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Radical Islam

The Myth of Religious Violence

We all know the story. Europe in the 17th century was torn apart by the Wars of Religion. Then, after several decades of extreme violence, people decided to put religious differences to one side, and to come together in the rational, secular, liberal, tolerant state. We then exported this model of rational civilisation to the rest of the world, which is slowly accepting it, despite being backward, irrational and prone to religious violence (that means you, Muslims).

This is the foundational myth of the modern secular state. And like all myths, it is not entirely true. Its falsehood – or limited truth – can blind us to our own irrational violence.

Ecstasy plays a key role in this myth. Ecstatic experiences were central to the Christian conception of human nature and human society. Ecstasy was the ladder which connected humans to the divine. But in the 17th and 18th century process of secularization, ecstasy was rebranded as ‘enthusiasm’, and deemed a mental illness and a threat to public order. Enthusiasm was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’, the enemy of reason. Ecstasy has to be locked up or banished if the rational liberal secular order can exist.

The pathologisation of ecstasy began in the 16th-century Reformation. Martin Luther mocked the monastic practice of trying to reach ecstasy through contemplation – monks and nuns were lazy fools getting rich off the gullible masses. You can’t get to heaven through your own contemplative efforts, only grace can save you. It is dangerous to rely on personal revelation or visionary experience, you should only rely on Scripture. Luther lambasted Anabaptist peasants for using personal revelation as a justification for violent revolution, calling them ‘enthusiasts’.

Cranmer and Cromwell (pictured either side of Henry VIII) waged a war on ecstasy in the interest of state power

His critique of the Church was used by kings in their attempts to seize power and money for their fledgling states. Henry VIII, for example, embraced the Reformist cause to increase his own power in England. His advisors, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, used a Lutheran critique of monasticism to close down almost all the monasteries and nunneries in England and seize their assets. This is what secularisation originally meant – the transfer of assets and power from the church to the state.

Cranmer and Cromwell waged a war on ecstasy. When a Catholic nun called Elizabeth Barton prophesized against Henry and Anne Boleyn, she was hanged for treason. Thomas Cromwell declared: ‘If credence should be given to every such lewd person as would affirm himself to have revelations from God, what readier way were there to subvert all common wealth and good order in the world?’ Cranmer took the traditional invocation of the Holy Spirit out of the Book of Common Prayer. The Holy Spirit was deemed a threat to public order. Religion was reduced to a series of propositions, set by the state, which people must publicly affirm…or else.

In the 17th century, both Catholic and Protestant thinkers warned against ‘enthusiasm’ or any claim to personal revelation. It was a threat to reason and public order. One sees the political usefulness of this critique particularly in Thomas Hobbes’ remarkable polemic, Leviathan, published in 1651. Like a 17th-century Richard Dawkins, Hobbes rails against people who let their imagination carry them away, so that they start imagining fairy tales of God or angels or fairies speaking to them and telling them what to do. Such enthusiasts may then persuade the ignorant mob, who then disturb the public order and threaten the state.

This polemic against religious ecstasy is grounded in Hobbes’ materialism. We are material automatons. There is no such thing as a ghost in the machine or a Holy Spirit ‘out there’, no way any spirit could enter our bodies. Imagination is merely ‘decaying sense’, not some sort of ladder to the divine as medieval contemplatives believed. Medieval scholastics thought human nature was double – matter and soul. But this is nonsense. We are just matter.

Hobbes’ materialism is tied to his politics. In medieval Christendom, humans’ double nature (body and soul) was reflected in the double authority of the Church and the State, the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of Earth. But Hobbes insists we mustn’t set up a ‘ghostly authority against the civil’. This is to set up a ‘kingdom of fairies’. There can be only one power, one authority, one kingdom – the state. The state is the true kingdom of heaven, and we owe it total allegiance. As for religion, that can be reduced to the basic proposition that Jesus is Christ. Who doesn’t accept that?

Hobbes is unusually outspoken in his denunciation of religious enthusiasm, but one finds a similar idea in Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Shaftesbury. Religious enthusiasm is a threat to public order. Religion should be confined to the private sphere, while the public sphere remains secular, rational and polite. Ecstasy is not all bad, as long as it stays a private individual experience. This is what the Romantic Sublime is essentially – a private, individual experience. But enthusiasm is very dangerous when it’s collective, and when it spills over into the public sphere. We don’t want to go back to the 17th century, to those terrible Wars of Religion. We owe our primary allegiance to the secular, rational state.

This story is still very active today. It defines how we think of Islamic terrorism. Some reference to the Wars of Religion often appears in defences of western secularism and attacks on Islamic irrationalism. The story goes something like this: ‘We went through a period of religious violence in the 17th century until we invented the rational secular state, and everything calmed down and got better. Religion leads to violence, it causes more wars than anything else. If only you Muslims could evolve out of your religious irrationalism and embrace western rationalism. We will defend secularism from your irrational attacks, and support secular regimes in the Middle East. We will bomb you into rationalism.’

