I’m reading this rather lengthy article on NYT interactive, and it feels like I’m immersed in a documentary film. It’s not fun reading, but I think it’s important. If you have an hour or two to spare, you may wish to check it out yourself.
A couple times, in comment-threads on FtB, I’ve railed against contextualizing the actions of ISIS or jihadis solely through the lens of religion. The stories in the NYT article are really painful to read, and – while religion is a component of what is going on – the story seems to support what I believe: these are political events, sometimes contextulized religiously and sometimes religious vocabulary blurs our vision and makes us interpret political machinations as being faith-based when they aren’t.
When I’m having a good orgasm and say “Ooooo god” it doesn’t mean that I actually believe in god or that god had anything to do with it. It’s that sometimes, when we’re fumbling around for words to express something, we fall back on vocabulary that is part of the environment around us. I remember once watching some footage of an irregular jihadi mortar-crew, yelling “allahu akbar!” every time they dropped a round down the tube. They weren’t religiously inspired any more than some other mortar operator who yells “CLEAR!”
The people in the NYT article may believe different things but, to me, they sound less like people operating out of some kind of faith and more like people who are mostly puzzled; sometimes just happy to be alive – sometimes not caring so much, anymore. Doubtless it’s true when some pundit says that ISIS is a bunch of nihilists – no doubt they do have nihilists, but there’s the nihilism of being absorbed in a self-supporting set of beliefs that tear apart everything you value in the outside world, and there’s the nihilism of watching the outside world apparently swirling down the toilet around you.
I’m not arguing that islam doesn’t produce corrupting and violent beliefs; it does. But what really kicks corrupting and violent beliefs into overdrive is being in the hopeless swirl of political corruption and political violence.
A few years ago I had a really unsettling experience in which I had to keep a Vietnam veteran friend awake – he was on a maintenance dose of Haldol thanks to injuries from that war, and when I offered him beer, he said “sure” without thinking about it. And I didn’t know about the Haldol and how it interacts with alcohol.* To keep him awake I set up some microphones and my MP3 recorder and started interviewing him about the war. He relaxed into the chair and his eyes hardened into the “thousand yard stare” that I suspect he wore constantly during his two combat tours. And, as he talked, all I could think about was the psychological trauma that inflicting and having inflicted upon one does to a 19 year-old whose idea, prior to de-planing at Da Nang, of “hard times” was working a paper-route. The NYT account carries that same scent of the destruction of lives and hopes. The puzzlement, the randomness, the nihilism of the thousand yard stare.
I’m never going to pass up a good chance to make fun of religion, so please don’t take this as me sticking up for islam. If you need to take this as me promoting any idea it’s that politics sucks and politicians suck. They suck worse than imams and popes. Sure, in some countries, religion and politics are closer than in others. It’s odd that people can say “ISIS are cold-blooded islamic killers” while ignoring the fact that “politicians are cold-blooded killers” – sometimes you get one like George W Bush whose faith helps blind him by giving him undeserved confidence and other times you get one like Henry Kissinger whose antiseptic “realpolitik” has been offered as an indictment of atheism. Realpolitik is more a religion of hate than islam; all politics is.
For years I was a fan of Christopher Hitchens, whose religion-bashing was truly delicious. He was as atheistic as he could be, yet he supported the US’ taking sides in a political civil war that defined itself along religious lines, and sneered about “draining the swamp” and killing the mosquitoes. So on one hand he blamed religion for war and rapine and on the other hand – as an atheist – cheered on the same war.
The NYT story is about how complicated everything feels when you’re in the whirlwind. I don’t think any of the people in that story would say that faith drove much of any of what they experienced. Maybe whatever faith that came up was more of a refuge, in which people bewildered by events find shelter. It’s complicated, and simple “islam is a religion of violence” narratives don’t make atheists look smarter when we offer them.
I listened to a piece on NPR the other day, talking about what refugees from the US and NATO powers’ ostensibly well-meaning but largely unasked-for “regime change” efforts** have brought on hundreds of thousands of people – the “refugees” and “immigrants” that the racist brexit fearmongers held up as Exhibit A. Let me tell you, if I had a family and they were being put through that? Ugh. It is rational to want to kill the motherfucker who did that to you.
You can’t turn hundreds of thousands of people’s cities into this:
Street scene in Syria
and make them live like this:
Then talk shit about them being bad people for having that happen to them…
… and then tell me it’s religion making some of them snap.
(* Spoiler: he survived; pancreatic cancer finished him 2 years later)
(** The CIA’s involvement in the Libyan uprising was hidden fairly well, but it was there. The US hasn’t even bothered to hide its attempts to fuel the conflict in Syria and may have helped ignite it. The CIA has been funding opposition forces all over Syria for decades.)