In 1799 a French soldier named Pierre-François Bouchard was sent to supervise the rebuilding of an ancient Mamluk fortification needed to defend the lower reaches of the Nile from the British. The Mamluk’s were a warrior caste that rose from Slavic slaves captured in the Balkans (Albanian as well as Greeks) by the Muslims in the 9th century (the caliphate used a system called a ‘blood tax’ where Slavic children had to hand over, but most of the Mamlucks came from a period known as the “harvesting of the steppe”). Being a warrior class the Mamlucks became key in any struggle for power by Islamic sultans and eventually took control of Egypt in the 12th century (the Mamluk’s where one of the first armies to defeat the Mongal invasion). The Mamluck fort lay close to the port city of Rosetta and was hastily renamed Fort Julien by the invading French army, who knew this would be a key defence against the British. The fort had been built and rebuilt many times, the stones of its walls a mosaic of new, old and ancient stones, some fresh cut fresh, some stolen, some recycled from older buildings and temples. Bouchard was a man who led a long and interesting life as a soldier, a lifelong Bonapartist, who stuck by Napoleon: as a fighting soldier, as a prisoner, and again during Napoleon’s final 100 days, ending with the battle of Waterloo. While undertaking his task as an engineer, renovating the walls, he came across a strange black stone inscribed with hundreds of tiny words and symbols. One area of the block featured hieroglyphics, an alphabet that spanned three thousand years but was forgotten in the fourth century. The second set of marks was in demotic script, another lost language that came after hieroglyphic script, but the third was in ancient Greek, a language easily understood by many. Perhaps some soldiers would see such a thing as nothing more than solid protection from British cannon, but not Bouchard, a member of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, who wondered if these three scripts were of the same text. And the rest is history, a four-thousand-year-old code slowly broken with a leap of thought, not simply piled up with the rest for a fort that would soon fall, a wall of silence crumbling away, unlocked with one simple piece of stone rubble.
I met another soldier the other day, on his way out of the army, a soldier who’d served in Afghanistan and Iraq - a captain I think, with men under his charge. Talking to him about Afghanistan and its problems, the inevitability of its outcome, it struck me how little he really understood about the nature of his foe: about radical Islam, of Saudi Arabian sponsored madrassas that spawned the Taliban, Wahhabism and what gave birth to this fanatical ideology, of the Ottomans, and further back: the Sunni and Shia split in the 7th century, and lastly about an illiterate merchant being told to memorise the word of God by the archangel Gabriel – but only in Arabic – this word being the last and final one God would give. This soldier’s view, an intelligent man, was like a story produced by Disney for the US army, a little light orientation of the issues at hand, one that could well be illustrated with characters from Aladdin. It almost seemed like it didn’t really matter the reasons for being there, the underlying causes, why he was up against Saudi, Pakistani and Chechen fighters as well as Afghans, the business of death simply in the killing. I wondered if a full reading of history would be seen as being too complex to digest, confuse the narrative, too divisive, maybe even politically incorrect, a great deal of the blame for the current situation laid at the door of our allies. What he had was a story of a peaceful faith subverted by radicals and terrorists, of good and bad and evil, of warlords, drugs, the Russia bear, the CIA. His view of this war was the same old self-flagellating one of the great game, American neo-conservatism and geopolitics, not a political ideology spawned in the seventh century. To this soldier, a cleric inciting young men to blow themselves up was no different from an English bishop. Perhaps this is why the West is on the way to losing Afghanistan, of letting all those who want modernity slip back into the medieval. What we suffer from is the overlaying of us over them, a half-imagined truth we think we know, the reason why so much makes no sense being many people are missing the cypher to it all.
Why is this? Well, I think there are two strands, first a lack of understanding of the nature of faith, and second, a need to destroy ourselves that further hides just what that truth really is – the truth of us.
