The brutal murder on 22 May of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two young Muslim men has shaken Britain. One of the murderers, blood still on his hands, promptly addressed a cellphone camera held up by a witness to declare: “I apologize that women had to witness this today, but in our land, women have to witness the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. … Tell them to bring your troops back and you can all live in peace”.
As the tattooed hordes of the English Defence League sought to hijack popular disquiet by taking to the streets, it was all too easy to forget how two years ago, when gangs of teenagers rioted and ransacked England’s cities, Britain’s Muslims were models of the virtues the English see as distinctively their own. Muslims took to the streets to protect communities and businesses from the rioters, and when three Muslims were killed in Birmingham, it was the Muslim community, led by the bereaved father of one of the slain, who appealed for calm.
This seems a distant memory now, with too many seeming willing to accept the constant refrain that Islam is an inherently aggressive religion. Some of these will concede, echoing the lazy clichés of the new atheists, there are plenty of peaceful Muslims, but this is only because they’re not doing it right. To their mind, it is hardly surprising that Islam, as Samuel Huntingdon put it in 2000’s The Clash of Civilizations, “has bloody borders.”
Such claims, however, betray an ignorance of Islam symptomatic of that religious illiteracy which Christians so rightly castigate when displayed by atheists, and which the 2012 parliamentary report Clearing the Ground identified as a serious challenge for public discourse in modern Britain.
It would be absurd to deny that the Qur’an is replete with martial passages – notably the eighth and ninth suras – calling for acts of warfare and violence against those who defy Allah. It would, however, be equally absurd to assume that such passages must necessarily be read in so brutally literal a way.
Over the centuries, Muslim scholars have often historicized the more violent parts of the Qur’an, seeing them as primarily relevant to the martial age in which they were composed, and arguing that passages about slavery, the rights of women, and jihad against non-believers represented stages in a process of liberation.
Spiritual and symbolic readings of the Qur’an’s more difficult passages have been even more common, with difficult passages being regarded as models of internal spiritual warfare. Sufi Muslims especially embraced such interpretations over what they saw as the naïve literalism of those who believed the Qur’an advocated real
Radicalism and violent fundamentalism may blight parts of the Muslim world now, but this is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Fundamentalism is an act of violence against tradition, with fundamentalists reading religious texts as modern atheists often do; they read them directly and literally, heedless of history and context, as though their meanings are self-evident.
It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that religious literalism is conspicuously popular among university students of engineering, medicine, and the sciences, where poetic and multi-layered writing is frowned upon and where binary thinking is all too common.
Although fundamentalism is a coping strategy for those who would barricade themselves against the complexities and challenges of modern life, it’s ineffective and sometimes degenerates into a violent fanaticism. This fanaticism draws on models of terrorism as pioneered by the European anarchists of a century ago, nationalist groups such as the Stern Gang and the IRA, and especially Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers. Islamic terrorism, far from being a medieval throwback or something intrinsic to Islam, is a child of globalised modernity.
What’s striking about much modern smugness towards Islam is that it disregards how our Christian and Jewish scriptures can themselves be mined to justify all kinds of violence. The description of Samson’s death in Judges seems tailor-made to justify suicide attacks, after all, while the 1994 slaughter of twenty-nine Muslims in a Hebron mosque by New York-born Baruch Goldstein was explicitly identified as a response to the biblical injunction to make war throughout time on the Amalekites.
Of course, Catholics aren't meant to read the Bible in this fashion; the violent passages of the Old Testament, calling for bloody warfare and even the absolute extermination of Israel’s enemies, have been read from antiquity in a spiritual sense.
Christians such as Origen of Alexandria followed in Jewish footsteps by developing the idea of the four senses of Scripture, drawing on the example of Jesus who taught the disciples on the way to Emmaus how the Jewish scriptures constantly spoke of him.
Biblical passages were understood as having a basic literal meaning, which needed to be understood in light of the literary genre and historical context of the text – history wasn’t the discipline it now is when the Bible was written, such that it’s naïve to treat it as historical in a modern sense – but they could also have as many as three spiritual senses: the moral; the allegorical, which usually points to Jesus; and the anagogical, referring to our eternal destiny.
The effect of such nuanced readings of scripture was such that over the course of the Middle Ages scholars and theologians developed humane doctrines limiting the legitimate grounds for wars and controlling to some degree the way wars were fought, especially with an eye to how non-combatants should be respected. Unfortunately, these gains were cast aside following the invention of printing as widespread access to the Bible for those unfamiliar with nuanced ways of reading it ushered in one of the most violent ages Europe has ever known.
During the wars of religion, it was all too easy to justify the extermination of one’s foes on the basis that they were the Amalekites of the day; the butchery of women and children could easily be justified on the simple basis that “nits breed lice”.
The Biblical conquest narratives cast a long shadow. In his second inaugural address, for example, Thomas Jefferson explicitly appealed to God as having led his people to a promised land. Ideas such as these naturally led to the subsequent Manifest Destiny theory that America had been given to the European settlers, and that those already there could legitimately be swept away.
Such readings abuse the Bible, which should be read within the Church in light of reason and traditional understandings. Crude literal readings are alien to Catholicism and relatively rare among other Christians; we should refrain from assuming that our Muslim brothers and sisters are incapable of similarly avoiding a brutal and dangerous fundamentalism.
-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 20 June 2013.