Books > Shaking Hands with the Devil: the intersection of terrorism and theology

21 November 2013 | by William J. Abraham

Shaking Hands with the Devil: the intersection of terrorism and theology

Truths about terrorism

Equal parts memoir, treatise, polemic and seasoned theological reflection, this cri de coeur from an Irish Methodist theologian transplanted to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, suffers from unevenness in tone and content. Persuasive and moving in some passages, it blusters and falls flat in others. The total adds up to less than the sum of its parts. And yet it is well worth reading.

Abraham opens with a vivid account of a deadly explosion in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on 8 November 1987. Planted by the Provisional IRA the bomb killed 11 innocent bystanders and wounded 63 others. Many of the victims were friends or acquaintances of Abraham, whose interest in terrorism “stems directly from living with it one way or another all my life”. Having spent his formative years in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he emigrated to the United States to seek refuge from the scourge, only to find himself mired in the post-9/11 American-led “war on terrorism”.

Now Abraham wishes to remind us of what he considers bedrock truths. First and foremost, he asserts, terrorism is intrinsically evil. Moral relativism, which sees truth as historically contingent and socially conditioned, is intellectually bankrupt as a response. “Tough-mindedness” is what Abraham wishes to convey. He has no patience with those who point out the numerous mundane causes of terrorism, such as the suppression of minority rights, systemic economic discrimination, and indiscriminate violence by the state against its real or perceived enemies. No: terrorism is simply evil, and terrorists have by their actions forfeited their own claims to civil and human rights. This no-nonsense “muscular Christian” even goes out of his way to mock co-religionists who do not see things his way, as when he recounts the time that Desmond Tutu, “tempted to play the messiah once again, showed up [in Belfast] with his peace and reconciliation circus”.

The nuance in Abraham’s rendering of the connection between religion and terrorism comes when he edges towards an appreciation of the crucial distinction between what I have elsewhere called “weak” and “strong” modes of religious violence. The former includes acts of extremist violence in which “useful” dimensions of the religious imagination – such as the tendencies toward absolutism, dualism and intolerance (what Abraham calls “the resources and debris of religion”) – are appropriated by political and sectarian leaders “for their own nefarious ends”, as he puts it. The religious element in the conflict in Northern Ireland is a case of “weak religion”: of people fighting over access to jobs, housing and political sovereignty imbuing the struggle with quasi-religious overtones, stirring passions and unleashing deep-seated grievances.

By contrast, some conflicts, such as those involving Islamic jihadists and organisations like Al-Qaeda, draw explicitly and “expertly” on religious sensibilities, scriptures, doctrines and practices, precisely in service of the effort to order society and politics on an explicitly religious foundation. Here Abraham drops his idealised version of religion: Islam in his rendering is anything but “ideal”. His treatment of Islam is mixed – both subtle and confused. Islamic terrorism is “a minority report” within the broader tradition, he acknowledges, with little traction among mainstream Muslims. And yet Islamic terrorism, we are told, is embedded in “a form of Islam that is widespread, deep, informed, articulate, and fully conscious of its own piety and legitimacy”.

Abraham’s treatment of the fascinating inner logic and mimetic patterns of Protestant-Catholic sectarian violence in Ulster is fresh and penetrating. His account of his initiation into the Orange Order, the quasi-secret, anti-Catholic, Protestant brotherhood, which he labels “Freemasonry for Dummies”, is priceless. (An equal-opportunity satirist, Abraham also gives the Catholic nationalist counterpart, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, its ironic due.) Abraham possesses a distinctive voice, cultivated through close observation of the crude pas de deux of sectarianism in his homeland. His analysis of terrorism yields flashes of fresh insight into that conflict. Otherwise, there is little here that is original, and a misleading black-and-white formulation is too often on display. The argument might be summarised as follows: call a spade a spade; terrorism is evil; it should be eradicated, as much as possible through law enforcement, and, if necessary, “just war” and other violent means. Meanwhile, pray. Stay strong in your Christian faith. Hope that Islam comes around to our more reasonable way of thinking.

Is there no alternative to this “conventional wisdom”? Such analyses and prescriptions seem based less on a theological anthropology that explores the possibilities for transformation embedded in graced human nature, and more on a banal secular “realism” that depends on sharp binary oppositions (the West vs. Islam, good vs. evil, etc.) and calls for more of the same bloodletting and triumphalism. The bleak cycle of violence is only perpetuated.

Acts of terrorism are indeed evil. Some terrorists have become possessed by the soul-numbing narcotic of deadly violence, and some of the causes of terrorism are rooted in malicious, disordered desires. But this does not exhaust the complex and vast array of “terrorist” motives, some of which are rooted in a comprehensible quest for justice. Is the appropriate Christian response to terrorism unilateral and unconditional, drawn solely from political realism? Or is it multilateral, critical and systemic, drawn from Christian personalism, attentive to economic, military and other forms of structural violence, and intent on balancing punitive with restorative forms of justice?

Perhaps a tour with Tutu’s “peace and reconciliation circus” would provide Professor Abraham with a fresh answer to this question, and suggest a somewhat different mapping of “the intersection of terrorism and theology”.

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