PA: Charlie Hebdo — Nothing to do with religion

÷ Religion had nothing to do with the Paris attacks ÷

A commonly issued qualification following the IS beheadings and the Paris attacks was that they were not about religion. President Hollande, for example, said of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket: “These attacks have nothing to do with Islam.” The warning is presumably an admirable example at trying to militate against xenophobic or bigoted reactions to the crimes. Based on past experience, such fears are clearly warranted, especially in France — but is the statement actually true?

The public debate surrounding the above incident displays a fishy mix of attributions of motive, such that the original offence taken by the gunmen was religiously motivated, whereas their dispensation of vengeance was not. Thus it seems that religion was present as a motivating factor on both sides of the incident (cartoonists and gunmen) until the moment of shooting, just as the gunmen were yelling: “God is great!”. Translation errors aside, this statement contains a strong religious overtone, but it is at this point that God left the scene and was replaced by an atheistic ideology. Then, in the aftermath, God returned in a veritable parousia of blame, as the defining feature of the group being targeted by bigotry i.e., devout Muslims.

Others say that it’s not really a religion that these attackers have, it’s an ideology and they are under its sway. A reading of the ideology in question reveals that it has the following features: belief in an afterlife, a deity, a prophet, a set of moralistic preachings, a demand for others to comply, an apocalyptic vision of the future, a warrant for killing non-believers, a holy text and a mission of bringing about an Islamic religious state, the Caliphate. Despite the scent of religion in these elements, the ideology is still defined as secular. Perhaps this is an inversion of the familiar case of Catholics in Western countries, whose lives are exclusively composed of secular elements but who nevertheless insist their lives are, according to census forms, religious.

Some commentators also claim that we wouldn’t blame religion if the attackers were not Muslims, but of some other faith. We can test this case by substituting in another religion to see if there is some inconsistency. If a Christian went on a rampage and killed people in the name of God, and indeed said he was doing it in the name of Dog, would we say it was religiously motivated? It’s an interesting hypothetical and for it we would need an example of Christians undertaking some kind of violent crusade against non-believers or believers in rival sects. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation (see Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), conflict in Northern Ireland, massacres in the former Yugoslavia, or indeed Buddhist violence in Burma, the Sikh violence in India, or the self-inflicted violence of the Heaven’s Gate cult —  are any of these violent episodes standardly attributed to religion? What about The Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17 centuries? Were they about religion?

A weaker version of the hypothesis is that the attacks are not only about religion. Many scholars, after decades of theological studies, believe that religions are not separable as a cause of strife and violence. A proponent of this view, Reza Aslan, defends it by saying that he doesn’t feel prominent public atheists are qualified to talk about religion, because they have not studied theology to the doctoral level that he has. Such a proposition also implies that 99% of the world’s faithful are also debarred from the privilege of talking about their own religion and Aslan is debarred from talking about the 99% of topics on which he doesn’t have a PhD; such ideas lead to absurd logical conclusions redolent of the very stuff of this column, but do at least confirm Wittgenstein’s notion that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.

If we think that religion is a shroud for the actual causes of events, then we also need to be sceptical of other actions taken, allegedly in the name of religion, such as praying in a church or mosque. The same degree of incredulity should be levelled at anyone attempting to depict the Prophet Muhammad — is it really about religion? Possibly not. Is this satire of satires about religion, about religion?

Ultimately we find something attractive in not attributing the cause of anything to religion, as it leads to the inescapable deduction that religion was not the cause of Muhammad dictating the The Quran÷ and the ultimate conclusion that God cannot have caused the world to exist: atheistic pronouncements that, ironically, would anger religiously motivated extremists — if there were any.