Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Violence and Recent Events here in Canada

Like most Canadians, I was moved, transfixed and altered to some degree by the events in Ottawa.  I was affected too by the death of Patrice Vincent in Québec, but in that case it was the historian who reacted, alas, not my affective human self.  But that death was what did get me thinking about violence and the nature of war and the relationship of religion to violent acts.  These were inchoate thoughts, mulled over in spare moments until the attack in Ottawa.

I wondered at first if these two were the actions of random mentally unstable individuals, but that seemed unlikely, given their personal histories and recent conversions to that perversion of Islam personified presently in ISIS/ISIL. As much as commentators as diverse as a neighbour and the radio host John Moore, or those wild individuals who post anonymously on the net might like to assign these actions to random violence perpetrated by individuals with no meaning beyond that, I cannot agree.

At this point in my ongoing internal analysis I have some tentative conclusions, and I stress they are carefully tentative.

First:  there is enough evidence to understand that a certain type of individual, citizens of this country,  is attracted to the ideology of radical Islam.  They are particularly attracted to ISIS/ISIL because of that groups skilful use of social media, in videos particularly. From sketchy media reports, these individuals, who come from English-speaking western countries (though they may also come from other western countries; I simply do not know this one way or the other), are usually young males. Most of them seem to be the sort of young male who has been in trouble in petty ways with the law - drugs, assaults, small crimes, regardless of their upbringing.  But another group are reported as being stable, friendly, popular and 'ordinary' individuals who changed fairly rapidly.  But virtually all of them are young men.

Second:  Even where the label, 'mentally unbalanced' can justifiably be applied as perhaps in the two recent incidents, their unbalanced violent rage was pointed at targets symbolic of western civilization in a deliberate fashion by social media produced by ISIS/ISIL.  These individuals may well have killed, but they would have lashed out at some other target that offended their mental states, rather than the military and parliament.

At this moment in time, I rate arguments that this violence is fundamentally random as specious.  As I wrote on my Facebook page this is a new sort of warfare, that uses social media to inspire unpredictable violent acts that in former circumstances would have been unreachable by combatants half a world away from us.

We have here two conflicting ideals of human civilization.  On the one hand the form developed over the past thousand years or so in what is loosely called 'the West'. Historians happily debate the roots, but Christian ideals of the intrinsic worth of each individual are part of that mix.  This idealization of the individual person grew slowly over a thousand or more years, given large boosts in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the gradual expansion of democracy, and the wild explosion of individualism that is the marque of the present day. It is a messy civilization, where corporate interests of businesses, governments, schools and so on conflict and swirl around with individual desires for expression, all loosely held together in a constantly evolving ferment. Part of this ferment is religion - in this case, religion adopted by and more importantly, adapted by, individual desires. In this bubbling cauldron, we have individuals choosing to change their religion, reject religion entirely, accept wholly the traditional beliefs of one faith, or choose which bits and pieces to accept or reject.  An observer from far above would see a unity of individualism held together by social chewing gum and tape, but constantly disassembled and reassembled.

Opposed to this, is an ideal for human civilization that demands a unity of faith, of purpose, of political organization.  This is an old ideal.  'Western' civilization observed it when that concept called 'Christendom' still prevailed.  Islam observed it when there was a single Caliphate in the first centuries of that religion.  The ideal of a holistic society composed of believers who integrated civil and religious under a single successor of the Prophet ('Caliph' being the anglicized word for 'kalifah' or 'successor') or Caliph.  This was a unitary idea for society, where others were tolerated only where they stayed to themselves and paid special taxes, and was tolerant in that situation.  This new 'caliphate' self-declared, has perverted this original idea and sets about killing those who do not adhere to its dictates. Mercy was a central teaching of Muhammed, and these 'successors' have decided to abandon his central teachings in this regard.

I doubt these two ideals for civilization can exist together in the same space.  They can of course, tolerate each other so long as they live in separate geographical locations and restrain attempts to convert one another to their ideals.  But the world is never so neatly organized and separated.  Few people in the broader Islamic world wish for the sort of place promulgated by ISIS/ISIL or the Taliban when they controlled Afghanistan. They may well prefer a more corporate and holistic society than obtains in our very untidy 'western' world, but they do not at all like the harsh nonsense of the radicals.  We in the 'western' world often pine for a more holistic and unitary world, often imagined as existing in some past golden age.

