As Syrian children go to schools and playgrounds in Raqqa, a provincial capital now controlled by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (commonly known as ISIS), they walk by spiked fences topped by the decapitated heads of the followers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many heads belong to relatives of the children. The headless corpses were left on Raqqa streets as further warnings to Shias and Alawites, members of the Free Syrian Army we supposedly support – at times – fighting to preserve the Assad regime we – at times – want to be overthrown.
This is only a part of the very confusing, disturbing Middle East. Geopolitical “experts” have estimated there may be as many as 1,200 religious groups, sects, tribes and fundamentalists fighting and killing each other. The world has probably not seen another such messy maelstrom of violence. Some of the present groups are uniquely evil in their human savagery, but remember we have had Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan and thousands of other evil leaders after we went into caves.
One of the weirdest, cruelest leaders was Emperor Caligula of Rome (A.D. 37-41), a contemporary of Jesus Christ. He loved his horse Incitatus more than any human being, providing him a marble stall, an ivory manger, a jeweled collar, and a separate house. His oats were mixed with flakes of gold. Caligula raped his sisters, fed prisoners and religious faithful to wild animals for his entertainment – and was caught having conversations with the moon. ‘Tis rumored he appointed Incitatus as his consul (lawyer). It may have been the first time that a horse’s ass served in that capacity, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The Guardian columnist John Gray has written a fascinating, provocative article “The Truth About Evil.” He argues that leaders fail to accept the fact that brutality, cruelty and conflict are basic human traits – and flaws. I still remember the story of Marjan, an old lion living in the Kabul, Afghanistan zoo when our war with that “flawed” country started a dozen years ago. While we were bombing Kabul, the Afghans had difficulty getting food supplies to the zoo, so the animals were going hungry. One night a drunken Afghan soldier climbed into Marjan’s cage to pet him. Marjan not only was pissed about being hungry, he was pissed with humans who didn’t provide him meat. So, naturally, he decided to curb his hunger on the tasty parts of the soldier. Other parts were found in the satisfied Marjan’s cage the next morning. After the funeral the dead man’s brother came to the zoo and attacked Marjan with two grenades, putting out an eye and rearranging his jaw. I remember thinking from that incident that the Afghans would be very difficult to beat in a mountain guerilla war. After all, what kind of human being would revenge a drunken brother by attacking a lion – with grenades – who had been very hungry? Perhaps a very tough one with natural human flaws.
The “Encyclopedia of Wars” states that of the 1,723 wars conducted in the countable past, only 123 have been caused by religious conflict. I wonder how accurate that estimate is. Certainly most wars have been for economic reasons, political instabilities, and border conflicts, but if we think of all the religious troubles between Sikhs and Hindus, Sunnis and Shias, Orthodox Turks and Kurds, Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists and Muslims, Confucianists and Taoists, and thousands of other religious cults, sects, gut analyzers and snake worshipers, I have trouble believing that less than 10 percent of the wars have been caused by religion.
We are told that humans who do not believe in a Supreme Being can be very “good” without such divine intervention. How many wars have been started by atheists? Not many. The most destructive atheist was Joseph Stalin between the 1920s and 1950s, with death totals somewhere between 30 to 50 million in war and peace. Estimates are that Stalin was responsible for about 22 million deaths in WWII alone. But Joe didn’t start it. Hitler did. Joe, a certified mass murderer, was an evil paranoid communist, a ruthless son of a bitch who set up gulags in a huge archipelago across Russia to contain enemies and dissidents in cruel and deadly slave labor camps. Two books, “The Gulag Archipelago” and “A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, tell Stalin’s sordid story. Joe, whose mother was reputed to have had an affair with a local priest, was born with a webbed left foot. In religious folklore it was the mark of the devil.
In five years between 1928 and 1933 he collectivized and communized over 100 million people. Over five million who protested were loaded into boxcars and sent to the Gulag Archipelago to slave labor camps and often death. During this period over 40 million faced starvation with over five million dying in one famine. The decline of animal numbers during this period dramatically shows how desperate the conditions in Russia were. Horses went from 35 million down to 17 million, pigs from 26 million to 12 million, and sheep and goats from 147 million to 50 million.
A Ukraine eyewitness left this message in his diary: “All the dogs have been eaten. We have eaten everything we could lay our hands on – cats, dogs, field mice, birds – when its light tomorrow, you will see that the trees have been stripped of bark, for that too has been eaten. And the horse manure has been eaten. We fight over it. Sometimes there are whole grains in it.”
