Another main source of authority in Islam (see previous post) is the Hadith: stories about the actions and sayings of the Prophet that were transmitted orally and written down some time after his death. In the following hadith, for instance, the Prophet (who, as I noted before, gives himself the right to use his female captives for sex), deals with an man who admits to adultery:
Narrated Abu Huraira: A man from Bani Aslam came to Allah’s Apostle while he was in the mosque and called (the Prophet ) saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.” On that the Prophet turned his face from him to the other side, whereupon the man moved to the side towards which the Prophet had turned his face, and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.” The Prophet turned his face (from him) to the other side whereupon the man moved to the side towards which the Prophet had turned his face, and repeated his statement. The Prophet turned his face (from him) to the other side again. The man moved again (and repeated his statement) for the fourth time. So when the man had given witness four times against himself, the Prophet called him and said, “Are you insane?” He replied, “No.” The Prophet then said (to his companions), “Go and stone him to death.”
This quotation can be found (among other places) on Sunnah.com, a website which aims to “provide the first online, authentic, searchable, and multilingual (English/Arabic at the individual hadith level) database of collections of hadith from our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.” Once again, my point is that, while it may well be true that the brutal actions of radical Islamists are unrepresentative of the attitude of mainstream Islam, those actions seem to be well supported by the sources – the Quran and the hadith – which mainstream Islam still accepts as the ultimate authority. Mohamed lived in the time that we know in Europe as the Dark Ages, and he was a man of his time. His attitudes and behaviour, as reflected in the sources accepted as authoritative by Islam as a whole, looks much more like a role model for organisations such as the Taliban or Islamic State than a role model for a tolerant, pluralist religion that is comfortable with liberal securalism. I don’t see how this fact can be completely excluded from the conversation.
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All that said, though, Adam Shatz is right when he says that “ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter.” As he goes on to point out:
The Kouachi brothers [i.e. the Charlie Hebdo assassins] were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention… It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’. (Italics added by me.)
I myself remember a time when, as an odd, socially isolated, angry teenager with vague, unfocussed left-wing ideas, I was briefly drawn to the idea of violent acts of terror against ‘the System’. (I was very taken for instance, by the Lindsay Anderson film “If…” in which some schoolboys climb up onto the roof of their school and machine gun parents and dignitaries arriving for a speech day). Luckily for me (and, I guess, for others too!) this never got past the level of fantasy. But it does mean that I understand, from personal experience, Shatz’s point that, in looking for the cause of violence, we can’t just look at the ideology that happens to be used to justify it but also at the social and psychological context which makes that ideology attractive. I felt excluded and alienated and very angry – that was the root cause of my brief interest in the idea of political violence – but in the left-wing terrorism of that time (the mid-seventies) I saw a means of dignifying the violent expression of my anger by redefining it as a fight in a noble cause. (Without ideology, as Shatz says, a violent act would make me a criminal; with it, I could see myself as a holy warrior.) Angry people who want to hit out, will use whatever rationalisations they can find.
This makes the whole thing extremely complicated. On the one hand, in this context it seems likely that mockery of Islam in a country like France or Britain, will actually add to the sense of alienation that young Muslims already feel, and therefore stoke up the anger which is the real root cause of the violence. On the other hand, the ready availability of ideological justifications for violence within the core traditions of this particular community is surely a problem in its own right. Yes, ideology can only go so far in explaining behaviour, but it is a factor all the same.