Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong – review
How have we ended up with the idea that religious doctrine above all is to blame for human conflict?
Islamic State is like a bad dream. Its horror flashes up on our screens, so out of place in the waking world of cities and shopping and work. Its adherents wave what looks like a pirate flag. They are crazy, incomprehensible, intoxicated.
Some kind of spell must have been cast over them to rob them of reason and compassion. But what exactly? There are those who feel confident of the answer. "A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Qur'an," writes Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. "The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity." He goes on: "horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. But there is now a large industry of obfuscation designed to protect Muslims from having to grapple with these truths."
Harris would regard Karen Armstrong as a captain of that industry. In her new book, the former nun stubbornly refuses to accept that responsibility for beheadings, suicide bombings and the persecution of minorities can be laid at the door of Islam. Is she a head-in-the-sand apologist? One of those whose interpretation of events wishes, in Tony Blair's words, "to eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful"?
That depends, of course, on what you regard as the obvious common factor. If violent Islamism is a religious, rather than a political phenomenon, how can we explain Barsauma, who terrorised the Levant in the fifth century, destroying synagogues and murdering pilgrims? He resembles no one so much as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But Barsauma was a Christian monk. And then there is the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem by jihadist warrior Salah ad-Din, during which not a single Christian was killed, and many were given safe passage to the coastal enclave of Tyre.
In her sprawling survey Armstrong shows that doctrine alone cannot give rise to intercommunal strife. Instead, it is usually a reaction to social upheaval and the new forms of structural oppression – gross inequality or overt persecution – that come with it. In the absence of these conditions, religion tends to encourage peaceful coexistence. To blame one or other faith, when the evidence shows so clearly that all types of violence have been committed in the name of all religions and none, is to supply an extraordinarily – you might say wilfully – superficial reading of history.
The fact that her critics seem impervious to the evidence may be what drives Armstrong to produce ever more ambitious books. Fields of Blood follows A Short History of Myth, The Bible: A Biography and The Case for God. Its field of reference is mind-boggling. We start nearly 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, in Uruk, the world's first civilisation. There we learn how the Sumerians' vision of heaven was an attempt to justify the brutality of a new system, one in which peasants worked the land, and the agricultural surplus supported an aristocracy. The Sumerian pantheon was a mirror of the state. Like their human counterparts, the gods were "preoccupied with town planning, irrigation and government". Hurrying along, we read of an India where "yoga" meant ritual preparation for plunder and pillage. Then China, then the Israelites. There is a cursoriness to the narrative here which makes it difficult to believe the learning is really Armstrong's. She does a fine precis of these "beginnings", but it is only once she turns in earnest to the Abrahamic religions that we feel we are in the hands of an expert.
Amid the kaleidoscope of examples, the argument solidifies: religious awakening is a symptom of too-quick transition from one kind of society to another. From the nomadic to the settled, from the agrarian to the mercantile, from the mercantile to the industrial. Violence often erupts at these moments. But the link with religion is one of correlation, not causation.
What is more, religion was, for most of history, a shared, public phenomenon. Sacred ceremony lent meaning and legitimacy to the business of daily life and underpinned all kinds of authority. Early modern Europe, with its burgeoning population and economy, was unable to maintain consensus on matters of ritual, and a new notion of religion as private opinion emerged. This cleaving was significant. It paved the way for secular violence unrestrained by the best of religion. It also meant that doctrine, untethered from society, could be co-opted to serve an array of projects, some of them psychopathically at odds with the mainstream. In this sense it begins to resemble a virus that survives in isolated reservoirs, with occasional outbreaks of extremist mayhem.
We know that the slaughter of the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the American civil war, the opium wars, the first world war, the Armenian genocide, Stalin's great purge, the second world war and the Holocaust had little to do with religion. Indeed, much of it was explicitly antireligious. So how on earth have we ended up with the idea – still in evidence in, for example, the comments readers leave on news websites – that religion above all is to blame for human violence?
Armstrong begins and ends her book with reflections on the scapegoat – the animal burdened with the sins of the community and sent out into the desert. She argues that we, in the secular, rational west, have become incapable of properly acknowledging our own ferocious violence. The madmen are the ones who believe in a man in the sky, who strap on suicide belts imagining that they will be rewarded with virgins in heaven – not we, who debate and legislate and only then slam hellfire missiles into wedding parties.
But what of Islamic State? Theology motivates its actions; that theology derives from the Qur'an. Surely this is religious violence. In a narrow sense, yes. However, it represents a grossly mutated version of a doctrine that survives in much of the world in its original form as a stabilising, communitarian practice. To extend the analogy of the virus: we know that environmental stress accelerates mutation in the natural world. The faith communities subjected to the most stress over the past two centuries are those of Middle Eastern and subcontinental Islam; as Armstrong sets out in grim detail, its members have endured colonisation, the expropriation of land, authoritarian rule and military occupation. Could these stressors come to be seen as the greater cause?
None of which is to excuse the revolting acts of Islamic State fanatics. In this arena, the tendency for attempts to explain and understand to be taken as acts of apology is deeply frustrating. But we must not turn our backs on history, which is the only way the arguments set out by the likes of Sam Harris and Tony Blair make sense. The urge to blame others is strong, and old, as the ritual of the scapegoat shows. The first step towards extirpating it is to acknowledge it. In her efforts to bring this about, Armstrong is doing us a great service.
Source: The Guardian