There are several problems with this ‘myth of religious violence’, as the historian William T. Cavanaugh calls it. Firstly, as Cavanaugh explores, it’s not an accurate account of the Thirty Years War, which was only dubbed the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the Enlightenment. Those wars often pitted Catholics against Catholics and Protestant against Protestants, in an ever-shifting series of battles which have more to do with the breakdown of the Hapsburg empire and the emergence of autonomous states than religious enthusiasm. As Peter Wilson concluded in his recent history, the emergence of the secular state wasn’t the antidote to the Thirty Years War – it was the cause of it.

Secondly, ecstasy and enthusiasm didn’t go away in the rational secular state. It took new forms, such as the capitalist ecstasy of the South Sea Bubble. Its most obvious new form was nationalism – the ecstatic worship of the state and state power. You can see this ‘migration of the Holy’ to the secular state in the French Revolution, in the cult of Napoleon, in the totalitarian worship of Hitler and Stalin, and – in a less extreme but no less powerful way – in American civil religion and the cult of the Star-Spangled Banner. Secularism didn’t really privatise religion, it created a new religion of the state.

Nationalist enthusiasm can be just as brutal, irrational and aggressive as medieval ecstatic movements. Nationalism caused far more wars and loss of life in the 19th and 20th centuries than monotheism. We think of secularism as tolerant and peaceful, but it often means state absolutism of a very brutal kind. That’s certainly what it meant in the Middle East, with the Hobbesian regimes of Ataturk, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, or Hafez al-Assad. Today, Western societies are in danger of reacting to Islamic terrorism by embracing a particularly nasty nationalism, as peddled by Putin, Trump and Le Pen. Who, faced with such Leviathans, would not yearn for God?

Secularism is often tied to an aggressive materialism which many people – including me – find suffocating, soulless and unreal. If you want to win the battle of ideas with Islamic extremism, you cannot simply preach secularism, nationalism and materialism. That will not do the job. People will always yearn for a transcendence beyond the human, particularly the young, the poor and the oppressed. We need to create and protect spaces for transcendence in secular liberal cultures, so that young people don’t feel they have to go to violent extremes to find it.

ISIS don’t dance

a8aec92a8c05011c8586c08097879003It’s Monday evening, I’m tired after a boozy weekend, it’s dark, cold, and pouring with rain. I do not feel like dancing ecstatically. And yet that is precisely where I am headed: to an ecstatic dance session in a town hall in Islington (where else).

It’s called A Call To Dance, which is a version of something called Five Rhythms. My friend Olly told me about it, he’s a fan of Ecstatic Dance, and hooked into the network. When I told him about my research into ecstatic experiences, he suggested I try it. ‘It’s better than any pill’, he said.

I am somewhat unsure if I’ll fit in. I love dancing, but can’t remember the last time I danced without the aid of alcohol or drugs. I need them to get me out of my head, into ‘the zone’. My usual Clark Kent self is a rather rational, uptight, non-intimate, non-touchy-feely academic. Very ‘heady’, as they say in Brighton. Will I be able to get into the tribal groove, or will I stick out, a fifth wheel, a sixth rhythm, like Mark from Peep Show when he visits Rainbow Rhythms?

There are numerous options for ecstatic dance in north London – I could go to the Saturday night wig-out in a church in Tufnell Park, or this more intimate affair near Angel. I go for the latter.

It’s a big, rather empty hall, ringed by statues of goddesses holding branches. Regulars are arriving, and giving each other loooooooooong hugs. They emerge from the rain wrapped up like antarctic explorers, and strip off to yoga pants and tiny man-shorts. There’s some stretching, some more hugging. One bony old man is already leaping around the floor, like a geriatric jester. Hey nonny no. I stand at the side of the hall, trying to look groovy.

The master of ceremonies is Sue, an American lady who is petite and full of nimble energy. She puts on some music – a slow jazz version of Billie Jean – and the 40 or so ecstatic dancers converge on the floor and start doing their thing. As you can imagine, they are all very expressive, individualist dancers. I have no idea how to dance to a slow jazz version of Billie Jean, so I stand at the back and do the old ‘step to the left, step to the right’.

Expressive individualism, I think to myself. Another ruling philosophy of our time. To hell with structures, dogma, hierarchies. Do your own thing. Get out of your head. Get in touch with your sacral chakra. There’s DH Lawrence, doing some sort of aboriginal dance. There’s Emerson, deep into the Orphic boogaloo.

I’m reminded of Claire Denis’ brilliant film Beau Travail, about the French Foreign Legion. The film explores rigid male power structures, symbolized in the tightly choreographed drills the soldiers do together in the desert. The hero loves the clear boundaries and structures of the Legion. But then he’s chucked out. The last scene is him alone, in a disco. And he suddenly launches into this incredible freeform dance. That’s expressive individualism.

