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Guest Post: Charles Cameron on In a Time of Religious Arousal

Charles Cameron is the regular guest-blogger at Zenpundit, and has also posted at Small Wars Journal, All Things Counterterrorism, for the Chicago Boyz Afghanistan 2050 roundtable and elsewhere.  Charles read Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, under AE Harvey, and was at one time a Principal Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies and the Senior Analyst with the Arlington Institute:

In a Time of Religious Arousal

by Charles Cameron

We live in times of considerable religious arousal – witness the Manhattan mosque and cultural center controversy, the on-again, off-again Florida Quran burning, last week’s Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial,Hindutva violence against Muslims in India, Muslim violence against Christians, the wars ongoing or drawing to an end in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of an Israeli or American attack on Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace process… In each of these instances, religious arousal has a role to play.

It would require considerable care, research, and craftsmanship to produce a nuanced and appropriately balanced view of human nature, the current state of the world, American, European and Islamic popular, polite and political opinions, the global admixture of peoples and approaches that characterize Islam, the history of violence, religious and otherwise, the braiding in different times and places of religion with politics, the roots of violence, the roots of peace and its meanings both as a state of cessation of conflict and as a state of contemplative calm…

Such a presentation would require at least a book-length treatment, and cannot be trotted out every time some new spark emerges from the ancient fires… but perhaps I can lay out some of my own considerations about the topic here, in somewhat condensed form.

The teachings of Jesus appear to have been directed towards an audience that included regular folk: fishermen, members of an occupying military force, radical zealots, a tax-collector, a physician, a prostitute, religious scholars… a fair cross-section of human kind…

Every religion of any real “size” will have followers who are intellectuals, fearful followers, angry and reactive followers, contemplative followers – followers who are skilled in the various businesses of crime prevention, defense, contemplation, literature, the sex trade, theft, medicine, art, bargaining, diplomacy, music, architecture, investigativejournalism, yellow journalism, inspirational writing, poetry…

It will of necessity address, and over time retain traces, of all their concerns.

Every religion of any real “size” will also have begun in a particular time, place and cultural setting, and will carry considerable parts of that setting with it, although it may also contain elements of a more profound or elevated spirit…

Every religion and scripture will, I suggest, promise a garden / paradise / city which is both attainable “outside” life, in a “there” which is hard to put into words, and “within” us, a similarly difficult concept to verbalize, in the moment, here.  It will also contain what I call “landmines in the garden” – verses or narratives that offer sanction to what we today might regard as abhorrent violence against the innocent “other”.

Thus in Numbers 25 in the Jewish Tanakh and Christian Bible, the Lord offers to Phineas / Pinchas a “covenant of priesthood”, because he recognized that his Lord did not appreciate an Israelite and a woman of the Midianitescopulating, and skewered the pair of them in flagrante through their conjoined parts with his spear — without first seeking the approval of the High Priest. 

This story gave rise to the notion of the “Phineas Priest” action, in which a “lone wolf” kills on behalf of [a version of the Christian] God.

One of the most radical Christian Identity theorists is Richard Kelly Hoskins, who in 1990 invented the notion of the “Phineas Priest,” built around the concept of the biblical Phinehas, who used a spear to slay an Israelite and a Midianite who had lain together. Phineas Priests believe themselves modern day Phinehases, with a self-appointed mission to strike out in the most violent and ruthless way against race mixers, abortionists, homosexuals, Jews, and other perceived enemies.

Hoskins expounded the idea in his 1990 book, Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood, citing both Robin Hood (!) and John Wilkes Booth as examples…

It seems highly probable that Byron de la Beckwith, killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, considered himself a Phineas Priest, see Reed Massengill, Portrait of a Racist: The Man who Killed Medgar Evers, pp 303-305.  Similarly, it appears that Rev. Paul Hill, convicted of abortion clinic murders, was considered by his friends, and may have considered himself, a Phineas Priest. Likewise Yigal Amir, assassin of Yitzak Rabin, seems to have had the Phineas story in mind when deciding, without rabbinic support, to go ahead and kill the Israeli PM.

