Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Religious jokes

So the Buddha walks into a pizza restaurant and says "Make me one with everything!"

OK, OK, so hardly the most original... but it's not easy being funny about religion in this environment. I was watching a documentary recently about the phenomenon of suicide bombing. Needless to say, the film-makers appeared to skirt over the fact that most suicide bombers are not in fact Islamic terrorists. The Tamil Separatists are Hindus engaged in a political / nationalist struggle against a larger Hindu state... so when they use the tactic, it can hardly be described as "religious". And they were the most prolific suicide bombers prior to the Iraq debacle (which I'd describe as an ongoing war rather than a series of terrorist actions - and certainly as much political as it is religious).

Update: See comments for clarification on the Tamil thing... I was wrong about the "Hindu State" point, but still maintain it's a political rather than religious conflict.

Also, when it comes to terrorism in general (suicide and non-suicide)... the single largest sufferers; making up almost a quarter of all global deaths due to terrorism; are not Israelis, or Americans, or Brits or Spaniards. They are Nepalese people at the hands of (technically atheist) Maoist guerrillas.

Just a perspective thing.

Nevertheless, the documentary (or the part I caught... I surfed into it while it was already on; so perhaps they discussed the Tamil Tigers earlier?) focussed on the religious aspect of suicide bombing. In particular, from an Islamic perspective. I guess this is to be expected given recent events in London, but I can't help feeling that the film-makers (as well as the media and public in general) are making way too much out of the link between Islam and suicide terrorism.

As the documentary progressed, an interview was carried out with an accomplice of a Palestinian suicide bomber (in prison). He was clearly an educated and intelligent young man. On the surface he appeared rational and even displayed a subtle sense of humour and irony that one doesn't usually associate with psychopaths.

He discussed, sensibly, the political background to his struggle. He explained that when he was a child he had been assaulted by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint (anyone who has dabbled in psychology and understands the pressure-cooker environment that must exist in a Palestinian refugee camp will see the roots of the man's psychosis right there). He explained the hopelessness felt by himself and everyone around him. And he claimed that what gets described as "terrorism" is merely "asymmetrical warfare". Palestinians don't have the tanks or bulldozers that would allow them to adopt the Israeli tactics of destroying the homes of the families of enemy combatants. They don't have jet fighters armed with powerful missiles ready to target enemy combatants (and anyone within a quarter mile blast radius). And they don't have helicopter gunships to hunt down and kill enemy combatants (and anyone else visiting the same market-stall at the time).

And so - claimed the bomber's accomplice - how else can they fight back against an occupying army which does have and does employ these weapons?

There are those, of course, who declare that Israeli tactics target combatants, and any civilian deaths are "collateral damage". On the other hand, Palestinian tactics target civilians. They are therefore morally reprehensible in a way that Israeli tactics are not.

But this simply doesn't stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Those targeted by Israel are suspected terrorists. Israel makes the claim that it is an enlightened democratic state (the only one in the area, it is often said!) and indeed bases much of its moral authority on that claim. However, the use of military force by any government to carry out extrajudicial executions in crowded public areas, with the clear foreknowledge that many more "random" people will die than "targeted people", does not conform to any standard of "enlightened democracy" upon which moral authority can be based.

An analogy... I find myself in a pub in an unfamiliar part of town one night. The pub is packed with strangers, all out for a fun Friday night. But two tough-looking skinheads are sitting in one corner. As I pass their table, one of them pulls a knife out and promises me that at some point in the evening, he's going to plunge it into my back. So I step outside the pub door and throw a hand-grenade back into the building killing 40 people, including the two skinheads.

Question: Is there a court in any "enlightened democracy" which would accept my plea of self-defence?

All of this is pretty standard fare of course. And to be honest, it's all been said a thousand times. There are those who will claim I'm being "anti-Israeli" and will extend that to "anti-semitic" based upon the fact that I'm criticising the policy of a supposed enlightened democracy (aren't you supposed to do that... isn't it part of the very definition of enlightened democracy?)

One thing though that should be mentioned... the rational and ironic suicide-bomber's accomplice on the recent documentary was asked how suicide terrorism fit into his religious beliefs. Without missing a beat, he transformed from an outwardly rational young man into a complete nutter.

