In a piece in this weekend’s Australian, historian David Pryce-Jones wrote: “A nation in which a self-appointed group such as the Taliban sets out to murder the young, and in the process blow some of its own to unrecognisable body parts, is not really a nation at all”.
I am reminded of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem, Al haShehita (On the Slaughter), about the Kishinev Pogrom in the spring of 1903: And cursèd be he that saith: avenge this! Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden Hath yet to be wrought by Satan.
And also, of WH Auden’s Epitaph On A Tyrant : Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after…When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Read my earlier post on the plight of Syria’s children:
Massacre in Peshawar reflects disarray across the world of Islam
David Pryce-Jones, The Australian, December 20th 2014
Picture: Women at an anti-terrorist vigil in Lahore, Pakistan, after this week’s massacre in Peshawar. Source: AFP
The murder by Taliban suicide bombers of 132 children in a military school in Pakistan is grim evidence of the crisis destroying settled order in the world of Islam.
Whole populations are no longer willing to submit to the injustice and hypocrisy of their rulers. The Taliban is only one example of those who reject the structure of their state and fall back on primary identities of tribe and sect, oblivious to the even worse injustice and hypocrisy they are putting in place.
Taliban leaders embody the central paradox of Islamism, that they have a religious obligation to indoctrinate their rank and file with murderous rage and contempt. In most of the Middle East, the political process has narrowed to a version of civil war. Power is lying in the street and whoever is able to mobilise people of their own ethnicity or sect may seize it. Pakistan is a case in point.
A nation in which a self-appointed group such as the Taliban sets out to murder the young, and in the process blow some of its own to unrecognisable body parts, is not really a nation at all. The law of the jungle has become the sole moral code in operation. In the absence of social and institutional ties that bind together people of different origins, what can only be called the culture of killing drives everyone apart, brutalises their existence and ends in the delusion that victims are in fact martyrs.
“Those to whom evil is done,” in WH Auden’s much-quoted stanza, “do evil in return.” Sure enough, Taliban spokesmen are claiming that their suicide bombers killed these children only to make the military “feel the pain” for having killed the Taliban’s “loved ones”. In reality, the Taliban and the military are both armed gangs set on having exclusive power. Sponsoring or opposing one another in the permanent search for advantage, they have created a submerged underworld of violence, secret deals and even more secret betrayals.
It’s more or less impossible to judge whether the culture of killing depends more on Islamic faith or ethnic identity. Take the example of the so-called Islamic State, setting up its putative caliphate in what used to be Iraq and Syria.
Its appeal is to the Sunni branch of Islam, and its brutal pursuit of power is very like the Taliban’s. Its main enemy appears to be the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that belongs to the Shia branch of Islam, but what may look primarily like a sectarian divide is also another fight between rival armed gangs for supremacy over the same territory; and going between the two is the usual murky underworld of various supposedly jihadi groups also engaged in secret deals and even more secret betrayals.
Islamic State certainly illustrates with a frightening brutality all its own the Koranic injunction to the faithful to “strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah”. These enemies include all who do not enrol under its black flag. One Sunni tribe in Iraq that was prepared to oppose Islamic State has been almost wiped out in revenge. Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims but on ethnic grounds Islamic State has been fighting them to a standstill for weeks. Although Yazidis are Arabs, it has driven them into exile because their faith derives from Zoroastrianism.
Christianity and the caliphate are of course incompatible. Islamic State beheaded four Christian children in Iraq because they refused to convert to Islam. Canon Andrew White, the representative in Iraq of the Archbishop of Canterbury, says of the violence done to Christians: “They killed in huge numbers, they chopped their children in half, they chopped their heads off, and they moved north, and it was so terrible …”
Horrific videos show lines of Islamic State executioners shooting prisoners so that their corpses fall into mass graves. Exactly as in similar footage of the SS on the Eastern front in World War II, the murderers appear completely calm, self-possessed, as though gratified by a job well done.
Al-Qa’ida has been the first to declare that terror publicity of this kind is counter-productive and gives infidels knowledge that should be kept from them.
The news from the Middle East bears out the observation made long ago by Job in the Bible and Homer in The Iliad that evil is limitless, mankind is capable of any atrocity that serves his purpose and even divinities can do nothing much to reform this sad building block of human nature.
The vilest crime becomes permissible and even praiseworthy if it is presented as sacrosanct. Civilisation involves creating circumstances in which evil is suppressed or controlled so that evildoers are perceived as outsiders, removed to the margin of society where their capacity for harm is neutralised.
Now and again in history, someone with the necessary force of character has been able to build an ideology strong and coherent enough to persuade others that it is true, and a salvation. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading millions of Iranians to chant “death to America, the great Satan”, is replicating Joseph Goebbels whipping up war frenzy at mass meetings in Berlin. A month ago, a preacher by the name of Sheik Omar Abu Sara solemnly promised Jews, in the course of preaching a typical sermon in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque: “We shall slaughter you without mercy.” The culture of killing has taken hold.
In 1979 the trial took place in Germany of Ernst Heinrichsohn, a Nazi official who supervised the deportation of Jewish children from Paris to their death in Auschwitz. All had been separated from their parents; some were too young to know their names. Witnesses remembered Heinrichsohn hitting the children on the way to their deaths. In the courtroom he was insignificant, a nonentity, stupid, deceived by ideology. World war alone put an end to his evil.
Until such time as the Taliban, Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and the various other jihadi groups are confronted and brought to account, whatever the costs, Muslim civilisation will have to remain a contradiction in terms.
Historian David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor at National Review.