Rome, René Girard and the Sixteen-Year-Old Researcher

Linde Van den Eede, one of my high school students for almost two years now, wrote a very interesting paper on the end of the Roman Republic from the perspective of René Girard’s “mimetic theory”. She chose it as an assignment for her English class (English, mind you, is a third language here in Belgium).

Linde is one of those people who likes to reflect on our cultural history and on the ideas of what it means to be human. Her paper is a precious little pearl, well-researched and opening up perspectives for further reading and writing. Today, Linde celebrates her 17th birthday, which means that she was only 16 when she wrote her paper. I am convinced that whoever reads her paper will be quite astonished, as I was, about the academic level of her writing.

I am very happy and grateful to be able to share this piece of hard work on the occasion of Linde’s birthday – click here: PDF NON MOS, NON IUS.

vincenzo_camuccini_-_la_morte_di_cesare

AN AFTERTHOUGHT (A REFLECTION AFTER READING LINDE’S PAPER) 

Dictatorial regimes like the creativity of artists, novelists, philosophers and scientists insofar as that creativity proves useful for the maintenance of the totalitarian system. In extreme right wing and extreme left wing regimes, art becomes propaganda, novels serve as censured forms of escapism, philosophers turn into political ideologues, and scientists become technicians who are no longer interested in knowledge of reality as a whole.

In a totalitarian system governed by money, creativity is allowed insofar as it serves the goals of capitalism, which is to yield ever more money. Art becomes propaganda at the service of “supply and demand”, only now it is called “publicity”. If there are any novels left, they are supposed to be “entertaining”, thinking is reduced to “management”, and science only serves technological innovation.

What dictatorial regimes don’t like is freedom. They don’t like the true creativity of artists, novelists, philosophers and scientists, which is the creativity “to move beyond the system”. True creativity allows us to reflect on the system that we are part of, which is also a way of distancing ourselves from that very same system. Being able to reflect on a system means that we are not totally defined by that system. This kind of freedom makes us human.

True artists and novelists imagine “new worlds” that enable us to question the world we are living in. They don’t just offer forms of escapism. True philosophers and scientists ask new questions or ask age-old questions anew, and open up unprecedented perspectives. If humanity has found ever new ways of “being in the world”, it is not because people burned books that were deemed “not useful” or “a threat to the existing system”. No, it is precisely because there were people who rescued and revisited ideas that were supposed to be burned.

We give up our own humanity if we just ask ourselves how to function in a given system. Of course that is an important question, and we are always at the same time part of the systems that we are able to question. But to safeguard our humanity we should cultivate our ability to ask what it means to be human (and asking the question is more important than answering it). This liberating ability is quite unique to us, human beings, and therefore contains our humanity.

Let’s hope we never lose it.

cicero denounces catiline (cesare maccari, 1889)

 

 

Left with Right Identity Politics? A Jewish Challenge

“Cutting off hands, Congo is ours!”

These words are sung regularly nowadays by certain young people across Flanders, Belgium. I heard them last year during a sporting event organized by the school I’m working in. The following is an example of a sticker found at my school:

Handjes kappen de Congo is van ons (sticker in SJC)

I also heard the racist chant on Congo more recently on a TV news report. Amateur footage showed how a young Belgian-Rwandese woman suffered harassment at a music festival from a group of young men. The men were singing “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” (“Cutting off hands, Congo is ours”). They of course refer to a horrible practice by colonists in former Belgian Congo: colonists sometimes cut the hands of workers who tried to escape oppressive labor conditions. In short, “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” is a very racist song, referring to barbaric aspects of western history and culture.

Leopold II and Congolese hands cut off

Apart from plain racist statements, nationalist claims are also a hype. “This is Flemish soil” are words which often come from the very same people who sometimes sing the Congo song, thereby jeopardizing the cause of those Flemish nationalists who want nothing to do with racism. At least at the already mentioned sporting event this was the case. “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” was uttered by students who write “Dit is Vlaamse grond” (“This is Flemish soil”) everywhere they can (on walls and desks, in notebooks, etcetera). It is quite ironic that people who claim to defend “the Flemish cause” associate themselves with a brutal practice of Belgium’s colonial past.

Godwin's LawIf the racist song is merely a self-proclaimed (however horribly misguided) “joke”, then the singers are really taking a basic element of a so-called politically correct framework as their moral reference point: racism should be rejected. If it is not a joke, then the singers truly reject what is often loathed as “political correctness”. In the latter case, the singers carry out Adolf Hitler’s worldview. Before going any further with this, it should be stressed that Godwin’s law is not at work here.

Claiming that “Flanders is for the Flemish” or, say, “Sweden belongs to the Swedes” on the one hand, and that “Congo belongs to the (Flemish) Europeans” on the other, is the same as claiming that some people have more rights than others. Apparently it is believed that Congo does not belong to the Congolese but to the Flemish.

Black Earth (book cover)To understand how those claims are connected to Hitler’s worldview it is recommended to read the work of historian Timothy Snyder (who was the first to deliver the René Girard Lecture at Stanford University, organized by Imitatio). Snyder explains Hitler’s worldview also in an interview with The Atlantic:

What Hitler says is that abstract thought—whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific—is inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state: races struggle against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try to take land.

