A Deadly Mix of Tribalism and Religion

bustedTwenty-first-century terrorism forces us to ask questions about the resentments, dissonant thinking and religious cultural alienations that are active deep within our society. Painful as the questions may be, the murderous, cowardly and random violence witnessed in London on May 22, 2013, to name one instance, compels us to lift the stone to confront whatever has been living and breeding beneath it. It is not a comfortable experience even to admit to their existence, let alone confront the ideological demons behind the smile and apparent normality of the lad next door. However, the phenomenon of the ideologically motivated, covert activist, and his alienation, is not exclusively modern. The early Christian past has something to say about how we name and treat such a thing, although the circumstances in which Christianity was born could not be more different from those of Islam.

In the religious and cultural world of imperial Rome, Christians had every reason to feel like outsiders and suffered state persecution for some 250 years. They were demonised and persecuted by the state as alien subversives, enemies even of the human race. Roman society emptied its own psychological garbage on them, in much the same way that threatened power structures need moral scapegoats when their own certainties seem to be tottering. No wonder that some young Christians from time to time vandalised the shrines of the Roman gods by way of protest. However, these zealous religious vandals were never considered heroes. The early Christians’ most admired figure was the martyr (a Greek word meaning witness), not the zealot.

The early Christian martyr bears no resemblance to the jihadist. The genuine martyr never sought martyrdom. The early Christian world, like the Jewish tradition before it, saw the martyrs as those who surrendered their life, even for the conversion of their enemies, once they had been apprehended for their faith. The Judeo-Christian martyr is not violent. Like Christ himself, the martyr of martyrs, they are God’s witnesses precisely because they are victims.

This view of the martyr suffered aberrations in Christianity during the age of the Crusades. Crusade ideology was almost identical to jihad, as the warrior who was killed fighting for the faith was supposedly guaranteed admission to heaven. The passing of time showed that this was an aberration in Christianity. In the Tradition, war is always an evil, even if necessary for self-defence. Jihad has also had its critics and interpreters in Islam. For the Sufis it was to be understood to signify the interior, moral warfare to be undertaken by all believers, not as “holy war”. The suicide bomber and the Islamic fundamentalist are a world away from the Sufi sages. The Sufi movement is also a later development in Islam, owing much to Middle Eastern Christianity. It is a minor player in the global Islamic world.

In these times, when Muslim extremists target Christians, Jews and Westerners, and the suicide bomber is called a martyr, it might be helpful to recall the decisions of the Council of Elvira (305 AD) which dealt with those young Christian hotheads who were engaged in vandalistic acts against pagan shrines and idols, although they were more like the modern street graffitist than the suicide bomber. Canon 60 of that ancient Church Council declared:

If anyone breaking idols is killed in the process, since this [kind of act] is not written in the Gospel and would never be found occurring in the time of the Apostles, he is not to be called or received into the ranks of the martyrs.

Maybe Islam needs something like Canon 60 of the Council of Elvira, or something a good deal stronger.

All people of good will hope that we are not witnessing a clash of civilisations. However, while there may be no clash of civilisations occurring, the social and cultural worlds involved are very different. Both Islam and the West have serious questions to ask of themselves. Islam needs to ask itself about the meaning of the fundamentalism within its spiritual world, while the modern West needs to ask itself about the moral life and development of its citizens. Neither examination will be easy. Honesty never is.

If they have the moral courage and the mental acuity to attempt self-questioning, there are five basic rules or principles to be applied. The first is the realisation that the turbulent feelings and passions stirred up by the memory of many historical encounters between the Islamic and the Christian worlds warn us that You can’t argue with emotions. This is rule one for the peace-seeker. Don’t even try to argue with emotions. The second rule is Think before you speak, and the third rule resembles the second: Get a grip on the facts. The fourth rule is Don’t be afraid of the truth that the facts bring to light, no matter how uncomfortable the experience may prove to be. Only the truth can dislodge the prejudices and poisoned feelings that you may have been nursing over a lifetime. Only the truth, however painful it might be, can overcome the irrational, tribal emotions stirred up by religious and ethnic controversy. No truer word was ever spoken than that attributed to Jesus, that “the truth will set you free”.

