In all high-minded or “holy” group violence, you’ll see two factors at play: The Endgame and the Spin. (Which one of these two gets emphasized and reviled depends on whether you’re reading a polemic or an apologia.) The Endgame is similar across eras and cultures: Land grabs, slave-taking, looting, the exaction of tribute, general destruction, and empire-building. The Spin will be used to deflect attention from this commonality of aim—both for the conquered populace, and for the conquerors themselves. (The conscience must be conquered first.)
The Endgame will be pursued if the group believes it is in its interests, and if the group believes it can get away with it. It is this latter criterion that reveals that Spin for what it is. The Spin on invading Iraq, circa 2003, was national self-defense and the spreading of Freedom and Democracy. There were other dictatorships and communist countries with larger, documented arsenals; but the United States invaded that one, in particular, because we thought we could get away with it. Hence the repeated insistence, in the run-up to the invasion, that we would be “greeted as liberators.” We don’t destroy China or North Korea or Iran today for the same reason we didn’t invade the U.S.S.R. back in the 1970’s, even though it is in our interests to rid ourselves of these economic and political rivals (none of them representative democracies): We wouldn’t be able to get away with it, not without hundreds of thousands of American casualties and a potential nuclear exchange. So in those contexts, the urgent need to spread Democracy and Freedom, and the urgent intolerability of the threat of an armed unfriendly state, both vanish. This is the well-known reason why so many countries want nuclear weapons: They render your country permanently uninvadable because the second criterion won’t be met. This wasn’t so in the case of Iraq. There, both criteria were met. The Spin could be used: The Endgame could be presented, both to the world and to Americans, as high-minded and principled group violence. It didn’t work.
Sometimes, though, the Spin does work. Consider the way Muslims (and historians, for that matter) regard the 7th century A.D. overland expansion of the Arabs under Mohammed. Now, politically, what happened in the Arabian Peninsula was identical to what would happen a few centuries later in Mongolia: A strongman unites quarrelsome regional tribes and directs their violence, previously internecine, outward in a war of imperial overland conquest. The strongman in Arabia was Mohammed; in Mongolia, it was Chinghiz Khan. The Mongols had no use for Spin; this is why they are called “barbaric” by historians. The Muslims had the supreme Spin in history, Islam: To this day, people think of those “holy warriors” as setting forth to spread their religion, not to loot, take slaves, and set up Caliphates across the Middle East as far as Sindh. Yet the same warriors, supposedly restless with the desire to go spreading Islam, settled down and lived as an aristocracy in the conquered Islamic empire; if they really couldn’t sit still until the whole world was converted, they would have ridden off endlessly to the east, west, and north until the Chinese, the Byzantines, and the Arctic winter destroyed them. But their supposed burning need to spread Islam quieted when the risks outweighed the benefits. They enjoyed the fruits of the Endgame. The Spin could wait.
And the greatest Spin in all history it was: To this day, the peoples they conquered pray in Arabic and visit Mohammed’s capital, Mecca, as their holiest city. The Arab empire has vanished—the worldly fruits of the Endgame have perished—but the Spin lives on. The colonizing Europeans between 1492 and 1914 had varying success in this regard, spreading Christianity through extermination in North America, interbreeding in Central and South America, conversion in South Korea, Goa, and scattered other outposts; but never quite overcoming the entrenched religions of India and the Middle Eastern areas of conquest. (A case of fire fighting fire.) But it’s important to note that Catholics the world over make their pilgrimage to Rome: Constantine’s vision of the cross, In hoc signo vinces, is an example of an Endgame finding a new Spin. Before Christianity, Rome used to pursue its Endgame in the name of Roman Law and Good Government: cf. Virgil, who wrote the original Mission Statement: “Your task, O Roman, is to rule and bring to men the arts of government, to impose upon them the arts of peace, to spare those who submit, to subdue the arrogant.” After Constantine, the Spin switched to Christianity.
So it’s important, when considering “religious violence,” to separate the Endgame from the Spin. And to realize that a man’s metaphysical ideas are strikingly independent of how ethical his behavior is or isn’t. This is why you can see, in the world around you, noble, righteous, compassionate atheists and psychopathic, genocidal religious believers—and vice-versa. When groups engage in violence in the name of a God or religion, whether it’s it’s usually just more of the old Endgame with more of the old Spin. Sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims during the Partition of India, 1947: Land grabs, property seizure, rape. The religions had nothing to do with it; the more devout demographics—women and the elderly—suffered the violence, while young males (none of them professionals, mind you; mostly poor and uneducated young men) carried it out. If simply believing in the religion “caused” the violent action, plenty of the perpetrators should have been women, and the prayerful elderly should have been involved, too. But they weren’t.
There is a connection of religion and group violence, but it’s not causative: Rather, it’s that religion provides a group identity, which can then be utilized for violent ends by leaders of a government or community. Any group identity will do: In Rwanda, violence took place along tribal lines because tribe still matters in Africa; in Europe in the early 20th century, nation-state fought nation-state because nation-statehood mattered to Germany and France, their common Christianity notwithstanding; in India in 1947, religion mattered, so when the subcontinent was divided along religious lines, violence ensued along religious lines. The Endgame in all cases is familiar: The old lust for territory and power.
In the Islamic world, Sunni and Shia Islam are group identities that bind together otherwise fractious communities—that galvanize the populace against foreign invaders. Al Qaeda’s modern-day jihad against America is one of a long line of such jihads—like the one declared in Egypt against Napoleon’s presence, and the one declared in the Sudan against the British presence. I have actually consulted the text of the fatwa issued in early 19th century Egypt against Napoleon; much of the wording is quite familiar. The common theme is that of the group being under Existential Threat. (This is a recurring theme in the Spin of many aggressive groups, by the way: The Serbians claimed they were being overrun by Muslims, just as America’s Extreme Right claims that America’s being overrun by illegal immigrants and homosexuals.) The theme of the Existential Threat explains why bin Laden, whom we see as an aggressor, was always declaring the Holy Land under threat from American imperial designs. (Similarly, Hitler, whom we see as an aggressor, was always declaring Germany under threat from “Judaeo-Bolshevism.”) Whether or not such men believe their own Spin—we have reason to believe that both Hitler and bin Laden did—is a relevant question: The Spin, it seems, is meant for the self as much as it is for the world.
The use of religion or high-minded secular principles to spin violence points to a larger fact about religions and principles: They are used sometimes to guide conduct, and sometimes to justify conduct. That is, a given body of scripture is subject to manipulation, and can be made to support violence or self-restraint, depending on whether a group or individual wishes it to do so. This is done through the selective presentation of quotations, most often. You can find lines praising peace in the Qur’an just as you can find lines praising infidel-killing. Consider also the well-known eye-for-an-eye / turn-the-other-cheek dichotomy in the Bible. Which is it? Depends on whether you’re contemplating a Crusade. Religion doesn’t justify violence; religion is used to justify violence. We must never fail to see the Endgame for the Spin.