We as western Europeans have been slowly conditioned over decades to be mercilessly self-flagellating, self-hating, full of pity and apology, something that seems lacking in any other society or culture. Perhaps this is what some would call a social conscience, but I would argue it is the total opposite. The reasons for this are many and complex: Catholicism and Protestantism, the war between socialism and capitalism, against ‘the system’, hatred or distrust of the past and of tradition, that we need to believe ourselves better than them, that only what is new and clean will lead to a heaven on earth, a liberal media and system of politics based on feelings and short term ‘emotional’ polices, that anything that makes us feel ‘bad’ must be bad (when nature is immoral). Justin Trudeau pulls out his F16’s from Syria because it makes him feel good, makes the people feel good, then scratches his head when ISIS cut off the head of John Ridsdel. Trudeau’s response nothing but the flip side of that warm feeling he had when being the better man: “I Am Outraged”.
A good example of this terribly damaging and clinical self-view would be the way the media embraces the White Saviour Barbie story, which projects a view of those who go to Africa to ‘do some good’ as white western gap years students, cluelessly only going to feed their own egos. I’m sure many have seen this on Facebook and liked it, or felt that warm glow, like watching a neo-nazi get his head kicked in by the police. It feeds into those little circuits implanted over time, the subtle message that this is a ‘white’ and ‘privileged’ ‘western’ person who’s self-obsessed and who needs their empty lives enriching by the exploitation of good honest African’s who don’t need their help or their post-colonial attitude. Mmmm just makes me feel so fuzzy as I click that like button. But is this true, or is this simply like touching a broken tooth with your tongue, that delicious pain? What about the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve gone to Africa and done real good, who’ve given money and time to build schools, build wells, help develop technology, taken their skills as doctors and engineers, or simply done all they can large or small? “Oh, but we don’t mean them?” I can hear some cry, well fucking name names! In the last twenty years I’ve raised about twenty thousand pounds for Charities working in Nepal, am I one of those people? (yes I know that Nepal is not in Africa : ) Should I have just put that time and effort into UK charities, did I do this for my ego, for some selfie with a dirty-faced kid in the Kumbu? Another example of the politics of ‘feel good or feel bad’ is the idea of paying disabled people less than minimum wage - the outrage (just feel the pain in your heart at the very idea), how can we live in a world where such evil can be inflicted. Now, wait – are you disabled, do you know anyone who is disabled? Now I’m not talking about people in wheelchairs or with a leg missing (most such people have a job), no I’m talking people with depression, people fucked up on drugs, people who have no known malady but are simply ‘not able’. Do you know that 19% of the work age population are classed as disabled? Do you own your own business, if so would you pay top dollar for a man who’s had depression for twenty years and never leaves the house, that may be saved by the act of working, meeting people, not watching Home and Away - OR a post-graduate just back from a gap year in Africa? This is a problem with our age, with let emotion cloud critical thinking and calling politicians ‘stupid’ or ‘corrupt’ and so by doing so demonise ‘the system’ is no way of nudging change.
“But we’ve caused the world to be in such a mess” I hear you cry, and think me an apologist. Do the Arabs wring their hands over the death of ninety million African slaves during their slave trade (did you know the Hindu Kush means ‘Hindu-slayer’ or ‘grave of the Hindus’ (ref Ibn Battuta) due to the number of India slaves who died crossing it). No all we hear about is the street lights in Córdoba and algebra. What about the Turks genocide of 1.5 million Armenians only a little over a hundred years ago, something they still refuse to accept let alone apologise. Each and every ‘people’ or society is complicit in some form of mass murder, looting and war, from Spain’s 80 million deaths during its conquest of America’s to the Maori genocide of the Chatham Islanders. No one can cast a single stone without striking some genocidal ancestor (remember that the rulers of Africa came to London to appeal for the restoration of the slave trade, a trade of African kings, not sailors with nets).
And then there’s faith.
One reason we in the West don’t grasp the underlying unstoppable force moving around us is that ‘it’ has been bred out of us, out of society. Europe separated church from state and de-radicalised its populations long ago, has suffered hundreds of years of wars and persecutions, the only way to get on to get on. Yes, we have faith in many countries, but not a faith that can send young men to the front, brainwashed from birth, but more faith - to those that have it - akin to dancing around a maypole. Our mistake is to simply not be able to grasp the strength of another total faith, to discount it, to look instead for answers that only a culturally Godless society can grasp. Check out how many gay men and secular academics have been hacked to death in Bangladesh, try and imagine the intolerant social landscape where such things can happen, a landscape where we in the West can shoulder no blame, only intolerance.