Exposed to the truth, we discover that the furious emotions were fuelled by historical falsehoods all along. These self-protecting myths about our politico-religious past are understandable, but also extremely dangerous. We must note well and underline the fact that violent emotions, triggered by religious controversy, are created by historic falsifications which are sustained by the received, faulty memory of later generations. Now we come to rule five for the peace-seeker. Rule five was formulated by St John XXIII, of blessed memory, but the holiest of Muslim scholars would not disagree with him when facing up to the dark pages in our mutual histories. Rule five cautions us not to waste our time or, worse still, compromise our honesty. Rule five is Don’t try to defend the indefensible.

We now come to the deadly conjunction that lies behind so much human violence and hatred. It is the mixture of tribalism and religion. Wars may, in theory, be waged by nation-states, but the actual conflicts tend to be based on tribal divides going back centuries. It is only the universalism of the Catholic Church’s tradition that has gone anywhere near to transcending tribalism in any sustained way.

But the examples of the connection of tribe and religion abound. The tensions of Northern Ireland may have ostensibly been fought along religious lines, but the fact that the war was itself deeply un-Christian can be plausibly explained with reference to long-standing tribal tensions between Celts and Anglo-Saxons. The decades-long battle between Israelis and Palestinians is explicitly concerned with the claims of the tribes of Israel. Many of the current conflicts in Africa, such as those in Sudan and Nigeria, pit Christian tribes against Muslim tribes. The destruction of the Middle East is in part being impelled by tensions between the Persian-Shia and Arab-Sunni tribes within Islam.

We must turn to this deadly mix of tribalism and religion in order to develop an understanding of militant Islam, which is becoming increasingly disturbing in our civic life. Unlike Catholic Christianity, which has a centrally defined and consistent theology, Islam cannot be discussed in monolithic terms. There is not a single “Islam” to discuss: individual Muslims are allowed to arrive at many of their own spiritual and political understandings provided they observe basic practices. The Koran can be interpreted as a spur to militant action or to fostering peace, and there is no consistent history defining the relationship between the religion and the state. (As a theocracy Iran is something of an exception.)

Muslims are justified in complaining about being the subject of generalisations. They are equally justified in complaining that acts of violence committed by Muslims are easily attributed to Islam, while acts of violence committed by people of a Christian background tend to be blamed on the individuals. Such prejudice is as unacceptable as any other. However, what can be criticised is the intrusion and imposition of Islamic tribalism into Western society and culture. And again, the problem is not Islam itself. The intrusion of religious tribalism (of any kind) into the functioning of the nation-state represents an existential threat to that state. It is why in Australia such efforts were made to reduce the effect of Irish Catholic and Anglo-Saxon religious tribal antagonism, and with reasonable success.

The case of Nayef El Sayed, who at his court appearance for the planned attack on Holsworthy Barracks refused to stand before the magistrate, saying that he “stands only for God”, is an example of the fundamental mismatch encountered when a tribal religious belief conflicts with the principles and practices supporting the modern democratic nation-state, such as contemporary Australia. He unwittingly exhibited one of the fundamental marks of the terrorist-tribal mind. The problem for Nayef El Sayed, and certainly for proved terrorists, is that they locate God in an abstract heaven and not in the depths of the human being. Take the divine presence out of the human being and you can do what you like to them. The so-called “infidel” has no value before God. I don’t know if Islam has a belief in the in-dwelling presence of God in the human being. I hope so, but Christianity, for all its sins and faults, certainly does. Not only should we reverence the person of the magistrate as a fellow human being, but we should also stand as they come into court because they represent the law protecting human society and those same precious human beings that God loves. The modern secularist reading this may believe that we have gone too far in asserting the in-dwelling presence of God in the human being, but it is precisely this basic Judeo-Christian conviction that has morphed into the more secular concept of basic human rights.

