Category Archives: Religion and Violence

Crazy or Radicalized?

martin-couture-rouleau“Was the shooter crazy or radicalized?” These days, the answer to that question seems to depend, not on whether or not the shooter was crazy or radicalized, but on petty political posturing.

If an angry young white guy in his mid-twenties kills a bunch of people in the name of religion, Mr. Conservative’s knee-jerk response is to say that it’s got everything to do with the shooter’s religion, whilst Mr. Liberal’s knee-jerk response is to say that it’s got nothing to do with his religion: “Move along, folks, nothing to see here. Dude was just crazy. Ya feel me?”

If an angry young white guy in his mid-twenties kills a bunch of people in the name of right-wing politics, Mr. Liberal’s knee-jerk response is to say that it’s got everything to do with the shooter’s politics, whilst Mr. Conservative’s knee-jerk response is to say that it’s got nothing to do with his politics: “Move along, folks, nothing to see here. Dude was just crazy. Ya feel me?”

No, I don’t feel you, either of you, don’t feel you at all. Because this shit is getting serious, and the roller coaster of your contradictions is making me wanna puke up the promises I ate for dinner last night at the voting booth. Then Tony turned to the salesman and said: “Can we see something a little, no, please, something completely different?”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Ideas Have Consequences

“We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded. We ask Allah for them to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible. Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want to talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head.”—Imam Hassan Guillet

On the evening of January 29, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette went into a house of worship in my home province and shot 23 of my fellow citizens as they prayed. Six of them died. Do I think far-right groups like Breitbart News and Rebel Media are responsible for what happened at the Grande Mosquée de Québec? Do I think they’re responsible for what Bissonnette did? Of course not. A full-grown man of sound mind is responsible for his own actions. But if mosque massacres of this kind become more and more common in the years to come, can we really say that those who encourage them aren’t at least partially to blame? I’ve talked at length with people who’ve gone down the Rebel Media rabbit hole, and they’re every bit as paranoid and delusional as the worst kind of religious fundamentalist. If, like me, you traffic in ideas, it’s good to remember that they have consequences.

Just as globalization and the overuse of antibiotics have produced resistant strains of bacteria—super-bugs, capable of doing a great deal of damage—the Internet has produced resistant strains of ignorance—super-idiots, like Alex Jones and Ezra Levant, capable of doing a great deal of damage. These days, any simpleminded partisan with a political ax to grind can find an online community of like-minded whack-jobs who’ll be happy to provide him with plenty of ideological ammunition (e.g., bogus stats, pre-fab arguments, etc.). Before long, what was once a more-or-less harmless, single-issue troll has morphed into something far more monstrous and formidable: a veritable Swiss-army knife of bullshit, a perfect storm of bad ideas, a walking Wikipedia of stupid.

Irresponsible religious leaders can create toxic worldviews which encourage otherwise normal people to do unspeakable things. The same is true of irresponsible political leaders. Pauline Marois tried to win an election by throwing Canadian Muslims under the bus in 2014. Stephen Harper did the same thing in 2015. Marois lost, as did Harper, but the costs were steep: hate crimes surged during those ugly election campaigns. Will Jean-François Lisée, leader of the Parti Québécois, try this morally-bankrupt strategy again in 2018? In light of recent events, I certainly hope not.

Imagine that you’re living in an ancient world defined by a religion that’s been around for over a thousand years. Its sacred scriptures contain the following passage: “Thou shalt not suffer a twin to live” (Sexodus 22:18). The high priests and scholars concluded, centuries ago, that you don’t have to kill both twins, just the second one: Esau can stay, but Jacob’s gotta go. As everyone knows, if you allow the second twin to live, great evil will descend upon you and your household: crops will wither, animals will sicken, people will perish. Now, if you’ve grown up within the confines of this worldview, and your wife gives birth to twins, can you be blamed for throwing the second twin in the river? Are you not simply doing your duty? Thinking along similar lines, if it turns out that Alexandre Bissonnette internalized a toxic worldview from, say, Rebel Media or Breitbart News, are they not at least partially responsible for what he did?

