslims, even displaying an ambivalence towards the inviolability of their lives and forbidding Muslims to leave Islam. Can such a tradition accommodate liberal democracy?
As with other religions, it all depends whom you ask. Those with expertise testify to the tradition’s willingness to embrace political realities, to its reasonableness and flexibility, not to mention an astonishing diversity of opinion. Those of a more ideological mind-set or more limited learning tell a simpler, more rigid story. My guess is that Islam does not need liberal reform, which is, after all, another ideological imposition. It needs what Catholics call ressourcement, an exploration of its intellectual and spiritual heritage so it can fully equip its believers with the wisdom and spirituality they need to navigate the modern world. Is this assured? By no means. But it is easily undermined not only by the outlandish claims of radical Islamists but by non-Muslim commentators, too, when they dogmatically insist that Islam cannot change.
So, is Islam to blame? It is complicated. Muslims themselves are as culpable as anyone else when they commit criminal acts. Ideological Islamists, who have hijacked elements of the religion’s heritage and lay claim to the one, true interpretation of Islam also bear varying degrees of responsibility. Muslims following the classical tradition have to contend with a crisis that has weakened its authority structures; they need support and intellectual renewal, not blame. As for Islam itself, it is an abstraction, not an institution that can be held responsible for what is done in its name. As such, it is nothing like the Catholic Church, which can be held to account for actions carried out even centuries ago.
A good resolution would be to avoid rash generalisations about Islam and Muslims. It is helpful to reach out, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols did in Rome last month, to Muslims of the classical tradition. It is reasonable to ask Muslim scholars difficult questions and to hope that they will go deeper into the traditional thought and practice of their religion. It is unfair to blame ordinary Muslims when they are, unsurprisingly, unequal to such a task and downright foolish to imagine that a blatant Christian campaign would constitute an unambiguous asset to the cause.
If this complex picture still does not satisfy, though, perhaps it is because what is really sought is not the cause of violence but of evil. Is there a hadith so wicked or a resentment so grave as to be commensurate with the obscenity of the murder of innocent victims? If that is what we are looking for, long-term frustration is guaranteed. This side of the eschaton, the mysterium iniquitatis will not be eliminated. It is a chaotic absence, its intrusion on life sporadic and arbitrary. Evil in itself, as Dionysius said, has no cause.
Damian Howard SJ is a lecturer at Heythrop College and vice-director of the Bellarmine Institute.
PICTURE- Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar Mosque and University, at a private meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican last May