It was surely only going to be a matter of time, following the execution of two Americans, that a British citizen was going to be the next victim of the brutal violence of the self-styled ‘Islamic State.’ David Haines was, by all account, an impressive individual, someone of ‘unstoppable energy’ who was deeply committed to humanitarian relief. After 11 years working with the RAF, he was involved in a wide range of relief work, most recently with the French agency ACTED. He was no stranger to dangerous situations, but it is impossible to imagine the trauma for his family and friends caused by, first, his 18 months in captivity, and then the very public nature of his murder. Justin Welby found the most apt words to describe this:
We are living through a time when it seems that daily the darkness deepens, the shadows fall, the weight of human evil seems to grow and even those who stand up for what is good find themselves assailed on every side.
All of us today will have heard this morning of the brutal, cruel murder of David Haines. He was in the Middle East on humanitarian work, he had gone to serve the people of Syria and Iraq, and his captors captured him, held him, toyed with the hopes of freedom, and then killed him.
And so where is Christ in that? On Holy Cross Day we are reminded above all that he is with David Haines, that he is in the depths of evil and the depths of our own suffering because of the cross.
Before reading any further, pause for a moment to pray for his brother, Michael, his first wife Louise and their daughter Bethany, 17, and his second wife Dragana, who is Croatian, and their four-year-old daughter.
Is it possible to make any sense of the brutality of IS and their strategy? The most common response in the media was underlined by David Cameron in his press statement: ‘These are not Muslims; these are monsters.’ James Dawes, author of a study of the apparently inexplicable, entitled Evil Men, sets out the paradox here. On the one hand:
We must not demonize because to demonize is to adopt a stance that shares features with the demonic – namely, a dismissal of the other’s full humanity. This is no mere theoretical concern. When moral outrage becomes, at its extreme, moral rejection of the other, it can become difficult to distinguish from hate, just as the cry for justice can become difficult to distinguish from the cry for retribution. This has consequences that are not only dangerously political, but also deeply interior. When we demonize we are committing ourselves to an idea about who the other is, and to an idea about who we are.
But on the other hand:
So that is why we should not think of evil as something other or demonic. But here is why we should. If we do not maintain our sense of the otherness of evil, we lose our capacity for making crucial philosophical distinctions. Our feeling that some acts defy comprehension, that they are alien to our nature, is not a “mere” feeling; it is an indicator of categorical distinctions. Our moral language is impoverished if it cannot account for those acts which shock our conscience, acts whose enormity cannot be encompassed by the language of the wrong, bad, or even wicked.
So we do need to both categorise these atrocities as inexplicable evil—and yet seek to understand. The disasters that have unfolded in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely been born of Western intervention which was based on a lack of understanding; the forces involved had long been labelled ‘an axis of evil’, and this incomprehension led to disastrous decision-making before, during and after the main conflict.
Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, offers one way of understanding extremism through exploring ‘the science behind Isil’s savagery.’ He notes the spiralling of savagery, the importance of group identity, the demonisation of the other (particularly in religious groups), the fuel of revenge, and the role of authoritarian leadership. The piece makes uncomfortable reading, especially for anyone who is religious, since these characteristics can be seen in many religious groups. But the one that stood out for me was the comment about revenge.
Revenge, which is a strong value in Arab culture, may play a part in perpetuating the savagery. Of course vengeful retaliation for savagery begets more savagery in a never-ending cycle. But more, while revenge is a powerful motivator, it is also a deceiver, because the evidence is that taking revenge on someone, far from quelling the distress and anger which drives it, actually perpetuates and magnifies it.
Here there is a marked contrast with Jesus’ teaching, and the thrust of the New Testament. Greg Boyd has offered a profound comment under the challenging title ‘How are we to love the soldiers of ISIS?’, and he starts by noting this teaching:
To begin, it’s first important to remember that the teaching of Jesus, Paul and the rest of the New Testament about never retaliating and about instead choosing to love, bless, pray for, and do good to our enemies is emphatic, unambiguous, and never once qualified (e.g. Mt 5:21-6, 38-48; Lk 6:27-36; Rom 12:14-21). Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to make our willingness to unconditionally love enemies the pre-condition for being considered a “child of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:44-5; Lk 6:35-6).
