Holy wars: Then, now, and Iran
By Tony Perrino
Warfare is as old as humanity. Since the beginning of civilization, people have fought one another, justifying their aggression as a matter of survival. But the most vicious wars have been those fought in the name of religion.
One of the early manifestations of a holy war mentality was exhibited by Christians in the so-called Crusades. Lasting from the eleventh until the fourteenth century and depicted as a glorious adventure of noble knights, the Crusades were actually a grisly business.
Setting out from France under the banner of the Cross, those righteous warriors began by beating Jews and burning their synagogues. Then they marched across Europe, plundering their way to Jerusalem. On July 15, 1095, they entered that holy city, knelt before the tomb of Jesus, and then proceeded to slaughter every Moslem they could find until the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus had borne the cross, was flowing with blood.
This butchery was justified on the grounds that these unbelievers desecrated the Holy Land by their very presence. They represented the “anti-Christ” of Biblical prediction, which would rise up and destroy the world, if they were not themselves exterminated.
The next great religious war was fought among Christians themselves. Again, our history books depict the Reformation as a polite theological debate. But it launched two hundred years of ruthless warfare as Catholics and Protestant murdered each other with a hatred that accompanies only a Holy War view of the enemy.
By the eighteenth century, many believed that we had seen the last of religious wars. Conflicts continued, of course, but they were carried on by professional soldiers and observed the rules of civilized warfare. There was no hatred of one people for the other. So, in the nineteenth century, the holy war became regarded as a thing of the past, forgetting that religious fanaticism is capable of assuming many forms.
Then the cult of nationalism emerged with the reverent feeling of national faith that evoked the sense of belonging and commanded a willingness to kill, to protect a sacred entity. World War I was the first manifestation of this kind of religious conflict. Ten million human beings were killed when civilized people fell upon each other with a fury out of proportion to the disputed issues. Each was willing to believe the vilest stories about the other and behave in ways that fulfilled those fears. We cannot account for the intensity of the hatred exhibited unless we recognize it as reflecting the fervor of a religious fanaticism.
During World War II Hitler pushed the holy war mentality to a terrifying extreme. He designated the Jewish people as the evil incarnate which threatened to destroy the German nation and carried out “the final solution,” the fiery furnaces of the Holocaust. Germany was not a backward nation, isolated from the humanizing effects of western culture. And yet, gripped by a holy war mentality, it produced monstrous behavior, tolerated by people who went to church and were loving toward their families.
The next expression of holy war mentality accompanied the rise of another secular religion, communism, which had its dogma, its true believers, and a characteristic intolerance of differing faiths. The base was atheistic, but psychologically, Communism, and the anti-Communism it engendered, bore the traits of religious fanaticism.
There are three facets to this holy war mentality.
The first is that crusaders believe that theirs is a divine mission. The belt buckles of German soldiers said it explicitly: Gott mit uns! God is with us. With this mindset, those who oppose you are not merely your enemies but the enemies of all that is holy. Whatever immorality you may commit is justified by the righteousness of your cause. A concomitant belief holds that any ally in that cause, whatever immoralities he may have committed, is good.
And so Christians slaughtered Moslems with holy zeal, and, when the savage Mongols swept out of Asia to attack the Moslem nations, the Pope received their emissaries as friends. And, during World War II, when the Russians were fighting with the allies, they were good guys, but when that war ended, they became a godless enemy. Instead of talking about a Prussian military mentality, our leaders began to refer to “the Slavic mind” as incapable of understanding any language but the language of force.
A second, related dimension of crusader mentality is the belief that the enemy is so evil that he is incapable of responding to gestures of reason. Holy warriors fasten fantasies upon their foes. Christians saw Moslems as idolatrous and violent people, just as they were viewed by the Moslems
This practice sets up the third element in the holy war mentality: seeing the enemy as such a powerful evil that, if we do not destroy them, they will destroy us.
So much for history. What about now?
When communism collapsed, many hoped that we might no longer have to listen to simplistic assessments of world politics. But those inclined toward holy war thinking will always find new enemies to demonize.
The September 11 atrocity once again evoked the holy war mentality. President Bush called retaliation against Al Qaeda a “crusade” in which those not with us were our enemies. But, after the futility of our military response, frustrated by its failure, the holy warrior’s rhetoric is now demonizing the nation of Iran as the enemy.
I do not disregard the devastation of September 11. But the shock-and-awe vengeance that our military unleashed upon the Iraqi nation has only succeeded in spawning more hatred and more terrorists.
There’s a test of intelligence that places the subject in front of a tub filling with water and asks him to empty it. If he begins bailing out the water without first turning off the faucet, he is judged stupid. It is similarly stupid to respond to terrorism with military might without addressing its causes.
That does not mean surrendering to evil; it means striving to understand what could produce such animosity. With nuclear weapons available, we won’t have 400 years to fight the next holy war. It could be over in minutes, and civilization could be destroyed. That is why it is so important to recognize holy war thinking when it rears its ugly head and brand it as the real threat to all we hold dear.
The true Beast of the Apocalypse? It is the holy war mentality.
Tony Perrino is a retired Unitarian Minister living in Charlottesville. His previous Hook essay decried homophobia.