Religion has many facets. One of them is a powerful capacity to mobilize large groups of individuals to fight and die for reasons extraneous to their own interests. Normally, you avoid situations where you risk sudden death or crippling injury, but if you’re fighting for your most cherished beliefs you may take the plunge, especially if those beliefs include the prospect of an afterlife where your sacrifice will be rewarded.
The blending of war and religion can be toxic in conflict situations. When religious symbolism is introduced, religion can become an aphrodisiac that operates on whole communities rather than individuals.
When war loomed in Europe in 1914, a whole generation of young men rushed to the colors, reacting like male mammals sniffing a female in heat. There was nothing new here; men have been behaving this way ever since what we used to call the Bronze Age, and perhaps even earlier.
In Old Testament times the newly minted concept of Yahweh, one all-purpose god, coopted the loyalty of twelve tribes, unifying and motivating them sufficiently to prevail in recurrent wars against other tribes, whose religious beliefs were spread around a less bellicose and more diverse pantheon. Early Christianity spawned martyrs and, in due course, many wars. Think Crusades. Mohammed started a new monotheistic doctrine, and his disciples conquered a vast area in the name of Islam.
Meanwhile, Christians proliferated and developed many sects, leading to the great religious wars of the sixteenth century. Islam split down the middle earlier in its growth cycle. The schism betweem Sunnis and Shi’a began when Mohammed himself had barely had time to settle down in his grave.
For many centuries, the aphrodisiac potential inherent in the Sunni-Shi’a split remained suffocated and squelched by autocratic regimes more concerned with maintaining an unstable status quo, and profiting from it, than in embarking on adventures that might unleash the demon of sectarianism. But now, the whole system of nation states in the Arab world is unraveling. Libya has cracked like Humpty Dumpty, and all the king’s men seem unable to put it together again. Iraq and Syria have lost much of their territory to ISIS, and are fighting to keep the rest. Lebanon and Yemen are smoking ominously, Egypt is keeping the lid on a smoldering volcano, and even Saudi Arabia is feeling the heat. Meanwhile, the radical Sunni vision of establishing a new Islamic caliphate has mobilized the support of disaffected young Muslims throughout the world, and many of them already are trickling into the area to swell ISIS’ ranks and fight for Islam.
I remember that decades ago, when I was living in Washington, I saw a historic old hardware store in Georgetown catch fire. They didn’t extinguish it in time to keep it away from the paint store, housed in an annex. Once the paint caught, the jig was up. That fire was so hot nothing could put it out, and the annex burned to the ground… I wonder whether the present fire in the Arab world will follow a similar course, now that the paint of religious fanaticism has well and truly joined the party, in a region that already had more than its share of conflicts.
Most of the affected countries are closer to the fire than we are. Russia has Islamic insurgencies, Chechen notably, on its southern border. China has to worry about the spread of the virus of militant Islam to its Uighur minority. Each of the European states has problems with refugees coming from the south, most of whom are Muslims. In Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan the refugee flow from Syria is putting great pressure on existing facilities.
By contrast, we are protected by thousands of miles of ocean. It would be easy for us to wash our hands of the whole mess and just send a check now and then to help feed the refugees. Of course we cannot do that, we’re not that kind of country. But we can and should look to the Eurasian powers to take the lead in coping with the present conflagration.
Meanwhile, humanists should resist the temptation to condemn Islam categorically, as a religion of terrorists. What we need to target is the social virus that uses religious slogans and narratives to gin up pressure for war. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims scattered around the world, including in our country, who have not caught the virus of militant Islam and indeed want nothing to do with it. We can look to such Muslims as our first line of defense against the spread of the ISIS fever to our own shores.
The basic problem is with militant fundamentalism, not with any particular religion. In the Middle East the fires will have to burn out, and in due course they will, while humanists work with other rational people to contain the present flames.