Paradise awaited the dead bomber / murderer, he claimed. Allah will marry him to 72 beautiful virgins, and he will live in a land where there are rivers of purest water, of milk, of honey, and of non-alcoholic wine.

It was the specificity of the non-alcoholic wine in heaven that truly revealed the man's madness (set aside the whole 72 virgins thing... though that makes as much sense as eating soup with a fork). He was simply repeating dogma... this man who could clearly analyse and interpret complex political issues was content to parrot nonsense in the name of religion.

There's absolutely no question that adding religion to a conflict (as it has been done by both sides of the Palestinian conflict... and as Dubya Bush seems eager to do in his crusade to rid the world of terror - anyone heard of his plans for Nepal by the way?) is a surefire way of taking existing psychosis and magnifying it to the point where it's almost all that remains. The tendency to conflate Jewishness with current Israeli policy is just as much a manifestation of this as the tendency of an apparently intelligent Palestinian to suddenly spout ludicrous beliefs about 72 virgins and Allah making the distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine after you've already made it to heaven.

Personally I think all religious dogma needs to be exposed as the tasteless joke that it is.

So the Buddha goes to a dentist for some extremely painful root-canal surgery. He point-blank refuses the Novocaine offered to dull the pain, however. His reason? To Transcend Dental Medication (of course).


Blogger Jarndyce said...

_Tamil Separatists are Hindus engaged in a political / nationalist struggle against a larger Hindu state_

I think it's actually a Sinhalese Buddhist state. Until the recent Iraqi bloodbath, there were few examples of suicide bombings being targeted at co-religionists. Even there you could argue that it's Sunni v Shia, and therefore still not co-religion, not fully anyway.

Second, while your thesis about asymmetric warfare fits quite nicely onto Israel-Palestine (though only if you minimise the importance of the religious mumbo-jumbo used to recruit, indoctrinate and focus-at-the-vital-moment the bombers), it doesn't do so well in Tanzania, Kenya, Morocco, Madrid, New York and so on. These are not context-specific responses to direct oppression/military imbalance but symbolic acts of mass murder that are very hard to explain if you absent the religious element.

11/8/05 15:36  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Hey Jarndyce... well, based upon extensive research (half an hour with google fleshing out some hazily recalled A'Level History) it seems that the Tamil Tigers aren't only blowing up other Hindus. However, a large proportion of their victims were / are of the same religion, and I'm confident in my underlying point that it's primarily a political, not a religious, conflict.

All the same, point taken, they are not seeking independence from a "Hindu state" as my hazily recalled A'Level History suggested.

With regards to the asymmetric warfare bit, though, I'm still sceptical about the role played by religion in motivating suicide bombers.

I agree that it's a powerful tool of recruitment. And I also agree that religion allows potential mass murderers to justify to themselves an otherwise unthinkable act.

However, I simply don't accept that religion is motivating terrorism in any great way (at least not the terrorism in "Tanzania, Kenya, Morocco, Madrid, New York and so on"). Religious belief is used to shore up pre-existing psychotic delusions. And it is used (usually knowingly and cynically, I believe) to add a "higher cause" to political struggle.

11/8/05 16:16  
Blogger Jarndyce said...

Agreed on the Sri Lanka conflict being primarily political. But I do think the reluctance of "terrorists" everywhere to suicide bomb co-religionists is interesting and maybe salient, somehow.

On politics/religion and Islamist suicide bombers. Jeez, it's very tricky. Part of the problem, I think, is that at its core Islam is such a political religion, so motivations get all funked up together in a big psycho-poltico-religio-realpolitiko-nutterist soup. The real fools are those who try to pass it off as exclusively one or the other. It's impossible to be that sure.

11/8/05 18:43  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

I agree completely that insisting it's exclusively one or the other is a silly mistake (yet it's the line being taken by the political mainstream both here in the UK and across in the US... "the evil ideology" thing).

I guess the main point I'm trying to make is that it seems obvious to me (though perhaps I'm in a minority of one or two on this) that almost all terrorism is essentially politically motivated, though clearly religion is used by an awful lot of terrorists for a variety of reasons (justification, recruitment opportunities, whatever).

Therefore, it seems equally obvious that we should be addressing the problem from a political perspective and most certainly not by announcing that the enemy we face is motivated purely by "evil" and has absolutely no political point to make whatsoever.