Sadly for Islam it has been disgraced in the public mind by the actions and assertions of those self-proclaimed “soldiers of Allah” responsible for the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and more alarmingly by Michael Adebolajo’s animalistic slaughtering of Lee Rigby on May 22, 2013, crying, “We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.” The cognitive dissonance displayed here is as alarming as it is interesting. The “we” speaking here is yesterday’s failed Christian and today’s Muslim terrorist. More recently, the brave-talking home-grown jihadist Musa Cerantonio (alias Robert Edward Cerantonio, from Footscray, Victoria) has been advocating jihad and the killing of Western leaders from the safe distance of the Philippines. But he displays the same cognitive dissonance. From his statements he is very much yesterday’s lost boy with an almost laughable misunderstanding of the Catholicism he rejected. Is Cerantonio an example of a threat to our state? Sadly, we must say yes, almost certainly. The kind of action that he has been fomenting is already amongst us. Militant Islamists have been jailed in Victoria for planning to blow up the MCG during the AFL Grand Final and in New South Wales for planning to attack Holsworthy Barracks.

At one level these are just crimes, which have fortunately been prevented. But for Christians interested in tolerance, there is a duty to oppose Islamic religious tribalism (while not forgetting Christianity’s own past). We should respond to tribalism in all its forms with a robust civility, asking the tough questions in a civilised fashion. At the same time, religious intolerance should be avoided at all costs.

Here are some of those questions. Effective answers will go a long way towards separating Islam from Islamic religious tribalism, and towards identifying and dealing with the problems created by violent Islamism.

How are non-Muslims to deal with Mohammed in a pluralist, Western society? Christians routinely have to cope with abusive and deliberately sacrilegious art works and other public expressions. Christians are expected to, and usually do, respond with resigned tolerance. Yet any mention of Mohammed that is considered improper is an instigation to violence, which is illegal in a pluralist society. How can Muslims bridge this gap?

What expectations should Muslims reasonably have about how their religion is treated in secular, pluralist societies? Muslims expect, reasonably, to be protected by religious tolerance. But they are intolerant of some kinds of criticism and of some ways their religion is mentioned in the public arena. How can this tension be reconciled?

What is the correct Muslim position about the state’s law? Many critics of Islam express fear about sharia law “taking over”. The practice in some countries of killing apostates rightly causes outrage and disquiet amongst those used to religious tolerance. Others point out that it is an Islamic teaching that Muslims should follow the law of the land when they are in non-Muslim countries. What is the proper Islamic position, bearing in mind that Muslims expect, rightly, to be protected by the law of the land?

What is the Muslim position on women in a pluralist society? The civil rights tradition in Western societies has led to the stipulation that women are equal before the law. In some Islamic countries there is a tradition of not allowing women to testify against a man. In Western societies this is unacceptable. It has often been pointed out that Mohammed was supported by a woman, and that the practice of having more than one wife was due to the need to support women at a time when war had reduced the number of men. The historical and cultural context is far from simple, but there is a need for an Islamic position on equality for women in Western society, at the very least to remove a reason for prejudice against Muslims.

What is the proper Islamic position on Islamic religious tribalism? Many Muslims have expressed disapproval of violence committed by Islamists using the religion as a pretext. But this tends to focus on discussions about admonitions in the Koran against killing, especially in relation to women and children. The more telling question is: What is the proper position for a global religion such as Islam towards tribalism? What is the position, for example, on political violence that uses Islam as its rationale, such as stated attempts to establish an Islamic Caliphate?

Jews and Christians have been dealing with religious tribalism for over 2000 years, as far back as the return of the exiles from captivity in Babylon in the seventh century BC. Muslims must do the same if they are to arrive at a sound position in Western societies and avoid the prejudice that is growing in Western societies against them. It will take courage; many moderate Muslims are no doubt afraid of making things worse and there is some evidence that they can be intimidated into silence by extremist elements.

The earliest Council in the Church, the so-called Council of Jerusalem, was specifically concerned with tribalism. Was the revelation to the Jews only, or to the Gentiles as well (Acts 13:5–29)? That is the foundation of the universalism that underpins our legal traditions. It is a short step from equality before God to equality before the law. Such steps should be possible for Muslims. It is time they set out on the journey?

Archpriest Dr Lawrence Cross OAM is the pastor of Holy Trinity St Nicholas Russian Catholic Church in East St Kilda and leader of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Mission in Australia. He is an alumnus of the University of Sydney, of St John’s College, Oxford, and of the Melbourne College of Divinity.


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