But why am I thinking? Stop being so heady, Jules. Get into it. Am I doing it right? Does anyone ever pick up girls here? What the hell is going on?

Sue the instructress gathers us round in a circle. She walks around the circle quickly, talking in a hypnotic sort of incantation. ‘We will go through five rhythms, which together form a wave. Each rhythm is associated with one part of the body. First we start with ‘flowing’, which is connected to the feet. The feet are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘staccato’, connected to the hips. The hips are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘chaos’, connected to the spine. Then ‘lyrical’, connected to the hands. Then ‘stillness’, connected to the breath. Sometimes you will dance on your own, sometimes I will invite you to connect with someone else. Go with it’, she smiles, ‘there are no ‘right moves’.’

And we’re off! ‘Connect to your feet, explore with your feet, stay grounded in your feet’. The music gets a bit more lively – a trance beat, building up. It’s fun to dance in my bare feet, feeling the wooden floor beneath me. I feel myself getting into it, though I do wonder about the risks of athlete’s foot. But it’s pleasant. No one cares what I’m doing. Go with it. Let yourself go.

The beat picks up, it’s a good tune. I look around, everyone is into it. I remember how much I enjoyed clubbing, that moment when a good tune comes on and you look around at a dance floor filled with beaming, happy people really loving it, sharing it, enacting it together. How much fun was that?

‘Now move your awareness into your hips. Find someone to connect with and dance together’. Crikey. I am suddenly a sixteen-year-old at a disco, with no idea how to ask someone to dance. Plus you’re not meant to use words here. It’s all non-verbal. My hip-based small-talk is fairly rudimentary. Luckily a Japanese lady is in front of me and we dance for bit. She is a very good dancer and it’s fun, dialoguing through dance. I explain to her that I’m a philosopher, focused particularly on ancient Greek philosophy. I say this with my hips. ‘Now find a way to say goodbye and thank them’. We nod hips and spin off into the mass.

I find myself trancing. It’s like my awareness moves down, spreads out, diffuses, my eyes glaze, the pupils dilate, the mind opens, the critical fire-wall comes down, the autonomic nervous system connects to the music, you can feel it on your skin, in your stomach, in your groin. You are being carried by the music. Your consciousness extends into the tribe, dancing together, coral flowing as the wave goes over it. Expressive collectivism.

Then the dance carries up into the spine. The chaos stage. Kundalini. The music becomes loud, aggressive drumming. Everyone starts to freak out, their spines gyrating and whirling. The elderly geriatric is leaping around like a goat on crack. He keeps whisking past me, making me flinch. It brings me out of the trance. I start thinking again. I feel self-conscious. For some reason, I start to think about ISIS. Is this prancing around a town hall in Islington totally decadent, while ISIS enslaves and beheads its victims? Have we lost our masculine warrior spirit, our grit, our ability to stand up to evil? What would my grandfather make of this?

But, later, I think this: ISIS don’t dance. Radical Islam is Puritan, and Puritans hate dancing, particularly women dancing. Sayid Qutb, one of the founding fathers of radical Islamist thinking, went to America, went to a ‘bop’, and watched in disgust as the men and women slow-danced. When puritanical Islamist groups come to power, one of their first moves is usually to ban dancing, as the Taliban did. They often ban Sufi lodges, like Saudi Arabia did – no ecstatic dancing. Dance is an offence in their puritan regime, too wild, too sensual, too much fun. The only kind of ecstasy ISIS allows is the ecstasy of killing.

Dance is good for us. It lets us trance, in a healthy way. The music, rhythm, and movement interacts with our Autonomic Nervous System, and helps us shake off anxiety and depression, get out of our heads, transcend our little egos, and feel connected to others. Dance lets us do this in a positive, pro-social, loving way – rather than the toxic transcendence of ISIS. And ecstatic dance sessions let us do this without drugs, without booze, without predatory men.

The music slows. The wave subsides into its final phase. A man and woman, who I guess are a couple, dance together, holding each other, but that’s the only physical touch there’s been. We’re all on our own again. It’s a bit melancholy.

We gather in a circle to de-brief. One lady says she loves coming, she goes to a session every day, sometimes even two a day! This is their church, I guess. The church didn’t really allow for ecstatic dance. It banned it, quite early on. St Paul: women should cover their heads and keep quiet. Then the Puritans banned carnival. Then the rationalists did away with church all together.

But the spirit comes back, like a wave. The Pentecostalists reconnected with the body, with dance, they let it shake. And the shaking spread, like molecules vibrating. It spread out of the church through rock and roll, and it also spread through the other denominations, even to stuffy old Anglicanism. I remember a woman I saw at this church in Wales, dancing to the music like a complete hippy. She said she’d had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years, and then the Lord had delivered her. Now she danced in worship of him. I am the Lord of the Dance said he.

ISIS will never last, just like Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last, because people’s urge to dance is far stronger than the Puritans’ ability to control it.