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In the Belly of the Beast

an aquarelle by Amedeo Preziosi

Think Dervish: Beat the Beast.

There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. There is only God‘ (Guru Nanak; 15th Century Sikh)

I am no scholar of comparative religion. Heaven knows, I am a poor enough student of my own. However, I find Guru Nanak’s words remarkably familiar. You will find similar sentiments expressed at the heart of Judaism (Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One) and, if memory serves, in most of the central texts of the world’s religions. In so much, the similarities between our principal faiths outweigh their differences.

If we want to dismantle the beast of racism, anti-semitism and extremist violence we must first understand that it has very little to do with the core beliefs of world religions.

Unfortunately, it has all to do with the political history of religion and the texts they follow. These books, written to favour one or other dynasty or political elite, are social artifacts and include large tracts of interpretation which allocate authority to priests (because they wrote the things) and power to patriarchs.

So, while the hearts of world religion have more to unite than to divide them, the superstructure of observance, community history and social order makes potential enemies of us all.

This was wonderfully explained in a paper given at the British Educational Research Association conference in 1997. Its author was the principal of a girls college in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan She  described how she, as the head of the school and a scholar of national standing, had to wait for the gardener, the only man allowed on the school site, to go to the bank for her as she, being a woman, was not allowed to draw money from the bank – a place staffed by men. She explained that, in her very traditional part of Pakistan, strict interpretations of propriety governed everyday life. However, she made it clear that she saw the Koran, in its original form, as an empowering and liberating text for both men and women, but how, over the centuries, scholars and politicians had construed it in such a way as to develop a social structure which was rigidly patriarchal and oppressive.

Clearly, the importance of these social and political discourses cannot be over-stressed, as Berger & Luckmann (1966) so eloquently describe:

For example, two coteries of eremitical dervishes may go on disputing about the ultimate nature of the universe in the midst of the desert, with nobody on the outside being in the least interested. Once one or the other of these viewpoints gets a hearing in the surrounding society, it will be largely extratheoretical interests that will decide the outcome of the rivalry. Different social groups will have different affinities with the competing theories and will, subsequently, become “carriers” of the latter. Thus dervish theory A may appeal to the upper stratum and dervish theory B to the middle stratum of the society in question, for reasons far removed from the passions that animated the original inventors of these theories. The competing coteries of experts will then come to attach themselves to the “carrier” groups, and their subsequent fate will depend on the outcome of whatever conflict led these groups to adopt the respective theories. Rival definitions of reality are thus decided upon in the sphere of rival social interests whose rivalry is in turn “translated” into theoretical terms.”

But, the sociology of religion and studies of its use to manipulate and subjugate have been around for a long time. We should be able to separate the essential beauty and humanity of these core texts by now and reject the rest, shouldn’t we? Why do people still buy the theological justifications for iniquity?

Why do we still allow our world to be disrupted by those who use religion to justify oppression and persecution? After all, most religions have strongly codified rules for helping the poor, the weak and the dispossessed, ones which contemporary adherents frequently find too demanding to follow.

Any attempt to understand scapegoat or religious groups without exploring their class relations is bound to fail. This is the more essential as we can notice recurrent patterns of poverty, oppression, ambition and extremism – the signals of a predictable social mechanism which can be controlled and countered if there is the political will to do so.

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘feared other’ are Irish hooligans in the 1870s, Jewish tearaways in the East End in the 1920s, Rastas and Rude-boys in Handsworth in the 1970s, or today’s Bangladeshi and Somali drug dealers, if – when the music stops – they are the principal out-group, living in poverty with few options other than crime and extremism, then they will be the ones to be demonised and come into the greatest conflict with the forces of mainstream society.

To create the beast of social unrest, extremism and violence, you only need four things. Once there is a critical mass in all four there will inevitably be an explosion of conflict, whether religious or ethnic:

  1. Population Density: An out-group needs to be present in large enough numbers within a population to be noticeable and perceived to be threatening.
  2. Education: Standards of general education among the poorest parts of the indigenous community should be patchy, engendering an absence of critical reflection. By contrast, cultural strength within the out-group community is bolstered by education, cultural institutions or religious indoctrination.
  3. Money: For conflict to occur, one or more groups need to be struggling financially. And there will need to be substantial sources of funding to pay for the mobilisation of young men to ‘defend’ ‘their’ ‘communities’.
  4. Political Ambition: There need to be those among the elites of the indigenous population and the out-group who have the will and the finances to exploit the situation for their own ends.

This is how we build the beast.

Isn’t it time we stopped?



Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books

From → Communities, Research

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