by Syed Ehtisham
iolence in the current day and age is regarded by most mainstream Muslims as a reaction to inequity, injustice, and disempowerment, real or perceived. Stronger nations attack weaker ones when the latter have either refused to be compliant with the objectives of the former or have actually managed to hurt their economic interests
Examples of violence by the strong on the weak are many and come from the very earliest times of known history. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, and Russian empires come easily to mind. They invaded the weaker people to exploit resources of their countries. World wars were fought for the resources of colonies. Post WWII, with weakening of the Colonial powers, the USA took up the role and intervened directly by naked aggression and through
In Western countries, violence is attributed variously to fanaticism, clash of cultures, poverty, lack of education etc. Muslim residents of Western countries, by and large, condemn acts of violence against innocent people, but would want the people in the West to understand the reasons why a person would deliberately sacrifice his life.
But violence in the name of religion was first definitively documented in the late fifteenth century Papal Bull which authorized the king of Portugal “to attack, conquer and subdue Saracens, pagans and other non-believers who were inimical to Christ; to
capture their goods and territories; to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to transfer their lands and properties to the king of Portugal and his successors”.
The common thread that runs through all aggression is greed or fear that the new creed would supplant the old one and control mode of production. When resources were no longer at stake diverse beliefs were tolerated as during the period of Muslim rule in India. The British did send preachers to “spread the word of God” and when natives killed an odd missionary, gunboats followed.
All animals practice aggression against their own kind, and against other kinds, to a greater or lesser degree. The complexity of the practice appears to be directly related to intelligence. Lower orders generally kill members of other species for food. Others may
injure/wound rivals for the affections of a female or to control several comely ones, but generally do not kill them.
“Divinely inspired” religions exhort us to fear God, the Day of Judgment, reward for good, retribution for evil, sight unseen. God has sent messengers with a set of instructions on a body of beliefs, code of behavior, on how to propitiate Him, without a word on how to find or recognize Him. One is expected to believe in His existence without reason or rationale. We are told that our faculties are not developed enough or God has not endowed us adequately enough to be able to do so. God remains largely unknown.
All religions reacted to the prevailing milieu, and confronted the established order. They appealed mainly to the disempowered, the destitute and the poor. The rich, the powerful, and the learned had all the privileges already. They initially ignored the emergent creed, did not see any good reason for change, which would, in any case, affect their interests adversely. When the belief system gathered enough strength to challenge the established order they tried to suppress the new forces with naked force, bribes and temptation, whatever would work. The prophet of Islam was offered riches, women, and positions of authority, if he would only give up his “pointless” preaching. They failed in every instance with all the prophets.
Religions initially attempted to eradicate social evils, and economic inequities. The ruling classes took measures to preserve their authority. They controlled the “ administration, the legislature, and the judiciary”. They treated the poor abominably, indulged in slavery, tightened their strangle hold by such measures as exorbitant interest rates, forced and bonded labor, serfdom, and claim on the major part of the produce of the peasantry. The ruled had no recourse. All the levers of power were in the hands of the ruling class. If they ran away and were caught, the punishment would be worse than death. If not caught, starvation would be the fate of most.
It must be clearly understood that religion only aimed at amelioration of the living conditions of the powerless. Private property remained sacrosanct. Slavery was not abolished; the owners were exhorted to treat them humanely.
Women remained the underclass, though they were lulled with meaningless honors like the paradise is at the feet of mothers or that their word was law as in ancient India.
All religions frowned upon usury. Once financial institutions and banking developed, interest became indispensable. During European renaissance, financiers got around the prohibition on interest by calling it commission, cost of labor, and payment to agents etc. More recently Islamic banking has developed ways around it. Pakistan Government calls is “Mark UP”.
Judaism was less restrictive. Jews excelled in financial dealings. For their pain, the Popes cursed them, and Shakespeare immortalized Shylock. Calling a person a Jew was an insult. You called them Jewish. This was so in mid-sixties Britain. Even as late as 1975, one of my patients in a Jewish Hospital in NYC, an old man of 94, told me that he was not ashamed of being a Jew! It has been only due to the extended guilt trip since WWII, and its shrewd exploitation by the ”chosen” of the God, that the Popes and other Christian clerics have stopped wishing perdition on them and have “invented” the concept of Judeo-Christian civilization.
Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Messiah will not descend from the heavens till the Jews have captured all ancient territories of Judea and Samara. Only then would the redeemer annihilate all the Jews and usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. They, therefore, support the state of Israel fervently. George W does it for the same reason. Jews, smart people that they are, happily accept Christian support, do not worry too much about the peril that they will be subject to, if the Christian theology were to prove correct, and are confident enough to let the future take care of itself.4.
Violence is initiated against a new faith/reformist movement to protect status quo ante. Pharaohs persecuted the Jews and dumped them into the Nile as the “final solution”. In their turn, Jews did not hesitate a bit, sending one of their own, Jesus Christ to the gallows. Christians were fed to the lions. They were lucky enough that Constantine saw a vision and declared it the state religion. In their turn they burnt heretics and conducted inquisitions. During one crusade when they managed to recapture Jerusalem. they massacred Muslims till blood was ankle deep in the streets of the city.
A Muslim, a slave Bilal by name, suffered the scorching sun of the desert with a heavy weight on his chest; others stood up to all kinds of physical and mental tortures, exile and privations and did not hesitate in giving up life for their faith. But when they had attained power, turned around and offered the non-Muslims following choices a) conversion to Islam with second class status relative to Arab Muslims payment of Jazya, which would entitle them to exemption from military service-which they could in any case not enter and c) liberty to practice their religion in private and family laws per their own faith. But in the public domain they would remain subservient to Muslims, for example their status as a witness would remain subsidiary etc, the point of the sword. As a direct consequence Zoroastrianism was wiped out of its birthplace Iran.
In current times no sooner than the fanatics among the Hindus had thrown the yoke of British rule than they went for Muslim blood with a vengeance. The liberal among them practiced a more subtle form of victimization. Muslims are definitely an underclass, in many ways worse off than the “untouchables” though they are denied concessions of that class. They had bided their time for a thousand years of Muslim rule, during which the “upper” classes adopted many mores of Iranian/Arabic/Mongol culture and language.
After replacing the establishment, all religions organized their own hegemony. The adherents then proceeded to use the faith to advance their own cause. Hegemony inevitably develops a class structure. Jewish priests objected vehemently and violently to Jesus Christ bucking the trend; challenging their right to privileges and a life of luxury. Voodoo practitioners keep their hold on the popular mind by subjecting the deviants to exorcism. Christian priests accumulated great wealth, land, and authority rivaling that of Kings, the Popes actually had their own country; vestiges can be seen even now in the Papal state in Rome. The clergy firmly aligned themselves with the landed gentry, supported the established order, exhorting the poor to obey the ruler, suffer deprivation cheerfully, palming them off with the lure that the Kingdom of heaven will be theirs, as long as they do as they are told in this life. It was a symbiotic existence; feudal class supported the clergy and was legitimized by the latter.
The thread of supremacy of authority runs through all religions. Islam ordains that one should obey the ruler, as long the ruler does not interfere with the private practice of the faith.
Among the divinely inspired religions, only Islam founded a political state in its early infancy. The late advent of a political control though did not prevent the followers of other belief systems from going forth, marauding and plundering in the name of the faith. Conspicuous in this behavior were the Christians, who openly flouted the teachings of their prophet to offer the other cheek etc. But first in the field of colonization in the name of their faith were the Muslims. Jihad, and proselytisation were among the core articles of the faith.
Emerging from the wastelands of the Arabian Desert, they managed to conquer most of the known world in a matter of a few decades. They had been energized by the conviction that everlasting salvation lay in the true path. They did not object if in the process riches, land, and women fell into their lap.
The vanquished did not surrender with out a fight. Resistance was in fact fierce. There is credible evidence that after the main battles, people fought on in guerrilla fashion. 8. Urdu language is replete with tomes of conquests of Muslim heroes and how they got the better of the sly infidel. History is being repeated in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries. Not able to confront the aggressor directly they have developed a culture of suicide bombing and other such similar measures.
In those long gone days communications were poor, the concepts of nationalism and patriotism were in the distant future and people accepted every ruler as long they were left alone to pursue their own private affairs. One ruler was pretty much the same as another; they did not worry too much about the ruler’s faith, race, nationality or color. Rulers also tended to, after gaining complete control, treat all the subjects equally well or poorly. So there were no instances of widespread or lasting insurgency.
With decline of Muslim power- all Empires run out of steam in due course- and nearly simultaneous European renaissance, Christian cast their covetous eyes on the riches of the East. Advent of the Industrial revolution in the same time frame made them invincibly potent. They went forth as traders for spices and paid in gold, as India did not need any handicraft they could produce.