[…]

It’s a very dark, empty universe. I mean, that’s how Hitler describes it to himself. There are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people. And so Hitler sees the only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he says it, human nature and physical nature. […] Unnatur is actually a term that Hitler uses, and I think it’s a really telling term. […] He sees the Jews as being the thing which destroys the world, which infects the world. He uses the term “pestilence” in this sense—the Jews have infected the world. They’ve made the world not just impure in some kind of metaphorical sense—he really means it. And so the only way to purify the world—to make things go back to the way they’re supposed to be, to have a natural ecology, to go back to this struggle between races, which Hitler thinks is natural—the only way to do that is to physically eliminate the Jews.

[…]

I went back and reread [Hitler’s manifesto] Mein Kampf, and reread the second book, and read all the major Hitler primary sources, and I was really astonished at how clearly these ideas came out—that, in fact, Hitler’s quite explicitly an ecological thinker, that the planetary level is the most important level. This is something that he says right from the beginning of Mein Kampf, all the way through. And likewise, I was struck that Hitler explicitly said that states are temporary, state borders will be washed away in the struggle for nature. In other words, the anarchy that he creates was actually there in the theory from the beginning. Hitler says from the very beginning, what we have to do is destroy the Jews; strip away the artificial political creations that the Jews are responsible for; and let nature just take its course. And what he means by nature’s course is [that] the stronger races destroy the weaker races.

[…]

In short, the “natural order”, according to Hitler, is the struggle between races, whereby the stronger “races” take land from the weaker. And so it happens that people to this day can claim that “Congo belongs to the Flemish” (which means that the Congolese are seen as belonging to a “weaker race”). Also according to Hitler, the so-called “natural order” is “morally preferable”. The Jews, in Hitler’s view, challenge the idea of a direct causality between a so-called “natural physical order of things” and “what is morally preferable”. I think Hitler is quite right about the latter case.

The Jews eventually, in the course of their history, question any determination of human beings by the physical forces that govern our universe. In ancient “pagan” (in this context “non-Jewish”) cultures these forces were deified and worshipped as “gods” (or “the divine” – “the sacred”). They were the authors of human life, whose laws prescribed the ultimate meaning and destiny of that life. Hitler re-interprets those forces in a somewhat pseudo-Darwinian sense, likewise claiming that the goal of human life is necessarily determined by the “laws of nature” as he defines them (see above). By contrast, the God of Israel ultimately calls human beings to become the authors of their own life and to understand themselves as relatively independent of “the given order of things”. To “the given order of things” belong our spontaneous inclinations, which also do not automatically determine our behavior (and the very fact that we can choose to follow our inclinations or not proves that we are relatively free and not determined by them). Even allegiance to a family, to a “father” and a “mother” becomes something that is not naturally, automatically given in a Jewish sense: it becomes a revealed commandment in the Ten Commandments. This might encourage us to focus our attention on those people who truly are father and mother figures in our lives, those who are not necessarily our biological father or mother (see The Judgment of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28). Jesus maybe goes even further, as he invites us to question our attachment to our own family and culture (see previous post: Jesus Christ, Narcissist?) in order to love our neighbor and “love our enemy”. In any case, to many people, like victims of incest, it is probably a relief that abusive family members or oppressive cultural customs do not determine their identity.

What is ultimately at stake in the ideological battle between Judaism and, for lack of a better word, (neo)paganism is a question about what it means to be a cultural animal. Some people would say that the identity of every human being is determined by a particular culture and its history. In this case, any attempt to overcome our paradoxical so-called natural attachment to “our own cultural in-group” is perceived as a “perversion of nature” that is bound to tragically fail. From this perspective we are born into a culture whose given traditions, customs, norms and values we should deeply respect. It is also believed that history shows whose culture is “superior” to other cultures. Again paradoxically, it seems like an endless and necessary law that we are committed to deify our history and cultural heritage.

Contrary to the traditional pagan notions of identity, the Judeo-Christian influence on history instills us with the idea that we are also free individuals. In other words, our identity is not determined by any particular cultural group, history, sexual orientation or even gender we’re born into. As individuals we do not necessarily belong to any particular group except, paradoxically, to humanity. Thus Judaism indeed opens up the possibility to perceive the other as “other human being” (as Hitler would have it and detests it, see above), irreducible to the particular characteristics of any “group”.

the-very-relationship-with-the-other-is-the-relationship-with-the-future-quote-1

To be a cultural animal from a (neo)pagan viewpoint means that a human being is born into a given culture that he naturally tries to maintain and develop.

[Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by other cultures. This usually results in the exclusion or destruction of other cultures, understood as a “natural evolution” in the cyclical order of things. There is no goal in this context but the goal to “preserve” and “obey” the endless laws governing human history.]

To be a cultural animal from a Jewish or Judeo-Christian viewpoint means that a human being is born with natural gifts to adapt to and create any culture.

[Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by the physical order of things, and to consider the possibility of the beyond, the revolutionary and truly new “meta-physical”; it is a consideration of a non-cyclical, linear future.]

Cyclical vs Linear

It is clear that Judaism warns against the deification of any particular culture or history. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one’s culture is “superior” leads to the oppression of “others” who are perceived as “less human”, and Judaism battles this inhumane outcome. In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to many far right identity politics. Ecclesiastes very nicely points to the futility of any human culture – generations and kings come and go (Ecclesiastes 1:11 & 4:14-16):

No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

On the other hand, Judaism also warns against the deification of individuality and human freedom. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one is “enlightened” and free from particular cultural traditions and historical influences unlike “backward others” leads to stores of rage and resentment from those others (who are merely “tolerated” but not really engaged in dialogue). In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to far left-wing and all too liberal identity politics, which feed the resentment right-wing identity politics thrive upon.

