(version in Village Magazine, May 2015)
The Charlie Hebdo attacks by individuals purporting to represent Islam have again linked that religion to violent behaviour anathema to Western, liberal values. From stoning of adulterers to beheadings and burning alive of infidels, flogging bloggers and even female genital mutilation (fgm), a picture registers of a religion stubbornly rooted in a barbaric past, even if those practices have little or no justification in Islam.
What we generalise as ‘Islam’ is a constantly evolving and diverse set of beliefs influenced by the varying settings of its over one billion global adherents.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim claimed that religions are: “a system of ideas with which the individual represent to themselves the society of which they are members”. This follows Aristotle’s dictum that: “men create the gods after their own image”.
A contrasting view, articulated by another sociologist Max Weber, is that religions of themselves generate cultural conditions: most famously he argued that Protestant work ethic led to modern capitalism.
This focuses the question on whether religious violence flows from the teachings of the religion itself or whether religious discourse is simply used to justify violence that has deeper roots in human nature.
Engagement with the ideas of René Girard might shed some light on this question. Girard identified a universal tendency towards what he termed “acquisitive mimesis”. By this he meant that humans copy each other’s consumption (a version of ‘monkey see, monkey do’) which naturally leads to rivalry over scarce resources.
Moreover, and unlike other animals, humans evolved an ability to employ deadly weapons, beginning with stone projectiles. With this capacity for wreaking destruction early humans found it necessary to resolve potentially fatal conflicts brought about by competition for resources.
Girard identifies the mechanism of the scapegoat across a whole range of cultural contexts which intermittently becalms the violent tendencies that bedevil human societies. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion is an obvious example, but he found this to be a near-universal feature of tribal societies.
Religions play a prominent role. According to Girard: “The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence.”
He also claims that: “Prohibitions are intended to keep distant or to remove anything that threatens the community.” Adding: “There is no prohibition that cannot be related to mimetic conflict.”
This is consistent with Robert Harris’s thesis on why pig meat is taboo in Islam: the Middle East (where Islam emerged) does not contain forests as Europe has (or had at least) where pigs could feed on acorns and other foods generally inedible to humans. In contrast in the arid conditions of the Middle East pigs would have to compete with humans for their food. The conversion of food into flesh diminished its value and so it became haram (forbidden). The prohibition therefore decreased competition for food, and its potential for violence.
With this in mind we may explore the origins of violence in Islam where the socio-cultural context is important to our understanding of how that faith is articulated.
The harsh desert environment of post-nomadic Saudi Arabia where literacy was rare and violence endemic preserves religious practices that we in the West consider barbarous. The discovery of enormous oil reserves after World War I thrust unimaginable wealth into the hands of the new state, and the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam has been used by the ruling Al-Saud family to legitimate their rule.
Today, a range of interpretations of Islam are found in different countries. Most Muslims in the West find little difficulty reconciling their lifestyles with the norms of their societies, albeit they may be highly critical of the foreign and domestic policies of their governments.
When we ask why individuals embrace terrorism a consideration of their life prospects and the nature of their societies is an important consideration. Would-be-terrorists observe a global environment where disproportionate wealth (ergo power and munitions) lies in the hands of Western states whose foreign policies have often been directed against Muslim countries. Jihad is interpreted to suit these conditions: extreme and seemingly gratuitous violence balances the wealth and power differential.
It is also instructive to recall Christianity’s history of justifying the Crusades, the Inquisition and oppression of minorities. The Bible was even used to justify slavery before the American Civil War.
With peace reigning in Western societies, at least internally, a more harmonious Christianity has been articulated. The corpora of works that constitute both Christianity and Islam contain a wide range of possible interpretations.
But Weber’s view of religion should not be dismissed entirely. The often intolerant Wahhabi teaching emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last decades have had a strong and worrying influence on many of the global umma. The values of a violent, desert society remain influential.
Reflecting on the nature of, and differences between, global religions is instructive. One distinguishing feature of the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism is they firmly place man at the centre of the universe with dominion over all life.
This extends to how we consume food which involves a fundamental relationship with the earth. In contrast most forms of Buddhism and other Eastern traditions see humans as one among other animals and advocate restraint on the unnecessary killing of other animals for food.