They found riches beyond dreams of avarice. The rulers in the East were highly cultured and sophisticated, and compared to the rather coarse Westerners, effete and indolent. Oriental potentates looked down on Europeans and had several derogatory terms for the foreigners, all meaning uncouth, unlettered, and uncivilized.
Europeans swooped down on the East, as well the Americas and found rich pickings everywhere. The idea of spreading Christianity was the inevitable excuse, but that did not keep them from using all kinds of measures and subterfuges, immoral in their own books, to subjugate the natives. The English and other immigrants- economic, religious, and political refugees, escaping starvation, discrimination and destitution in their home countries, were welcomed by the American natives, given shelter and food, and paid the debt back by gifting small pox infested blankets to their hosts. 10. Power and dominance lend legitimacy. No one talks about the genocide perpetrated by the English. It barely merits a footnote in history.
Europeans captured vast colonies and exploited the resources for their own ruling class. Remember, even at the height of their power, the ordinary British citizen often went without a job, food shelter or protection under the law. Debtor’s jails were bursting at the seams. Malnutrition was common and child labor universal. Twelve-hour days, six and a half days a week, was the norm. Bonded labor and serfdom were accepted facts of life; the lord of the manor owned the peasants body and soul, often taking his pleasure in female (and male) bodies. Prostitution was rife; physical punishment, beatings were permissible. 11.
By 1850, the British had all of India in their firm grip. On paper, though, they still ruled in the name of the Moghal “Emperor” Bahadur Shah whose writ ran only in the few acres of the Lal Qila (Red Fort) of Delhi. 12.
Indians, high and low, Muslims and Hindus, got together one last time in 1857 and nearly got the British out of the country. Mention of one of the reasons for the failure of the revolt, War of Independence, Perhaps the historic guilt is driving.
The British were, and are, past masters at the art of divide and rule. They had honed their skill during European wars, and patronized Hindus and Muslims in turn. After the crusades, in which the British had played a leading role too, it was they who used the religious divide as an instrument of policy. They also promoted Shia-Sunni conflict. 13.
They had left festering wounds behind. Chronic infections metamorphose into cancer. Kashmir and Arab-Israeli conflicts no longer need promotion and have spawned generations of “terrorists”. 14.
Advent of oil and the consequent dependence of the Capitalist economy on it, catapulted Middle Eastern countries into a position of consequence. These countries happened to be Muslim. The rulers, creations of colonists one and all, were all too amenable to foreign control. But the common man, indubitably more dis-empowered than his counterparts in Capitalist democracies, had felt the wind of change. Indonesia, India and a few other countries had broken the bond of colonial rule. 15. China had thrown out the Imperialist surrogate. They wanted to utilize their resources for their own welfare.
Their attempts were thwarted, first when the state of Israel was created. Arab grandees and the king of Jordan actively helped the Jews and later when the combined “might” of Arabs failed to defeat Israel.
There is an element of truth in all the proffered reasons. Not all suicide bombers are illiterate. Many come from affluent households. The TV pictures of Madrassahs (seminaries) with children reciting the Quran, which they obviously do not understand, would not appeal to an educated person. The London subway suicide bombers were born and brought up in Britain. That country offers free Health service, nearly free college education (completely free in Scotland), and a decent welfare system. One of the bombers was a teacher of children withlearning difficulties. He was well respected and had to be a sensitive and considerate person to be able to cope with his job. It is argued that but for religious indoctrination, they would not have suicide bombed London tubes and bus system. All 9/11 hijackers were well educated and lived a fairly affluent life. But they conveniently forget that George Washington and his fellow leaders of the American war of independence were wealthy landowners.
Apologists lament that Islam does not sanction mindless killing, that suicide is a sin in Islam etc. But the promoters of the acts of terror appear to have equally valid authority to back up their claim that suicide bombers are fighting injustice and killing for a
I have dwelt at some length on a historic review of violence and the thread of religion running through it. Secular fundamentalists attribute it entirely to exclusivity of faith. It is true that all religions teach that followers of the particular creed are on the right path; only they enjoy divine favor and all that goes with it. Non-believers will never be forgiven and burn in hell forever. Except for Hindus and Jews they lay great store by proselytization, though this abstinence has not kept the two peoples from may hem and murder.
Author has Published two books:”A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents,” and ,”God, Government and Globalization”, and is working on the third one, “An Analysis of the Sources and Derivation of Religions”.