The inability of the majority of people, clever people, to grasp this is why we cannot understand what is happening in Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, Iran, wars and murders we try and see through a prism of our making, of old fashioned power play, not through a glass wholly alien to us. Instead of applying good old Occam’s razor we look for our own evil spirits, the CIA, Mossad, the FSB. Faith is not easy to understand with the western rational mind, someone who simply goes to church on a Sunday or who prays to angels cooky enough for most. How many times have you been talking to someone, thinking them normal and rational, only to change your whole perception of them when they tell you about ‘their faith’? How then can we understand fundamentalists, people who kill abortion doctors, who think Adam and Eve lived with dinosaurs, who think the world is only five thousand years old, that Mohamed actually flew to the moon on a horse with wings and cut it in half? We can’t. For us these people of faith are crazy, so what makes us think we can guess the thoughts of a man on the tube carrying a rucksack full of explosive and nails, or a man cutting off the head of a soldier on a London street? Instead of a full reading of the truth of it, the danger of faith, we try and blame ourselves.
We misread ISIS’s goals, of what radical terrorists want, which we think is a power play, an effect of Sykes-Picot or the Balfour Declaration when it is something far older and completely alien to a western mind. Young men who have been taught since childhood to believe in a holy book are already hard-wired for radicalisation, and no man blows himself to pieces and kills men, woman and children going on their holidays simply because they are disengaged from society or angry. We use such terms, look for social issues to pin the blame on us because the answers can only be found in that space we cannot go. But what ISIS want is aligned with what many fundamentalist Christians want (they both share a common cause), why some hope global warming to be the end, clap their hands for Fukushima, wish for Iran to have ‘bomb’, all fighting in their own ways, big or small, for the End of Days, The Second Coming, the rapture, for Armageddon. What is it that leads thousands of young men, women, even children, to commit suicide, to go up against impossible odds, to burn people alive, cut off their heads, throw gay men from buildings, to wish to destroy history older than their faith? Is it our fault, the invasion of Iraq turning the world crazy, or did it wake up a madness simply sleeping?
Do you think yourself free of such blind insane faith? Well, this madness infects us all, blind belief also taints the West, people believing in the possibility of miracles by the hand of Obama, Corbin, Clinton, Trump, Sanders, Treudau just as much as a fighter believes that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will bring victory over the infidels. Right or left it makes a very little difference long term, one man or woman, one party or the other, good or bad comes down more to luck and good PR and spin as anything. Consider your views about ‘your side’, and then how you feel about ‘the other’. Read what people write about people opposed to them politically on Twitter or Facebook, the in and the out, the left and the right, the red and the blue, the rich and the poor, is this so different to Sunni and a Shia, Catholic and Protestant, Hindus and Muslims? Think how more alike you are rather than different, shared experiences and hope, each and everyone wanting the same - only different. I remember distinctly a crack appearing in my own faith in us and them, of a polarised view so easy to take (and increasingly so), when someone who I thought kind, spat out these words on hearing of the slow and pain-filled death of Kenny Everett by Aids: “Serves him right for being a Tory”.
My point? Why I bring this up is that I think that very often people seem confused at the world we live in, grasping in the dark for answers, often mistakenly grabbing hold of crazy notions, or notions that allow them to feel the pain of guilt, that ‘we’ are to blame and so will have an answer. The problem is that the answers are often simple, there in history but too irrational to input for an answer, the idea of faith really being such a driver to such horrors in the twenty-first century. We overthink because reality is too simple to believe. The truth is so blunt.
So here’s my answer: not the whole answer, but a part of the answer, one that makes sense to me (don’t get cross if you don’t agree). If you wish to understand the world in which we live, our actions and motivations, to decode the chaos the surrounds us, then it helps to view faith as mankind’s rosetta stone. Through faith you see the underlying ultimate truth: that we are flawed, driven by emotion, not logic, hostile to our very nature, are in fear, but most of all want to be embraced and accepted and loved. Most of all - and please don’t take this the wrong way mankind – or God, if you made us – this way, but most of all faith, betrays the very thing that elevates us from all other living things: the madness in us all.