Sunday, January 9, 2011

The logic of belief and the logic of believers

Both the US and Pakistan have suffered two attempted political assassinations in the same week. One was the act of a lone nut. One was not.

Both were examples of wider patterns, but very different patterns. The act of the lone nut killed more people but not the Congresswoman who was apparently the principal target. The attack on Congresswoman Giffords and her staff was part of patterns of massacres by unstable and alienated individuals that happened, this time, to have had a political target, but that was not its central feature.

The assassin of Saleem Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was member of his security detail who killed him for religious reasons. This is not a new thing in the region: then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also assassinated by two of her bodyguards for religious reasons.

What is very different is the reactions: Sikhs are a minority in India and the Sikh community suffered days of murderous violence, with thousands being killed, in reaction to the murder.

Governor Taseer had been speaking up against the death penalty being imposed on a Christian woman for blasphemy. That is, he was speaking up for the rights of a minority. His murderer is widely seen in Pakistan as a hero. Mainstream Muslim organisations have applauded his treacherous homicide, making a mockery of the “religion of peace” rhetoric. Governor Taseer’s estranged illegitimate son has expressed his anguish (via) at the religious and popular support for his father’s killer:
Already, even before his body is cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan have banned good Muslims from mourning my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals.
I should say too that on Friday every mosque in the country condoned the killer's actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the Chief Minister of Punjab, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.
Even as the murder was being first reported, it was clear that the murdered man was seen as the one really in error:
It seemed too early for analysis, but the [news] presenter's friend looked mildly smug, as if he had been mulling over arguments in his head long before the governor was shot. Although it wasn't required, the presenter egged him on. "But you see these are sensitive matters. He should have watched his words. He shouldn't have spoken so carelessly."
If anyone wanted to see Islam as a pernicious force in world affairs, here is a prime example. Indeed, Awais Aftab, a Pakistani medical student, blogging about the murder and reaction, reaches exactly that conclusion (via):
Fundamentalist Islam has demonstrated such wide-spread consensus and domination that they are now the current representatives of Islam. Liberal Muslims who are reading this will no doubt protest, but the facts are in front of all of us. Liberal Islam has failed. Liberal Islam has no consensus, has no scholars, has no properly worked out theology. It is all just a bunch of individual voices, shouting "No, this isn't Islam."
It is also time that Western thinkers realize that this consensus in the favor of Fundamentalists has taken place. Fundamentalists are no longer in minority; Islam is no longer benign. It has become the current successor in the dynasty of fascists, nazis and communists, and it must be dealt with accordingly. Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.
It turns out, his own mother is disappointed in his refusal to sanction religious murder.
There is a long tradition in Islam of struggles between reformers (who want to go back to the original texts, the original purity) and modernizers (who want to update Islam according to growth in human knowledge and experience). Generally, the reformers win, but never absolutely.

And yet, something else occurred this week: thousands of Egyptian Muslims offered themselves as human shields for Egyptian Copts to celebrate Coptic Christmas in the wake of a murderous bombing on a Coptic Church at New Year that killed 23 people. In my previous post on monotheism, I made the point that
In the end, monotheism only comes in two versions: that which uses the authority of God to protect and succour one’s fellow humans and that which uses the authority of God to strip people of their moral protections. Most believers play both games, they just vary in how intensively and to whom they do it.
The Egyptians offering themselves a human shields were doing the former, it is clear that Islam in Pakistan is largely lost to the latter.

It would be nice to see the actions of thousands of Egyptians as a marker of change. It does point out, yet again, how the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers, given believers have a choice about which logics to follow.

And yet the long-term trends are not good. The New Year Coptic church bombing is just part of a pattern of salafist violence towards Christians in the Middle East. The Middle East is a region with a bad record in the treatment of minorities. Over a century, the Christian proportion of the population of the Middle East has fallen from about 20% to 5%. The first megacide of the C20th was of a Christian minority in a Muslim empire.

Modernisation made things worse, since the notion of equality before the law between believer and non-believers is widely regarded as offensive to Islam: it was part of the lead up to the Armenian genocide. Nationalism was often a way for Christians to support a common political identity that did not make them second-class citizens. Unfortunately, they too often made a Faustian bargain, accepting demonization of Jewish aspirations as part of Arab nationalism: as with such bargains, it turned out that merely made them the next in the queue. (One can reasonably argue that liberal Muslims such as Governor Taseer were another version of the same error: his son tangentially suggests so.) The failure of Arab (or whatever) nationalism to defeat Zionism, establish decent politics or provide economic development just left the way open to the rise of Islamic politics.