The premise of the author of “The Truth About Evil” is that the “propensity to destructive and self-destructive behavior is humanly universal.” Gray writes: “Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.” Germany was a Christian country, but Hitler’s “Third Reich” was very popular with most of the German people until near the end of the war. How many doctors, lawyers, intellectuals, teachers, and church leaders implemented Nazi policies? Who built the death camps? Who built the ovens and the chimneys? Who made all that Zyklon B, the poison gas used to kill millions? Who laid the railroad tracks through the gates of Auschwitz?
William Shirer wrote an accurate account of Hitler’s Holocaust in his book “The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich”: “Most Germans … did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work were being regimented to a degree never before experienced … they appeared to support it with a genuine enthusiasm.” As early as 1931 Albert Einstein, the Jewish scientist, asked Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychologist, this question: “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” Freud’s response: “There is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies.” Freud became a prominent target of the Nazis, burning his books by the gross in 1933. Freud understood the Nazi mind early. He later said: “What progress we are making! In the Middle ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books!” He escaped from the Nazis to London in 1938 and died in 1939.
Actually, burning heretics and criminals started in 304 A.D. in Scotland and did not end until 1974 in Equatorial Guinea where criminals were drenched in gasoline and burned alive. We still on occasion have cases of gasoline attacks or self-immolation.
Fear of flames, of falling meteors, of the smoking nine circles of Dante’s Hell, of the black plague and ebola, have always been useful in keeping sinning peasants in line. Admitting to the grievous sexual sin of masturbation in the confessional might keep your private parts from falling off. Shakespeare captured this “religious” fear in his most famous monologue “To be, or not to be..”:
“Who would fardels (burdens) bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the fear of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of ...”
No doubt religion is the great puzzler since man first took a good look at the skies and asked, “How did this happen?” Muslims have used decapitation and the chopping off of hands and arms to keep their brothers’ and sisters’ thoughts on the 72 virgins and other delights available to them if they conduct proper jihad. Roman Catholics and other Christians have used torture and burning at the stake to keep supplicants in line and the cash flowing in.
St. Alban, a Roman citizen, was the first Christian burned at the stake for religious reasons in 304 A.D. The last human officially sentenced to death by fire was a dissident in Equatorial Guinea in 1974. In between, thousands were burned at the stake.
Scots, with a reputation for being frugal in a Roman Catholic country, sometimes refused to “tithe.” Fisherman David Stratton was ordered by his bishop and priests to tithe ten percent of the fish he caught to the Church. He refused, threw a tenth of his catch back in the river, and told the priests to get the fish where he got them. For showing such deep disrespect to the Church he was burned alive.
In the Middle Ages thousands of heretics were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in a terrible attempt to convince them only Catholics were “saved.” Bishop Thomas de Torquemada personally ordered the death of 10,000 heretics in 17 years in Spain, with 2,000 being roasted alive in the district of Seville. Records indicate that from 1481 to 1808, 32,382 Spanish heretics were burned at the stake. Their properties were confiscated by the Catholic Church. In 1568 all of the residents of the Netherlands were sentenced to death by the Inquisition. Over 800 were burned in the first week, and about 28,000 were eventually burned at the stake. Many heretics were tied back to back and thrown into rivers, while women were often raped and then killed. In some cases heretics who died and were buried before they could go to the stake were dug up and burned anyway.
I still remember a comment made by a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz when he was asked if he believed in God: “I will believe in God if He can convince me the Holocaust was necessary to save mankind.” The possibility exists we are facing another Holocaust at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists under the banner of ISIS. After all, how many “moderate” Muslims are there in the world? We hardly ever hear from them, even if they exist. There are about 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, with 85 percent of them believing in the Sunni-Wahhabism ideology, a repressive and exclusionary branch of Islam. Saudi Arabia supports the spread of this extremist form, denying women an education and subjecting them to sharia laws.
The rise of ISIS is certainly a part of a war of religion. We are in the 15th Crusade since 1095. The conflict between Shia and Sunni in the steaming cauldron of the Middle East will most likely, as Gray says, “Continue for generations to come.” And evil will always be with us. Gray sums up his premise this way: “Even if ISIS is defeated, it will not be the last movement of its kind. Along with war, religion is not declining, but continuously mutating into hybrid forms.” Are humans really that flawed? A preponderance of evidence is in.
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