Religious Zealotry and Imperial Domination
Infection and inflammation in the body politic
“Leave them to their sectarian religious wars. They’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, and it will continue unabated no matter what we enlightened, secular westerners do. Best not to get mixed up in it.”
This sentiment is prevalent within certain strands of anti-interventionist thought, and it betrays an incredible ignorance and arrogance. It neglects the central fact of Muslim civilization since World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and especially since World War II and the establishment of the state of Israel: the western imperial domination and exploitation of virtually all Muslim lands and people, whether through occupation, puppet dictators, civil war sponsorship, or chaos-inducing regime changes. Westerners sigh derisively at “backward” Muslim culture, yet it is western culture that, by sanctioning such a foreign policy, has proven to be far more barbaric.
A splendid 2011 Ron Paul presidential campaign ad invited viewers to imagine how Americans would respond if another country ever did to America what the U.S. government does to Muslim countries on a routine basis.
Of course, as the ad indicates, the response would be an armed insurgency. Think the “Wolverines” in the 1984 film Red Dawn.
From realizing that, it is only takes a little more reflection to realize that such an American insurgency would draw resolve and inspiration from its dominant religion, Christianity. Moreover, the vanguard of any “American intifada” would be deeply Christian in character, and the more desperate the struggle became, the more dominant would be its religious aspects, and especially its most radically religious aspects.
This is because the sacrifices that are necessary to successfully resist a mighty empire are so great that they often require the trans-mundane motivations and existential consolations that only religion can offer, and that religious zealotry offers in spades.
And, since innocent-slaughtering violence tends to beget like revenge, the religiously zealous resistance of a brutalized population will often go beyond justice (self-defense and proportional retaliation). Some may come to match and even surpass the evils of their dominators, as ISIS and Al Qaeda may be said to have done. (Although, I would argue that the U.S. empire is still more murderous and evil than even these Islamist butchers, who are simply more forthright and less hypocritical about their crimes.)
This phenomenon can be seen throughout history, and not solely with Islam.
The Jewish Intifada Against the Greeks
As Will Durant wrote in his magnificent 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization, it was the yoke of “advanced, secular, and enlightened” empires that drove the Jews of the Classical Era toward religious zealotry and cultural isolation/conservatism.
In volume 2, The Life of Greece, Durant tells of how the Chasidim, a puritanical Jewish sect, arose as a reaction to the rule over Judea of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, which threatened to convert military domination into Hellenic (Greek) cultural domination.
Like antibodies gathering to attack an infection, the more religious among the Jews formed themselves into a sect called Chasidim — the Pious. They began (about 300 B.C.) with a simple pledge to avoid wine for a given period; later, by the inevitable psychology of war, they went to the extremes of Puritanism, and frowned upon all physical pleasure as a surrender to Satan and the Greeks. The Greeks marveled at them, and classified them with the strange “gymnosophists,” or nude ascetic philosophers, whom Alexander’s army had come upon in India. Even the common Jew deprecated the severe religiosity of the Chasidim, and sought for some middle way. Perhaps a compromise would have been reached had it not been for the attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to force Hellenism upon Judea by persuasion of the sword.
This Antiochus III was a Seleucid emperor whose predecessor snatched Judea from the Ptolemies (this in 198 B.C.). Although at first the Jews encouraged the change, the Near-East-based Seleucids proved to be far more grasping and oppressive than the Egypt-based dynasty they displaced. (Both empires were successors to the empire of Alexander the Great.) In order to support the ambitious military campaigns he was planning, Antiochus squeezed the people of Judea mercilessly, demanding a third of their grain crops and one half of their fruit yield. And in a bid to make his subjects more tractable, the emperor tried to gradually destroy the Jewish religion by forcibly supplanting it with Greek paganism. According to Durant, this only served to radicalize religion in Judea, driving most Jews to align with the sect whose “severe religiosity” they had formerly “deprecated.”
Shocked by these developments, and feeling their religion challenged in its very existence, the majority of the Jewish people went over to the side and view of the Chasidim.
As soon as an opportunity struck, the devout Jews tried to throw off the Seleucid yoke, and also demonstrated the ugly side of religiously motivated anti-imperial insurgencies by murdering Hellenized Jews in the process.
