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Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence. Karen Armstrong. A Secularist Review.

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Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence. Karen Armstrong. The Bodley Head. 2014.

The blood-stained rise of the Islamic state – Da’esh – in Iraq and Syria, and the massacres in Paris in early January by supporters of Al-Qaeda, have brought the issue of religious violence into the centre of public debate. As John Gray observes, the intensity of the religious revival – that is, in Islam – has shaken up many of our ideas, deeply affecting the unbelievers.

That is, except perhaps for many on the English speaking left. This left has simply hauled up the drawbridges and repeated old certainties. They have failed to back ISIS’s most resolute opponents, the Kurdish fighters of Kobane – a position not unrelated to the USA’s role in helping defend the city. Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the left-wing secularists of Charlie Hebdo a large number tersely condemned the slaughter and then lost no time in deploring the ‘Islamophobic’ weekly and the French Republic’s ‘double standards’, its support for armed interventions in Muslim countries, its repression of those who will not join its ‘union sacrée’. Perhaps, some now say, the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Couliably ere driven in their murderous direction by conditions in the ‘anti-Muslim’ French society.

The violence of the Western powers is terrifying, as the invasion of Iraq clearly indicated. It is heartrending. But this does not get us far. A world-wide increase in religiously inspired, predominantly Islamist, violence has its own conditions. There are a good number of studies devoted to the subject. Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood, stands out in that does not shy away from looking at the deeper relationships between faith and brutality, from the ancient world to modern Islamism and terror.

It is said by some that faith is behind most of the world’s conflicts. That is, religion equals violence. This requires some grasp of what human violence is. The former nun, and prolific author, begins Fields of Blood with speculations about human beings’ ‘three brains’, (a reptilian primitive and aggressive one, a protective social one, and a reasoning modern one). The author passes to the origins of warfare in ‘agrarian states’, dominated by a tiny group of exploiters, and its links to religion, which often endorsed violence if it became institutionalised.

In this vein Armstrong describes – amongst many many other subjects – Sumerian religion, the ‘Aryans’ sense of religiously endorsed violent honour (it’s never a good sign when somebody evokes them on the basis of no empirically uncontested facts whatsoever), Judaism, the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity the Crusades, Islam, Jihad, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolution, and – I skip – the modern world. The book does not skirt around the history of Christian violence, or adopt the post-colonial studies fairy tale about a uniquely tolerant Islam.

Religion, she observes, simply, did not exist as a separate social or conceptual dimension in societies until recent times. Against those who repeat, without reflection, that confrontation between different ideas about the Holy is a major cause of today’s wars, she states, “Like the weather religion ‘does lots of different things’.”(Page 359) From the past to the present religion is not one thing but many. Entwined with power (from the first cities in Mesopotamia onwards) it has indeed played a role in legitimating violent actions. But religion has also helped resolve conflicts, to calm people down; religious people have performed countless acts of faith-inspired kindness towards others.

But the modern world there is a one thing that always tries to suppress the many, and no doubt kindness itself. This is the nation state, “its ineluctable violence and oppression” (Page 159) Armstrong’s argument, despite the lengthy narrative, is fairly simple. It’s the contemporary state, marked by its “secular” character that lies at the source of overweening violent power. It has stood in for the divine, “the state (the governmental apparatus) was supposed to be secular, but the nation (‘the people’) aroused quasi-religious emotions.”(Page 267) The State claims to contain violence but the nation unleashed it. “If we define the sacred as something for which one is prepared to die, the nation had certainly become an embodiment of the divine, a supreme value.”(Page 267) Many would comment that is a rather big if…..

Godless Secularism.

Fields of Blood then, holds no brief for the “godless secularism” of the nation state, an “idol” to which enemies are sacrificed. There is a long history of “secular war” for the “nation”. (Page 274) It is hostile to religious minorities; to minorities of any kind. The French Revolution’s ‘civic religion’ was enforced “by coercion, extortion and bloodshed” (Page 364). Even today “….secularism seemed propelled by an aggression towards religion that is still heard by many Europeans today.”(Ibid.)

Armstrong’s “secular nation state” lacks only one thing: any attempt to unpack the meaning of “secular”. It is certainly not distinguished from the sacred – since the Nation and its state has assumed quasi-divine status. It is not a matter of the separation of Church and State (laïcité), since the fairly limitless list of countries she associates with it include many with Established Churches. The meaning hovers close to the original senses, of ’worldly’, or, in one of the original significations of the terms, the mundane present.

Political structures, ranging from the French Republic, to the Turkish (Sunni institutions under state control), Middle Eastern Arab nationalist regimes (Islam recognised as official faith, but no governing and little legal role for the Moslem umma), to the American Constitution (device, In God We Trust), are perhaps in a sense more clearly ‘secular’. The “secular liberal establishment” (who, where?) has marginalised religious power. Oddly she does not cite in detail the clearest case where atheistic secularism has caused probably the greatest harm: under the name of Communism. From a justified tearing up of powerful and oppressive institutions they tore into believers.

