Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Armstrong, Karen
Vintage (2014)
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A set of Study Notes accompany this review.

I began Karen Armstrong's book on religion and violence during the final stages of the Syrian, Russian and Iranian re-capture of Aleppo from a variety of warring rebel factions and I ended the book on the day when a lone 'terrorist' deliberately drove an articulated lorry into a Berlin Christmas Market and when the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was shot by a man who invoked Allah and the destruction of Aleppo. For this reason, if for no other, that part of Armstrong's book which concentrates on Islam is a helpful introduction but, even without it, surely there are some salient factors which any thoughtful person, lacking a history degree, would readily apprehend: first, the Russian interest in Syria is not religious; secondly, any invasion will trigger retaliation; and, thirdly, in a globally networked world, pictures count. The only major doubtful factor is the extent to which Iranian interest in Syria is religious - a strand of the Sunni/Shiah struggle - rather than secular but, argues Armstrong, this is a culturally idiosyncratic question arising out of a European Protestant perception that religion should be separated from the secular state, a distinction which most people for most of history and geography simply do not recognise which draws her to the inevitable conclusion that for most of history wars have been inseparably both political and religious. Ironically, where they have not been so, in the last two Centuries in Western Europe, they have undeniably been secular and not religious as, so the popular perception goes, religious wars were eliminated from Western Europe with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648. The problem with this neat partition is that during that war in which 35% of the population of Central Europe lost their lives, the fighting was by no means sectarian, with the 'Catholic' French frequently allied with German Protestants to counter 'Catholic' Habsburg power, a tradition which also encompassed a French alliance with the Ottoman Empire to curb the Habsburgs.

This is not to say that there have not been wars which had primarily religious causes. Armstrong credibly cites the American Civil War but most people would probably, under the influence of current events, cite the Crusades. There is, I agree with Armstrong, little doubt that the First Crusade which improbably captured Jerusalem in 1099 was religiously motivated and psychotically concluded, colouring the Islamic view of Christianity to this day but the other seven were all triggered and prosecuted - with the possible exception of the Third - for political ends, including the scandalous sacking of Constantinople in 1204. Armstrong does not put as much emphasis as she should on Vico's observation that words change their meaning through time: when Osama Bin Laden inveighed against the "Crusader/Zionist Alliance" to ignite the upsurge in political, 'Islamic' violence in the mid 1990s he was neither attacking the United States for being Christian nor Israel for being Jewish. He was attacking the United States for backing Saudi Arabia and Israel for occupying the West Bank.

Armstrong is careful not to exceed her remit and discuss possible solutions to our current troubles but I am not so constrained. It is glaringly obvious that although events are usually far less causal than we, as inveterate pattern seekers, would like to believe, the West's alliance with Saudi Arabia, the originator of the campaign for a Wahhabist monopoly of Islam, is, worse than irrational, it is disastrous; and that much of the instability in the World in General and Islamic countries in particular arises from the West's failure to observe the Golden Rule propagated by all major religions in favour of privileging its own violence and economic hegemony. I find it difficult, with respect to the latter, to imagine the treatment of Aleppo without an asymmetric counter attack not least because a market economy which understands the power of advertising seems not to understand the power of pictures of atrocities.

Which leads back to the assertion which this book successfully counters, that religion is the major cause of war. The evidence from the Agrarian empires of Sumeria, India, China, The Middle East and Europe demonstrates the paradox that stability requires state violence but also that, in a world of scarce resources, the only source of economic growth was conquest and that this, in turn, produced the surpluses which financed progress. The birth of modernity freed society from the constraints of low growth and the necessary predominance of stability over too costly innovation but the laws of state power and markets evolved into colonialism and then two major wars.

Given contemporary interest in the evolution of Islam, I would have preferred rather less on Sumeria, India and China even though the breadth of the argument solidly under-writes the paradox of stability and violence and rather more on the Christian/Islamic entanglement, beginning with a much more detailed analysis of Saint Augustine's Just War Doctrine and spending more space on the Ottoman Empire; and Armstrong surely misses an open goal by saying Nothing about the Marxist-inspired violence and nihilism of the Soviet Union, Kampucia and revolutionary China but these are relatively minor considerations.

In what is now being called the 'post truth' era but which I would prefer to call the era of self delusion, asking people to define terms does not go down well but it is important to ask critics, like Dawkins, to define what they mean by religion. It is also important to challenge such people who make statements without any real knowledge of the subject; and even more important to challenge opinionated parrots.

In her conclusion Armstrong makes an unassailable point: if more of us practised the religiously inspired principle of the Golden Rule the world would be a much better place. To make it so lies in our power but this involves being much more self-critical, honouring the civilian dead as well as our professional military. As I write, the death toll in Aleppo, much greater than the sum total of UK soldiers killed in action since 1945, is still rising. One wishes that the response of the persecuted was more coherent than the individual outrages of petty criminals whose problem is too little knowledge of Islam rather than too much but how much more of this must the world take before the West comes to its senses?