For an example of a recent meeting of rabbis — in Jerusalem’s Ramada Renaissance hotel– to promote the permissibility under halachic law of the killing of goyim / gentiles, see this article by Max Blumenthal and the accompanying video:

Individuals, small sects or powerful movements will on occasion seize on these “landmine” texts within a religious tradition, and use them to justify acts of violence, large and small. 

The Crusades, for instance, did this on behalf of Christianity and against Islam, notwithstanding which St Francis was able to approach Saladdin’s nephew, the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, across the battle lines, coming in peace, discussing matters of devotion, and departing in peace.  The Islam of al-Andalus was for centuries, in comparison to the Christendom of its time, a model of scholarship and tolerance – though not without aspects of the pre-eminence of Islam, dhimmi status for People of the Book, the jizya, etc. 

Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God and currently our finest analyst of religious terrorism, recently co-edited a book on Buddhist Warfare (obligatory, cautionary note: Juergensmeyer and I are both contributors to Michael W Wilson and Natalie Zimmerman’s book, A Kingdom at Any Cost: Right-wing Visions of Apocalypse in America). The world of Zen has been rattled by controversy regarding the support of leading roshis for the Japanese imperial war effort — and there are apocalyptic references to a future war between Buddhists and the mleccha (presumably Islam) in the text ofwhat the Dalai Lama has termed an “initiation for world peace” — the Kalachakra tantra.

Alexander Berzin, who has translated for the Dalai Lama on numerous occasions when this teaching was given, comments:

A careful examination of the Buddhist texts, however, particularlyThe Kalachakra Tantraliterature, reveals both external and internal levels of battle that could easily be called “holy wars.” An unbiased study of Islam reveals the same. In both religions, leaders may exploit the external dimensions of holy war for political, economic, or personal gain, by using it to rouse their troops to battle. Historical examples regarding Islam are well known; but one must not be rosy-eyed about Buddhism and think that it has been immune to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, in both religions, the main emphasis is on the internal spiritual battle against one’s own ignorance and destructive ways.

Any and all religions can be used to justify internal struggle, external violence, external peace-making and inner peace: the question is how these various threads are interwoven in individual cultures and histories, and in our own times.

That is, I’d suggest, a matter for legitimate dispute – but not one with an easy one sentence or even single paragraph answer.

In my view, the most powerful response to the current global “jihadist” movement will come not from advocates of democracy (whether backed up or not by military force or threat of force) who will naturally appear to be interfering in affairs between the soul and its God that do not concern them – but from people within the jihadists’ own  religious tradition.

Noman Benotman, one-time leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and colleague of bin Laden and Zawahiri, wrote an open letter to bin Laden dated 10 September 2010 / 1 Shawwal 1431 AH, which the Quilliam Foundation just released under the title “Al-Qaeda: Your Armed Struggle is Over“.

Benotman’s letter opens with an invocationfrom Qur’an57:16:

Is it not time for believers to humble their hearts to the remembrance of God and the Truth that has been revealed.

The text of Benotman’s message is only four pages long, and I recommend reading the whole of it – but have selected this single passage as representative of his critique:

What has the 11th September brought to the world except mass killings, occupations, destruction, hatred of Muslims, humiliation of Islam, and a tighter grip on the lives of ordinary Muslims by the authoritarian regimes that control Arab and Muslim states? I warned you then, in summer 2000, of how your actions would bring US forces into the Middle East and into Afghanistan, leading to mass unrest and loss of life. You believed I was wrong. Time has proved me right

Benotman closes:

In urging you to halt your violence and re-consider your aims and strategy, I believe I am merely expressing the views of the vast majority of Muslims who wish to see their religion regain the respect it has lost and who long to carry the name of “Muslim” with pride.