It would, of course, be a PR disaster for David Cameron to suggest that Islam was a religion of violence, and Christianity was a religion of peace—not least because the histories of these two religious movements would not support such an easy distinction. You don’t have to know much about the Crusades, Europe in the Middle Ages, or even Britain’s own history to see that plenty of people felt quite happy enacting brutal violence on others in the name of Christ. (In fact, they were often a lot more brutal than IS; in some periods of history, beheading has been regarded as the privileged way of being executed.) But the pressing question is how this action relates to the life and teaching of Jesus himself—a question which is unavoidable for anyone who wants to bear the name ‘Christian.’
Kenneth Cragg, who was an Anglican bishop and widely respected scholar of Islam for a previous generation, identified a key distinction between Christianity and Islam in the lives of the two religions’ founders. In The Call of the Minaret, he sees the central decision of Jesus’s life in the turn to the path towards Calvary, to rejection, humiliation and death on the cross. By contrast, the central decision of Mohammed was to embark on the Hijra, the migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 with his followers, to avoid betrayal and death and establish himself as political and military leader. And the personal example of Mohammed is of key significance in Islamic discussions about ethics and action.
Where on earth would a British Muslim get ideas of beheading your enemies? As Douglas Murray points out, from reading the Quran.
I open one of my copies of the Qu’ran (Arberry translation, OUP) and read Chapter 8 (‘The Spoils [of war]’). Verse 12 has God saying:
‘I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them.’
And he goes on to highlight the importance of the example of Mohammed:
Muslims are brought up to believe that the founder of their faith was the perfect human being – a man to be revered and indeed emulated. So what do they do when they read the early accounts of their prophet’s life and discover that among his exploits in war was the beheading of hundreds of Jewish men of the Banu Qurayza tribe? I’ve just been flicking through my copies of the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad). Plucking at random, what do Muslims do when they come across advice like that in the authoritative collection by Bukhari which includes (in ‘The Book of Jihad’) an answer to the question ‘If a pagan burnt a Muslim, should he be burnt?’ Of one such a group who displeased Muhammad we learn: ‘He (The Prophet) had their hands and feet cut off. Then he ordered that nails should be heated and passed over their eyes, and they were left in the rocky land of Medina. They asked for water, but none provided them with water till they died.’ 
Murray is careful to point out that this is not the end of the discussion. After all, many Muslims don’t know their Quran very well, and these ideas have certainly not shaped large periods of Islamic history and learning. It is not unreasonable, for example, to argue that the European Renaissance would not have happened without access to Greek texts that had been preserved in Islam.
But what he is pointing out is that Cameron and others are quite mistaken when they state that the behaviour of IS has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ or (as Michael Haines stated) ‘this has nothing to do with religion.’ It is to do with Islam, but not all Islam is like this. There is division, debate and a power struggle within Islamic history, and some argue that it is time to recover some key lost ideas from the past, such as those expounded by Sufism:
Prior to the advent of colonisation, Muslim populations stretching from Persia, Anatolia and the Indian sub-continent opened themselves to a range of understandings of the Islamic tradition based on flexible and non-dogmatic interpretations of canonical texts, which saw the peaceful integration of different cultural and customary practices into the Islamic mainstream. A large part of this social and political discourse – grossly neglected in the past few centuries – can be credited to the cultivation of Sufi practices that featured prominently in many of Islam’s intellectual fields.
And why the recent neglect? Primarily because another key movement in Islam, Wahhabism, has come to dominate in the Islamic world, not least because it has taken root in the places where the West buys its oil:
The oil-rich Wahhabi movement, which derives most of its religious knowledge from literal readings of scripture, has aimed much of its criticism towards Sufi orders for “distorting” authentic Islamic practices. Along with ultra conservative sects of the Muslim community, the Wahhabi-Islamist sect has condemned a multitude of Sufi practices, including Sufi pilgrimages to shrines of venerated Saints (inferred to as idolatry), metaphorical interpretations of the Qur’an as well as their additional ritualistic ceremonies.
Our response, then, to the beheadings (and there will certainly be more) needs to combine an abhorrence at the violence, compassion for the victims, a commitment to Jesus’ teaching rejecting revenge—and with all these an understanding of the debate and dynamic within Islam. At present, with its refusal to understand, and its unquestioning thirst for oil, the West very much looks like it is on the wrong side of the argument.
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