Stealing a march on Hitler by 2,000 years, Antiochus blamed this Jewish “stab in the back” for obstructing a campaign against the Ptolemies. His forces marched through Judea, “slaughtered Jews of either sex by the thousand,” and “desecrated and looted the Temple.” Antiochus then abandoned the gradual approach toward Hellenization, and offered the Jews an age-old choice: conversion or death. Then, as now, offering “westernization” at the point of a deadly weapon only provoked disgust for such a “gift.” Many chose martyrdom instead, while still more were inspired by the martyrs to choose cultural isolation.
Many Jews conformed to the demands, waiting for the storm to pass. Many others fled into caves or mountain retreats, lived on clandestine gleanings from the fields, and resolutely carried on the ordinances of Jewish life. The Chasidim circulated among them, preaching courage and resistance. A detachment of royal troops, coming upon some caves in which thousands of Jews-men, women, and children-were hiding, ordered them to come forth. The Jews refused; and because it was the Sabbath, they would not move the stones that might have blocked the entrance to the caves. The soldiers attacked with fire and sword, killing many of the refugees and asphyxiating the remainder with smoke.” Women who had circumcized their newborn sons were cast with their infants over the city walls to death.” The Greeks were surprised to find the strength of the old faith; not for centuries had they seen such loyalty to an idea. The stories of martyrdom went from mouth to mouth, filled books like the First and Second Maccabees, and gave to Christianity the prototypes of its martyrs and its martyrology. Judaism, which had been near assimilation, became intensified in religious and national consciousness, and withdrew into a protective isolation.
The devout and defiant spirit of the Chasidim would find a focal point and figurehead in Mattathias ben Johanan. When he was summoned by the state to sacrifice to Zeus, this patriarch launched a religiosly-driven political uprising (perhaps the first “Intifada” in Palestine) with an act of violence that characteristically mixed resistance to tyranny with murder of the less-stalwart.
As one of the Jews approached the altar to make the required sacrifice Mattathias slew him, and slew also the King’s commissioner. Then he said to the people: “Whoever is zealous for the Law, and wishes to support the Covenant, let him follow me.” Many of the villagers retired with him and his sons to the mountains of Ephraim; and there they were joined by a small band of young rebels, and by such of the Chasidim as were still alive.
Mattathias’s son and successor proved just as piously zealous and just as unforgiving of “backsliders” as his father.
Soon afterward Mattathias died, having designated as captain of his band his son Judas, called Maccabee.” Judas was a warrior whose courage equaled his piety; before every battle he prayed like a saint, but in the hour of battle “he was like a lion in his rage.” The little army “lived in the mountains after the manner of beasts, feeding on herbs.” Every now and then it descended upon a neighboring village, killed backsliders, pulled down pagan altars, and “what children soever they found uncircumcized, those they circumcized valiantly.’’
Judas and his “Maccabeans” won their independence by trouncing Antiochus’s forces in battle, despite being heavily out-armed: such is the martial power of faith. To this day this victory is celebrated by Jews around the world during Hanukkah. However, as his forces marched toward the reestablishment of the Jewish state under his incipient “Hasmonean dynasty,” Judas paved the way for that march with a fateful alliance with the Romans against the Seleucids, a “deal with the imperial devil” that would prove even more costly than the earlier deal with the Seleucid devils against the Ptolemies.
Roman Empire and the Jewish Intifada Renewed
Rome later converted sponsorship to domination when it intervened in a civil war between two rival Hasmonean claimants to the Judean throne, and when the Roman general Pompey used that intervention as a pretext to conquer Jerusalem. From then on, the Judean kings of the Hasmoneon Dynasty, and of the subsequent Herodian Dynasty, were puppets of Rome.
The proud people bridled under this new yoke as well, in a rebellion that was crushed with great brutality. Will Durant picks up the saga again in Caesar and Christ, volume 3 of The Story of Civilization:
When Herod the Great died the nationalists, spurning the pacific counsels of Hillel, declared a revolt against Herod’s successor Archelaus, and encamped in tents about the Temple. Archelaus’ troops slew 3000 of them, many of whom had come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival (4 B.C.). At the following feast of Pentecost the rebels gathered again, and once more suffered great slaughter; the Temple cleisters were burned to the ground, the treasures of the sanctuary were plundered by the legions, and many Jews killed themselves in despair. Patriot bands took form in the countryside, and made life precarious for any supporter of Rome; one such band, under Judas the Gaulonite, captured Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee. Varus, governor of Syria, entered Palestine with 10,000 men, razed hundreds of towns, crucified 2000 rebels, and sold 30,000 Jews into slavery.
