The Origins of Islamic Militancy

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by Neil Godfrey

newthreatBased on my reading of the first chapter of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke. . . .

carlosThe turning point was in October, 1981, argues Jason Burke. Prior to the 1980s the most well-known terrorists were Leila Khaled and Carlos the Jackal. Religious agendas were very rarely found in the mix of ethnic, nationalist, separatist and secular revolutionary agendas.

The terrorist act that changed all this was the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Cairo in October 1981. Sadat’s killers were very different from most of the terrorists of the decade before. (p. 24)

An ideological movement had taken root in the broader Muslim world — “a generalised rediscovery of religious observance and identity, coupled with a distrust of Western powers and culture.”

The historical matrix

History is necessary to enable us to understand. Burke points to the century between 1830 and 1930. These years saw the Russians, the Han Chinese and especially the Europeans invade and subjugate the Muslim regions from Morocco to Java, from the central Asian steppes to sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost all the invasions provoked a violent reaction among many local people. Resistance took many forms but, naturally enough in a deeply devout age, religion played a central role. Islam provided a rallying point for local communities more used to internecine struggle than campaigns against external enemies. (p. 25)

European armies and their local auxiliaries fought rebels whose motivations ranged widely but who all shared

a profound belief that they were acting in defence not only of their livelihoods, traditions and homes but of their faith. 

The superior technology of the foreign powers guaranteed the defeat of the rebels but these defeats were interpreted by the devout as evidence that they had neglected to please God and lost his favour.

Though by the twentieth century most movements had withered away a few remained active: British India’s North-West Frontier, Italian Libya, Palestine. The Afghans were not ruled by foreigners but in the 1920s they did throw out their king who had attempted to introduce foreign ways into his country.

Others chose withdrawal to open revolt, and to isolate themselves from the corrupting influences of alien cultures: e.g. the Deobandi school of India.

Some, however, fully embraced Western ideas in a spirit of rivalry. They sought to out-do their invaders: e.g. the University of Aligarh.

ed-husainEd Husain (author of The Islamist and previously posted about here) recalled as a boy growing up in a mainstream Muslim household when and the context in which he first heard the name Maududi:

“I liked Grandpa. Most of all, I used to delight in watching him slowly tie his turban, wrapping his head with a long piece of cloth, as befitted a humble Muslim, though he also seemed like a Mogul monarch. (Muslim scholars and kings both wore the turban in veneration of the Prophet Mohammed.) Whenever Grandpa visited Britain to teach Muslims about spirituality, my father accompanied him to as many places as he was able. My father believed that spiritual seekers did not gain knowledge from books alone, but learnt from what he called suhbah, or companionship. True mastery of spirituality required being at the service, or at least in the presence, of a noble guide. Grandpa was one such guide. . . .

“He often read aloud in Urdu, and explained his points in intricate Bengali, engaging the minds of others while I looked on bewildered. As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was beyond me.” (The Islamist, p. 10, my bolding)


Abul Ala Maududi

What interests us, however, are those who took the middle road. The first was the work of Abd Ala’a Maududi [Abul Ala Maududi/Maudoodi/Mawdudi]:

In India, a political organisation called Jamaat Islami was founded in 1926. It sought religious and cultural renewal through non-violent social activism to mobilise the subcontinent’s Muslims to gain power. This approach involved embracing Western technology and selectively borrowing from Western political ideologies, while rejecting anything seen as inappropriate or immoral. (p. 26)

Hassan al-Banna

Hassan al-Banna

In Egypt, 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded a very similar group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like the South Asian Jamaat Islami, it combined a conservative, religious social vision with a contemporary political one. For its followers, the state was to be appropriated, not dismantled, in order to create a perfect Islamic society. This approach was later dubbed Islamism

There were others across the Muslim world who rejected the compromise and non-violence of Jamaat Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood as the means to achieving their common goals.