What do we do about those who refuse to be responsible? Do we ban hate speech? Shut down groups that produce it? Do we start punishing people for talking about doing things they have no intention of doing? In the wake of the Mosque Massacre, there are no easy answers to these questions. Our provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec, just announced the hiring of 55 people whose entire job will consist of monitoring social media websites. I get that we’ve got to do something, but is this really what we want to do? What’s next? Undercover cops at every Tim Horton’s in the province, eavesdropping on conversations, making sure nobody says anything mean? If you think this new surveillance capacity is going to be used exclusively to prevent hate crimes, I suggest that you speak with Patrick Lagacé.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Salafism Isn’t Really a Religion

jihadijjThe problem of evil is always, to some extent, a problem of naming. Hannah Arendt understood this better than most. She saw, when others did not, that the absence of clear language had itself become a barrier to understanding 20th-century evil. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she argued that, if you’re trying to make sense of Nazism and Stalinism, words like “fascist” and “communist”, “right-wing” and “left-wing”, aren’t particularly helpful. Among other things, these labels belie the degree to which Hitler and Stalin transcended traditional political divides to forge nightmarish states that were eerily similar to each other. Stalin’s Soviet Union was, Arendt argued, best understood as a totalitarian state, not a communist state. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has just made a strikingly similar claim about the 21st-century evil known as Salafism.

If Western liberals find it hard to see Salafism for what it is, if they’re woefully lacking in moral clarity, it’s because they’re committed to tolerance and religious freedom, and Salafism is defined as a religion. This is, Taleb maintains, a grave error—because Salafism isn’t really a religion; it makes far more sense to think about it as “an intolerant political system, which promotes (or allows) violence and refuses the institutions of the West—those that allow them to operate. Unlike Shiite Islam and Ottoman Sunnis, Salafis refuse to accept the very notion of minorities: infidels pollute their landscape.” We need to stop thinking about Salafism as a religious movement and start thinking about it as “a political movement, similar to Nazism, with their dress code an expression of such beliefs.” Taleb goes on to suggest that Western liberals might be far more open to the idea of, say, banning burkinis, if they saw it as analogous to banning swastikas: “these people you are defending . . . will deprive you of all the rights you are giving them should they ever ascend to power.” Indeed, if they had their way, your wife would be in a burkini! Salafists are, then, inherently problematic, for the same reason that political parties that promise to abolish elections if they’re ever elected are inherently problematic.

If you think this is all just semantics, consider, for a moment, the case of The Church of Scientology, an organization that has done a great deal of harm to countless people. Scientologists have gotten away with all sorts of horrible bullshit for decades precisely because they were able to get themselves defined as a religion from the get-go. Respecting religion runs deep in our culture. And the bad guys know it. That’s why we have to unmask the Salafists and Scientologists of the world, deprive of them of their “religion” status, and show the world what they really are. Demonizing Islam is as stupid as it is unwise. We need to isolate the Salafists. They’ve been hiding behind the politicized bodies of women and the banner of Islam for far too long.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Religion and Violence

Part of the problem with “the real reason” for human violence, I suspect, is that it simply does not exist. My kids, for example, fight like puppies (not always fairly or kindly), and when asked, “Why are you punching your brother, after I explicitly asked you not to?” often look up with genuinely blank faces (and even on occasion answer honestly, “I don’t know”). I suspect many people genuinely don’t know why they are violent (in ways that historically prove helpful–look up the benefits of play-fighting with kids–or not, e.g. jihad). They just are, and so inevitably their mind works to create justification(s) (Deus vult! national security! etc.) for a prior existing condition (must punch someone!).

The really intractable problem here is that it is genuinely wrong (bad practice) to arrest people for thought crimes, but that is essentially what I see us having (in many cases). By thought crime here I don’t mean “carefully planned, conscious crime” but pre-rational determination toward violence (without any pre-determined method or justification).

