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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tribalism and religion in the clash within civilizations

by John MacBeath Watkins

Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, objected to the Bible because it was tribal, and set one group against all others. Most of the tribal elements of the Bible are in the old Testament, so his comments could be applied to the entire Abrahamic tradition, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

In a 1983 interview with writer Tom Collins, he said the following:
The thing I see about the Bible that’s unfortunate is that it’s a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that’s presented in the Bible isn’t even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It’s pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can’t break loose and move into a modern theology.
This is an interesting insight, but my problem with it is that not all members of the three Abrahamic religions act this way. In fact, the great age when Muslim culture and science were the envy of the world was a time when Muslim countries were more free and inclusive than Christian ones. The Koran says that other members of Abrahamic traditions are to be respected, and they were in Moorish Spain, for example. This changed in the 11th century, when a stricter form of Islam became popular, denying that inquiry and doubt were paths to knowledge, insisting that only the Koran was a path to the truth.

And mainstream Protestant churches, such as I was brought up in, tend to be quite inclusive. In fact, that's probably why they've become less popular than churches which provide a stronger tribal element.

This tribal element is the basis for the clash within civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington notoriously wrote a book in 1996 titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, in which he argued that the great conflict of the future would be between the Christian and Muslim civilizations.

But is that what we're seeing? Islamic State is at war, but not with Europe or America, really. It is at war with other Muslims. Even the massacre at the Paris offices of the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo killed a Muslim policeman. Nor were the men who committed those murders particularly devout Muslims. They were angry, violent men who felt their group had been disrespected.

For such people, the issue is not religion, but tribalism. In the case of Islamic State, they have committed atrocities against Christians and Shia Muslims. They are at war with the mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds.

Any time you define your group, part of that definition is who belongs in it, and part of it is who belongs outside it. In the case of Islamic State, this definition seems to define who gets treated as human. Yazidi have been taken as slaves, and according to the BBC, Islamic State's Department of Research and Fatwas has decreed that Christian and Yazidi girls may be taken as slaves, and their owners may have sex even with those who have not yet reached puberty.

Raping the other tribe's women is a program of annihilation, a way to make sure only the children of your tribe's men are born. It has an ancient and horrific history in warfare.

Many Syrian and Iraqi Christians and Yazidi fled to Kurdish territory. Kurds for the most part belong to the same religion as is claimed by Islamic State, Sunni Muslim, but do not agree with the way IS practices it.

In fact, Islamic State seems less concerned with devotion to Allah than to its vision of tribal solidarity and triumph. They want Shariah law (religious law) because it is the law of their people, not because it is religious.

Not everyone in their territory wants to live in a society that dehumanizes those not belonging to the tribe as defined by Islamic State. That's why they've resorted to brutal executions to enforce their will. And that is why this conflict is not between civilizations, but within them.

We have, in this country, a more peaceful version of this conflict. Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had a monument to the ten commandments installed in the Alabama Judicial Building. The left half of the monument tells people to be good Christians, the right to commandments not to do things that are prohibited in about 100% of human societies, and with very little mousing around on the internet, you can find videos of Moore giving speeches claiming American law is based on the Bible.

And he's not alone. Rick Santorum did pretty well in the Republican primaries in 2012 with a Dominionist message. Dominionism is the view that all secular power should reside in Christians (as defined by them) and ruled by a conservative Christian understanding of Biblical law. Santorum accused President Barak Obama of basing his administration on a "phony theology." Reuters reported that on Feb. 18, 2012, he said:
Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.
 This clash within our civilization is between those who see religion as a tribal matter, and those who define our nation in a more inclusive matter. For Santorum, a "real American" would be one belonging to his kind of church, either conservative Catholic or White Evangelical. He has made the argument that mainline protestants are not real Christians, as reported by Beliefnet.
After he’d accused Obama and other Democrats of religious fraudulance for a few minutes, journalist Terry Mattingly of GetReligion.org asked whether it’s possible that rather than being fake, perhaps, Obama was sincerely reflecting a form of liberal Christianity in the tradition of Reinhold Neibuhr. Santorum surprised me by answering that yes, “I could buy that.”However, he questioned whether liberal Christianity was really, well, Christian. “You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.” He continued, “When you take a salvation story and turn it into a liberation story you’ve abandoned Christiandom and I don’t think you have a right to claim it.”
Unlike so many Republicans who make the silly claim that President Obama is a Muslim, Santorum has acknowldeged that he is a Christian, but said that because he practices the kind of religion Reinhold Neibuhr did, he's a phony Christian.

This is the problem with an established church. Once you have an official state religion, you have to define who is inside it and who is outside. America's founding fathers -- well, mainly James Madison -- saw that to have freedom of conscience, to be allowed to practice religion as you see fit, you must be free of other people's interpretation of religion. That is why the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, and why the First Amendment prohibits establishment of religion.

In the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, negotiated during George Washington's second term and ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. senate during the first days of John Adams' first term, Article 11 declares:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. 
 I submit that George Washington knew more about whether America was founded as a Christian nation then Rick Santorum or Roy Moore. My country was founded as a secular nation specifically to protect freedom of religion and allow for the election of people who did not have to represent the religion of the voters.

The secular state was a response to religious conflict, a way of shifting the source of government legitimacy from religion to the people the government serves. After the 30 Years War had reduced the population of Europe in some places by a third and the English Civil War had seen the execution of a king, Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan that people need a government to protect them from violent death, and that the legitimacy of the government could rest on the fact that it is needed.

Hobbes advocated a hereditary monarch as the ruler, because he was the tutor of the son of the king who had been executed, and wanted to see Charles II seated on the British throne. He did see his Catholic pupil seated as king of a largely Protestant nation, but his logic did not really support hereditary monarchs. If the sovereign serves the people, the people aught to have some say in who governs, so it is this secular legitimacy that is at the heart of the shift from monarchs to democracy. And it is secular democracy, not Christianity, that outfits like Islamic State object to, however much they may want to portray the conflict as one between them and "crusaders."

The clash we are seeing is not between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is between those who want a tolerant, secular state, and those who want a religious, intolerant, tribal state.

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