Sunday, August 13, 2006

The zeal of the converted

Following the publication[pdf] of the names of those accused of plotting to bring down ten passenger aircraft, their friends, family and acquaintances have - as far as one can tell - tended to express some degree of surprise and even incredulity at the suggestion that the person they knew would be involved in such an activity.

This, for example, was a neighbour's response to the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf, one of the key suspects:

"Rukshana Bi, 34, a mother of four who lives near the Rauf family in Birmingham, said she did not believe they had links to terror: 'They're good people. The dad is good, the mum is good. I've never seen any problems. I've been living here for five years and they've only been good religious people. I can't believe it.'"
Sometimes this sort of response is greeted with scepticism, particularly when it comes from close family members. This may be justified in some individual cases, I wouldn't know, but I believe there is reason to think in general that it is not.

Friends and family, neighbours and acquaintances may recall young Muslim men who became more pious, displaying the outward disciplines of religious devotion. But what I think has happened to those who have already immolated themselves in the name of their faith is that while they may claim the religion of their fathers, they have in fact went through the psychological and sociological process we refer to as 'conversion'. And what is conversion if not the repudiation of one's past?

We normally associate this with people either turning from atheism or agnostism to a particular religious confession, or moving from one confessional group to another. In the case of the alleged terrorists in this most recent case, two of them are formal converts to Islam. But I'd argue that this process of conversion is the experience of all the potential bombers - because it's essence lies not in a change of formal ideology, or not only this, but in the transition from indifference to devotion.

This can and does happen within religions. All the salvation religions have within them groups that are characterised by the degree of their exclusivity. The least exclusive is the ecclesia. That it in practice rejects the notion that one can properly distinguish the saved and the damned in this life can be demonstrated by the fact that ecclesias always and everywhere confer the tokens of salvation on those not yet old enough to give mental assent to a belief system - through baptism or circumcision and other rituals of consecration that are performed at various stages of childhood.

The conversion experience is, more often than not, a movement away from this form of traditional piety towards one of exclusivity. The nature of the sect or cult that the convert attaches themself to will vary but the exclusivity is always and everywhere based on the belief that one can distinguish the saved from the damned. This is expressed in a variety of different ways - through the manner of dress, diet, the practice of religious devotion, the pursuit of ideological cleanliness - but what always distinguishes the sectarian or cultist from those in ecclesias or denominations is their willingness to submerge the historical personality - along with all of its worldly attachments - into the group. The furthest this identification with the group can possibly go is the complete annihilation of the individual - in other words, suicide.

That the objectively pro-jihadist left haven't grasped the political implications of this goes without saying - but they're not the only ones. Chris Dillow rightly points out the futility of Blair's call to "mobilise the Islamic community" to defeat terrorism. It carries an assumption of homogeneity that doesn't exist. During the height of the Troubles, no-one imagined the Moderator of the Church of Scotland capable of restraining the UVF - or even the lesser task of getting Ian Paisley to give his foul mouth a rest.

Cult members never listen to the spokesman of the ecclesia because it is intrinsic to the existence of the former that they claim to represent the authentic expression of the latter. Therefore, pointing out that the "extremists" are a minority at odds with "mainstream" Muslims isn't something that should be repeated for any merely reason; it should be stated because not only is it is true, making the distinction is a matter of strategic importance. In political terms, ecclesia is to cult what conservatism is to fascism.

That this is not perhaps the general view is maybe a consequence of the fact that Islam tends not to divide itself into formal sects in quite the way that protestantism has done, this being the historical example that most of us are familiar. It may also be a consequence of the habitual way some on the left have always conflated what could be properly described as 'fascist' with what is conservative and authoritarian. Or if you've given up even the pretence of having a conversation, you could always put it down entirely to 'Islamophobia'.

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