The aftermath of the suicide bombing at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday. (ucanews.com photo)
“Kill one. Frighten one thousand.” (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
The spectacular use of terror frightens us all. The terrorist attack on Catholic churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was the latest in the category.
The most spectacular terror event in recent years was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 was similar, when Arab terrorists attacked and killed French journalists and cartoonists who had allegedly blasphemed Islam.
Typically, a soft target is chosen — ordinary people unaware, innocent and defenseless — major devastation is caused, and the assailants themselves perish.
The attack is widely publicized in the global media, which is precisely what the terrorists want, for publicity is the oxygen of all spectacular terrorism.
Religion and politics
Today, because of media manipulation, most of us think that all terrorists are Muslim. For the record, this is false. Worse, we tend to think that terrorism comes from the religion of Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As Karen Armstrong has argued convincingly in her Fields of Blood, it is not religion which uses political violence, but rather politics which disguises itself with the trappings of religion to deceive and spread violence. The objectives of politics are power and aggrandizement.
Today every major religion is challenged by two phenomena: technology and mass migration.
Technology has infiltrated our homes and workplaces and turned our worlds upside down. Smartphones or satellites, there’s no escaping either. They dictate our lives.
Mass migration, whether for better work, to escape persecution or for transient pleasure, means that we’re always on the move and brush shoulders with strangers of every kind. The homogeneous tribal village is a thing of the past, if ever.
How religions resist change
But most religions resist change. What this means is that religions are still run in a feudal manner by patriarchal authorities, their faithful live in a medieval time warp, and the crises of modern living are either belittled or denied. Women, for instance, are uniformly demeaned.
Take Catholicism, for instance. For close to 400 years, the popes ran the Church like a medieval monarchy where all social and political change was denounced as evil and destructive.
Then, in 1962-65, Vatican II shattered this world view and threw the Church into turmoil.
Despite resistance from a recalcitrant church government (the Vatican), Catholics today seek radical change and are rethinking their faith in many ways. A good example of what the old monarchical system perpetuated and covered up is today’s sexual abuse crisis in the Church.
Hinduism faces its own existential crisis. The present government’s answer to the challenge of diversity and social inequality in India is “Hindutva” — a word adapted from European fascism and waved about as “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” — as if such a slogan could ever compress our rich 5,000-year-old civilization into an idea of establishing a Hindu-only India.
The roots of Islamic fears
Radical Islam is not a spillover of Middle Eastern conflicts into the West. It is a consequence of the confrontation between the West and the East.
Arab world societies are urban and modern, but they are also grossly unequal, filled with young people who have tasted Western values, and so are angry, disillusioned and rootless. They hanker for a global ummah, an imaginary state bound to the precepts of Shariah.
It is here that this imaginary Islam shatters on the bedrock of contemporary reality. This project of creating an Islamic state using the modern concepts of revolution, institutions, constitutions, ideology, and so on, doesn’t work.
That is so not because of Islam but simply because there is no such thing as a religious state — not a Hindu state, not a theocratic Shia state, certainly not a Wahhabi state.
You can have states using religion, you can have states using religious legitimacy, but you cannot have a state solely based on religion, whatever the religion. Like Calvin’s Geneva, like Baghdadi’s Daesh, it simply doesn’t last. For example, look at Pakistan.
But then how does a medieval faith fit into a modern equitable society? To that question, there is only one answer: reformation.
What happened to Christian Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and to Hindu society in the 19th and 20th centuries, has not yet happened to Islam.
As long as change is subverted and sabotaged, the tensions and violence will continue, led by demented men who live in the past and fantasize about an unattainable future.
And that too, sadly, is one of the tragic uses of terror.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.