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October 5, 2022

Moral derailment of religions

Watching the video with the finale of the terrorist attack on the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ offices one could ask themselves a generic question: how does a young man brought up in a Western society end up as a cruel and effective terrorist? Turning for a regular neighbourhood boy into a merciless killer of unarmed people – one of them with absolutely no connection to the declared purpose of religious retaliation. Like some determined, cold-blooded guerrilla fighter. Generally, a terrorist psychology is explained as a mix of concurring social circumstances, such as traumatic childhood or humiliation by a society discriminating against immigrants, or felt the need for religious connection with all its implications. But we should recall another wave of terrorism in the West, the far-Left one. It began in Russia in the second half of the 19th century and, just decades ago, was causing bloodsheds in Italy, for example, The majority of its representatives were from the bourgeoisie, had quite enough possibilities of social ascension, were autonomous individuals and some were brilliantly equipped young intellectuals. But they would kill exactly as the ‘Muslims’ of today do. Major social divides are always explosive in the most varied of historical contexts. However, in order for a person to turn into a terrorist, they will need more than the rage of injustice. Western terrorists belonging to the far-Left movement were the products of an ideological mix, but also of a specific culture that valued a new type of outlawry. The new terrorist hajduks, an ideologised version of Robin Hood, would punish the ‘evil’ ones, the ‘rich who were oppressing the people’, or defy authorities regarded as accomplices. But the essential thing was not the clear identification of the enemies – they actually belonged to the most varied social and professional categories, it was the pathos of terrorist activism. It was a rather seductive human type already to many. A ‘superior’ person, able to overcome mercy and regular emotions for the sake of actions with an assume power of shaping history. The same would happen in the Nazi SS, the same in the Soviet Ceka/KGB. It was the chance of being ‘beyond good and evil’. It is actually a perverted form of asceticism, a surmounting of regular human conscience in the direction of an assumed ‘excellence’. Becoming a ‘martyr’ – a term with a different meaning than the Christian one, for it entails first and foremost a murder and only secondly the sacrifice of own life in the name of faith – to a \n Islamic terrorist has become a form of spiritual evolution, accession to a higher existential level.  Man feels he’s capable of more, but sometimes he does not thoroughly investigate the direction chosen to the end. This cocktail of existential leap, mystic attraction to violence and amoral ideology has an explosive potential. Its recrudescence also illustrates a moral crisis, because, to some milieus, the old humanist values have become illegitimate or ineffective. One cannot become a terrorist without bathing first in a culture capable of suspending your natural operation of conscience. Those are marginal phenomena, social or religious pathology, or the simple appropriation of crueller methods for an objective pursued by more?  As we can see, terrorism is already a fatal fashion. The Left-wing as well as the Right-wing extremists, separatists and nationalists, Islamists and Hindus, Christians and Buddhists have used it. It managed to bring together political assassinate, randomly chosen victims reprisals, terrorising innocent people, symbolic revenge, law-enforcers harassment. The success of this pattern has two main causes: political effectiveness and cultural seduction. History shows that, in some cases, terrorism is effective, leading to political changes in time. We have already reminded of the case of Russia. We also have the example of countries that have gained their independence after periods of terrorist guerrilla – Algeria, among others. Even the Palestinians now have their own state after decades of bloody terrorist attacks. Other times terror is politically insufficient. The ETA or IRA separatists did not obtained what they wanted and the Western countries did not become communist in spite of the many assassinates committed by RAF in Germany or by the Red Brigades in Italy. At the same time, a cultural seduction operates. Apart from the temptation to overstep the rigours of regular morality – best denounced by Dostoyevsky in the Grand Inquisitor parable – , already mentioned here, there is also an unpredictable factor – religion.

Even if at present Christians are the main victims of religion-driven terrorist attacks in the world, Christianity itself has a long-standing history of religious violence. However, at this moment, the Islam is the main landmark of all those justifying their assassinated by religion. Before comparing the potential violence of the various religions, we could admit that religion itself is fundamentally ambivalent. A prestigious Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, was stating in an aphoristic phrase that religion is half from God, half from the devil. Religiosity is therefore not a phenomenon that has just a positive potential, as it always poses the risk of derailments of all sorts. We could even say that it often contains a time-bomb that, unless neutralised on time, may go off at some stage. It has happened so many times in Christianity and it may happen again anytime. It is now dramatically happening in Islam. Unbelievably numerous killings are happening now in the name of Islam. Calling those false Muslims is not enough. Where is the responsibility of the rest of the Muslims? Is it so inevitable that more violent extremists win against often majority alternative trends? Is it just the political privilege of violent minorities? Perhaps the latter category only have in addition the courage to resort to morally reprehensible ways for aims many more share. The clear thing is there is enough confusion in the Muslim cultures, which makes them vulnerable to various derailments. However, a much too often unfortunate role is played by the various imams, with a prestige that gives them a unique part in guiding people. Actually, to return to the initial question – how does one become a merciless terrorist? -, all terrorists claiming to be following the teachings of Islam have been through the hands of an imam, if not several. An imam who changed the way they think, suspended their reluctance of conscience, supplied to them convincing arguments in order to kill. It is a religious prestige entirely comparable with the one of a Christian priest, especially a charismatic one. Invested with a special prestige, believed to be ‘God’s voice’, the priest or the imam can authoritatively guide the minds of believers. But, in order to generate violence, something more is needed: a commensurate theology. Not so much an official theology, as one that is adjusted to concrete situations. In many mosques around the world there are improvised imams who preach, just as many Christian priests are improvised, meaning they have a low level of cultural, ideological and even moral discernment. In fact, there is a general crisis in theological education, backed by the crisis of vocation, making it really easy for one to become a priest or an imam nowadays.

The theology of a religion is not just an ‘internal’ matter of that religion, but is something which concerns the whole society. This is why the criticism of religions could be welcome, even in satirical forms, but always keeping certain boundaries. It has to be done by more enlightened theologians, but also by responsible intellectuals, believers or non-believers. Religions have to always be reminded of moral imperatives, or else they face the risk of derailment.





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