How to solve a problem like ISIL

by George Hatjoullis

The events of Friday 13, 2015, in Paris have affected us all deeply. I was particularly perturbed because my son was walking towards the Bataclan when this horror took place. There but for the grace of ….Therein lies the core of this problem. So ingrained is the concept of God that we use it without thinking. God is part of our language whether we believe or not. It reflects the reality that all modern culture is rooted in theocracy.

Theocracy merely requires that ultimate authority in a society is deemed to come from God. All human societies appear to have evolved from theocracies. None it seems have completely evolved beyond. Western societies aspire to be secular, liberal, pluralist and democratic. However, religious thought, language and behaviour are still prominent in such societies. Moral codes spring from religious codes. Religious beliefs are not only tolerated but often privileged in supposedly secular societies. The echo of God is everywhere.

Some religions have managed to ‘modernise’ and adapt. They have accepted and incorporated moral values that have emerged from secular society and that were once religious taboos. Homosexuality and same sex marriage are two obvious and recent examples. However, not all are willing to do so. There is a clash of ideologies as old moral codes come into conflict with new moral codes. Nowhere is this more obvious and problematic than in the case of Islam.

ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, refers to an ill defined Islamic group that has the declared intention of establishing a Caliphate, and presumably a Caliph. Both are concepts fundamental to Sunni Islam so the claim that ISIL does not represent ‘moderate’ muslims seems a little disingenuous. It is quite likely that those muslims living in secular liberal democracies are some what discomfited by the violent and controversial methods being used to establish this Caliphate but to argue that it is somehow atypical is to deny history. Most caliphates were established and held in violence. Indeed most Christian Kingdoms were also established in violence. Theocracy is often associated with violence. So indeed is democracy.

There is some horror at the brutal and indiscriminate killing. Beheading has been graphically used to execute those unfortunate enough to have fallen into the hands of this group. It is also used in Saudi Arabia as part of the judicial system. To say that beheading is not Islamic is, once again, disingenuous. What is missing is a properly constituted judicial system and adherence to the convention on human rights. However, does Saudi Arabia observe the convention on human rights? It, like ISIL uses flogging, crucifixion and stoning as judicial punishment. Its judicial process is not one that is regarded as entirely appropriate in secular liberal democracies, though economic self interest has led to a certain myopia.

The behaviour of ISIL may be inconvenient for muslims living in secular liberal democracies but the claim that the entity does not represent Islam seems not to stand up to cursory examination. David Cameron has taken to describing ISIL as a death cult. He does not mean it kindly. It is a death cult. Christianity was originally a death cult also, which may have been what attracted the Emperor Constantine. Martyrdom, to die in the service of Christ, is what if not a death cult? Anyone that finds something they feel so strongly about that they are willing to die can be said to be part of death cult. It is not an uncommon condition.

The distinguishing feature of ISIL is not in its members willingness to die but in their willingness to kill, at random, en masse, and without mercy. It is this that so called ‘moderate’ muslims find unacceptable. There is nothing uniquely muslim about this murderous instinct. It is found among groups that are convinced that the only way is their way and that their desired end is the desired end, so any means will justify it. It is particularly prevalent amongst groups claiming that their way is the way that an unchallengeable authority has decreed. This is often a deity but it can also be a human accorded such status at least for a while (Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler all served this role in recent history).

ISIL claim that their authority derives from God and the word of God as revealed to the Prophet. It is an idea that is difficult to defeat by acting against people. This is what the Emperor Constantine grasped.You can bomb people and keep them at a distance but this will not kill the idea. Indeed the blood of the ‘martyrs’ will nourish the idea. To defeat ISIL one must defeat the idea. The problem is that the idea is rooted in a ‘one true God’ and this one true God echoes in our supposedly secular society. The problem we face in our ‘war on terror’ is our common religious heritage.

The war with ISIL is not simply a war with an extremist group, or even a war with fundamental Islam. It is not the Christian West against the Islamic East. It is a war on theocracy. It is a battle against the idea that there is some authority above man. I have argued this obliquely in previous blogs but it is no longer possible to be subtle. The events in Paris have changed the narrative. It is clear the physical war is escalating and cannot be ‘won’ by either side. It is in the area of ideas that the battle will ultimately be settled.

In the case of Communism the idea was defeated (for now) by demonstrating that market based systems do have some virtues, notably in delivering ‘things’. This battle is not over. The system must now deliver some things to all citizens. Income distribution is a new front in economic ideology.

In the battle with religion it is necessary to demonstrate that humanity can organise itself as a stable and orderly (moral) society without need to recourse to deities and revealed truths. It is necessary to help individuals to come to terms with death without recourse to afterlives. It necessary to offer a culture that relegates religion to a personal choice that has no place in the institutions of state. Paris arguably reflects secular liberalism more closely than any other western city and this may be why it has been the subject of such horrific violence. We must defend ourselves as best we can against such violence but ultimately we need to defeat the ideas that drive it. In this we may need to start with our own religious roots.