You know what I am referring to. The news, your Facetwitter feed, even good old fashioned communication- it is full of the desperate events that unfolded in Paris over the last couple of days. Violence and murder done in the name of religion. Violence that grew like poisonous funghi in the shadow cast by other violence.
Events like this have the capacity to shape our age, for good or ill. Our response to it should be to preach caution, to encourage a sense of proportion and to remind people of history, so we might learn from it.
People of faith have a particular role to play here, given the centrality of theology as both framing narrative and ideological justification for unspeakable barbarity. The meaning of ancient texts has become so mixed up with tribal identity and weight of injustice that perhaps it is only from within religion that violence can be challenged. I know this as the hard, unyielding condemning religion I grew up with was transformed through thoughtful engagement with a different kind of belief.
Giles Fraser had this to say about the relationship between iconography and religion;
But, of course, these terrorists weren’t really interested in theology. They thought that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were insulting their human tribe, a tribe they called fellow Muslims. And maybe they were. But whatever else was happening, it was the atheist cartoonists who were performing the religious function and the apparently believing Muslims who had forgotten their deepest religious insights. For any representation of the divine that leads people to murder each other deserves the maximum possible disrespect.
But back to the point- what should be our response?
I mentioned attempting to retain some perspective. It is so hard to do this when bombarded with so much infotainment/news coverage. Meanwhile extremes are shouted from the margins by those who have a different tribal agenda- Muslims are all evil, as is their religion; we are all under attack from immigrants in our midst; all religion is bad; Christians were right all along etc etc.
Let us remember in this white/anglo-saxon/protestant centric world we inhabit that across much of the planet human life is cheap. The deaths in Paris were tragic, dreadful, appalling. But Yesterday in Nigeria around 2000 people were killed in a different Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram. Be honest now- did you know about this? How do you emotionally and intellectually respond?
Then there are the lessons of even recent history (let us not even mention the dreadful colonial legacy that has far more to do with the creation of terrorism than religion ever could have).
Although we have to start there in a way. At the end of Empire, Britain had lived with terrorism for at least 100 years. The transition from colonial territory to autonomous nation has rarely been peaceful; too many artificial borders imposed on disparate peoples, with a history of being on different sides of the many colonially sponsored conflicts. Britain learned the hard way that conventional warfare is never the long term solution to insurgency and terror. Or rather we had to re learn this again and again, treading a path that is remarkably familiar; concentration camps, secret police, propaganda campaigns that leave no room for dissidents, and along the way many a blood bath; Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland etc etc. Eventually we had to talk to people. We had to turn away from violence and try to make peace in the face of all sorts of provocations.
Ah- but these conflicts were largely about geography, not about ideology, I hear you cry; modern terrorism has no obvious negotiation point; we can not walk away, because it is coming to us- our homes, our streets. It arises internally from our own ethnic minority communities.
I would suggest that there are more similarities than would first appear, it is just that like all post modern movements, terror has globalised. It has worldwide franchises, but power and motivation are still generated in the conflict zones.
After the attack on the World Trade Centre, America declared a war of vengeance. They were quite open about it at the time. Someone had to pay. First Afghanistan was invaded, with a narrative about evil regimes, then on far shakier evidence (later almost entirely discredited) Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The bulging prison camps became training grounds for new terror movements. Surveillance and a suspension of the rule of law was seen as justifiable and expedient. To support the war effort successive governments incited fear in a wider public who, in general terms, had probably never been so safe. Has it worked? Can we really regard the world, even the USA as a safer place, a better place?
Here is Owen Jones writing about events in Norway in the wake of their brush with terror;
Three and a half years ago, the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed Oslo, and then gunned down dozens of young people on the island of Utøya. His rationalisation for the atrocity was to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway: that the Norwegian left had opened the country’s doors to Muslims and diluted its Christian heritage. But Norway’s response was not retribution, revenge, clampdowns. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity,” declared the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. When Breivik was put on trial, Norway played it by the book. The backlash he surely craved never came.
Here’s how the murderers who despicably gunned down the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo do not want us to respond. Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.
As a nation we are vulnerable to many things in these changing and rootless times. Our chances of early death at the hands of an Islamic terrorist are absolutely tiny. Lots of other things that we live with every day will kill thousands of us; our lifestyles, our motor cars. There is a chance that our over consuming will be the end of our kind.
So let us pause, remember with respect those souls who passed and then try to make peace with ourselves and then with our neighbours.