The reasons for the near-cessation in violence in Northern Ireland recently are many and varied. But the fact that it only occurred after engaging in political dialogue with the terrorists is - in my view - the most significant fact to note.

11/8/05 18:54  
Anonymous Matt Daws said...


You hint at, but don't fully explore, something which came up at Crooked Timber recently (but then died in noise). Namely, a-symmetric warfare. To me, I'm not sure we can say that targetting civilians is always wrong. In a truly a-symmetric situation, when you're fighting a vastly superior force, it is quite possible for it to be impossible to target military targets: they will be simply too well defended.

Now, I don't think this justifies e.g. the Palestinian situation: I've seen no evidence that attacks there help the Palestinian cause at all, and often one sees a pattern of Israel actually doing something good for the Palestinians, which is then stalled by some attack, and then the mountains of bad-faith which then pile down. Ditto Iraq in many ways: the US has made a commitment to democracy, and it would be in the best interests of Iraqis to play the political game, at least for now.

But, at least in theory, to say that suicide bombings against civilians is wrong is to suggest that a vastly superior military force can basically do what it likes, and that any oppressed people are morally wrong to fight back. That doesn't seem right; it's certainly not an argument which will convince people!

12/8/05 12:22  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Matt; to be honest this piece was something of an off-the-cuff response to the documentary. It's been so long since I posted something substantial here that I was determined to get it written and posted quickly and "in one go".

That's the reason for the factual error regarding the government of Sri Lanka (usually I'd do more research), as well as the reason why I didn't follow up any of the interesting philosophical issues; like the one you highlight.

The thing is, and this is something I've been trying to write about since July 7th, I'm a moral absolutist. (Shock! Horror!)

I feel that Palestinian suicide bombing is - objectively - morally reprehensible. However I find the Israeli tactics of extrajudicial execution (with the foreknowledge of probable "collateral damage") to be equally reprehensible. There's no other way to view the situation if you believe that human life has an intrinsic moral value (as do I).

That said... complex situations like the one in Palestine clearly cannot be resolved by requesting that, as both sides are acting immorally, could they please just stop it.

This is why the question of the validity of asymmetric warfare comes to the fore. Moral absolutism does not (despite the claims of it's many critics) have to be a philosophy within a vaccuum. It can be adjusted to deal with real-world situations without comprimising the integrity of the system. My moral absolutism, for example, sits alongside a belief in cultural pluralism. Certainly they make uneasy bedfellows, but far less so than - say - capitalism and christianity.

So the question of asymmetric warfare does indeed interest me. As you point out, one can easily imagine a situation where it is the only option left to a group of people being dominated by a far superior military force. And of course, actions cannot be judged morally if they are the result of coercion.

But hopefully I'll get around to elaborating on all this in a proper, structured article.

12/8/05 14:27  
Anonymous Matt Daws said...


I look forward to that article!

My main point is that I don't think it helps to be, well, as you put it, a "moral absolutist". It's not an argument that is going to convince someone who is willing to kill themselves for a belief. And I don't think it's an argument that's actually relevant in any real case we can think of (but it's clearly relevant in thought-experiments). I'd much rather we argued the complexities of, say, the Israel-Palestine situation, point out how both sides are often at fault, and how some sort of mutual understanding must be found for a lasting peace. That's much harder to do than simple condemnation based upon "targetting civilians is wrong, always", but to me it's the only thing that will work.

Similarly with the London bombs: the government should be admitting that Iraq might have been wrong, that even if it was right, there were many legitimate reasons to oppose it, etc. etc. The government could then legitimately point out that there are methods of political dissent in this country, and ways of changing policy, that do not require killing people. Sadly we instead get the simple-minded message that "Saddam was bad, the war was right, suicide bombings are wrong". This seems to achieve nothing.

12/8/05 15:45  
Blogger L said...

dang! I've got some catching up to do on your blog.

14/8/05 19:02  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

dang! I've got some catching up to do on your blog.

Not really. Here's a précis...

House of Lords: Silly.
Religion: Pain in the arse.
Robin Cook: Robin COCK!
Iran situation: surreal. And what's with the seals?

That brings you up to date.

15/8/05 02:53  

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