The problem here is not Islam per se, it is monotheism conceived as the Absolute Moral Authority of God being used to strip people of moral (and legal) protections. Gays in Africa are under similar pressure from Christian activism. Islam just tends to be more serious and all-embracing about such monotheism while being taken more seriously in such by its adherents.

The problem is particularly intense in Pakistan because it has no unifying identity beyond Islam, so the more “Islamic” one is, the more “Pakistani” one is. Bangladesh, which has an overwhelmingly Bengali identity, is a much more successful polity. Kossovo, full of Muslims who are “cultural Christians”, is a country of genuinely moderate Muslims. Kurdistan in Iraq is a similar success story. But these positive examples are also examples of peoples who know what it is – recently – to be collectively oppressed. That makes a difference too.

It makes a difference because it changes the logics that resonate with people: the logic of believers is not necessarily the logic of belief indeed.

But the logic of Absolute Moral Authority, that is always problematic. For the version of monotheism which uses the authority of God to offer succour to one’s fellow human beings gives them moral authority. In Pakistan, it is losing out to the other version of monotheism, the one that cites the Absolute Moral Authority to strip people of moral and legal protections, a struggle that is very much one within Islam, hence some of the harshest critiques of wahhabbi influence comes from deeply religious Muslims. Alas, the repressive version of monotheism has oil money and a murderous simplicity behind it that offers both absolute conviction and absolute moral superiority. Right down to treacherous murder, engaging in the ultimate betrayal of someone you had sworn to protect, being a noble, religious act.

Nor is the response of Muslim religious organisations to be wondered at. The more God can be used to strip people of moral and legal protections, the more authority clerics and priests have as "gatekeepers of righteousness".

The pathology of Pakistan is not a lone killer, it is the heroic status given to him. It is moral nihilism parading itself as God’s work and being applauded as such. The essence of bigotry is that clothes itself in the robes of morality, of defending moral decency, while subverting the morality at its core. It is the pathology that monotheism is naturally prone to, and the more so the more it is unrestrained by any sense of human frailty, the more one's sense of self is inflated by God's authority. If Pakistan has no identity beyond Islam, then it is naturally inclined to be what Hanif Kureshi’s Uncle Nasser called it a quarter of century ago, a country sodomised by religion: or, as Australian colloquialism would have it, a country buggered by religion.

The question with monotheism is not are people Jews, Christians, Muslims or Zoroastrians. It is whether they seek to use their religion to strip other people of moral and legal protections. In the contemporary world, it is an inclination that Islam displays with particular flagrance and brutality, but does not remotely have any monopoly thereof.

That the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers still leaves us with a basic epistemic question: how do you tell who is whom? Governor Taseer died of that question. It is the difficulty of that question which encourages its own easy responses. Still, we need to at least to know what the correct question is to ask. And that question is: is your God a weapon against your fellow humans or not?

And, if it is, against whom and how much? There are plenty of people who get exorcised by the issue of radical Islam, because they see it as a threat to them. Monotheists attacking queers fails to bother them, however, because it is not a threat to them: they may even endorse it. But it is all the same game, they are then just playing different roles in different versions of it.


  1. The question with monotheism is not are people Jews, Christians, Muslims or Zoroastrians. It is whether they seek to use their religion to strip other people of moral and legal protections.

    Well the Muslims argue that only Islam - which, by definition means an Islamic state - can provide moral and legal protections for all people, Muslim and Infidel alike; though they are not keen on religionists who cannot claim a direct lineage to Abraham.

  2. Also, unfortunately monotheism hardly has a monopoly here. Just off the top off my head in ancient Rome, we had Augustus, Domitian, Julian, and god knows how many others presume they were the ones to speak for the gods and rule on what was moral and immoral, often changing the law to suit their whim, but even more often just dispensing the security forces to stamp out any behavior which offended that particular leader's presumption of moral truth. In fact, I argue, it was precisely this behavior of Roman emperors - and other leaders - which taught the Xians all their bad habits. That is, there is a lot more continuity in Xian moral certainty, fundamentalism, and oppression with their Roman predecessors than there is disjuncture.

