Rene Girard & the latest war

Following the terrible sequence of summer news from Syria & Iraq, all the atrocities... occurred to me today that the strange convolutions of recent upheavals might find some meaning through the anthropological-theoretical lens of Rene Girard.  Girard knows One Big Thing (he's the perfect example of Isaiah Berlin's "hedgehog" - as opposed to the "fox", who knows a little bit about everything) - & I have to approach his totalizing theory with caution.  Yet here we have a formation of current events which apparently could be illustrations of his Big Idea.

For Girard, human life & culture are rooted in subconscious "mimetic rivalry", culminating in "mimetic violence", & resolved (very imperfectly) by ritual sacrifice/scapegoating.  Is it possible to consider the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam as an example of this?  Girard says that what begins as mimetic rivalry over a desired object - the psychological mechanism whereby because he has this thing, it must be good, so I must have it - morphs eventually into pure rivalry : the object itself is forgotten, it becomes simply a matter of me against him, us against them.

The appearance now of the "Islamic State", or ISIS, seems to have upended the formalized (& centuries-old) rivalry between the two sects.  For the time being, & in some places, Shiite & Sunni political groups are actually working together.   The transgressive violence of ISIS has set this in motion : Girard's idea that the vertiginous magnetism of social breakdown, leading to the obliteration of all social differences in a chaos of destructive violence, is that most-feared thing, the only thing that could bring the two sides to work together.  So now Iran & Saudi Arabia & the US are all converging to combat the common menace.

The trouble is, ISIS does not quite fit the Girardian pattern of the "arbitrary sacrificial victim" - the scapegoat whose sacrifice "resolves" (for a while) the pattern of violence, rivalry & vengeance.  History is a little "messier" than theory (as Pres. Obama noted recently).  Once ISIS is defeated, another candidate for the leadership of glamorized political violence will arise, another iteration of the crisis.

It seems to me that the phenomenon of militant Islam is rooted in a theological notion, perhaps a distortion of normative Islam (I don't really know).  The notion is that humans - followers of the Prophet - can know God's will, and carry it out in terms of a political sovereignty based on force.  It is the totalizing concept of theocracy : that divine law and human laws are one & the same.  God is essentially an invisible cosmic commanding officer; & if you know God's will, and those others do not, then those others must eventually submit to your will.

There are other ways of thinking about God, and the human soul, and the destiny of the earth; other ways of thinking about law and political justice.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, had very considerable notions of law & justice, in a civilization which lasted 3 or 4 thousand years before the monotheistic religions arose.  Not that I am lobbying for ancient Egyptian culture : this is just one example.

The Western concept of "natural law" is another example.  It's possible to believe that "divine Providence" has provided humanity in general - across the globe - with innate notions of good & evil, right & wrong, which are suitable & equipped for the ordinary challenges of civil, earthly society.  The "theological virtues", on the other hand, are distinct spiritual gifts, which lift the human soul toward its supernatural, eternal destiny.  This is inevitably a personal journey; one cannot compel a person, either by law or by sheer force, to inhabit a moral/spiritual dimension which only God can offer.  This kind of idea is at the root of Roger Williams' pioneering political construct, the "separation of Church & State".  Let human law govern one global humanity; let divine grace govern the individual soul.

Some such alternative theological ideas might come in handy, during the long future struggle with militant & violent political ideologies of all kinds.

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

Postnote : I have oversimplified Girard's thesis here. He emphasizes that in his view modern societies are distinct from most of the long history of the human race, in that humanity has become CONSCIOUS of the violent-mimetic scapegoat mechanisms which once structured culture, & our awareness of scapegoating diminishes its power over us. But Girard also notes that this "lull" brought about by awareness might be temporary.