What then, does this have to say about the relationship of religion to violence?  It says that violence is not intrinsic to religion, but a tool sometimes used for the promotion of an ideology.  If Christianity is one of the roots of 'western' society's veneration of the individual, then violence is and has been used to promote an individualistic view of the proper ordering of human affairs, that arose in a Christian incubator.   If Islam is a religion that is one of the roots of the ideal of a unitary society, then violence has also been the tool of that view.  At this point in history, ISIS/ISIL is using violence in a very direct fashion to recreate the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq.   I suspect the long term goal is to conquer Saudi Arabia and controll thereby Mecca and Medina and truly recreate the ancient Caliphate. They quite rightly see the 'western' world with its Christian roots in individualism as the enemy and chief threat and impediment to their goals.  They don't, I think, really care about directly attacking within 'western' countries like Canada, but are concerned to  create a little disruption here by influencing the sorts of young men I mentioned above, in aid of their ultimate cause.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thoughts on this War

I watched the opening of parliament on TV today here in Canada.  I witnessed a rare unity of parliament, where partisan differences were put to one side.  The Prime Minister did not give a Churchillian speech.  Rather he spoke in the manner ordinary Canadians would express themselves. He spoke from the heart as a Canadian and as a parliamentarian. After his words, greeted with applause by all Members, he rose and walked to shake the hand of the Sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers in thanks and then handshakes and hugs with Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Thomas Mulcair the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in Canada and leader of the New Democratic Party.  These actions, as far as I could tell from the body language were genuine on the part of both Prime Minister and his opponents. Parliament on this day rose to its height as the chief organ of democracy in this country. We all owe to the unflappability of Kevin Vickers the fact that our democracy functioned today. From reports of his character, Mr. Vickers is a kind and gentle man with a grave demeanour, but one of those individuals who does what needs to be done, who rises to whatever the occasion demands. Thank God for that.

We are in a war now.  I am convinced of that. They say that armies are always preparing for the last war.  Yesterday in Ottawa and a few days ago in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu in Québec we saw the new face of war.  Yes, traditional bloody battles on land, sea and air will continue.  But this new face of war happens at home and in attacks from individuals or small groups who are not connected by lines of command, but through propaganda found on the internet.  This war is not a war of countries making formal declarations and putting their armed forces into the field until one side or all sides win or lose.  

This war is a war of two ways of life.  On our part, we wish for a world where people can live with friends and family  and work and play in proper measure.  On the other part, is a world of harsh dogma, where rules are set and all must live by those strict rules or die. Some here think that by bowing out of direct combat we are isolated from this.  We are not.  The ideologues hate us and will kill us when they can even if we buried all our weapons, along with our heads, in the sand.  This is not a war of religion. I teach the history of religions at the university level and know how rare purely religious wars have been, and have a good understanding of the role that religion sometimes does play in warfare.  But this is not a war of Christianity vs. Islam, or the secular West vs. the religious Islamic world.  It is a war of us - those who are atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druids - whatever your belief, who believe that living in peace with family and friends is a higher good than strict adherence to one set of rules for existence - a war of us against those who want to enforce their view of life onto the world through violence and terror.  In the Middle East where a traditional war is raging, the ISIS or ISIL group is battling both Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians and soon Jews.  They are a polyglot group of haters who battle ethnic groups that do not share their hideous ideology. 

Our role here in Canada is to do as parliament did so magnificently today, to continue on loving our families and friends, and working at our tasks and enjoying our play, and eschewing hate.  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

After Atheism

Recently I listened carefully to a series of podcasts taken from CBC Radio's Ideas broadcast.  I think it was originally produced in 2012, but the podcasts came to my attention only recently.  I selected one of these for students of two of my history of religion online courses, one at the University of Guelph and the other at the related institution, the University of Guelph/Humber.

I presented the third podcast because it deals with the very nature of religion, of society and of the relationship between the two.  The producer, David Cayley interviews William Cavanaugh a theologian at DePaul University in Chicago. The interview centres around two books of his, one called The Migrations of the Holy (2011), and the other, The Myth of Religious Violence (2009). Generally (and this is a very general statement!), Cavanaugh advances the idea that the new nation-state became and usurped the object of worship from faith in the early modern era.  He thinks that 'religion' became both a tool of the new form called the nation-state and a scapegoat for violence from which the State claimed to protect citizens.  In reality this was a cover for violence which as is usual in history was a product of greed, honour, the desire for expansion and so on.  Later, the state began to find religion less useful and privatization occurred.

I am not sure yet what to think of his ideas, except of course, most wars were not primarily religious, though sometimes religion was a factor or used by those promoting war, and only rarely was religion a prime factor. This is a reasonable stance for any serious student of history to take.  Cavanaugh is farther out on a limb when he discusses the role of religion today - citing examples such as the Papacy's opposition to war in Iraq. He sees 'religion' as having a role in a faith an a political sense.

I need to think a lot more about this before coming even to preliminary ideas.