The lure of the dead-end

Religion
Politics
Hindu nationalist

Contested territory: a Hindu nationalist raises a saffron flag atop a church in Muniguda in India’s Orissa state. Minority communities in India are regularly targeted by politically instigated Hindu groups, and churches have been burned and defaced. © AP/Press Association Images

Consider the perplexing tale of a mass murderer who once went by the snigger-inducing name of General Butt Naked. That is perhaps the only funny thing about Joshua Blahyi, whose role in the first Liberian civil war in the early 1990s is marked by atrocity.

Claiming he had been given special powers that made him invisible by Nyanbe-a-weh, a high-ranking deity of his Krahn ethnic group, Blahyi would unleash mayhem with his gang of thugs – wearing just his shoes.

In full flow: Joshua Blahyi (General Butt Naked in a former avatar) preaches peace and reconciliation in Monrovia, Liberia.

James Fasuekoi/AP/Press Association Images

‘Before leading my troops into battle, we would get drunk and drugged up, sacrifice a local teenager, drink the blood, then strip down to our shoes and go into battle,’ he recalled in a 2003 interview. ‘We’d slaughter anyone we saw, chop their heads off and use them as soccer balls. We were nude, fearless, drunk yet strategic. We killed hundreds of people – so many I lost count.’1 Later he would claim that he and his group of rebels were responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people.

But in 1996, he had a vision – a visitation by Jesus Christ as a blinding light which caused him to repent of his bloodlust and seek forgiveness. A charismatic, and still intimidating, individual, he reinvented himself as an evangelical pastor, and is now President of the End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries Inc.

Fundamentalists cannot abide a diversity of opinion and debate, mistaking open-mindedness for moral confusion

When he is not working himself up into a frenzy to inspire his congregation to shun sin, he is busy confronting those whose lives he has ruined to ask for their ‘complete forgiveness’. These encounters make for uneasy viewing; his throwing himself at the mercy of his victims is a mixture of high theatre, menace and sweaty repentance.2

He also remains in touch with the young men who were part of his murderous brigade – exhorting them to avoid violence and seeking ways to support them so that they have some options in their impoverished lives.

His attitude to temporal justice has been a bit flip-floppy. He gave a bravura soul-baring performance at Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008, but he also holed up in Ghana for years, fearing reprisals. He now believes that his crimes were inspired by Satan (which some have viewed as a future line of defence at trial). Recently, he has been calling for Liberia to institute a war crimes court to try ex-warlords like himself.3 So far he has gone scot-free.

A complex individual, he is very much a human agent who considers himself completely at the mercy of the supernatural. He has traded one absolutist position for another – first divine/satanic darkness, then blinding light.

Blahyi’s life has been so extreme it defies understanding, unless, perhaps, he is viewed as captive to his own sets of irreducible beliefs.

Dogma unlimited

It’s this very irreducibility and dogmatism that characterize various fundamentalisms. The word ‘fundamentalism’, when applied in its usual religious context, has a relatively recent origin. In 1910, devout Californian brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart used their wealth as oil tycoons to sponsor a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals to save the soul of Protestant Christianity, worried as they were that the core messages of the faith – such as the inerrancy of the Bible (ie it is without error or fault in its teaching), the historical reality of Biblical miracles, and God’s creation of the world and humans (during what must have been his really busy week) – were being ignored.

These early fundamentalists were responding to a moral panic of their own making with a staunchly traditional and literalist response – and not much has changed since.

Opposition is the defining factor of fundamentalist viewpoints – whether it be clinging to a selective, limited and literal version of scripture; making exclusive claims to truth; maintaining a strong enclave culture (‘we are the pure and the chosen’); or encouraging nostalgia for an imagined past that takes on rigid, life-controlling forms. What fundamentalists cannot abide is a diversity of opinion and debate, mistaking open-mindedness for moral confusion. Religion, for them, is explicitly not a private matter between a person and their god; it needs to be constantly enforced, expanded and propounded, and naysayers put in their place. Violence is often the end result.

Foreign financiers can have a disproportionate effect – whether it is Saudi petrodollars spreading a version of Islam that inspires militant groupings, or US fundamentalist Christians spreading their homophobia to African nations

It is the not-to-be-questioned surety of fundamentalist movements that can make them attractive, particularly to young people questioning their place in society. In a world that is reeling from the ravages of late capitalism, where capital has decisively parted ways with social conscience and completely infiltrated governance, uncertainty has become a way of life. Austerity coupled with the abiding spirit of materialism; the fragmentation of what were once communities; the abandonment of the working class: many have been left isolated and seeking some kind of connection. It is not for nothing that the 1980s, the decade when the supremacy of the market over human life became officially enshrined (often referred to as ‘market fundamentalism’), is also the key decade for the upsurge of fundamentalist movements around the world.

