THE NEW CRUSADE
New Rounds in an Endless String of Reprisals
Bruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Professor of History of Religions at
the University of Chicago.
When religious groups train people in the art and technology of lethal violence, subordinate them to rigid systems of discipline, indoctrinate them in the righteousness of their cause, and send them out on missions to kill and be killed, we rightly call this fanaticism. Done in the name of the state, these same actions are the normal order of military business and arouse far fewer qualms in us. The firm distinction we intuitively draw based on the question of who sponsors such acts reveals a great deal about deeply held assumptions and values of our culture.
While I would not want to defend every piece of the logic on which this distinction rests, there are some strong reasons for it. Most basically, it reflects an understanding that state actions follow from policy decisions and as such, are human and admittedly fallible: subject to debate, contestation, reconsideration. Such decisions represent nothing more -- but ideally, nothing less -- than the best judgment of legally empowered actors, who consult broadly and make use of the information they have at hand, while acknowledging its limits as well as their own. In deliberations of this sort, there is always room for doubt and the possibility remains ever open that new information may change opinions, novel perspectives may emerge in the course of discussion, and cooler heads may ultimately prevail.
Policies advanced by religious groups and based on specifically religious beliefs may, for all practical purposes, be identical in content to those advanced by a secular state. Even so, they differ dramatically for the absolute nature of the authority they invoke, the transcendent claims they embody, the level of certainty they evince, and the level of commitment they demand. Decisions taken in the name of religion do not understand or announce themselves primarily as the result of human processes like debate, study, and critical reflection. Rather, they orient and justify themselves according to principles they regard as incomparably more than human: divine commandments, scriptural injunctions, ancestral traditions or, quite simply, God's will.
This is the move unique to religion that makes it unlike any other aspect of culture: the move that attempts to connect the human with something constituted as eternal, transcendent, sacred and absolute. It is a move of enormous power that can help stabilize the values of a society over long periods of time and can provide inestimable comfort and reassurance to those who seek solid ground on which to base their lives and acts. There are, however, no secure checks on just what kind of acts can be religiously sanctioned. For in all the religious systems that have appeared throughout human history, there are doctrinal tendencies, scriptural passages, and sectarian leaders who can -- and at times do -- provide comfort, reassurance, and encouragement to those who contemplate acts of terrible violence. Religious authorization of this sort transforms humble soldiers, common cutthroats, and those with no prior bellicose tendencies into Crusaders, Zealots, Mujaheddin, and Defenders of the Faith.
It may comfort Americans to think that God blesses their country in some special fashion and to hear rousing songs and uplifting sermons to that effect. But this high octane mix of patriotic and religious fervor also has troubling aspects. Beyond inflaming passions and inhibiting critical thought, it helps anesthetize the nation's conscience as the government and military prepare for acts that will bring death, destruction, and suffering on farflung people whom they judge to be our enemies, but of whom they, like most of us, actually know rather little. These attacks hold the potential to set off new rounds in an endless string of reprisals, for no one ever strikes first or last when vivid memories of atrocities suffered flourish on both sides and prompt a desperate thirst for revenge. In deifying our own cause, while demonizing that of those we oppose, we simply mirror the misunderstandings of our adversaries, with whom we will ironically cooperate to launch a new and more brutal age of Crusades. Aggression launched in a spirit of vengeance, secure in the belief that God is on one's side, is an act of fanaticism, an invitation to disaster, and a moral outrage. We have seen one such aggression already, and it is more than enough.
Published: Sep 28 2001