At face value these prohibitions may seem irrelevant to inter-human violence, but if a religion restrains intentional killing the level of inter-human violence in that society could decrease. Advances in weapon-technology were also linked to human predation on other animals.
Perhaps prohibiting violence towards animals can temper a need to scapegoat other humans. Through denial of what many consider a natural inclination to consume the flesh of other animals we might begin to reverse the acquisitive mimesis that brings humanity to the brink of self-destruction.
Rene Girard observed: “Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation.” He said that “What impelled men to hunt was the search for a reconciliatory victim.” And concluded: “The common denominator is the collective murder, whether attributed to animals or men, rather than the hunted species or various techniques employed.” He also argues that animals were first domesticated for their use in sacrifice, not for their value as food.
Thus the consumption of animals is, at least in its origin, unnecessary and symbolic. A means of resolving our “acquisitive mimesis”. By curbing this behaviour societies diminish the “collective murder”; more so when we consider how the demand that consuming animals places on scarce resources and how it is now often undertaken as a form of competitive display; eating a steak can be an affirmation of wealth or manhood.
The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a form of politics divorced entirely from violence. This great achievement is especially identified with Gandhi who guided Indians to throw off the shackles of the British Empire through non-violent resistance.
Pacifism and vegetarianism often go hand in hand. Leo Tolstoy another who recognised the need to reverse the acquisitive streak in human nature claimed that: “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields”. The cycle of violence could begin at the dinner table.
Gandhi explicitly connected his political philosophy with how other animals were treated when he said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” This moral progress we assume involves the development of a society where other human beings are valued and not seen in competitive terms: a curbing of the tendency towards acquisitive mimesis.
Of course a person may renounce animal products and still exhibit psychotic tendencies, as Adolf Hitler did. The motivation for any forbearance counts. But it is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that it will be discovered that the consumption of flesh, especially from cruelly treated animals, has an effect on our mental state. Perhaps by renouncing animal products an individual becomes more sensitive to suffering of all kinds.
The monotheistic faiths also acknowledge the violent stain of consuming other animals. The Christian obligation to avoid meat on the once numerous days of religious observation might be viewed as simple self-denial but Christian ideas on the subject can be traced to the (1st Century AD) Stoic philosophy of Musonius who claimed meat was suited to wild beasts and regarded it as a “heavy” food that dulls the intellect and “darkens” the soul.
Stoicism influenced the 4th century theologian St Jerome who claimed that animals were not originally created for human consumption and that only after the Great Flood, when God saw that humans were wicked and greedy, were they given the freedom to eat it. Abstinence ‘lightens’ the soul and brings the Christian to a state suitable for prayer.
More so than their Christian counterparts, Muslims and Jews have strict laws regulating consumption of other animals. The defilement of eating meat is avoided by strict ritual prohibitions. That Christianity does not also ordain these rituals can be traced to St Paul’s rejection of Jewish dietary laws.
It is easy to cast the Muslim as the aggressor against our civilised Western societies, but when we examine the devastating effect that Western capitalism wreaks against the natural world and the often concealed violence that is brought to bear against the Third World resistance is understandable, even justifiable. But the demand for the collective murder of the scapegoat victim contrasts with the truly revolutionary pacifism of Gandhi’s political philosophy.
Where resistance is articulated through a religious discourse it is relevant that some religions offer approval for violent reaction whereas others may temper that behaviour. Ultimately curbing the tendency for acquisitive mimesis by a mechanism other than the scapegoat offers the only prospect of saving humanity from interminable conflict.
But simply abandoning all our religions and embracing secular ideologies such as socialism will not necessarily achieve this outcome as the corruption of Communism exhibits. So Girard observed: “Human beings are soon moved to make religion itself into a new scapegoat, failing to realize once more that the violence is theirs. To expel religion is, as always, a religious gesture – as much so today when the sacred is loathed and abhorred in the past when it was worshipped and adored.” Curbing a human capacity for violence that arises out of our greed is what needs to be addressed.
A prohibition on animal consumption may engender compassion for all living creatures and reverse a long-standing human tendency to mimic the consumption of those around us. This may offer a guide to resolving the human capacity for highly destructive behaviour and potentially curb the acquisitiveness that generates a perceived need for a victim. It might also help curb the spiralling consumption that endangers the human presence on earth.