A few years ago, I nearly had an argument down the line with the BBC presenter, Edward Stourton. We were having a pre-broadcast chat about religious extremism before a slot on the Sunday Programme. He asked me why I thought religion caused so much violence. I replied that secularism had caused an awful lot more. He sounded disapproving; it was the wrong point for this programme slot, and for the BBC.
The gist of what I wanted to say, both on and off-air, was that the 20th century was one of prodigious secular violence. The mass casualties of First World War’s national rivalries, Hitler’s National Socialism, Stalin’s and Mao’s Communism, followed by Pol Pot’s crazed mass slaughter in Cambodia, caused deaths beyond counting. The 1994 Rwandan genocide showed features of the Jewish Holocaust but its scale was smaller. The Balkans wars from 1992-1995 did have religious elements: Muslims were massacred, Serbian churches burnt, but, as Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and Kosovans killed and were killed, religion played second fiddle to extremist ethnic politics. The wars demonstrated racial and ethnic hatred and showed the 20th century continuing to the end to retain a capacity for secular violence.
I have to concede that the partition of India, though the responsibility of Churchill and Mountbatten, brought about religious violence on an unprecedented scale; even if it broke out under the flag of rival nationalisms, each nationalism had powerful communal religious elements. But so rare in the late 20th century were effective, power-seeking religious movements that the Iranian revolution in 1979 caught the CIA watching the communists not the mullahs. Western admirers of Buddhism were likewise surprised by the Buddhist extremism that informed the barbarous treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar more recently. Communal outbreaks of religious violence occurred intermittently during the 20th. Century but, compared to the killing involved in rival nationalisms and quests for ethnic superiority, were unusual.
It occurred to me after the Stourton interview that widespread erosion in the ethical conduct and targeting of State violence accompanied the steady decline of religion during the 20th century. States ended the 19th century endorsing the ancient religious restraints of jus in bello, the practice of just war). The Hague Convention Laws and Customs of War on Land, was finalised in 1899 and signed by all the major world powers within the next decade. The US Senate ratified it in 1902.
This prohibition of deliberate killing of non-combatants was re-iterated as part of secular international law in the adoption of the document Protection of Civilian Populations against Bombing from the Air by the League of Nations Assembly on 30 September 1938, a response to Guernica, the Japanese bombing of Chinese cities, and the rising importance of air-power in war. As Hitler invaded Poland a year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the bombing of civilians as “a form of barbarism”. It was a barbarism adopted as policy not only by the Nazis but in retaliation by the British, followed by the USA, during the Second World War. The fire-bombing of Dresden and Hamburg, the atomic blasts that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were justified to the Allies’ publics, without any firm evidence, as hastening the end of the war. These attacks were deliberately directed at civilian populations, on the instructions of the leaders of States which some 6-7 years earlier had outlawed them. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 reinforced codes of conduct during war but, these like their predecessors, were soon transgressed without penalty.
Daniel Ellsberg in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner makes a strong case that this moral collapse in the conduct of war directly contributed to the new barbarism. He defines this as the threat to conduct thermonuclear war, deploying in a first strike devastating nuclear weapons and destroying all an opponent’s major cities. That the nuclear strategy of the USA was designed to create a plausible threat of first strike was kept from the US public. Given what we now know about the Nuclear Winter which would follow general nuclear war, and its attendant crop failures and mass starvation, Ellsberg’ use of a new word, omnicide, is justified. It expresses a magnitude of violence previously unimaginable which would cause the near extinction of the human race.
Omnicide remains a real possibility. States do not seem able to restrain themselves. Saudi Arabia and Iran appear unbothered by the prospect of devastation and mass starvation in Yemen. Both could yet develop nuclear weapons. Consider the saturation bombing of Cambodia, courtesy of Henry Kissinger, that created the human waste-land in which Pol Pot could take power. Despite claims of careful targeting, look at the remains of retaken Raqaa and Mosul, and the many Syrian cities demolished by Assad with Russian support. No one prosecutes the victors for killing civilian populations with bombs or by starvation.
The violence of sub-State actors in the 21st. century, in asymmetric warfare/terrorism, has resonances with that of some States. Message: air-power is critical. Response: if you lack air-power use trained jihadis to hijack air liners and fly them into symbolic buildings to kill as many civilians as possible. Message: human life, the dignity of the human person, must take second place to fulfilling strategic war aims. Response: if you have no standing army recruit young men, teenagers, children and women and turn them into human bombs that explode in crowded markets. The perverse religious legitimation of violence found here comes in the context of an abject failure of nationalism most notably in the Arab world.
A particular form of Religion makes it easier to get people to do terrible things (as well as motivating lives of holiness, compassion, great moral courage and altruism). It can divinely mandate mass murder with selective use of sacred texts, simplistic accounts of a complex world, clever psychological manipulation of recruits to the cause and the promise of rewards. You can’t negotiate with God’s Will. But God’s will can equally generate powerful voices denouncing violence and building peace. Traditional Shari’a law schools share with Christianity similar constraints on declaring and the conduct of war, jus ad bellum and jus in bello. But today’s religious extremism repudiates tradition in favour of a direct return to an imagined 7th century.
In the name of democracy and sustaining Western values, and oil, our governments associated with, and supported, tyrants throughout much of the Arab world so that millions of people, beginning with the Iranian revolution, looked to an Islamic discourse on justice for a political remedy. Britain felt the impact of the most malign and perverse, indeed un-Islamic, of these imagined remedies last year with 36 deaths, many more wounded and maimed, in five terrorist attacks. Security services are at present interdicting about one major attack a month.
Perceptions of social and political reality today are shaped by social media. ISIS in particular had a clever grasp of its power. Not surprisingly against the background of State- sponsored religious wars between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, religion now seems to be an increasing source and cause of violence. Religious extremism is here to stay. But we need to retain greater historical depth in judgements about the causes of violence. We neglect the secular violence of the authoritarian and extreme nationalist State and their ideology at our peril.