  3. Peter: Muslims can argue that all they like, let's look at the record.

    On the pagan Roman Empire, I am sorry, that's nonsense. Yes, there were some persecution of Christians, and of Jews, but they were really small beer compared to what the Christians unleashed once they got hold of the power of the state. Monotheism tends not to play nicely with others.

  4. Excellent post. I agree with you on nearly every point . . . except that some monotheisms look more virulent than others, and there are textual issues that pose more hermeneutic difficulties in some religions than others.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  5. Lorenzo, sorry I'm a bit confused. Are you saying that Roman emperors - such as Augustus, Domitian, and Julian, and let's add Diocletian while we're at it - did not impose their own take on values and moral quite ruthlessly? I'm sorry, but that was a defining feature of Roman imperial rule.

    You say, yes there was some persecution of Xians and Jews, which would seem to confirm my point, but then deny it. Besides, I wasn't even including the Xians and Jews. Central to Roman imperial rule was violently quashing anybody or group who did not fall into line on religious adherence, whether they were monotheists, pagans, or Callathumpians. Nobody denies religious violence in the 4th century. Why would they? They were Romans, just doing what Romans had done since Augustus.

  6. Jeffrey: I suspect we don't actually disagree very much, if we started to get down to cases.

    Peter: Some differences of degree are so different as to constitute new things. The Romans got angsty if you would not show homage to the divine honours granted Emperors. The Jews eventually got the right to pray for, rather than to, the Emperor. But the persecutions of Christians were relatively brief, and relatively minor, compared to the systematic repression of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire and the systematic denigration of Jews by the same. Indeed, once it got into the habit of enforcing orthodoxy, the Christian Roman Empire killed more Christians for their beliefs than the preceding pagan Roman Empire did, as Paula Fredricksen points out.

  7. Yes, I think that we'd largely agree. By the way, my name has an unusual spelling that seems to trip everybody up.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  8. Jeffery: Oops! I stand corrected :)

    Peter: That should have said "persecuted more" though, by the time you get to the monophysite and iconclastic debates, I am sure the corpse pile would have been higher.

  9. Lorenzo, while that might be so, my point is that it cannot be explained by this opaque "monotheism". You say

    it is monotheism conceived as the Absolute Moral Authority of God being used to strip people of moral (and legal) protections

    The first thing here is to change from the passive voice to the active voice; "monotheism" has no political or historical agency. Reifying "monotheism" - or indeed any ideology - obscures what is really going on.

    In the context of early Xianity, the violence and killings were an expression of the Absolute Political Authority of the emperor quashing political opposition and perceived sources of civil strife. And my main point is that even in the 4th century this violence was precisely the same which Roman emperors, consuls, tribunes, and governors had been using since at least the 2nd century BC.

    The change was that the traditional Roman religion had long ceased to be a potent ideological superstructure in the empire. With Augustus subsuming the role of potifex maximus with the role of emperor, the emperor became deified, and any breach of religious laws - of which Rome had tonnes - which could also be seen as a slight on the authority of the emperor was ruthlessly quashed. Conversely, political threats were given a religious twist. YES, the justifying rhetoric was often religious, but the motivation was invariably political.

    The defining character of 4th century oppressive violence and legislation was not monotheism but Roman.

    Remember, Xianity was not sui generis. It was incredibly Roman, which was why it emerged victorious among all the god knows how many religious competitors, which emerged following the establishment of the imperial cult.

  10. Peter: It is correct that people have to act on beliefs for them to have effect. But the point remains that monotheism decrees other gods fundamentally illegitimate in a way polytheism simply doesn't. Yes, the Roman state brooked no resistance to its authority. Yes, the Dominate was much more controlling than the Principate. But the adoption of a monotheism as the official religion, a monotheism which decreed worship of all other gods as anathema, resulted in a level of religious control (and then intellectual control) which was beyond anything that had occurred before.

    (It is a bit like the change from Tsarism to Sovietism: yes, you can see precursors but the new change is still revolutionary in its massively increased control.)

    We can see this same dynamic as occurred with the Christianisation of the Empire being played out in Jewish history (all that casting down of idols in the Old Testament, the model the Christians cited and applied) and later in Muslim history.

    Zoroastrianism never quite got the full deal, though it did play out the sex-and-gender politics typical of monotheism.

    Ideas do have consequences.

  11. Peter: this post, with its comment on very different cultural perspectives in East Asia, provides a useful example of how lack of monotheism makes a difference.