Preferring the plain subjugation of an imperial administrator to the phony “reign” of a client king, a delegation of leading Jews convinced the emperor Augustus to abolish the Judean kingship, which was replaced by a procuratorship.
But the corrupt Roman procurators proved as avaricious as Antiochus. The parasitic burden was so great that, according to the contemporary historian Josephus, a new tax census triggered an uprising and launched a new Jewish sect/movement that was even more radical than the Chasidim (so radical, in fact, that its name would enter the English language as a term for religious and political fanatics): the Zealots. According to Wikipedia:
The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting Romans and Greeks. Another group, likely related, were the Sicarii, who raided Jewish habitations and killed Jews they considered apostate and collaborators, while also urging Jews to fight Romans and other Jews for the cause. Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their activities as they instituted what he characterized as a murderous “reign of terror”…
And Durant tells of how the Sicarii (“dagger-men”)…
…pledged to kill any disloyal Jew, mingled in street gatherings, stabbed their appointed victims from behind, and disappeared in the chaos of the crowd.
These radicals were opposed by Jewish “moderates.” But, in the struggle between the two factions, the circumstances of imperial oppression played to the advantage of the radicals, as they always do.
The old or well-to-do Hebrews counseled patience, arguing that revolt against so powerful an empire would be national suicide; the young or poor accused them of connivance and cowardice. The two factions divided the city and nearly every family; one seized the upper part of Jerusalem, the other the lower, and each attacked the other with every weapon at hand. In 68 a pitched battle was fought between the groups; the radicals won, and killed 12,000 Jews, including nearly all the rich; the revolt had become a revolution.
The Zealot-led rebels then massacred an entire Roman garrison. Gentiles launched revenge pograms, slaughtering 20,000 Jews in Caesaria and 10,000 in Damascus. The enraged rebels in turn sacked, burned, and massacred several Greek cities. Atrocity answered atrocity, until the emperor Titus initiated his “final solution” when he laid siege to Jerusalem. After five months of starvation and death came the horrible denouement.
The flaming brands of the Romans set fire to the Temple, and the great edifice, much of it of wood, was rapidly consumed. The surviving defenders fought bravely, proud, says Dio, to die on Temple grounds. Some killed one another, some fell upon their own swords, some leaped into the flames. The victors gave no quarter, but slew all Jews upon whom they could lay their hands; 97,000 fugitives were caught and sold as slaves; many of them died as unwilling gladiators in the triumphal games that were celebrated at Berytus, Caesarea Philippi, and Rome. Josephus numbered at 1,197,000 the Jews killed in this siege and its aftermath; Tacitus calculated them at 600,000 (A.D.70).
Resistance continued here and there till 73, but essentially the destruction of the Temple marked the end of the rebellion and of the Jewish state. The property of those who had shared in the revolt was confiscated and sold. Judea was almost shorn of Jews, and those that remained lived on the edge of starvation.
It was apt for Durant to characterize the Chasidim as “antibodies.” Religio-political radicalism is often a reaction in the body politic to a foreign invasion (infection). Like the human body’s immune system, in addition to attacking the invading bodies, it can also destroy healthy tissue (kill innocents) by inducing inflammation that might even lead to “cancer”: a metastasization of violence that ultimately kills that which it sought to protect or avenge.
This is not to defend the murders of the Islamists in the Taliban, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, much less the atrocities of the monsters in ISIS and Al Qaeda, committed against both Muslim “backsliders” and non-Muslims. Neither is it to defend nor exaggerate the murders, and even atrocities, of ancient Jewish radicals, committed against both Jewish “backsliders” and gentiles. And it is not to say that the two sets of social phenomena are totally equivalent.
My point is that empire, through its brutality, makes people desperate and drives them toward puritanical religious fanaticism, and that this is true for peoples of all creeds. Furthermore, ramping up imperial brutality in response to anti-imperial, religiously-driven violence only religiously radicalizes subject populations even further, engendering a cycle of violence, the logic of which culminates either in the bankruptcy and collapse of the imperial civilization, or, as in the case of Imperial Rome and the ancient Jews, in outright genocide committed against the subjugated people. Yet, even when it comes to the latter, empire, through its over-extensions, always eventually kills the imperial civilization anyway, as it did with the Greco-Roman Classical civilization.
The only way to defuse militant religious fanaticism, and to avoid both collapse and genocide, is to stop the cycle of violence by abandoning empire.