Woolwich and What Politicians Think Religion Is

Contrary to what the Woolwich murderer infamously said to the camera, Boris Johnson suggested that “it is completely wrong to blame this killing on the religion of Islam and it is also equally wrong to link this murder to the actions of British foreign policy.” Others placed the emphasis elsewhere. David Cameron called the murder “a betrayal of Islam…There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.” Tommy Robinson (formerly of EDL fame) claimed, however, that “This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today… Our next generation are being taught through schools that Islam is a religion of peace. It’s not. It never has been. What you saw today is Islam.

These sorts of views are typical of popular views relating to Islam, religion and violence over the past decade. But if we want to understand motivations and causes, they are also of minimal, if any, use. To argue who has the “true” and “false” insight into what religion or Islam is also, presumably unintentionally, to argue using the insider language of the religious believer. If we want to analyse the causes of September 11, July 7, or the murder on the streets of Woolwich, it is not as if we can boil down Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or whatever religion or ideology, to a pure essence that is ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’. Violence and peace are to be found throughout the history of Islam (or Christianity, Judaism, and so on) in different contexts and different times. This should be no great surprise for the simple reason of the complexity of societies and historical change.

This much should be obvious. Yet it is clear that statements about “true” and “false” religion are regularly invoked, not least by political leaders. But such statements can be useful if we want to understand something about the ideological assumptions of the speaker. Typically, the distinction between “true” and “false” Islam is generally code for compatibility (true) or incompatibility (false) with liberal democracy. But this too is problematic and we can see why when we look at one of the most high profile users of the language of “true” and “false” Islam/Christianity/religion: Tony Blair.

From September 11 onward, Blair’s use of this true-false binary became increasingly pronounced. In his speech to Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, Blair argued that one of the “two begetters of chaos” is “extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam” (the other was “tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction”). According to his political autobiography, Blair understood the “war on terror” to be an ideological battle: “the mores and modus vivendi of religious fanaticism versus those of an enlightened, secular system of government that in the West, at least, incorporated belief in liberty, equality and democracy.” Whether this was a fair assessment or not, it is a binary that sums up Blair’s view of “true” and “false” religion. Describing what he assumed to be the pure origins of Islam, Blair uses particularly modern terms such as “tolerant” and “progressive”. However, he also argues that Islam has since become tainted and that these extremists see the West as invaders of Muslim countries whereas “probably the majority” of Muslims “wish to be in alliance with the West against terrorism.” Clearly, then, “true” and “false” Islam is judged on its compatibility with a Blairite view of the world. With this in mind, is it just coincidence that Blair’s view of a purer original Islam legitimately invaded a dictatorship in a certain part of the Middle East? For Blair claimed that “as Islam expanded far beyond Mecca and Medina, it was often looked upon as a liberator, even by some of the Christian communities such as the Nestorians in Iraq”.

The rhetorical use of what Christianity truly “is” can be seen in a similar way. For instance, in a speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, David Cameron claimed that Britain is a Christian nation. This does not mean, of course, that Britain is a Christian nation in the sense we should all go to church, sing hymns, pray to God, fast, deal with heretics appropriately, convert non-believers, or anything else that the less pious might find worrying. Rather, Cameron’s Christian nation with the King James Bible at its heart is curiously close to liberal democracy and with anything incompatible removed. According to Cameron, the Bible and our Christian heritage have provided everything from “human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy”, as well as “the first forms of welfare provision”. They also apparently provide “the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom” and “the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women.” And just for good measure, these are values that speak to us all, “to people of every faith and none”. This anachronistic definition could, of course, equally be a secular definition given of the modern nation state. Put another way, it is unlikely that Cameron  would have included discussion of the book of Joshua, the Psalmist’s interest in smashing babies heads against rocks, Jesus labeling Gentiles ‘dogs’, condemning the rich to Hades, destroying idols, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or indeed using the King James Bible itself to convert heathens. “True” Christianity is presumably does not involve endorsement of these sorts of things.

Blair and Cameron believe that religion (or “true” religion) is a mysterious force for the liberal democratic good. The flip side of this might be represented by Richard Dawkins who believes that religion is a mysterious malevolent force, not only in relation to liberal democracy but human history more generally. Four days after September 11, Dawkins gave “religion” as his primary explanation for the attacks on the Twin Towers and as “the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.” While certain views of Islam obviously played a role in September 11 and continue to do so in the Middle East and North Africa, it is not so easy to cite “religion” as effectively the only factor. For a start, what, precisely, is this “religion thing” that causes all sorts of violence? Why have plenty of other Muslims not engaged in violence? Why was this not so much of a widespread problem (say) 50 years ago? And what do we make of Muslims who still do not foreground their religious identity? We might also list some of the standard reasons given for the rise of what is commonly labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” which include: the void created by the decline of secular nationalism in North Africa and the Middle East; American involvement in Saudi Arabia (the homeland of the majority of the September 11 killers); exposure to Wahhabism; sanctions on Iraq; Palestine; the petro-crash; the rise of slums and population growth; and the support given to various dictators. Boiling down what has happened in the Middle East and September 11 to “religion” does not remotely do justice to the complexity of the situation.

We will no doubt hear more about the complex range of reasons behind the Woolwich murder and no doubt we should accept that ideological motivations played an important part. But if or when we hear politicians or analysts use the language of “true” or “false” religion or claim that “religion” causes violence or that “religion” is really all about peace, then know that such statements are not such obvious truisms as speakers and writers would have us believe as they mask much more than they reveal. We will not begin to understand violence, including violence done in association with understandings of what religion is, if we insist that this or that manifestation is “true”, “false”, or that what we call “religion” is the only real cause.

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One response to “Woolwich and What Politicians Think Religion Is

  1. Pingback: Bible and Politics Posts from Sheffield Biblical Studies | Harnessing Chaos

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