But, as this list indicates: like the weather, secularism does many things.


In Armstrong’s tale we inevitably come to Islam and the most violent forms of Islamism – political religion. What is the background to its contemporary revival? The most important legacy is that of the “the secular rule of colonial powers”. It continued to be linked to violence by repressive military regimes that tried to modernise many countries in wake of colonialism, a compulsory modernisation that tried to tear up people’s religious roots, “Humiliation, foreign occupation and secularising aggression had created an Islamic history of grievance.”(Page 294)

Islamism is the product of these conditions. From building enclaves of faith Islamists have tried to reshape the political structures of their societies. They have done so violently, that their dream of restoring an imaginary righteous Caliphate, that one of their most extreme forms, Da’esh, rules over 8 million people in the Middle East by torture, slaughter, slavery and genocide. But, for Armstrong this should be balanced by the fact that the vehicles of ‘secular’ Western foreign policy, and its prime agent Israel, have rained destruction down on the region. Or in other words, there is a strategy by the ‘new imperialism’ that mirrors the earlier colonial period.

At the start of Fields of Blood is this claim, “In some societies attempting to find their way to modernity, it has succeeded only in damaging religion and wounding psyches of people unprepared to be wrenched from ways of living and understanding that have always supported them. Licking its wounds in the desert, the scapegoat, with its festering resentment, has rebounded on the city that drove it out.”(Page 14)

There is little doubt about the identity of this ‘scapegoat’: religion. Its most visible, dramatic, form is Islamism. For all her commendation of acts of terror Armstrong believes that secularism has caused great harm. Put bluntly it does nothing to “build a sense of global community, and cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”(Page 365) What exactly taking responsibility for all the misery in the world entails is not elucidated.

Charlie Hebdo and After.

In a recent interview, which deals with the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket killings, Armstrong risks descending into incoherence. She talks of free speech as “scared symbol” just as much as the image of the Prophet is to Muslims. John Gray, in a not dissimilar way, evoked the spectre of “evangelical atheists” in his review of Fields of Blood. But is the Sharia, a “counterbalance to the state”, only a symbol? It is tyranny with very material shapes, above all, in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Trying to impose it, from ‘enclaves of faith’ to state apparatuses, is a blood-drenched process. There is nothing symbolic about it victims.

In this way many actually existing Islamisms, regardless of their connection to, or break from, the Qur’an, are hostile to freedom, and bound to violence.

Perhaps we might care to reflect on Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature (2011). Pinker argues that the modern world is less violent than the ancient one. This may or may not be the case – intuitively it is not, but he cites evidence for his assertion. Less contentious, one hopes, is the view that the ‘humanitarian’ and ‘rights’ revolutions – the ideas that include universal rights to liberty and protection from violence – are signs of ethical progress. They do not depend on a particular faith, or on faith at all – except that there are good reasons (including self-interest) to support them. That is, naturally, the point of secularism: love of the human world and its surroundings, the here and now and the conceivable future. Regardless of anybody’s longing for something more than that.


5 Responses

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  1. I read Karen Armstrong’s book on the Nible and I was totally confused, I think she just rabbits on. Anyway, Hegel put it much more elegantly two hundred years ago. The problem is that Islamism is defending antique social relations. I would love to see a discussion on Islamism (and Islam) dealing with its material basis and its economic programme. Let’s drop the ethical discussion and talk brass tacks.

    Sue R

    February 2, 2015 at 9:26 pm

  2. Sorry, that should be Bible.

    Sue R

    February 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm

  3. Her basic line is that religion is a great source of comfort and joy, that it can protect the weak, and that there are deep mysteries which atheists just can never understand, and I am not going to be told that my faith is rubbish by them, and anyway secularists are just horrible, probably imperialists and racists to boot.

    Andrew Coates

    February 3, 2015 at 1:31 pm

  4. Interesting article. Although I have not read Armstrongs book from what has been quoted, it seems that the central tenet of her thesis (the growth of the violent state) is soundly refuted by Pinkers work.

    What I have read of her previous work it just comes across as muddled nonsense, lacking clarity and relevant citations


    February 4, 2015 at 9:37 pm

  5. Pinker is indeed powerful stuff.

    On the rest, I’ll give an example.

    The stuff on the Aryans – which I have an amateur interest in, from works on the ‘Indo-European’ languages – is outdated.

    It’s not racist fantasies but simply takes over the well-known stuff about the (apparently) three classes of the original Indo-Europeans, their codes of ‘honour’, and common religious roots.

    For a serious study with a very different account see:

    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. by David W. Antho


    Andrew Coates

    February 5, 2015 at 2:04 pm

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