ON EASTER SUNDAY a bunch of Islamic State terrorists bombed several Sri Lankan churches and hotels, leaving more than 250 dead and nearly 500 wounded. The terrorist group said the carnage was meant to avenge the March 15 shootings at two New Zealand mosques by an Islamophobic Christian, Brenton Tarrant. Forty-nine people had died in those attacks.
Surprisingly, the Trump administration’s response to these attacks has been muted. No denunciation of “radical Islamic Islamic extremism.” No thunders about rooting out terrorism. It appears that President Trump – unlike his two predecessors in the Oval Office – is considering washing his hands of the “war on terror.” He had hinted doing so earlier. Does it mean he has finally realized the futility of the bloody, gargantuan, global anti-terror enterprise?
The Muslim and Christian terrorists who staged the killings in New Zealand and Sri Lanka echo bygone days when religious violence in both Islamdom and Christendom was not only acceptable, but often laudable.
During my early teens in my three-centuries-old ancestral village, Polashpur, in what is now Bangladesh, one of my aunts used to hold “puthi reading” reading sessions her guest rooms. Puthi in old Bengali means a folk history book, narrating exaggerated or fictionalized stories of history, love affairs, etc. Many villagers believed them to be true.
I attended a session in which aunt Sakina was reading out Jangnama (war history) in Sylheti Nagri script about a battle (I forget which one) between Arab Muslim invaders of a non-Muslim tetorry. A cluster of my other relatives had gathered around her, chewing pan – sliced betel nuts mixed with tobacco and lime and wrapped in betel leaves – and listening with rapt attention.
When Sakina came upon an anecdote about Muslim invaders slaughtering “hundreds of thousands of infidels,” native non-Muslim defenders of the territory, her audience broke into a chorus of applause: “Subhan Allah” (glory to God). My second cousin Mukaddas Ali Tafader sprang to his feet, punched the air with his right fist, roaring: “Fi naari jahannam,” a Quranic phrase meaning, “into the fire of hell.” My relatives obviously viewed the massacre of the “hundreds of thousands” of people defending their homes and families from the Muslim invaders as a virtuous act approved, if not mandated, by Allah. Never mind the Quran teaches Muslims to regard Christianity and Judaism as sister faiths and their practitioners as fellow partisans of the Abrahamic tradition.
But in the late 1950s the mostly illiterate village Muslims in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) thought Jangnama and other accounts of folk Islam were Islamic scripture. Thanks to the spread of education and modernization of Muslim societies, most Muslims today know more about Islamic values and principle and have critical views about folk Islam. During trips through Muslim countries in South Asia and the Middle East I am amazed by everyday Muslims’ discriminating views about and Islamic tenets, culture and tradition. As anthropologist Ernest Gellner pointed out in the 1990s, Islam has now been going through “a major cultural revolution,” barely noticed or acknowledged in the West.
Today the Islamic mainstream no longer approves of religious violence. By the way, Muslim armed struggles against the Israeli apartheid and colonialism in Palestine; Indian occupation of Kashmir; American invasion of Afghanistan; and Muslim monarchies and dictatorships in the Middle East are reactions to foreign subjugation or domestic repression – not religious passion per se. And support for those struggles is widespread among Muslims and many non-Muslims around the world.
Religious zealotry against perceived enemies of Islam is confined to the fringes of some Muslim societies. The IS in the Levant, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya in Somalia, Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and some other Muslim guerrilla groups belong to those fringes.
The history of Christianity, by which I mean Western Christianity, used to be much more violent that those of Islam and other faiths. During the Thirty Years’ War, fought in the seventeenth century between Catholics and Protestants, 25 percent to 40 percent people in German states perished. In Brandenburg, the losses amounted to half its population. Württemberg lost three-quarters. The pogroms, the Inquisition and other flare-ups of violence against the Jews, Christian heretics and “pagans” racked Europe and North America for centuries.
The Crusades were an epic orgy of hair-raising Christian savagery against Muslims and Jews. In July 1099 when the Crusaders stormed into Jerusalem, they wept in joy. Having thanked God for enabling them to enter the holy city, the Crusaders streamed through the streets and alleys of Jerusalem, killing everyone in sight. They beheaded men, rapaciously raped and murdered women, and thrust children’s heads against walls, smashing their skulls. Thomas Asbridge has written that “blood-hungry, ravening packs” of Crusaders plunged in a two-day bacchanalia of random murder, rape and plunder that “left the city awash with blood and littered with corpses.” These Christians’ cruelty to Muslims and Jews was no different from their brutality to Christian heretics inside Europe. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council anathemized all heresy and proclaimed rich rewards in the hereafter for those who would kill heretics, or enslaved them and seized their property.
Most Western Christians today would believe that the Inquisition, the Crusades and the Puritan violence against Quakers and other American Christians were prompted by misinterpretations of the Gospel. (I don’t know, though, about Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo!) Christianity has since gone through a three-fold transformation: the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. These revolutions catalyzed the secularization and modernization of Western societies, fostering religious tolerance and pluralism. Most Western Christians no longer view non-Christian groups through religious lenses, let alone fight them in the name of religion.
For Western Christians the Other now is defined by secular ideologies nationalism, racism and economic creeds, which have triggered warfare and violence on far greater scales than witnessed during the earlier eras of religious violence.
There remain, however, fringe groups such as followers of evangelical preachers, Ku Klux Klan, anti-abortion campaigners, and white supremacist gangs. Racism and anti-immigrant zealotry inform the French National Front, Sweden Democrats, Greek Golden Dawn, Polish Law and Justice, Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Danish People’s Party. Affiliates and supporters of these groups and political parties engage in cross burning, bombing mosques and synagogues, and attacks on non-white individuals and institutions.These days Christian terrorist and extremist groups lurch on the fringes of Western societies, as do their prototypes in the Muslim world.
Violence and bigotry among fringe groups isn’t confined to Muslim and Christian societies, however. It’s as or more prevalent among Israeli Jews, Indian Hindus and Buddhists in Myanmar and other southeast Asian countries. The question is whether these violent fringes of religious communities will eventually evolve and join the mostly peaceable mainstreams of their faiths? Or would their ideologies spread further in their countries? I won’t venture any answers, and social anthropologist are all over the place on these questions. Violence or social disorder must of course be tackled legally and socially, but the problem is we don’t know and often can’t figure out their sources.
Despite its bigots and warmongers, the Trump administration seems to have come to the same conclusions. Their slow-pedaling of the war on terror, slackening of the Afghanistan war and pullout of American troops from Syria are further proofs of this trend.
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.