Levinas Quote on War

Jesus warns his fellow Jews against the illusion that they are not dependent on historical influences like their ancestors. To think that we would not have made the mistakes our ancestors made in their time, is to deny the inescapable historicity of our humanity, and again leads to a rejection of the other as “other human being”. Again we then show the tendency to reduce others to the particular characteristics of a “group” different from “us”. In the words of Jesus (Matthew 23:29-32):

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”

In short, Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges that there are physical forces and cultural laws which precede our existence, but they are merely starting points. They do not determine the goals and destiny of our lives. We are called to live an existence as individuals who ultimately belong to no particular group but humanity. Thus we are called “to love our neighbor as ourselves”. Therein lies the essence of “human nature” in a Judeo-Christian sense.

P.S. 1 It remains to be seen if a young Flemish nationalist movement like Schild & Vrienden is also a racist movement. Dries Van Langenhove, leader of the movement, called the above mentioned racist Congo song “an edgy student song, sung at nearly every party”. I hope he doesn’t mean that it should therefore be accepted. The supposed racism of “other cultures” doesn’t in any way justify racism in one’s own quarters (although it might make it comprehensible). To be proud of your own culture means that you don’t imitate morally questionable practices of other cultures, and that you don’t take those practices as a reference point to justify your own practices. In the case of responding to the racism of others, we are responsible for our own behavior, and we shouldn’t blame others for the way we act – that would be hiding behind a scapegoat mechanism.

Anyway, here is an interview with Dries Van Langenhove by Lana Lokteff of Red Ice. It reveals some of the suppositions of Schild & Vrienden concerning “identity formation” and some of their views on what it means to be part of a cultural realm:

P.S. 2 For more on the word culture and its etymology click here for slides on Australian pop culture (assembled by Angela Ballas – Yaryalitsa). Or watch the powerpoint:

Sherin Khankan on Islam

Sherin Khankan (°1974), Denmark’s first female imam and one of the leaders of the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, was interviewed for Belgian television (May 29th, 2017).

The full interview can be watched here – definitely a MUST SEE:

Here are some transcripted excerpts from the interview:

Interviewer Bart Schols: Did you get some bad reactions on what you’re doing? Because every religion has a very traditional side sometimes, probably also in Denmark?

Sherin Khankan: Actually, I never focus on the bad reactions. I always focus on the support, and we have a lot of support from all over the world. Actually, recently we had a visitor, from one of the world’s largest mosques, the world’s third largest mosque – it’s the Grand Mosque in Indonesia –, and the grand imam he came and he blessed our mosque, and he prayed in our mosque, and he made a written document, saying that female imams are of course a possibility, and it’s a part of our Islamic tradition and theology… So, but of course, when you create change… When you change the structure, when you change the fundamentals, when you challenge the patriarchal structure, you challenge the power balance. And when you do that, people will get upset, it’s natural.

So we are prepared for opposition, but actually the worst opposition that we met so far was not from Muslims. The reactions from Muslims were quite moderate, but from the right wing parties, Islamophobes, Nazi-parties… we had very bad reactions.

Interviewer: More than from the inside?

Sherin Khankan: Yeah, I think it’s because… to Islamophobes progressive Muslims are a greater threat than Islamists are, because we are actually able to change the narrative on Islam in Europe.

Interviewer: Okay. You are traveling around the world with a message, if I may call it like that. What is the fight that you are fighting?

Sherin Khankan: First of all we want to give women the chance to disseminate the Islamic message. We want to create a place where women are equal to men. We want to challenge the patriarchal structure. We want to challenge the growing Islamophobia, and we wish to unite or unify all the great forces throughout the world who are fighting for women’s rights.

Interviewer: That’s in general, but if you, like in different countries, because you travel around the world, around Europe… you have different issues. There’s the headscarf, that’s a discussion about everywhere, also here in Belgium. What is your position on that?

Sherin Khankan: I do believe that, it’s stated very clearly in the Declaration of Human Rights, that any person has the right to practice his or her religion in the public sphere and in the private sphere. So if a person chooses to wear the headscarf of her own free will, it’s her choice and nobody should be able to touch that woman.

Interviewer: Also a police officer, for example?

Sherin Khankan: Of course, why not? A police officer, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, anyone, because what’s important is not what you wear on your head. It’s what you have inside your head. So even if you ban the scarf, people will still have the same opinions inside. So it’s not a matter of the scarf, it’s a matter of realizing that we are living in a world and we have to accept pluralism as a factor, as a fundament for our societies. If not we are becoming oppressive. So I’m fighting for any woman’s right to wear the hijab and not to wear the hijab…

From a rational point of view, you would expect that Western extreme right-wing parties are delighted with the kind of Islam Sherin Khankan is advocating. After all, their message to people from other cultures has always been: “Adapt or go back to your country!” Exactly what culture people should adapt to or how that culture is defined is never quite clear, but anyways: here you have a kind of Islam that is perfectly compatible with the principles of a Western political, secularized culture, respecting the separation of Church and State. This separation goes both ways, of course. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it very clear:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Sherin Khankan defends an Islam that does not interfere with the fundamental rights in a modern, Western democracy, so what are some extreme right-wing parties making such a fuss about? Aren’t they defending their “own” Western culture and values? Apparently, we shouldn’t expect too much rationality from them. What happens is quite simple: extreme right-wing parties partly need an “enemy monster” to justify and manage their own existence. If the so-called monster that is Islam turns out not to be such a monster after all, their reason for existence is threatened. That’s why extreme right-wing parties always make reasonable Muslim voices “the exception”. Sometimes they also argue that those reasonable Muslim voices are to blame for the infiltration of Islamist extremists in Western society, as if they function as “hosts” for extremist “parasites”.

What extreme right-wing parties rarely notice, of course, is the result of research done by security services all over the world: when people feel very oppressed or frustrated, they can radicalize very quickly one way or the other (extreme right-wing parties, as advocates of the reasoning that “our own culture is under threat”, are also an example). So to suppress a religion like Islam and Muslims is a very bad idea. The British Security Service MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) claims there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization. Indeed, as the research by MI5 reveals, the vast majority of extremists participating in terrorist attacks in the UK, are British nationals. They are not illegal immigrants and, far from having received a religious upbringing, most are religious novices.

Ah, well… Are we strong enough to create identities beyond the need for an enemy monster? What if “the Wicked Witch of the West” isn’t wicked after all? I can’t help but mention in this context a great book that deals with the recurring dynamic of the need for a monstrous enemy: The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things by Suzanne Ross. It is about the musical Wicked, the subversive and challenging prequel to the well-known story of The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, today we could ask the question: “What if the Wicked Witch of Islam isn’t wicked after all?” Maybe we remain anti-rational weaklings who need witches… Or maybe there’s hope, if we just listen to women like Sherin Khankan.

 

Let’s kill Jesus!

tintin-writingThis is the story of Jesus, the reporter. He did a series of interviews with representatives of different extremist factions in this world. This post contains fragments of his conversations, references to actual events and commentaries by an expert. It also reveals what eventually happened to this alleged devil’s advocate.

From an interview with Richie, representative of the Right to Eliminate Disorder (RED) party.

Jesus: What is your ultimate political goal?

Richie: We want to protect our western system of law and order by eliminating the main source of violence in this world, which is Islam.

Jesus: Don’t you think that Muslims might feel discriminated against if you try to ban their religion from your society? The majority of Muslims is not causing any problems. More of them might when they feel attacked.

Richie: Every Muslim is a potential terrorist because of the true, decadent, barbaric and violent nature of Islamic ideology. Only a tiny minority of so-called Muslims is able to live among us in a lasting peaceful fashion because they’re actually no real Muslims. We’re defending our western culture.

Jesus: One of the main achievements of your culture is the freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State. Aren’t you destroying that culture, instead of defending it, by prohibiting Islam?

Richie:  No. You have to understand that Muslims want to impose their way of life on the rest of the world. They have no respect for the separation of Church and State. Just look at Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. So, instead of destroying our culture with its separation of Church and State and freedom of religion, we would defend it by politically and legally prohibiting the religion of Islam.

Jesus: Aren’t you imposing your way of life then? In fact, aren’t you imitating countries like Saudi Arabia by imposing your ideological preferences?

Richie: We’re not imposing any ideological preference. We’re protecting a true, neutral perspective.

Jesus: By prohibiting Islam, based on your interpretation of that religion?

Richie: Our interpretation corresponds with the interpretation of organizations like ISIL.

Jesus: And that’s a neutral interpretation?

Richie: Well, yes!

Jesus: They are in favor of a particular ideological Islamic system, while you are against that system, but you are both convinced of the same system representing the true nature of Islam? There’s no discussion about that?

Richie: No discussion. Accept the truth: they want to eradicate us! Ask me something else!

Jesus: Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your cultural identity?

Richie: Yes. I would consider it an honor.

Jesus: Am I getting this right? You are prepared to sacrifice yourself because you don’t want to become the victim of an organization like ISIL; becoming its victim would be a disgrace, becoming a sacrifice by fighting it would be an honor? You are prepared to die so you won’t get killed? It seems you’re accomplishing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Instead of saving your life, you’re losing it.

Richie: Listen, for once and for all, the Muslims are attacking us. We have the right to defend ourselves. Our violence is justified, theirs is not justified. I’m willing to die in the name of righteousness to establish an order and a peace where the terrorists are eliminated.

Jesus: If I may refer to Star Wars, you are the Jedi and they are the Sith?

Richie: Exactly!

Jesus: But isn’t that a matter of perspective? In the end, you’re both killers, establishing a peace at the expense of sacrifices?

filip-dewinter-assadFACT, NOT FICTION: At the beginning of February, 2017, Filip Dewinter, member of Belgian’s federal parliament and one of the leaders of far-right political party Vlaams Belang paid a visit to Assad and his regime. He turned a blind eye to the massive violence of that regime (a new report reveals more Syrians are killed by Assad’s regime than by Jihadist organizations), claiming the regime of Assad was a bulwark against terrorism. Instead, he could have considered that the violence of Assad might convince more Syrians to take sides with Jihadist factions. What if your brother is arrested, tortured and murdered by the Assad regime on vague charges of ‘insulting the regime’? Wouldn’t you be angry at the regime, also at those you perceive as allies of the regime? So, instead of eliminating the threat of terrorism Filip Dewinter seems to feed it!

Richie: This is the way of the world. There’s a constant battle of good versus evil.

Jesus: But how good is ‘good’ when it establishes a system in the same way as the so-called ‘evil’ side would do it?

quebec-shooting-vigilsFACT, NOT FICTION: January 30, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old university student, killed six people in a mosque in Québec (Canada). Sociologist Stephen Ledrew wrote a very, very interesting book (The Evolution of Atheism – The Politics of a Modern Movement) on the so-called New Atheism as an “atheist Right” that mirrors the Christian Right. Precisely the case of Alexandre Bissonnette is a symptom of this. Ledrew wrote an article about it, Atheism’s Dark Side Aiding the Trump Agenda. Find it by clicking here or here.

Richie: What do you propose then?

Jesus: Maybe the question is not whether you are in favor of or against a particular system. Maybe the question is whether the system can be used or transformed in such a way that it enables you to love your enemy? After all, our enemies remain fellow human beings. If we can love them, then they can love us too. If we can transform our system, then they can do the same thing.

My advice would be: don’t imitate the hatred and the violence of certain people by taking revenge on those you associate with them (but who are actually innocent). In other words, don’t look for scapegoats, because it will only plant seeds for new violence. The threat you feared but wasn’t there, will become real, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Richie: Shut up with your nonsense! The threat is real and has always been real. What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Richie: I’ll remember you.

From an interview with Idris, representative of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) party.

Jesus: What is your ultimate political goal?

Idris: We want to protect our Islamic system of law and order by eliminating the main source of violence in this world, which is western culture.

Jesus: Don’t you think that westerners might feel discriminated against if you try to ban their culture from your society? The majority of westerners is not causing any problems. More of them might when they feel attacked.

Idris: Every westerner is a potential terrorist because of the true, decadent, barbaric and violent nature of western culture. Only a tiny minority of so-called westerners is able to live among us in a lasting peaceful fashion because they’re actually no real westerners. They converted to Islam. We’re defending our Islamic culture.

Jesus: One of the core convictions of your culture is the conviction that there should be no compulsion in religion. Aren’t you destroying that culture, instead of defending it, by prohibiting western culture?

Idris:  No. You have to understand that westerners want to impose their way of life on the rest of the world. They have no respect for the conviction that there should be no compulsion in religion, one way or the other. Just look at western countries trying to ban Muslims. It’s just one of the measures suppressing Muslims. Muslims who live in western countries are constantly discriminated against. However, no one can prevent me from being a Muslim, and I will avert any culture that tries to suppress Islam.

US President Trump swears in General Mattis as US Defense Secretary . DCFACT, NOT FICTION: President Trump signed an executive order on January 27 that banned entry into the US by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, and banned nearly all refugees for 120 days.

Jesus: But aren’t you imitating potential Muslim bans by averting western culture all together? Aren’t you imposing your ideological preferences just the same?

Idris: We’re not imposing any ideological preference. We’re protecting a true, divine perspective.

Jesus: By advocating Islam, based on your interpretation of that religion?

Idris: Our interpretation corresponds with the interpretation of the wicked who try to ban us.

Jesus: And that’s a true interpretation?

Idris: Well, yes!

Jesus: They are against a particular ideological Islamic system, while you are in favor of that system, but you are both convinced of the same system representing the true nature of Islam? There’s no discussion about that?

Idris: No discussion. They refuse to accept the divine truth and want to eradicate us. Ask me something else!

Jesus: Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your cultural identity?

Idris: Yes. I would consider it an honor.

Jesus: Am I getting this right? You are prepared to sacrifice yourself because you don’t want to become the victim of an organization like RED; becoming its victim would be a disgrace, becoming a sacrifice by fighting it would be an honor? You are prepared to die so you won’t get killed? It seems you’re accomplishing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Instead of saving your life, you’re losing it.

Idris: Listen, for once and for all, the westerners are attacking us. We have the right to defend ourselves. Our violence is justified, theirs is not justified. I’m willing to die in the name of righteousness to establish an order and a peace where the terrorists are eliminated.

Jesus: If I may refer to Star Wars, you are the Jedi and they are the Sith?

Idris: Exactly!

Jesus: But isn’t that a matter of perspective? In the end, you’re both killers, establishing a peace at the expense of sacrifices?

Idris: This is the way of the world. There’s a constant battle of good versus evil.

Jesus: But how good is ‘good’ when it establishes a system in the same way as the so-called ‘evil’ side would do it?

Idris: What do you propose then?

Jesus: Maybe the question is not whether you are in favor of or against a particular system. Maybe the question is whether the system can be used or transformed in such a way that it enables you to love your enemy? After all, our enemies remain fellow human beings. If we can love them, then they can love us too. If we can transform our system, then they can do the same thing.

My advice would be: don’t imitate the hatred and the violence of certain people by taking revenge on those you associate with them (but who are actually innocent). In other words, don’t look for scapegoats, because it will only plant seeds for new violence. The threat you feared but wasn’t there, will become real, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Idris: Shut up with your nonsense! The threat is real and has always been real. What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Idris: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Parry, the Paranoiac.

I’m an expert in politics. It is crystal clear that RED and ISIL made a pact. After all, they need each other to exist.

On the one hand, a violent act by RED can be presented by ISIL as proof of the fact that western culture is the enemy of Islam, and then ISIL can sell itself as a Messiah that will liberate the Muslim world of all evil.

On the other hand, a violent act by ISIL can be presented by RED as proof of the fact that Islam is the enemy of western culture, and then RED can sell itself as a Messiah that will liberate the western world of all evil.

Of course, in both cases, the evil cannot really disappear for these so-called Messiahs can only justify their existence and hold on to their power because of the problem they’re supposedly fighting against. In other words, they are false Messiahs.

Anyway, Satan cannot cast out Satan.

assad-false-messiahFACT, NOT FICTION: Syrian dictator Assad released Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion against his regime with extremism. Thus he made it harder for foreign forces to back the rebels, at the same time presenting himself as a ‘savior’.

From an interview with Seth, representative of the Secularists of Society (SOS) party, and some excerpts from comments by Robbie, yet another member of the Right to Eliminate Disorder (RED) party.

Jesus: You claim to have a solution for the problem of the so-called ‘culture war’ between parties like RED and ISIL. Could you present your main ideas?

Seth: I’d be happy to. The core of the problem is the very concept of a cultural identity based on all kinds of ancient national traditions or religious ideas. My organization is convinced that the economy, more specifically a global system of economic liberalism, serves as the best basis for developing whatever identity. Instead of one culture violently competing with another because they want to occupy the same position (and thus cannot accept each other’s differences), the economic system will guarantee that differences are established after an honest competition for similar positions (and thus must be accepted).

Peace would be established if everyone agreed upon the same economic system, and if everyone was granted the same chances within that system. If this were the case, your social identity and position would be based on your own merits, and no one would be allowed to question the identity and position of another. Cultural and religious items would become private items, available at and provided by the market as well, for each individual. The problems from the past, where social identities and positions were often established because of cultural and religious traditions, would evaporate. In any case, identities based on nationalism or religion (or both) need to disappear in favor of identities based on a global meritocratic system.

Jesus: But then again a type of rivalry will arise. Not everyone will accept a definition of his or her identity by the economic system. Also this system exists at the expense of sacrificing other systems. Moreover, what will happen if people don’t just accept their position and get frustrated because they belong to the so-called ‘losers’ of society? Maybe they will create a counter-culture like ISIL where they feel like ‘winners’, and, being guided by resentment, thus condemn the society they previously desired to be a significant part of. And then we’re back from where we started.

auto-radicalizationFACT, NOT FICTION: Europol notices that more and more young people who didn’t grow up in Muslim families become jihadists. The federal prosecutor of Belgium Frédéric Van Leeuw recently said that “the reason why young people depart for Syria lies in society”. The European Institute of Peace recently put together a social mapping of Molenbeek (Brussels), and looked at the causes of violent extremism in neighborhoods with the highest amount of foreign fighters. Not surprisingly perhaps, these neighborhoods were the poorest of Molenbeek. The research reveals that, because of the very superficial knowledge of Islam, religion is not the cause of radicalization; a feeling of being discriminated against is. Religion is an outlet, a consequence of frustrations which are the true cause of violent extremism. Young people with identity issues, who feel left behind and excluded by our performance oriented western culture, auto-radicalize through the internet where they find a virtual community of ‘fellow excluded people’ (for instance Muslims and refugees). CLICK HERE FOR AN ARTICLE WITH MORE INFORMATION BY DE STANDAARD (“Ze spreken amper Arabisch en kennen hooguit een handvol Korancitaten”). CLICK HERE FOR “WOMEN AND THE SPIRITUAL CLASH WITH TERROR”.

Seth: What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Seth: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Robbie, member of RED.

I totally disagree with the policy of Seth and SOS. I’m a nationalist, and I have the right to protect my national cultural identity. Moreover, I’m also religious (contrary to Richie, our representative). I just can’t stand God’s laws being threatened by a decadent consumer culture. Mark my words, it won’t be long until the wrath of God descends upon us.

From an interview with Lizzy, representative of the Being Left Unjustly Exposed (BLUE) party, and some excerpts from comments by Ibrahim, yet another member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) party.

Jesus: You criticize the solutions to the current crisis in the world proposed by SOS. Do you have a better one?

Lizzy: Well, yes. The problem is that meritocracy isn’t functioning like it should. People, especially young people, get frustrated because some people get way more than they deserve. If we redistribute wealth, give everyone the same basic income, we can stop organizations like ISIL from recruiting depressed and frustrated young people. The need for religion will automatically disappear, especially if we don’t talk about it anymore in schools and in education.

FACT, NOT FICTION: Communist regimes of the past already tried to eradicate religion, with due consequences for religious people (who experienced discrimination). For instance in the Soviet Union.

Jesus: Is that a good idea, making religion a taboo? It will continue to flourish on the internet, and young people who don’t know anything about it might fall victim to malicious minds who use religion for evil purposes.

Lizzy: We will do everything to eradicate religion, smoothly. After all, we don’t need it, do we?

Jesus: Once again, also this system exists at the expense of sacrifices. Is our identity as a human being only defined by what we need (or learned to need)? That’s a poor way of approaching others. As if others are only worth something because I would need them.

Lizzy: What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Lizzy: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Ibrahim, member of ISIL.

At first I thought BLUE was protecting Muslim interests. It provided extra educational programs for free, which I thought was a good thing. Coming from a poor family, I didn’t have the means to catch up with my friends in high school. We were all just playing around, but the wealthy parents of my friends could pay for tutors and extra classes when they were not studying well. I was left behind. My friends were characterized as ‘adventurous youth’, while I was characterized as a ‘dipshit’ for committing the same misdemeanors. If BLUE thinks that I would give up on my religion to lead the same decadent life as my former friends, then it is wrong.

Epilogue by Parry, the Paranoiac.

This is how the story of Jesus and his interviews ends.

A small part of religious RED members forged an alliance with a small part of ISIL members, fighting the secularism of both SOS and BLUE. As the rivalry between RED and ISIL for the same position in society thereby somewhat temporarily ended because they found a common enemy, also the rivalry between SOS and BLUE to gain control over society temporarily ended because of their common religious enemy.

René Girard on Christian Martyrdom

FACT, NOT FICTION: Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling:
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

As time went by, however, the old animosities became apparent again, until… the Evil Mastermind appeared. He was able to sense that Jesus had irritated all parties. Jesus had been everybody’s obstacle. The Evil Mastermind could turn him into the enemy of all, uniting the whole world against Jesus. “Let’s kill Jesus!” became his war cry. Thus the Evil Mastermind created peace, once again, at the expense of a sacrifice.

kruisiging-servaes

René Girard on the Death of Jesus

The story of Jesus could have ended here, were it not that within each faction against him, there were people who realized that Jesus had done nothing wrong. They felt guilty because they hadn’t done anything to protect him, although Jesus himself had always pointed out the danger of eliminating innocent people (scapegoats) to establish peace. Some of them claimed that they had experienced the presence of Jesus beyond his death, meaning that they experienced a second chance to protect his life, the life of the scapegoats. They started questioning the unity against the common enemy of their respective factions. They created non-violent enmity in their own household by loving their external enemy, thus opening up the possibility of a peace that is not established at the expense of sacrifice – a peace of a different world.

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The Trump Reflex

The door bell rings. I open the door. In front of me are two of Jehovah’s witnesses. I invite them in. It’s a force of habit, enhanced by the fact that I’m a teacher and student of religion. I always jump at the opportunity to ask them a few questions.

Actually, I’m really curious about their views on the evolution vs creationism debate. They assure me that Jehovah’s witnesses don’t accept creationism because some statements of creationism reject credible scientific evidence. No kidding. Thus I assume that Jehovah’s witnesses accept the theory of evolution. Which, I learn, they don’t either.

As the conversation continues, I come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to be labeled as creationists because it puts them in the same basket with Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals. From an outsider’s perspective, Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelicals have a lot in common. However, as is often the case, it’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own terrain than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…

best-tennis-playersCompetition and rivalry indeed often increase because of similarities. Two tennis players with similar talents and competences will make for a good game. Another example is the feud between biker gangs Hell’s Angels and Outlaws, or the rivalry that existed at first between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. And most of the time, foreigners and their customs don’t bother us until, of course, they become refugees who seem to invade “our country” and might take “our jobs”.

The desire to differentiate yourself from an adversary increases as differences are actually disappearing. The tragic and ironic thing is, the more you then try differentiate yourself from your opponent, the more you become (like) your opponent. For instance, after the Second World War many Germans and German speaking citizens in Europe were brutally raped, tortured and murdered in a horrific frenzy of vengeful violence. This genocide truly became a mimesis of the holocaust, although the vast majority of perpetrators never had to stand trial for what they did. History is written by the victors, and they create the stories (which is, in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, the function of classical mythology) to cover up violence or to decide whose violence is justified and whose is not.

Back to my visitors, the Jehovah’s witnesses. Like their ideological kinsfolk and rivals, the Evangelicals, they reject the theory of evolution. They claim that the Evangelicals’ representation of God as Creator is not scientific enough, meaning that, in their view, it is just partly in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

As strange as this may sound, both the religious movement of Jehovah’s witnesses and of Evangelicals are heir to modernity. They are not harking back to the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Christian humanists and reformers started protesting some of the (medieval, premodern) Catholic Church’s teachings (hence the name Protestantism). The protests eventually led to the second major Schism in the history of Christianity, the first being the Great Schism of 1054 (the separation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches).

christian-churches-timeline

Protestants are convinced that individuals can make up their own mind on what the Bible teaches. Therefore protestants attach great importance to the availability of the Bible in your mother tongue. According to them, you shouldn’t accept any dogma on the basis of clerical authority or Church tradition, which is a modern idea indeed. They are convinced that the Holy Spirit guides every reader to reach a correct interpretation of the Bible. The idea that every human being principally has access to some kind of transcendent, universal rationality as a criterion to determine what’s true, independent of the truth claims made by so-called authorities and historically, culturally situated traditions is, again, a focus of modernity.

However, Protestantism not only meant a separation of new churches from the Catholic Church, it also almost immediately became internally divided. Apparently, what the Holy Spirit teaches is not so easily agreed upon. Hence, today, there are a myriad Protestant denominations. Moreover, the history of Reformation and Counter-Reformation eventually brought an end to the central position of (the Christian) religion in Western Europe.

