Charles Cameron on “In a Time of Religious Arousal”

Originally posted at

Charles Cameron is the regular guest-blogger at Zenpundit, and has also posted at Small Wars Journal, All Things Counterterrorism, for the Chicago Boyz Afghanistan 2050 roundtable and elsewhere. Charles read Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, under AE Harvey, and was at one time a Principal Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies and the Senior Analyst with the Arlington Institute:

In a Time of Religious Arousal

by Charles Cameron

We live in times of considerable religious arousal – witness the Manhattan mosque and cultural center controversy, the on-again, off-again Florida Quran burning, last week’s Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Hindutva violence against Muslims in India, Muslim violence against Christians, the wars ongoing or drawing to an end in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of an Israeli or American attack on Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace process… In each of these instances, religious arousal has a role to play.

It would require considerable care, research, and craftsmanship to produce a nuanced and appropriately balanced view of human nature, the current state of the world, American, European and Islamic popular, polite and political opinions, the global admixture of peoples and approaches that characterize Islam, the history of violence, religious and otherwise, the braiding in different times and places of religion with politics, the roots of violence, the roots of peace and its meanings both as a state of cessation of conflict and as a state of contemplative calm…

Such a presentation would require at least a book-length treatment, and cannot be trotted out every time some new spark emerges from the ancient fires… but perhaps I can lay out some of my own considerations about the topic here, in somewhat condensed form.

The teachings of Jesus appear to have been directed towards an audience that included regular folk: fishermen, members of an occupying military force, radical zealots, a tax-collector, a physician, a prostitute, religious scholars… a fair cross-section of human kind…

Every religion of any real “size” will have followers who are intellectuals, fearful followers, angry and reactive followers, contemplative followers – followers who are skilled in the various businesses of crime prevention, defense, contemplation, literature, the sex trade, theft, medicine, art, bargaining, diplomacy, music, architecture, investigative journalism, yellow journalism, inspirational writing, poetry…

It will of necessity address, and over time retain traces, of all their concerns.

Every religion of any real “size” will also have begun in a particular time, place and cultural setting, and will carry considerable parts of that setting with it, although it may also contain elements of a more profound or elevated spirit…

Every religion and scripture will, I suggest, promise a garden / paradise / city which is both attainable “outside” life, in a “there” which is hard to put into words, and “within” us, a similarly difficult concept to verbalize, in the moment, here. It will also contain what I call “landmines in the garden” – verses or narratives that offer sanction to what we today might regard as abhorrent violence against the innocent “other”.

Thus in Numbers 25 in the Jewish Tanakh and Christian Bible, the Lord offers to Phineas / Pinchas a “covenant of priesthood”, because he recognized that his Lord did not appreciate an Israelite and a woman of the Midianites copulating, and skewered the pair of them in flagrante through their conjoined parts with his spear — without first seeking the approval of the High Priest.

This story gave rise to the notion of the “Phineas Priest” action, in which a “lone wolf” kills on behalf of [a version of the Christian] God.

One of the most radical Christian Identity theorists is Richard Kelly Hoskins, who in 1990 invented the notion of the “Phineas Priest,” built around the concept of the biblical Phinehas, who used a spear to slay an Israelite and a Midianite who had lain together. Phineas Priests believe themselves modern day Phinehases, with a self-appointed mission to strike out in the most violent and ruthless way against race mixers, abortionists, homosexuals, Jews, and other perceived enemies.

Hoskins expounded the idea in his 1990 book, Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood, citing both Robin Hood (!) and John Wilkes Booth as examples…

It seems highly probable that Byron de la Beckwith, killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, considered himself a Phineas Priest, see Reed Massengill, Portrait of a Racist: The Man who Killed Medgar Evers, pp 303-305. Similarly, it appears that Rev. Paul Hill, convicted of abortion clinic murders, was considered by his friends, and may have considered himself, a Phineas Priest. Likewise Yigal Amir, assassin of Yitzak Rabin, seems to have had the Phineas story in mind when deciding, without rabbinic support, to go ahead and kill the Israeli PM.

For an example of a recent meeting of rabbis — in Jerusalem’s Ramada Renaissance hotel– to promote the permissibility under halachic law of the killing of goyim / gentiles, see this article by Max Blumenthal and the accompanying video:


Individuals, small sects or powerful movements will on occasion seize on these “landmine” texts within a religious tradition, and use them to justify acts of violence, large and small.