On the plus side, we have greater diversity and plurality than ever in many multicultural societies, but that too has inspired great anxiety and unease among the more traditionally minded.

The existential crisis being faced by so many can lead to a yearning to make some kind of difference, for a calling. I am moved by the world-weary poetry of the following passage: ‘Purify your heart and cleanse it of stains. Forget and be oblivious to that thing called the world. For, the time of playing has passed, and the time has arrived for the rendezvous with the eternal Truth. How much of our lives we have wasted! Shall we not take advantage of these hours to offer up acts of nearness [to God] and obedience?’ The words are part of the final instructions to the 9/11 hijackers by their handler.

‘Simple, linear and appealing’

The backgrounds of young people in the West who get ‘radicalized’ by Muslim fundamentalists have been extensively studied. Common threads tend to be histories of racism, exclusion, distant parents. Few have strict religious backgrounds. Their inability to find a place in the mainstream is used as bait by recruiters who lure them to cut off all ties from the society they live in, and pledge themselves to whichever obscure (and supposedly ‘pure’) religious interpretation they are peddling. Tunnelling ever deeper, contempt by outsiders for their brand of fundamentalism only confirms their belief, sadly. It is a closed circuit where faith and ideology will rule their lives and be used for perverse political ends.

Strike a pose: an ISIS fighter in full-on propaganda publicity-shot mode in Raqqa, Syria.

Handout/Alamy

In the Majority World, recruitment of youth can be more straightforward, particularly where corrupt governance and substandard education that doesn’t encourage critical thinking has been the norm – as in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s stomping ground. Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who runs the country’s Countering Violent Extremism Programme, says: ‘The Boko Haram message is simple, linear and appealing.’4 On its attraction for young people: ‘It’s the same reason a lot of youth join gangs: because you have an instant connection, a sense of belonging, a family; you have a platform through which you can feel important, you feel you are doing god’s work, so you have a worthy cause. For some it’s a feeling of adventure, for some it’s economic – Boko Haram gives them grants to get married.’5

Muslim-majority countries are bearing the brunt of violent fundamentalism today. As security analyst Azeem Ibrahim puts it: ‘The ongoing fight is not between Islam and secularism. It is a fight between the most bigoted sects of Islam and everyone else, be they Muslim or Western. Most of that fight unfolds in the Islamic world, with atrocities exceeding the Paris attacks nearly every day in some Muslim country.’6

Death cult

Centre-stage at this point in time are the death-obsessed ISIS, who would do away with all apostates: not just the followers of ‘false’ religions, but also approximately 200 million Shi’a Muslims whom they consider to have despicably innovated on the unimprovable perfection of the Qur’an. Their social media prowess may be 21st century, but their aim is to recreate a seventh-century state based on the earliest days of their faith – as they imagine it. Constant killing is their way of trying to purify the world in readiness for the end times they see approaching, when they know most of them will die as well. (For a Christian variant of such apocalyptic thinking, look no further than the ‘premillennial dispensationalists’ who expect the chosen to be ‘raptured’ straight to heaven while all others die in an earthly cataclysm. Doomsday thinking has also spurred on US Christian hardliners to reject the reality of climate change or any action to mitigate it.)

While we are knee-deep in media analysis of ISIS’s political machinations to stay in business, there is now grudging acceptance that ideology is also key. These thugs can quote chapter and verse of scripture, and use it to justify slavery, child rape and continual slaughter. They have drawn 12,000 (mainly young) foreigners to their cause, a significant number converting to ISIS’s brand of Islam just to live and die in a real-life version of a shoot-them-up computer game. They are turning children into their killing machines (like the Ten Commandments-inspired Joseph Kony did with his Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda).

