“Sectarianism involves strong feelings, deep resentment, a searing sense of injustice, above all, anger,” explained renowned British social anthropologist Mary Douglas in an important lecture, Seeing Everything in Black and White, delivered shortly before her death in May 2007.
She added: “All of these are intensified when religious loyalty is engaged.”
It’s hard to disagree with Douglas’s analysis of the sectarian vision – in particular, she must be commended for highlighting the importance of how, under certain circumstances, combining religious belief with powerful emotions, can fuel and give impetus to terrorism.
Now, after the Isis attack in St Denis, Paris in which 130 people died, the Al-Qaeda slaughter of at least 21 people by gunmen at a hotel in Bamako, the Malian capital, and another 22 in a Boko Haram-inspired suicide bombing of Shia Muslims near the Nigerian city of Kano, political commentators and the rest of the population are once again struggling to come to terms with what’s happening and why.
So let’s go back to Douglas and review what she had to say about such militant religious groups.
Probably the most important point that Douglas makes concerns the “wall of virtue” constructed by those in the sect. Behind it members can look outwards at other people and classify them as different sorts of human beings – in short, “people not like us”.
Of course, such a classification system doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict or violence – there are plenty of pacifist religious sects in Western and other societies (Amish, Quakers or Swami Narayan) which classify other people as (more or less) metaphysically inferior and place huge restrictions on the number and type of transactions (sharing or exchanging food, handshakes, or daughters and sons) between members and non-members – but in certain circumstances it does. Continue reading “The 'wall of virtue' that surrounds followers of Isis will not be broken down by bombing Syria”