The Crusades, for instance, did this on behalf of Christianity and against Islam, notwithstanding which St Francis was able to approach Saladdin’s nephew, the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, across the battle lines, coming in peace, discussing matters of devotion, and departing in peace. The Islam of al-Andalus was for centuries, in comparison to the Christendom of its time, a model of scholarship and tolerance – though not without aspects of the pre-eminence of Islam, dhimmi status for People of the Book, the jizya, etc.

Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God and currently our finest analyst of religious terrorism, recently co-edited a book on Buddhist Warfare (obligatory, cautionary note: Juergensmeyer and I are both contributors to Michael W Wilson and Natalie Zimmerman’s book, A Kingdom at Any Cost: Right-wing Visions of Apocalypse in America). The world of Zen has been rattled by controversy regarding the support of leading roshis for the Japanese imperial war effort — and there are apocalyptic references to a future war between Buddhists and the mleccha (presumably Islam) in the text ofwhat the Dalai Lama has termed an “initiation for world peace” — the Kalachakra tantra.

Alexander Berzin, who has translated for the Dalai Lama on numerous occasions when this teaching was given, comments:

A careful examination of the Buddhist texts, however, particularly The Kalachakra Tantraliterature, reveals both external and internal levels of battle that could easily be called “holy wars.” An unbiased study of Islam reveals the same. In both religions, leaders may exploit the external dimensions of holy war for political, economic, or personal gain, by using it to rouse their troops to battle. Historical examples regarding Islam are well known; but one must not be rosy-eyed about Buddhism and think that it has been immune to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, in both religions, the main emphasis is on the internal spiritual battle against one’s own ignorance and destructive ways.

Any and all religions can be used to justify internal struggle, external violence, external peace-making and inner peace: the question is how these various threads are interwoven in individual cultures and histories, and in our own times.

That is, I’d suggest, a matter for legitimate dispute – but not one with an easy one sentence or even single paragraph answer.

In my view, the most powerful response to the current global “jihadist” movement will come not from advocates of democracy (whether backed up or not by military force or threat of force) who will naturally appear to be interfering in affairs between the soul and its God that do not concern them – but from people within the jihadists’ own religious tradition.

Noman Benotman, one-time leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and colleague of bin Laden and Zawahiri, wrote an open letter to bin Laden dated 10 September 2010 / 1 Shawwal 1431 AH, which the Quilliam Foundation just released under the title “Al-Qaeda: Your Armed Struggle is Over“.

Benotman’s letter opens with an invocationfrom Qur’an57:16:

Is it not time for believers to humble their hearts to the remembrance of God and the Truth that has been revealed.

The text of Benotman’s message is only four pages long, and I recommend reading the whole of it – but have selected this single passage as representative of his critique:

What has the 11th September brought to the world except mass killings, occupations, destruction, hatred of Muslims, humiliation of Islam, and a tighter grip on the lives of ordinary Muslims by the authoritarian regimes that control Arab and Muslim states? I warned you then, in summer 2000, of how your actions would bring US forces into the Middle East and into Afghanistan, leading to mass unrest and loss of life. You believed I was wrong. Time has proved me right

Benotman closes:

In urging you to halt your violence and re-consider your aims and strategy, I believe I am merely expressing the views of the vast majority of Muslims who wish to see their religion regain the respect it has lost and who long to carry the name of “Muslim” with pride.

For those who are concerned at the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki on English-speaking youth, there’s a detailed 130-page critique of his approach to global jihad from a strict Salafist perspective available on the web:

On the topic of suicide bombing / martyrdom operations viewed from an Islamic perspective, I’d suggest reading the Ihsanic Intelligence “Hijacked Caravan“:

And for a glimpse of the wider possibilities offered within the Islamic world, Bassam Tibi’s brief summary in his book, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder is worth considering:

To me religious belief in Islam is, as Sufi Muslims put it, “love of God,” not a political ideology of hatred. … In my heart, therefore, I am a Sufi, but in my mind I subscribe to ‘aql/”reason”, and in this I follow the Islamic rationalism of Ibn Rushd/Averroes. Moreover, I read Islamic scripture, as any other, in the light of history, a practice I learned from the work of the great Islamic philosopher of history IbnKhaldun. The Islamic source most pertinent to the intellectual framework of this book is the ideal of al-madina al-fadila/”the perfect state”, as outlined in the great thought of the Islamic political philosopher al-Farabi.

