The recent “lone wolf” attack at a gay night club in Orlando which saw 50 people being brutally killed has sent shock waves across the globe. The incident has rightly been condemned from politicians to ordinary people in no uncertain terms. However, the outpouring of condolence has seen a parallel political development that was quick to point fingers on how destructive religious fanaticism can be. Invariably, Islam becomes the main culprit in destabilising the normalcy of our day to day lives by invoking jihad, a force that is seen as something which is out to spread mayhem and bloodshed. The lazy linearity that gets developed is that of how attacks of such scope and magnitude are driven by religious zealots who only happen to come from a particular religion. The problem at the most fundamental level is that of our basic understanding of the two terms which are in the thick of things – religion and terrorism.
Nothing can be a more perfunctory way to describe terror activities than by equating it with the fanatic message purportedly sanctioned by religious scriptures. The religious explanation is riddled with problems on a range of issues. Firstly, commoners like us, more often than not, have virtually no expertise or even a modicum of proficiency in knowing whatever that has been said in a given religious text. The superficiality is glaring when one comes to conclusion of the perpetrator being religiously motivated only by looking at his outward personality, his name and of course the next logical derivation, his religion. The terminology of jihad has, like most of such complex terms, been injected into our minds by haters, bigots and scaremongers who themselves have a blinkered view toward worldly affairs. We no longer seem to entertain a different interpretation within this term itself, let alone talking about its rationale for stretching it to the entire religion. Faisal Devji in his book Landscapes of Jihad talks about seeing the outrage of the fanatics, especially of a decentralised outfit like Al – Qaeda as an ethical, moral reaction which emanates from their socio-economic backgrounds posing a metaphysical, spiritual conflict and not necessarily only a political battle to the West. It remains to be seen as to how has this framework must have changed with the rise of the ISIS which is different than the Al – Qaeda in a number of ways. Nonetheless, it brought out a reasoning which goes well beyond the rigid, often stultifying narrations of how terror acts are solely driven by overt religious motives. That the sub state actors are primarily driven by specific political, strategic motives for tangible, material and political gains is increasingly losing steam. For a large number of people who blame religion for all the wrong that happens in the world suffer from an acute shortage of public memory.
If one even takes a quick glance over the events that caused enormous amount of violence and bloodshed in the 20th century, the totalitarian regimes ruled by staunch atheistic rulers top the list. From the dreadful rule of Stalin which saw millions perish under his oppressive state policies to an equally despotic rule of Pol Pot that made the Khmer Rouge the worst possible nightmare to live in, religion was nowhere in the picture. If we have to push it further to different strands of terrorist activities, the claim of religion being the root cause of all evil falls flat on its face. Professor Robert Pape, during the initial years of this decade came out with a research paper titled “The strategic logic of suicide” which was a detailed study of the logic behind all the suicide terror attacks since 1980. The results were baffling only to the bigots and religious polarisers. The basic argument was that acts like these are systematic attempts in coercing the values liberal democracies stand for, which in return stand a strong chance for realising territorial concessions. The group that forms a perfect example to this study was the most fearsome organisation called the LTTE in Sri Lanka, heavily swayed by a distinct Marxist/Leninist ideology. If one has to couple these acts of terror with the numerous ethnic clashes, civil wars and political battles that end up having an egregious statistic called “collateral damage”, terrorist acts driven purely by religion come down to a small fraction of them all. The stumbling block in realising the history and the myriad ways of discerning the logic of terror remains the myopic viewing of “terrorism” itself.
Orlando, Bataclan theatre in Paris, Brussels airport, London 7/7 are all termed as terror acts. There is no gainsaying the fact that they indeed were so. At the same time, it becomes incredibly callous on our part to highlight only those acts which focus on sheer numbers, the magnitude of the attack, its spectacular nature and most importantly, its association with a particular religion which happens to propagate it. What this does is that it naturalizes other killings and murders especially of the recent past as mere aberrations, as incidents which were violent and brutal but not acts of terror. This sort of a bigoted mentally gets amply clear when the recent killing of the British MP Jo Cox does not get termed as a ‘terrorist act’. We live in a world where a person crying Allahhu Akbar before shooting someone is immediately termed as a terrorist and a far rightwing supporter driven by a deeply entrenched xenophobic belief , kills someone while saying “Leave Europe” never gets seen in the conventional frame of terrorism.
Raza Aslan, a scholar of comparative religions, has spiritedly come to the defence of religion in our everyday lives. According to him, religion remains to be only a symbol or a metaphor in expressing one’s core values and beliefs. By acting as a signpost, all it does is to express oneself with the help of a set of signs which a person can relate to. It acts as a cultural identity in the modern world, which is distinct than the way it was understood in the medieval ages. To conflate religion with culture has also been a prime factor in reifying the existing simplistic discourse that puts the blame squarely on religion. We should all realize that it is political goals like nationalism, patriotism and motley forms of strategic logics that propels the fanatics to perform such dastardly acts. Hooligans and scaremongers along with a group of atheists who most of the time like to ridicule the rationale of religion in the modern world, inadvertently as it may seem, fuel this polarising debate. They unfortunately find themselves on the same page along with the xenophobes, homophobes and the sectarians. Religion seen as someone’s contempt getting translated as the fear of the “other” only distorts the larger picture. Politics stands vindicated even before a fair trial.
Suraj Kumar Thube is currently pursuing his MA in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is interested in Indian politics and Indian political thought. He spends most of his time reading books, playing football and listening to Hindustani classical music.