At the moment the ‘least worst’ scenario for the end of this death cult, which has captured an area the size of Britain with a population of eight million, is that with containment (it is surrounded by enemies) it will eventually implode.7

With ISIS, all narratives of historic Muslim grievance are being forced in another direction. That particular history goes back (if one disregards the Crusades as too distant in time) to the colonial carve-up of the Middle East by the British and French, the propping up of despotic regimes to suit Western purposes, the wooing of oil-rich Saudi Arabia (which has been indulging in barbaric public executions for far longer than ISIS) and Western disregard for the use of Saudi money to spread fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology even when it reached their shores (15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis). In Pakistan, the US supported the dictator Zia-ul-Huq, who ushered in the notorious blasphemy laws that continue to choke the nation; and the CIA provided widespread funding for madrassas (religious schools) to launch zealots against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. So are the invasions of Muslim majority countries to uphold democracy – or supplies of oil?

Traditionally, on the Left and among many people of Muslim heritage, criticism of Muslim fundamentalism was often guarded because of fears of being seen to be siding with this version of the West. But ISIS has blown that open. Moderate Muslims (the vast majority) are being encouraged by other Muslims that it is not enough to ignore ISIS and claim they are not true Muslims: they need to get active in opposing them. Religious texts are contradictory: the Qur’an contains exhortations to both violence and to peace and tolerance of other beliefs. The battle is for human rights and dignity, which fundamentalists of all stripes would suppress.

Much is made of how savvy ISIS is with social media – but for those who would listen in to conversations among anti-fundamentalist liberal Muslims in cyberspace, there are plenty of voices calling for the universality of human rights, for democracy, and for an end to authoritarian theocracies.

Another harvest of souls

There is a school of thought that fundamental-isms grow more vigorous as people in wider society increasingly wear their religion more lightly or choose to follow none. Whether that holds for all outcrops of fundamentalism everywhere is unlikely. One thing is certain: fundamentalisms have socio-political (rather than divine) origins and wreak their damage in society. They can be viewed as a persistently irrational response to the ‘spiritual dystopias and dysfunctional cultural relationships that characterize the world of… “Late Capitalism”.’8 Fighting them requires the long haul.

Fundamentalist causes require unthinking submission to some higher authority – usually humans with agendas rather than the divinities they claim to serve

In Nigeria, where the troops are driving back Boko Haram, Fatima Akilu realizes that a military campaign, though necessary, is not the end of the story. She is eager to ‘rebuild spaces for youth where they feel they can belong’, including community centres for children without means; she emphasizes the need for developing an education system based on the ability to think critically and logically to help them resist charismatic leaders. Her programme works with young Boko Haram followers who are now in custody – providing therapy, vocational counselling, art and sporting activities and exposure to liberal imams. It’s a different harvest of souls from that of the fundamentalists. The government also has a victim support programme. It is early days, and progress is not easy to measure, but it does seem like the right direction.

Opposing voices must also be amplified. Every country and culture with a fundamentalism problem will have committed people risking much to promote different ways of thinking. It’s a common complaint of Muslim anti-fundamentalists that their voices just don’t register in the media. In a vast country like India, where Hindu nationalists cause enormous damage by inciting the Hindu majority for political ends, there are numerous groupings fighting against the erosion of secularism.

Foreign financiers of fundamentalism can have a disproportionate effect – whether it is Saudi petrodollars spreading a version of Islam that inspires other militant groupings, or US fundamentalist Christians spreading their homophobia and reproductive repression to African nations. Can we also make our money talk in the causes we support?

Fundamentalist movements are unfailingly patriarchal, often enlisting women as agents of their own repression. Independent women’s movements offer a challenge and a threat – they, too, need our support.

Fundamentalist causes require unthinking submission to some higher authority – usually humans with agendas rather than the divinities they claim to serve. But the sleep of reason truly produces monsters.

I am reminded of the words of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes in May last year for operating the Saudi Arabian Liberals website and running the Liberal Muslim Network. He wrote: ‘We want life for those who call for our deaths. We desire life and rationality for those who desire ignorance for us.’

  1. Gary Brecher, ‘Please don’t eat the pygmies’, eXile, 6 December 2003.

  2. As captured in the documentary film The Redemption of General Butt Naked, 2011.

  3. Edwin G Genoway Jr, ‘Liberia: “Gen. Butt Naked” wants War Crimes Court’, 22 September 2014, allafrica.com.

  4. Magnus Taylor, ‘Boko Haram’s message is “simple, linear and appealing”, the solutions are not’, 3 December 2014, african.arguments.org.

  5. Interview on ‘Woman’s Hour’, BBC Radio 4, 23 April 2015.

  6. Azeem Ibrahim, ‘Why the West is losing the battle against radical Islam’, 2 March 2015, outlookindia.com

  7. Graeme Wood, ‘What ISIS really wants’, The Atlantic, March 2015.

  8. Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop