Long before social media, long before Islamic terrorism, King Solomon noted that it’s not difficult to recruit people for violence:
“A violent person entices their neighbour
and leads them down a path that is not good.” (Proverbs 16:29)
There are many possible reasons for this. Violence is fun (if you’re not on the receiving end); violence gets quick results (e.g. mugging); violence wins you admiration. The temptation to jump onto the bandwagon is therefore strong – and without at least an equally strong cultural pull in the other direction, few can resist it.
Throughout human history, certain forms of violence have been legitimised, and all cultures have had their particular preferences. The inhabitants of the Roman Empire enjoyed gladiatorial battles (to the death) as a good afternoon’s entertainment; and for a bit of variety, a few Christians might be eaten by wild beasts in front of an audience of thousands. We consider ourselves more ‘civilised’ now – but boxing and other martial arts continue to flourish, despite the constant stream of injuries that they produce. Violence in films seems if anything to be on the increase: at my local cinema this week, five out of the eight films being shown contain scenes of violence. Does the fact that it’s not ‘real’ somehow make it OK? We can enjoy watching murder, war and other forms of mayhem, knowing that nobody is actually getting seriously hurt. And most of us are not induced to copy what we see… but a few are.
But it is when violence is justified by an ideology that it becomes truly pernicious. Nations have often gone to war with terrifying cheerfulness, convinced that God was on their side. Mediaeval popes whipped up enthusiasm for their crusades by issuing free indulgences to participants. The guerrilla and the terrorist not only experience the ‘normal’ gratifications of violent behaviour, but also have the satisfaction of believing that they have contributed to a noble cause. Add in a sense of ‘belonging’ and comradeship, and you have a proven recipe for recruitment. The path is well-trodden here; the problem of radicalisation is not specific to Islamic terrorism, but has its roots in our basic human nature.
Violence often looks like the ideal solution to a perceived problem; but inevitably there are long-term repercussions. The trouble is that neither life nor history come in self-contained episodes; we are always travelling “down a path”, and what we do now will inevitably have consequences later on (sometimes much later on). In our own culture, we have some shining examples of the good that can be achieved by non-violent protest (one thinks of the successful political campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the last century). Is there anything comparable in the Islamic world? “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) has proved difficult enough for Christians to put into practice; yet there is nothing that comes even close to it in the Qur’an. This makes the actions of Imam Mohammed Mahmoud (in defending a man who had just run a van into a group of Muslims leaving a prayer meeting) all the more noteworthy. Let us hope and pray that his example will lead many others down a good path.