For centuries, the Christian religion had been a unifying, stabilizing factor in Europe’s society, important for the establishment of peace between people with different cultural backgrounds. The Christianization of pagan habits brought the nations of Western Europe under one and the same religious umbrella.

crusadesThe internal peace and identity of a Christian Europe was enhanced by military expeditions against an external Islamic enemy during the Crusades. In contrast, the violence and the wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation meant that religion was no longer experienced as a factor for peace. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – many philosophers stressed the priority of the so-called transcendent, universally valid (and thus divine) Reason to determine truth, values and moral behavior.

In premodern thinking, reason and science had been servants of the so-called revealed truths in Christian religion. The clerical authorities, their interpretation of the Bible and the traditions of the Church set the agenda for reason and science. Someone like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) turns the tables. Sapere aude, he writes, which is Latin and translates to Dare to be wise or Dare to think. By that he means an individual should think independently of any religious dogma (whether it comes from scripture, tradition or authority). Religious dogma should stand the test of Reason, and not the other way around.

The Enlightenment thinkers are convinced that every human being is principally capable of reaching the universal (and therefore, for many of them, divine) truth by developing his or her reason. According to Kant, you shouldn’t accept any truth claim on the basis of authority and tradition, nor on the basis of an uncritical “own opinion”, but on the basis of the so-called transcendent Reason. Eventually, the modern secular State became the institution that at first seemed to provide its citizens the means to discover the so-called universal truth. Sadly, however, some of the modern states became totalitarian, claiming to own truth and morality, and violently suppressing any type of “otherness” that was considered a potential threat to the government’s policy. Hitler and Stalin were two leaders of infamous totalitarian states in their respective countries.

In short, after the historical period of the Church defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence, Europe gradually accepted the secular State defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence. One of the main features of modernity indeed is the State’s monopoly on the use of violence. Both the Church and the State were experienced as totalitarian institutions at certain points in their history. The use of their force was not always experienced as something that provided safety, but as a source of terror.

theuniversaldeclarationofhumanrightsIn 1948 the world received The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumas of violence motivated by religious ideologies in the 16th and 17th centuries and of violence motivated by secular ideologies in the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church (hence “freedom of speech”) or the State (hence “freedom of religion”). The secular violence in the 20th century also meant that we do not automatically believe anymore in reason and science as factors for the progress of humanity. Scientific progress and technological developments also made possible weapons of mass destruction, which caused violence at an unprecedented scale during the two world wars. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also started an era of increasing social and environmental issues.

Anyway, a totalitarianism of the Church was replaced by a totalitarianism of the State, and is now replaced by a totalitarianism of the Individual. There used to be a time when educated citizens referred to the Church’s teachings as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life, followed by a time when they referred to the State’s program as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life. Today, in our postmodern world, individuals refer to themselves as the ultimate measure of all things, very often unaware of the influences shaping their perspective (that’s why reflection, philosophy – the art of asking questions, also about yourself – is so important to gain some freedom!).

gravity-just-a-theoryIs it really surprising that someone like Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world? We are indeed living in a world where there seems to be no truth more important than one’s own opinion, and everyone, including Trump, produces his own narcissistic self-validating bubble by ignoring certain facts and advocating others. It seems the most powerful individuals have the means to impose their bubble on others. When research on climate change is not favorable for his policy, president Donald Trump simply bans Environmental Protection Agency staff from talking to the press (as this happened on January 24, 2017).

I think about my visitors of the Jehovah’s witnesses again. They also had a “Trump Reflex”. When I confronted them with all the data, all the scientific research and all the logic supporting the theory of evolution, they simply replied: “It is just a theory.” In other words, confronted with reason and science questioning their own opinions, they reduced that reason and science to something like “mere opinion”. And then you get conversations like this one (from The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 1, The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation):

This dynamic, the Trump Reflex, is visible in all quarters, not only in religious circles. Anti-theists, for instance, when confronted with the fact that a modern, fundamentalist reading of the Bible is not the most plausible one from a scientific point of view (including historical and literary critical research), will also often speak of “just a theory” to uphold their views on the “stupidity” and “irrationality” of biblical narratives.

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinBelgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, the famous physicist and founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, is a good example of someone who clearly distinguishes the questions of modern natural science from the questions the Bible is concerned with. In doing so, he criticizes both creationists and anti-theistic atheists regarding, for instance, their reading of the creation myths in the biblical book of Genesis. Both groups approach these texts with the same expectations, only to come to different conclusions. Creationists believe that the Bible and science tell the same story on the origin of the universe and of life, while anti-theists are convinced that, although the Bible tries to answer the same questions as science according to them, science actually contradicts the Genesis stories. Lemaître, on the other hand, sees no agreement nor disagreement between the Bible and modern science, simply because they are concerned with different questions.  Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position on the relationship between modern science and the Bible:

Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

As for the so-called mimetic theory on the origin and further development of culture, some people almost immediately, without really knowing what they are talking about, discard it as “just a theory” also. Even when solid scientific research that is in no way informed by this particular theory comes to very similar, if not the same conclusions (click here for more)!

Christopher Hitchens quote on own opinion

Anyway, Donald Trump is each and every one of us when we refuse to question our so-called “own” opinions by scientifically obtained facts and reasonable, scientifically supported theories. Of course, no one owns the complete, total truth, but some theories will be more plausible than others.

The day we started believing that our entitlement to own opinion was more important than a quest for truth and for understanding reality was the day we paved the way for the Donald.

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