Category Archives: Fundamentalist Religion.

Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.

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Speaking up for women in Afghanistan. A remarkable story.

I’ve been reading “Raising My Voice” by Malalai Joya, an Afghanistan woman who was
expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for criticizing the presence of
warlords. When she was only a few months old, her family had to flee to Iran
while her father fought the soviet occupation which began in 1978. She grew up
in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Iran did not let girls in the camps go
to school, and her family eventually moved to Pakistan to a town that had a girl’s
school. She intersperses her own story with bits of recent Afghan history: how
the CIA funneled money into mujaheddin groups chosen on the advice of Pakistan’s
intelligence services. When the soviets were defeated many of the groups began
fighting each other for power.

In ninth grade she became a school teacher, which gives us some idea of the level of
education of many of the other women she was teaching; in a word, ZIP.

At sixteen, having completed year 12, she returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban were in power. Girls were not allowed to go to school (again!) and she began a girls’ school
in a basement of sympathetic householder, teaching women the unthinkable: how
to read and write. She smuggled books in under the Burqa she was forced to wear
in the streets. (In an amusing aside she describes how you eat ice cream while
wearing a Burqa: with great difficulty.) The Taliban forbade music and films,
but copies of the movie Titanic circulated among people who secretly had video
players. Street vendors began naming their products after the film: Titanic
shampoo, Titanic onions, Titanic potatoes. But the world is an even stranger
place than most of us would imagine. Even as late as May 2011, America paid the
Taliban $43 million as a reward for limiting opium growing. (Seriously! Just Google
it.)

I’ve noticed that although there are a lot of references to Islam in the book, Joya
doesn’t speak about her own religious beliefs or whether she has any. Unlike ‘I
am Najood, Aged 10, divorced,’ (reviewed on one of the pages at the top of this
blog) she doesn’t claim to draw strength from her religion. Nor, like Aayan Hirsi
Ali in ‘Infidel” (also reviewed above) does she describe a religious period in
her teenage years, followed by disillusionment. Here are no references (so far)
to her visiting a mosque for religious purposes, or praying by herself.

So far I’m only up to page 100, where she has been expelled from the Loya Jirga (the council that was to frame the Afghan constitution in 2003.) I know she gets elected to
the parliament in 2005, and expelled from that later in the book. So I’m
waiting to see what else happens.

I’ll do another post by next Friday. For more – Wikipedia has an article on her. This
book is published as “A Woman Among Warlords” in the US and Canada, and “Raising
my Voice” in other English-speaking countries.