Priest: I wonder if burning heretics is not against the will of the Holy Ghost.
Prosecutor: It is the justice of man which punishes them! The secular arm! Heretics are not punished for being heretics, but because of seditious and murderous acts against law and order!
Priest: But then those whose brothers have been burned will burn others and so on, each one believing he possesses the truth.
–from Luis Bunuel’s 1969 film The Milky Way
The recent massacre of the staff of French magazine Charlie Hebdo has once again unleashed a torrent of anti-Islamic vitriol in the media and online. As in the past, the claims made by many of those unleashing this river of angry slander are painting as broad of a brush as they can in their attempt to pin the responsibility for the Paris murders on all Muslims. At the same time, most of these attempts baldly ignore the fact of the ongoing war against the peoples living in the so-called Muslim world; a war waged by predominantly Christian and Jewish nations. It pretty much goes without saying that the realities of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism are not even brought up by the majority of those pontificating. This is true even among many who consider themselves liberal and progressive.
When I was a youngster I attended a Catholic school. This made sense since I was baptized in that religion and was being raised by traditionally devout parents. Our lessons included a fair amount of religious instruction–from the pictures of imagined souls burning in purgatory to the daily prayers and recitations from the Baltimore Catechism, I was quite indoctrinated. Mind you, this was just in the first and second grades of elementary school. Of course, there were many Catholic children in the town I lived in who did not attend the Catholic elementary school. Instead, they went to public schools and took their religious instruction after Mass on Sundays. They used the classrooms in the church-affiliated school. Each Monday, while we put our desks back in the rows preferred by Sister M—, she would lead us in a prayer that implored the Almighty to keep those poor Catholic children in public schools from going astray. Often, she would follow these prayers with a short lecture about the evils of Protestantism. As for Jews, they were a lost cause and Muslims were not even on the small town US radar in 1960. In other words, while we prayed for Protestants, we did not pray for the others. Buddhists, Hindus and the rest of those not adhering to a monotheistic godhead were merely idolaters and apostates unworthy of thought.
Then I moved to Pakistan. The world was flipped around. Even though our family lived on an American base, the fact of Pakistan surrounded us. Our trash was picked up by brightly colored trucks driven by Pakistani men in Jinnah caps and kameez. The men who worked in my parents’ yard, did the cooking, and worked elsewhere around the base dressed the same. Many of them stopped their work during assigned times of the day to pray. The small group of Americans on base was definitely the Other, despite the fact that our presence was for imperial purposes. This unfamiliar dynamic provoked a variety of behaviors among the Americans. Some had as little to do with the Pakistanis as possible, refusing to hire them, go off base to shop and travel, or even acknowledge their presence. Others took advantage of their work while making fun of their customs, clothing, and language. Fortunately for me, my parents were among the minority who explored the culture, had Pakistani friends over for dinner, attended weddings and other events when invited by those friends, and explored Peshawar and the surrounding countryside whenever possible, often taking me and a couple siblings along. Of course, this activity was still tinged with a colonial twist and seems paternalistic in retrospect, but the point is that I was exposed to the culture and people of Pakistan. Islam never seemed dangerous or that much different from the Catholicism I was being raised in. When I found out that Jesus was a Muslim prophet (during a conversation with one of the men who worked for my parents), I was even more convinced that most religions were the same.
Why then, I often wondered as I grew older, do religions insist on their differences? Why does each one seem to insist that their way is “the way?” Why do they take this insistence and allow it to be turned in to bloodshed? There had to be something else at work. That’s when Karl Marx entered my life. His analysis of history, politics and economics unveiled the fundamental truth about wars. They were fought for power and control of resources. Religion and ethnicities were conveniently manipulated by the powers that be to convince otherwise peaceful populations to engage in killing and destruction. The myth of the Other preyed on humankind’s worst fears. History is replete with stories confirming this fact. The powerful understand this only too well and make it their purpose to maintain said myth, ramping it up to murderous heights when they perceive such a need.
Let’s jump ahead to the 1970s. Religion took a back seat. More rational, human-based philosophies seemed to be in vogue. Marxism, the New Left, elements of the counterculture; the world was not necessarily a saner place to be, but the popular will seemed to be heading away from militarism and superstition. Unfortunately, this would be a mere blip on the timeline of human history. By 1980, the secular elements of the Iranian revolution were in retreat, the entire left-leaning upsurge in the United States was essentially gone, replaced by a millennialist group of reactionaries with the dimwitted Ronald Reagan as its figurehead. As for those hedonists in the counterculture, some of them had turned to gods and goddesses new and old, and others worshipped the almighty dollar. Still others were brought down by various demons associated with the counterculture’s assumption into the world of capital. The US government, meanwhile, had aligned itself with supposed men of god from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other nations in a battle to destroy the Soviet Union and its support of a secular and progressive regime in Kabul. Washington’s new allies were nothing but a group of warlords and religious zealots willing to kill whoever got in the way of their mission to create a hell on earth. Washington was more than willing to lend a hand; having left the hell they created in Southeast Asia to those who lived there and in need of a new region to sow death and destruction in the name of its democracy.
Secular movements in other nations around the world were being quashed by religious groups funded by earthly men intent not so much on spreading the word, but on gaining power. Their template lay in the history of phenomena like the Holy Roman Empire and its Crusade and the European colonization of the Americas. This fraudulent religious endeavor was supported quite readily by European and American transplants to the land of Palestine, where barely thirty years previous the Zionist movement had terrorized their way to obtaining a land grant stolen from those who already lived there. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, it was supported by a growing Christian fundamentalist movement led by men like Jerry Falwell in the United States. This latter group’s reading of their holy book believed that the end of times they so desired depended on an Israel reborn on earth; and Israel built on the bodies of Palestinians who dared to live in the Holy Lands.
So, here we are. Over forty years since the beginning of the West’s latest Crusades against their Abrahamic brethren whose last prophet whose name was Mohammed. Almost seventy years since the western governments endorsed an illegal and immoral occupation of Palestine by their Jewish citizens–an occupation done in an attempt to assuage their shame in allowing the Nazi murders of all too many Jews. The bloody and brutal occupation of Palestine and the endless war against nations composed primarily of Muslim believers has once again brought its collateral damage to a great western city with the horrific murders of seventeen people in Paris. And, once again the Crusaders in London, Paris, Washington, Tel Aviv and other metropolises of the imperial world are calling for more repression, more war, and, quite obviously, no end to the ongoing idiocy undertaken in the name of civilization.
Religion, like usual, is claimed by the State and its forces just like it is utilized against them.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.