By the early 1960s European powers had for most part withdrawn from the Muslim world leaving behind new regimes that had adopted Western ways and ideas: witness the new states founded in varying degrees of secularism and socialism. And of course there was Israel:

The establishment of the state of Israel, now recognized by the international community after a bloody war and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from lands they had worked or owned for generations, acted as a new focus for diverse grievances among Arab and Muslim communities. Anti-Semitism had long existed in the Islamic world but, fused with anti-Zionism, gained a new and poisonous intensity. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 deepened a sense of hurt, loss and humiliation. (p. 27)

Something more important was happening within the newly independent nations themselves: “immense demographic change”.

  • Population explosions
  • Urban population mushroomed and rural populations relatively declined
  • Urban areas of poverty and unhealthy conditions proliferated — inadequate electricity, sanitation, education, health services, policing
  • Food in short supply and expensive
  • Previous decades had produced many university graduates whose future expectations were now dashed
  • Traditional communities were being shattered: new shanty towns and apartment blocks meant that extended families were broken up, village communities were vanishing, traditional leaders lost their authority
    • For the older people there was loss. For those young enough not to know anything of the former rural life, there was disorientation.
Cairo slums

Cairo slums

Egypt’s President Sadat represented to many the worst of these changes. Sadat was opening up Egypt to the new capitalism and foreign investment that accelerated the extremes of the rich-poor divide. Middle incomes declined dramatically.

Worse still, a growing economic gap between rich and poor was accompanied by a growing cultural gap. During the riots in Cairo in 1977, favourite targets for arson and vandalism were nightclubs — of which more than three hundred opened during the decade — and luxury US made cars — of which imports had gone up fourteen times. Both were symbols of the lifestyle of an elite that was enjoying greater connection with the rest of the world, and particularly the West, but which was increasingly detached from the majority of Egyptian population. By the end of the decade, more than 30 percent of prime-time television programming was from the US, with episodes of Dallas repeated ad infinitum. Inequality was combined with a sense of cultural invasion. It was an explosive mix. (p. 28 – my bolding in all quotations)

Amidst those swayed by Western influence nationalist and socialist commitments were those who turned to their religion in various ways, some withdrawing into mysticism, for example, others looking for wider change. Islamism was spreading through the universities and professional bodies.

Islamism promised to re-establish confidence and pride and to provide a solution to the many pressing challenges now faced by tens of millions of people. (p. 28)

Jason Burke identifies this moment for the birth of the militant Islam so prominent today: read more »


Scott Atran’s response to Sam Harris & Jerry Coyne on religion and terrorism

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by Neil Godfrey

Good to see Scott Atran respond specifically to the nonsense of Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne on the question of wheher religion is or isn’t a cause of current and past political violence. . . On his Facebook page:


How in fact can we destroy ISIS and its ilk. . . . It certainly will not be with the mindless diatribe against “religion” that produces exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Islamic State so conscientiously seeks

I have posted before on Sam Harris’s and Jerry Coyne’s ideologically driven dishonest and ignorant attacks on the researchers who do the hard work of understanding the causes of terrorism. Here’s part of Scott Atran’s response to the most recent falsehoods and distortions by Jerry Coyne: Once again Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism. Dismaying how some leading public intellectuals abuse their status and presume to be experts outside their specialist area and exploit the murderous acts of others as an opportunity to propagate their pet anti-theistic hobby horse.

Extract from Atran’s response (only and extract, do read the full post):

I have discussed the matter at length in the historical record (about 7 percent of recorded wars since the punic wars have been explicitly religious wars, and when non-religious conflicts take on a religious cast they also tend to endure and resist exit strategies).

I have also written empirical papers showing the role of religious claims . . .  in faith in the strict sharia of the Caliphate as one of 2 key motivators for volunteers for the Islamic State.

Yet, it remains a fact that the principal factors that predict actual involvement in violence concerns social network factors.

Coyne and Harris have never done a single empirical study involving violent political and religious actors, have never met one in the field (only ostensibly “reformed” ones in a safe environment), and not only do not know what they are talking about, but willfully distort and cherry pick statements -without the slightest awareness or scrutiny of the science – in repetitive declamations to support their ideological position and hackneyed harangue against “liberal apolegetics.”

I invite then to accompany me to the frontlines in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, or even to the banlieues of Paris, to see for themselves what is driving people to fight and die. And to discuss, as I regularly do, with military and political leaders how in fact we can destroy ISIS and its ilk.

It certainly will not be with the mindless diatribe against “religion” that produces exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Islamic State so conscientiously seeks, as outlined in tis manifesto Idarat at-Tawahoush (The Management of Savagery-Chaos,) and in the article in its online magazine Dabiq, titled “The Gray Zone,” whose goal is to eliminate any shady area between believer and non-believer, so as to polarize sentiment towards war.

Jesus Did Not Exist — A New Contribution

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by Neil Godfrey

latasterI am finding Raphael Latater’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, a most invigorating and fresh approach to the topic. Caveat: I am taking it slowly and so far have not even completed the first chapter. I have read Richard Carrier’s introductory remarks and Raphael Lataster’s own background introduction and am only about half way through the first chapter. Along the way I’m stopping to study and follow up most of the footnotes, too. But if what lies ahead is as insightful and thorough as what I have read so far then I can see this book being the last word on the flawed attempts of Casey, Ehrman, McGrath and others who have attempted to shriek their conviction that “Yes, Virginia, there really was a Historical Jesus and anyone who doubts that is a very bad person who should be shunned.”

Interestingly, Lataster points out that the only serious attempts by scholars to publish arguments for the historical existence of Jesus — those by Erhman, Casey and McGrath — have done outside the scholarly peer-review process. On the other hand, the two serious attempts by scholars to publish reasons to doubt the historicity of Jesus — Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster — have gone through the scholarly peer-review process.

The irony of that little datum is not lost on anyone who is aware of the complaints of “historicist scholars” (those arguing for the historicity of Jesus and against the mythicist hypothesis) that mythicism does not subject itself to scholarly peer-review.

Who is Raphael Lataster?

He may be among the first to have a thesis sympathetic to Jesus Mythicism approved by a world-class university.  —  Raphael Lataster’s New Book on Jesus Mythicism 

read more »


Carrier on McGrath’s responses to Carrier

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by Neil Godfrey

A handy collation of Richard Carrier’s responses to James’ McGrath’s less-than-professional attacks on Carrier’s work is found in the Introduction to Raphael Lataster’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

What academic disease does this signify?

[5] See Richard Carrier, “McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman” (25 March 2012); “McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy” (5 March 2015); “McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype” (6 March 2015). Possibly that series will continue.

[6] His false claims about the content of my book are documented in Richard Carrier, “In Which James McGrath Reveals That He Is a Fundamentalist Who Has Never Read Any Contemporary Scholarship in His Field” (11 September 2015). He did the same thing in his faulty review of Proving History. See: Richard Carrier, “McGrath on Proving History” (10 September 2012). McGrath has done this so routinely now that I have had to conclude he is deliberately lying. For he cannot possibly be that incompetent.

[7] For all of these, see Richard Carrier, “Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?” (5 July 2015).

McGrath has only published responses to historicity on his personal blog (Exploring Our Matrix), and in an online trade publication (Bible & Interpretation) that is also not peer reviewed. In these open venues he has made such embarrassingly false claims about the ancient world in defense of the historicity of Jesus as to deeply call into question the competence of his opinion in the matter.[5] And he all too often makes wildly false claims about the arguments in my book, rather than addressing what it actually says.[6]

McGrath evinced this behavior even before reading my book. For example, he argued confidently that no Christians would erect inscriptions promoting their gospel because only government officials erected inscriptions. That this is wildly not true is bad enough, and that he wouldn’t know it’s untrue is worse, but that he was so arrogant in his ignorance that he never even thought to check and make sure before resting his argument on it, is worst of all. And indicative of the problem. Historians who would defend the historicity of Jesus aren’t doing their jobs as historians. And all too often, they literally don’t know what they are talking about. This is commonly observed in the frequency with which historicists claim the evidence for Jesus is as good as we have for Socrates, Alexander the Great, Spartacus, and Julius and Tiberius Caesar. That they would be so ignorant as to think that was true is shocking.[7] But more shocking is that they didn’t even check before asserting it. What academic disease does this signify?

The example of inscriptions illustrates the other problem as well. McGrath falsely implied that I endorse the lack of early inscriptions as an argument for the non-existence of Jesus. In fact I have publicly rejected that argument and explained why it doesn’t work (there are many reasons Christians would fail to erect such inscriptions even if Jesus did exist; just not the reason McGrath gave). McGrath routinely makes false claims like this about what I or my book argue. Many far more galling than this. Such as claiming my book relies on conspiracy theories, when in fact my book repeatedly denounces them. Or claiming I don’t adduce any allegorical meanings to explain Gospel pericopes but just assert they must have them, and using that as an argument against the merits of my book, when in fact I devote almost an entire chapter of the book to doing that, in fact not just adducing such meanings, but in many cases arguing for them, and citing peer reviewed scholarship that does the same – none of which facts McGrath informs his readers of. Or claiming I didn’t make an argument for a conclusion but just asserted it in the book (such as that a given miracle story is not likely to be true, or that a given word can too easily have come from a targum to be certain it came from a source about Jesus), when in fact, in every case, the book contains an extensive argument for that conclusion. An argument he fails to tell his readers about (and thus certainly offers no rebuttal to).

It should be a fundamental requirement of competent and honest scholarship to correctly represent the arguments of anyone you disagree with, and rebut their actual arguments, not arguments they never made, or conveniently distorted variants of arguments they did make, or to falsely claim they didn’t make any arguments to rebut. It is a disgrace for a scholar to use falsehood like this. Worse even to do so as arguments against a book they are reviewing. Yet these aren’t the only instances. McGrath does this a lot. Why? If historicity is so evidenced as to be certain, why do arguments against it have to be misrepresented to rebut them? Is it because the actual arguments can’t be rebutted? So fake arguments have to be contrived to knock down instead? That does not make it sound like historicity is so certain to me.

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 114-147). Kindle Edition.



ISIS: The First Step To Combating It

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by Neil Godfrey

The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear. — Scott Atran in Mindless Terrorists? The truth  about ISIS is much worse (The Guardian)

We must fight their growing power any way, anywhere, we can. With words, with weapons, with sincere efforts at warm embrace for those who might otherwise be pulled or pushed into their dark world that would exterminate all who dare be free and different.

I think that most of us comfort ourselves with the thought that “they can’t win,” at least in the long run, that they must burn themselves out in their frenzy . . . . But this may be dead wrong. Why is it that so many young people are being drawn into this increasingly powerful destroyer of human rights, which despises the very idea of government of and by the people? — Scott Atran in correspondence with Professor Hoodbhoy in wake of UN address

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 8.01.17 pm

Military operations are obviously necessary but ISIS is not a conventional army. The risks of the wrong kind of military attack are warned against by Stern and Berger in ISIS: The State of Terror:

Even ground forces would likely not be enough to completely destroy ISIS. Absent a military invasion that would somehow— improbably, magically— transform both Iraq and Syria into truly viable, pluralistic states in which Sunnis and Shi’a both feel secure, ISIS would likely remain, at least as a terrorist group, for many years to come.

Beyond the necessity to oversee political change in both Iraq and Syria, a tall order indeed, the international impact of ISIS must also be considered, as it inspires oaths of loyalty and acts of violence in nearly every corner of the globe. As with its military might, ISIS’s potential to wreak terrorism has been limited until now, although the alignment of regional terror groups such as Jund al Khalifah in Algeria and Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in Egypt raise serious concerns going forward.

6 Millenarianism involves the expectation of sweeping societal change, possibly as a result of the apocalypse.

The broader problem is that jihadism has become a millenarian movement6 with mass appeal, in some ways similar to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, although its goals and the values it represents are far different.

Today’s radicals are expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo by making war, not love. They are seduced by Thanatos rather than Eros. They “love death as much as you [in the West] love life,” in Osama bin Laden’s famous and often-paraphrased words. In this dark new world, children are seen to reenact beheadings with their toys, seduced by a familiar drama of the good guys killing the bad guys in order to save the world. Twitter users adopt the black flag by the tens of thousands. And people who barely know anything about Islam or Iraq are inspired to emulate ISIS’s brutal beheadings.

ISIS has established itself as a new paradigm, one that is more brutal, more sectarian, and more apocalyptic in its thinking than the groups that preceded it. ISIS is the crack cocaine of violent extremism, all of the elements that make it so alluring and addictive purified into a crystallized form.

ISIS’s goals are impossible, ludicrous, but that does not mean it can be easily destroyed. Our policies must look to the possible, which means containing and hopefully eliminating its military threat and choking off its export of ideas.

But certainly the history of ISIS and al Qaeda before it show that overwhelming military force is not a solution to hybrid organizations that straddle the line between terrorism and insurgency.

Our hammer strikes on al Qaeda spread its splinters around the world. Whatever approach we take in Iraq and Syria must be focused on containment and constriction, rather than simply smashing ISIS into ever more virulent bits. read more »


“Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists” by Raphael Lataster w/ Richard Carrier

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by Neil Godfrey

doubtBy Richard Carrier in his Introduction to a new book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

In early 2014 I published On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. It passed professional peer review. It was published by a major, well-respected academic press that specialized in Biblical Studies, Sheffield-Phoenix, the publishing arm of the University of Sheffield. And it is the first book of such tested merit to argue that Jesus probably did not exist. It argues instead that Jesus began life as a revelatory archangel, and was transferred to human history decades later through the writing of myths for educational, missionary, and propagandistic purposes. This would have proceeded, in both cause and procedure, much like the invention of the life and teachings and miracles of Moses, whom the mainstream Academy now concedes probably did not exist.

Now late in 2015, the book you hold in your hand, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists by Raphael Lataster, contains the first thorough and expert treatment of my argument in print. In fact his chapter summarizing my book is the best brief summary I have read anywhere. . . . 
read more »


Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

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by Neil Godfrey

61klpcnpoql-_sy344_bo1204203200_Several times I’ve referred to comparisons between the ancient tale of Aesop with the gospel accounts of Jesus, referring readers to Lawrence Wills’ book, The quest of the historical gospel : Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre, and Whitney Shiner’s chapter “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. (See Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions and What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask) where I discuss Wills and Shiner each; other posts make passing references.)

Well for all you readers who really did want to read those books or who were waiting in vain for me to get around posting on them in depth, this is your lucky day. Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has given up waiting for both of us and posted the nitty gritty details on these authors and their studies of Aesop vis à vis the gospels:

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

Thanks, Matthew!



“New Atheists Are Bad Historians”

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by Neil Godfrey

Did you know that the “New Atheists and their online acolytes” have “a long list” of historical ideas that are “wildly wrong”? If this situation has been causing you sleepless nights then you will be relieved to learn that Tim O’Neill has started a new blog to bring these dimwits to their senses. It’s called . . . .


For those of us who had not realized the full extent of this problem, Tim explains that these New Atheists — and he names them: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens (and also P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Carrier) — happen to get wrong just about any and everything they ever say about history whenever they try to declare how bad religion has been for humanity.

Given that they are such historical ignoramuses it is not surprising that the one “cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history” that comes in for special attention is the “elaborate fringe theory . . .  that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis”.

Tim proudly promises his readers plenty of sarcasm and scorn [meaning, if he continues with his past form, personal insults and abuse along with plenty of factual and logical fallacies], but his opening post, Why History for Atheists? An apologia for (yet) another blog, also promises some confusion of argument besides.

Before we address the promised confusion let’s understand more of Tim’s view of his new blog. Tim is pretty pleased the number of online hits to his earlier articles, laced as they are with “occasionally Irish-Australian atheist bastardry”, and has interpreted these clicks as “an appetite and a clear need for some level­ headed, carefully researched and objective fact checking and debunking of New Atheist Bad History”. Of course Tim is the one equipped and willing enough to meet that appetite and need.

He sincerely assures his readers that though his motives are dual they are not duplicitous. His two motives are

  • Firstly, I love history, including the history of religions, especially Christianity. . . .
  • Secondly, as a rationalist, I like to take rationalism seriously. So I go where the evidence takes me on history as with everything else. However much an idea may appeal to me emotionally, if the historical evidence doesn’t support it, I can’t accept it. Many New Atheists don’t seem capable of putting their emotions aside and looking at the evidence.

Little sign of the self-awareness and humility of a Daniel Boyarin here.

Thank God and Rationalism for Tim.

So what is all of this history that the New Atheists get wrong? Tim set it all out in “the long list”:

  1. Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria and Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered because of a Christian hatred of science
  2. Constantine was a crypto­pagan who adopted Christianity as a cynical political ploy (and personally created the Bible)
  3. Scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until “the Renaissance”
  4. “The Inquisition” was a kind of Europe­ wide medieval Gestapo and the medieval Church was an all­ powerful totalitarian theocracy
  5. Giordano Bruno was a wise and brave astronomer and cosmologist who was burned at the stake because the Church hated science
  6. The Galileo Affair was a straightforward case of religion ignoring evidence and trying to suppress scientific advancement
  7. Pope Pius XII was a friend and ally of the Nazis who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and helped Nazis escape justice

I hadn’t realized Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, have been filling our sponge-brains with such dated prejudices. read more »


Debating Islam, Islamism and Human Rights

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by Neil Godfrey

It seems that I for a while I have been sheltered from some of the debates over Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia as they have taken shape in Great Britain in particular. I’m trying to catch up now.

In particular I have not up till now really understood why those on “the Left” have been accused of supporting terrorists or others who would deny human rights to Muslims.

I think it’s becoming clearer to me now. Here’s how I understand what’s what — and if you think I still haven’t got it right then feel free to help out.

Islam This is the term we use for the religion of Muslims. All Muslims of all sects. It’s a religion. That’s all. There’s no one “true” set of beliefs and practices for Islam anymore than we have the same for Christianity. I’m an atheist but I’m not an “anti-theist”. I don’t see anything inherently wrong or bad in any religion in the abstract. I don’t like religion personally, but then again I don’t like mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, sandflies either. That doesn’t mean I sign up to join a program to exterminate all mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, sandflies from the planet — the consequences would be unpredictable.

Islamic This is the adjectival form of Islam, as Christian is to Christianity.

Islamism This refers to the ideology or political goal that a society should be subject to Islamic laws. It’s counterpart in Christianity would be political movements attempting to ban things that are deemed immoral by the Church. Many Islamists seek to achieve Islamic rule through democratic means, or if not outright rule, at least a place in government from where they can influence legislation. Other Islamists believe in violent means. These are the jihadi extremists.

Islamophobia This generally refers to any blanket hostility towards all Muslims (Islam). Islamophobes find all visible Islamic symbols and practices offensive in a Western society and associate all Muslims in some way with the criminal acts of violent Islamist extremists. Islamophobes consider the religion of Islam itself as an evil or antisocial presence. Islamophobia is the conflation of Islam, Islamism and Islamic practices and Islamist violence as an evil or hostile force.

