Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Vengeance Fundamentalism: Turn or Burn

The group above has been featured before on this blog; they are Islamic State jihadists who hail from the UK. Given the legacy of news reports and imagery IS have thrust upon the world, I find it difficult to look at these jihadist gentlemen without shuddering; they have joined one of the nastiest religious groups the world has seen. But the shock horror that Islamic State specializes in may in part be down to a compensation for the relative weakness of IS in terms of conventional arms; in comparison the allied forces ranged against them have the technology to precision bomb them with virtual impunity and Islamic State has little hope of fighting back on equal terms. This probably means that their most powerful and perhaps their only really effective weapon is fear itself, a fear they stoke up with the horrific atrocities which they publish with pride. And of course one mustn't underestimate the role that vengeance plays in these acts of barbarity.

Somehow the IS fundamentalists appear to have lost all humanity and become heartless automata prepared to do anything to fulfill the letter of their religious law without hint of compassion. The chances of high flying aircraft coming to grief over their domain is very small indeed and yet I’m sure allied military pilots quake just a little at the thought of what might happen if they have to bail out. It makes me quake just thinking about it even though I’m thousands of miles away in the refuge of a comfortable safe and rich country, a country armed to the hilt with the most advanced weaponry the world has seen. But this weaponry is unable to defend against the invasion of the irrational fear and horror that the jihadists have unleashed; some of the imagery I've seen of their violent work I will take to the grave.

Fear used as weapon has a long case history;

  • Some fiction writers undoubtedly understand the effect of fear as a weapon: In the film Aliens II the troops sent in to deal with the alien threat utterly outclassed these aliens in terms of firepower and killing ratio. But in spite of that the alien’s suicidal strategies against superior arms along with the fear and revulsion they engendered nearly won the battle for them. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the chief weapon of the Nazgul was a disabling and choking cloud of fear and rumour .Other than that they didn’t have any really effective weapons; their leader was killed by a hobbit and a young fearless female warrior.
  • In the natural world warning displays that actually don’t signify a real threat but are copies from animals with real offensive means are sufficient to keep foes at bay as a result of the fear and repugnance these displays invoke.
  • During the Roman invasion of Anglesey Druid priests called down terrible curses on the Roman army; but apart from the fear value of these curses they were ultimately ineffective. As Tactitus wrote:

  • On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general's appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails."

  • In the Middle Ages when government ruled less by consent than by force miscreants were publically put to death in horrifying ways that must have acted as a form of aversion therapy for those who might contemplate challenging the powers that be. Moreover, the religion of the day traded on threats of judgment and eternal torture and this must have helped scare a believing public into keeping on the straight and narrow.
When your only weapon is fear.

Modern religious fundamentalists often have few material bargaining chips, but as of old they have become skilled in wielding the weapon of fear. They speak in strong censorious tones to those who challenge their opinions and practices, threatening God’s displeasure and judgment on those they accuse of heresy, apostasy and disbelief.  (See for Example Ken Ham’s words here and here and Michael Voris' words here) . Of novel interest, however, is the strange case of well and truly cornered Christian fundamentalist Kent Hovind, a man in jail for tax fraud. Perhaps as a way of consoling his damaged ego he appears to have adopted the sovereign citizen movement and consequently he has made a set of legal pronouncements as if he was an official judge dispensing justice upon what he considers to be an outlaw US state . In fact according to wiki he has claimed that Democracy is evil and contrary to God's law  a claim which has a very Islamic jihadist flavor about it. This could be interpreted as just emotive gesturing, but:

A 2014 report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism stated that a survey of law-enforcement officials and agencies across the United States concluded that the [Sovereign Citizen] movement was the single greatest threat to their communities, ranking above Islamic terrorists and jihadists.

…..and such a movement is likely to resort to fear tactics, by definition.

Fundamentalists of all brands use the weapon of fear and their expertise in wielding this weapon may result of their first person knowledge of fear; they are themselves beset by fears because from their perspective the world is a very scary and evil place full of conspiracies against them. They are therefore all too ready to read into the quite innocuous behaviors of disbelievers motivations driven by the heinous sins of heretics, apostates and evil doers who need the fear of God put into them. In the absence of any real power fear is the main means of effect for the fundamentalist, a tool one doesn't have to be particularly powerful to use, because fear, if done well, can be administered with the right kind of threat. For example, towards the end of this post on his blog PZ Myers quotes Kent Hovind telling Myers to “Turn or Burn”. Although I don’t suppose that’ll frighten PZ Myers any more than it does me, some people are intimidated by that sort of talk. But when one calls the bluff of these “Turn or Burn” fundamentalists one finds that the fear they secrete evaporates like a black mist in the Sun.

Islam needs to reform itself by de-literalizing many of its vengeance based practices and bellicose chauvinistic beliefs, beliefs originating from violent lawless contexts. Above all it needs to give up the kind of Islam that only regards itself as properly expressed until it has taken over the state and installed Sharia law. Unlike Christianity which has a tradition of victorious dignified living even when its communities are small, powerless and persecuted, Islam has a tendency to only see dignity in civic power and control. It’s not as if Christianity can claim to be perfect; far from it: Christianity also needs to reform with the times; in fact it started to reform* 200 years ago following the enlightenment, although there have been reactionary influences particularly during the 1960s that have tried to take it back to the past. 

There is, however, an ironic link between Islam and Christianity. As we have seen in recent days Islam, (or at least some sections of Islam) has a very strong vengeance streak: Innocent IS hostages have been put to death in very cruel ways. These executions appear to have little tactical value apart from breeding fear and horror among IS enemies. But these executions may also serve as a way of satiating the IS appetite for vengeance and assuage their fiery wrath built up over many months of being targeted with guided missiles about which they can do absolutely nothing apart from hide. The immolation of innocents in order to dampen the fires of wrath is, of course, the very literal theological construction that some fundamentalist Christians put on the meaning of The Cross of Christ; they believe that in a very literal sense God’s infinite anger against humanity was assuaged by the infinite torture of his “Son”, just as burning innocent victims alive might satiate IS wrath. Taken literally this view doesn't work on several counts, not least because it is clear that smoldering human anger which satisfies itself in acts of judicial vengeance has its root and rationale in the socio-biological contexts of human communal living and this is not likely to be part of the Divine condition. I don’t believe the Christian fundamentalist soteriology of torture to be literal; for me The Cross manifests the divine motivation to bring about reconciliation, identification and the concomitant emotional cost such reconciliation entails in dealing with the schismogenic nature of sin. A vengeance-cum-torture theological model may be apposite to the true cost of restorative justice but only as a metaphor. Life enhancing productive anger doesn't merely placate itself with cathartic acts of cruelty or self-harming but constitutes the motive needed to get on and do something constructive about the situation even at high emotional cost.

As I've pondered the cruel acts of Islamic State I've come to the conclusion that these acts make very little tactical or strategic sense and it is only in the context of the Abrahamic perspective of propitiatory vengeance and immolation can I make any sense of them.  Christianity and Islam are linked through the theme of vengeance except for one big difference; through Christ vengeance (whether understood literally or metaphorically) has had its day. Islam (and some versions of Christian fundamentalism), we hope and pray, will one day end its attraction to power and vengeance.


By the way if you happen to see any of the jihadist gentlemen pictured above make sure you call the police quickly. Also call the police if you spot Christian fundamentalist Kent Hovind because it may be he has been sprung out of jail by fellow Sovereign Citizens.

Hovind: At war with the "pagan" world.

Footnote: * As Lord Kenneth Clark once put it; the reformers of the 16th century were in some ways simply swapping Papal and Catholic authority for the divine authority of their opinions. Appeal to the Bible was seldom moderated with epistemic humility; yes, the Bible is Revelation but its revelation is often mediated through a very human, sometimes flawed, channel. And yet the sola scriptura principle, in as much as it individualized the faith, may well have been a necessary precursor of the enlightenment and science; it set up the idea that theories, claims and propositions etc, must find authentication in the "textual" experience of the individual. (Where I use "textual" in the post modern sense)

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