Rather than take an approach like Karen Armstrong, who seems to suggest that religion is never to blame (as a legitimate rationalization of violence: I don’t believe this), I prefer to observe that religion is simply one of many tools available to foster and culture (the old word would be civilize) human violence (which is simply there in humanity, an unavoidable part of our biological heritage).  Sometimes, we use our tools to express violence well (in ways that improve quality of life); other times, we don’t.  Religion, like all our tools, is in itself neutral.  It is neither evil nor good.  How we use it determines what it is in individual circumstances (its immediate valence for good and for evil).

When people talk about transcending religion, leaving it behind, etc., what they are really advocating, it seems to me, is leaving behind some aspect of humanity whose momentary expression (as violence or superstition or whatever) they don’t particularly like (indeed, they might hate it–with righteous indignation).  To seize upon some momentary justification for genocide (or some other awful crime in recent human history) as itself the cause for all genocide, to proceed in the righteous struggle against genocide on the assumption that (for example) de-converting people from Islam en masse will radically alter our species’ expression of violence–to me this seems fundamentally wrong (ineffective, resting on a misprision of the reality that we are a genocidal species–we commit crimes of violence, historically, including the crime known as genocide, and we invent stories to illustrate, explain, and facilitate this aspect of our character).  If we got rid of Islam today, then tomorrow would bring us another myth equally obnoxious.  If we got rid of all Abrahamic religions, the same thing would happen.  If we got rid of every traditional religion, we would simply re-invent them (and tell ourselves, as many Nazis and communists did in the last century, that our crimes against one another were justified by some modern and progressive myth–clothing our genocide, etc., in the trappings of science).

This is why I roll my eyes when people talk of abandoning religion for something better.  There is nothing better.  People really are that stupid (and violent, and whatever it is that you don’t like that you are calling ‘religious’).  What we can do, what we should do, is learn to confront the evil we carry inside ourselves (Christianity gets this part right with its doctrine of Original Sin).  This evil is not something separate or separable from us (Christianity gets this wrong: Grace and Salvation are bullshit, at least as commonly taught among most believers; I don’t mean that nothing good can ever come from believing in them, only that most people seem to derive more lie than truth from them).  We must learn to live with ourselves as we are–with tendencies toward crime that are inseparable from our other tendencies, which as often as not are those same tendencies, in different (and better) circumstances.  We have an instinct to love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to hate.  We have an instinct to protect what (and whom) we love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to destroy what (and whom) we hate.  Religion, and other forms of collective and individual culture, can help us prune these tendencies.  It can direct us toward better or worse ways of expressing ourselves in whatever circumstances we might be.  But it cannot remove these tendencies entirely, not even when we make the mistake of externalizing our evil and assigning it to religion that we dislike (for any reason).  Leaving my childhood religion behind might help me become a better person, empirically speaking, but there is no guarantee that this must happen.  I will still be a human being, no matter what I do.  I will still carry with me all the causes and conditions for superstition and violence and other potentially criminal behavior that comes coded into humanity (my own and everyone else’s).

This is why Greek tragedy is so gripping.  It is about looking oneself in the face, honestly, and seeing everything there.  Katharsis is not a matter of expressing or indulging rage (as many modern readers of Aristotle seem to think); it is looking deep into the recesses of one’s own humanity, and seeing there the little baby emotions that might become rage (homicidal and suicidal), envy, lust, etc.  It is seeing the strength and the weakness of our species, and realizing that they are the same thing.  The same qualities that make Oedipus king and savior also make him criminal and outcast.  Until we see this reality and accept it, we are fundamentally separate from ourselves–broken, lacking integrity, unable to help others or ourselves without running an unacceptable risk of causing harm (because we think we can love without hating, serve without ruling, help without harming).  We are like children who imagine themselves able to fly because they have wings patched together with feathers and wax.  Such fantasies are cute until we walk to the edge of a real cliff and jump.

This article appeared originally on my personal blog.  –JGM