For those who are concerned at the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki on English-speaking youth, there’s a detailed 130-page critique of his approach to global jihad from a strict Salafist perspective available on the web:

On the topic of suicide bombing / martyrdom operations viewed from an Islamic perspective, I’d suggest reading the Ihsanic Intelligence “Hijacked Caravan“:

And for a glimpse of the wider possibilities offered within the Islamic world, Bassam Tibi’s brief summary in his book, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder is worth considering:

To me religious belief in Islam is, as Sufi Muslims put it, “love of God,” not a political ideology of hatred. … In my heart, therefore, I am a Sufi, but in my mind I subscribe to ‘aql/”reason”, and in this I follow the Islamic rationalism of Ibn Rushd/Averroes. Moreover, I read Islamic scripture, as any other, in the light of history, a practice I learned from the work of the great Islamic philosopher of history IbnKhaldun. The Islamic source most pertinent to the intellectual framework of this book is the ideal of al-madina al-fadila/”the perfect state”, as outlined in the great thought of the Islamic political philosopher al-Farabi.

Irani and Funk’s “Rituals of Reconciliation: Arab-Islamic Perspectives” indicates something of what an Islamic approach to truth and reconciliation might look like:

No doubt there’s a great deal more that onemight say, but that must suffice for now.

Charles Cameron.

11 Responses to “Guest Post: Charles Cameron on In a Time of Religious Arousal”

  1. zen Says:

    Hi Charles,
    I’ve been wondering, for some years, where the radical, racist right came up with " Phineas Priesthood". It’s been floating out there for decades since, at least, the murder of radio talk show host Alan Berg by neo-Nazis, and you answered it.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Heh:  I have been working up a more detailed account of "Phineas: ancient and modern" to post here for some while now — it’s in two parts, each about 2,500 words long in its present draft, and includes Maccabean and Mormon instances of the story as well as those that I’ve recounted briefly here…
    One of these days.

  3. zen Says:

    Charles, you are out of my ken with the Maccabeans – I’ll have to wait until you bring the draft out into the light of day. 🙂

  4. Remembering 9/11 | Crossroads Arabia Says:

    […] are addressed, Hindu and Buddhist extremism only briefly. I think the article worth your attention. In a Time of Religious Arousal Charles […]

  5. Remembering 9/11 | Crossroads Arabia Says:

    […] are addressed, Hindu and Buddhist extremism only briefly. I think the article worth your attention. In a Time of Religious Arousal Charles […]

  6. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Charles, did you see Eric Rankin’s analysis about the role of Eden in science fiction?http://www-personal.umich.edu/~esrabkin/sf/SF_Eden_Complex.htm

  7. J. Scott Says:

    Charles,  Excellent post. I’m currently reading Islamic Imperialism, so your post provides a welcomed balance. Your paragraph that ends with  "but from people within the jihadists’ own  religious tradition" is exactly right, however many would differ on "how" to change the attitudes "within." I believe much violence in the name of religion can be attributed to a sense of desperation on the part of the believer. Zen and I have exchanged an email on this topic, but I believe it worth restating that most religious believers aspire to virtue which is supported by a code of morality (the code of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic traditions are similar in the macro). The 20th Century brought the rise of moral relativism, where man displaced the deity and became a "god" unto himself; and thus found himself lacking a supernatural anchor for his definition of right and wrong—for virtue. The West embraced the state, by and large, and displaced religion as an arbiter of virtue and morality. (I’ll email you an essay by Theodore Dalrymple published in the WSJ recently where he took on the phenomena of sentimentality…) In many parts of the Islamic world religion has not been displaced, they see the moral implications of the Western "way," as it were, in our exports; namely media, and recoil. Most want simply to be left alone (as in Afghanistan), but others, lacking opportunities/access to a modern life, see jihad as the only viable alternative, and (Bonus!) it is sanctioned by their holy writings. The jihadis are in a do-loop fed by religion, pride, (disgust?) and global media princes who care only about ratings—essentially, virtue be damned. I would humbly submit that West could do worse than rediscover cultural virtue. We’ve built magnificent machines and luxuries, but man, as the writer of Ecclesiastes aptly pointed out, remains unchanged.

  8. J. Scott Says:

    BTW, my comments were not meant as a justification for violence in the name of religion, but rather an possible explanation.

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    A quick thanks to Bryan and Scott — both of you have sent me scurrying off in new directions!

  10. Conflict: Addendum « coyote blue Says:

    […] the Phineas Priests of all religions: you are the reason I cannot 100% believe in literal interpretations of scriptures.  I will point […]

  11. Jane Sampson Says:

    There’s an endless number of gullible goyim dying for Israel.

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