The schizophrenia of the times

My newsfeed reveals a schizophrenic attitude to faith and conflict. Today’s conflicts and violence are condemned absolutely, while the triumphant conquests of the past enjoy great eulogies, their reality whitewashed and distorted. We pine after a glorious past, oblivious to former transgressions, to doctrines of perennial war and imperial rules of engagement as cruel and unforgiving as the battles of any of the zealots of today.

What a strange situation to find ourselves in. Faced by the realities of war and conflict in modern times, we find ourselves perpetually on edge, worn down by the constant litany of barbaric acts and savagery, craving a legendary past when all men were just, all conquests honourable and six hundred years of war a time of peace. Somehow we are meant to reconcile the two implacable positions: to condemn today’s infractions and praise the misdemeanours of the past at exactly the same time. To take a different stance on the same behaviour, depending on when it occurred and who was in charge.

Too often the only element that differentiates one from the other is the question of authority. Barbarity under the auspices of a legitimate religious or political authority is sanctioned and sanctified, clothed in folklore and pious mythology.

Do not cut the tree, do not kill the child, do not kill old people, do not destroy the temple or church, do not kill the woman, do not kill the monk or priest, be good to prisoners and feed them, do not enforce Islam. Yes, all of these are found in the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and in the verses of the Qur’an. But open those classical books of fiqh, or read our history. How many times were these noble injunctions — spread so widely today — ignored?

Were not many of those past conquests, so celebrated today, offensive and not defensive? Did armies not seek to expand the borders of the state annually, to carry the faith far and wide? Did the empires of the past not believe they were liberating the people they conquered, like the armies of today bringing democracy to whole peoples with the aid of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, mass invasion and proxy wars?

So this is the schizophrenia of the times — on all sides. Civilised nations which invented the concept of terror bombing in World War II and carpet bombing in the decades thereafter, now look on perplexed at indiscriminate bombs placed in market places, condemning their barbarity without a trace of irony. Meanwhile, the faithful, schooled in the nobility of their tradition with its varnished history, sob and wail at our tragic reality today — the unending conflict and violence — while singing the praises of the vast armies of the past and their magnificent leaders, whether they were just or not, or any less sectarian than today’s bedeviled warriors.

How will we exorcise these demons? Surely not by hankering after an imagined past, or speaking of mythical laws in classical texts, or by petitioning us with tales about legitimate authority, apparently unachievable today. A paradigm shift, it seems to me, is needed — a better way of thinking — that unburdens us of these schizophrenic mindsets which cause us such unrest and discomfort. We need to open our minds and forge a thoughtful forward path.

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