Irani and Funk’s “Rituals of Reconciliation: Arab-Islamic Perspectives” indicates something of what an Islamic approach to truth and reconciliation might look like:

No doubt there’s a great deal more that one might say, but that must suffice for now.

Charles Cameron.

5 thoughts on “Charles Cameron on “In a Time of Religious Arousal””

  1. The main thrust of Christianity must be the life and teachings of Christ but Christians, by acceptance of both the new and old testaments have, to a large extent been able to have their cake and eat it too.

  2. Benotman’s letter suggests that Bush’s approach was correct and Obama’s will lead to encouragement on the part of the radicals. Obviously, this is a bumper sticker sized reaction but preparing for war has long been known as a path to peace.

  3. “this article by Max Blumenthal”

    Max Blumenthal is a bad guy, who routinely slanders any person who is not sufficiently left wing in his eyes. I would not trust any thing he wrote or recorded.

  4. This is interesting, it is new to me. I have always considered Islam to be a religion with real moral content. I am so far dismayed at not seeing Muslims make their own case against violent barbarians like bin Laden. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong place. That notwithstanding, it is up to Muslims generally to make a vigorous, public and cogent case. At some point silence becomes consent.

  5. Hi, Robert:

    You’re at liberty to distrust Blumenthal of course, and I try to read with caution on both / all sides of an issue, and to be aware of my own limitations, too.

    Here’s a January piece from Ha’aretz on the subject:

    The marble-patterned, hardcover book embossed with gold Hebrew letters looks like any other religious commentary you’d find in an Orthodox Judaica bookstore – but reads like a rabbinic instruction manual outlining acceptable scenarios for killing non-Jewish babies, children and adults.

    The prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’ applies only “to a Jew who kills a Jew,” write Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar. Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

    “The King’s Torah (Torat Hamelech), Part One: Laws of Life and Death between Israel and the Nations,” a 230-page compendium of Halacha, or Jewish religious law, published by the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in Yitzhar, garnered a front-page exposé in the Israeli tabloid Ma’ariv, which called it the stuff of “Jewish terror.”

    The book is apparently hard to come by, and I don’t read Hebrew in any case – but I’m prepared to take Ha’aretz’s word for it that the book provides halachic sanction for killing children (if you’ll allow this somewhat novel use of the term) “pre-emptively”.

    After Rabbi Shapira was arrested on the orders of the Israeli Attorney General, YNet, a source on the Israeli right, reported on the mixed feelings the publication had aroused:

    Beit El Rabbi Shlomo Aviner told Ynet on Monday that the book “Torat Hamelech” is a “halachic-academic work, a pedagogical work,” and, therefore, there is no justification to send its author to prison.

    According to Rabbi Aviner, the “‘religious laws governing the killing of a non-Jew’ outlined in the book are a legitimate stance and must be addressed via clarification of halachic sources and nothing else.”

    Despite this, Rabbi Aviner said that he is against the book’s publication. “I do not think it is correct to write various halachas on killing a non-Jew, just a Swede should not write about killing a Norwegian,” he said. “It is clear that it is forbidden to kill non-Jews for naught, and it is clear that in a time of war, it is permissible to defend yourself against anyone shooting at you, even if he is a ‘good’ person.”,7340,L-3925115,00.html

    A Jewish Search article had the following comments which seem relevant in terms of the religious-military context:

    Distribution of the books came just over a week after it became known that Ya’acov Teitel, a settler from Shvut Rahel, had been arrested for allegedly murdering two Palestinians and severely wounding a Christian who belongs to a messianicJewish community in Ariel.

    And even if the students at Mercaz Harav did not hear about the book from Ma’ariv, the subject of killing gentiles, and more specifically Palestinians as part of the ongoing battle against terrorism, is particularly relevant for students at the yeshiva who have served, are presently serving or plan on serving in the IDF.

    After all, a large portion of Torat Hamelech is dedicated to exploring Jewish “rules of engagement” according to the authors’ interpretation of Jewish law. For many young men at Mercaz Harav or other Orthodox Zionist yeshivot where IDF service is combined with intense Torah learning, the book could have practical implications for how religious soldiers do battle.

    And at Mercaz Harav, it was just over a year ago that a Palestinian Muslim from east Jerusalem shot eight students dead.

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