The Debate Some of us have stressed most the need for stamping out intolerance and protecting religious freedoms. This is a good thing. read more »


So why does this keep happening, and on this scale?

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by Neil Godfrey

From The Daily Beast, by Maajid Nawaz, Paris Proves We’ll Never Kill Enough Jihadists to Stop Terror . . . .

So why does this keep happening, and on this scale?

The answer is not a comfortable one.

Jihadist terrorism is alive and kicking. And though we must continue to put terrorists on the back foot by targeting their leadership, we will never kill our way out of this phenomenon. In January 2013, after Bin Laden’s death but long before ISIS’s emergence, my counter-extremism organisation Quilliam declared (to choruses of raised eyebrows at the time), “It’s a full blown jihadist-insurgency, stupid.” And no insurgency is sustainable, or even possible, without a level of residual support for its core ideological aims among the core communities from which it draws its fighters.

Jihadism has well and truly taken root among an entire generation of angry young Muslims. This is particularly the case in Europe, where thousands have left to join ISIS. This insurgency is incredibly hard to tackle, because its recruits remain invisible in our very own societies, born and raised among us, fluent in our languages and culture, but full of venom for everything they have been raised into.

Though London is by now well overdue a similar attack, a question that could legitimately be asked is why does France seem to be bearing the brunt of such coordinated jihadist terror, up until now most potently symbolised by the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Unfortunately for France, though not unique to it, between 5 and 10 percent of its population is Muslim. Real, serious problems with economic and social integration prevail in this group, fuelling resentment on a scale that baffles most expert policy makers. Even if hundreds, out of millions, take this resentment to its deadly conclusion, France has a huge problem on its hands, as we saw on Friday. But so do we all.

Recognizing this is not to stigmatize every European or Western Muslim—the vast majority of whom are not, of course, jihadists—but it means being realistic about exactly where the challenge is coming from, and what the challenge is called: Islamism.

Up until now the bitter truth that our Muslim populations have been subjected to decades of sustained Islamist propaganda by those who live among them has gone almost totally ignored. The long term solution cannot continue to ignore this truth, and cannot continue to neglect those few Muslims, and others, attempting to take on this threat within their own communities.

For now, my guess will be that these attacks will only aid the anti-immigrant rhetoric of France’s far right, sweeping xenophobes to prominence, further polarising communities, which for good or for bad, will only sustain the process of radicalisation even further. This is so despite the fact that France has taken hardly any Syrian refugees, and Germany, which has taken tens of thousands, has yet to be hit as hard as France has. European born and raised jihadists have so far posed the biggest problem, not immigrants.


Expulsion of the Palestinians: Caution and Discretion during the War Years

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by Neil Godfrey

Nur-MasalhaContinuing the series from Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians. . . .

One bible myth stands out today as bearing a major responsibility for modern wars, ethnic cleansing, and ongoing bloodshed. That myth is that a modern race has a right to the land of Palestine by virtue of a history found in the Bible.

This series of posts has not examined that biblical myth itself (nor wider public receptions and political influence of the myth) but it has been exposing another myth that has ridden on the back of the first, the myth that the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is ultimately the result of Palestinians failing to respect the right and necessity of the Jewish people to settle in peace alongside them. This secondary myth is actually a recasting of the biblical myth of the hostile Canaanites proving to be the ungodly thorn in the side of the people to whom God had given the land. The new settlers, the myth relates, are for most part innocently seeking only a safe refuge in their historic homeland but have been met with unjustified hostility by the existing inhabitants. The impetus for the new settlement came with the revelation that an attempt had been made to wipe out the entire Jewish people in Europe and the survivors and their descendants only wanted a small piece of historical real-estate alongside a hospitable fellow-semitic race.

To support this additional myth another must be sustained: that one race is responding in bad or immature character (as we would expect of biblical Canaanites) while the other is fundamentally decent and caring (as we would expect….). And many of our news sources filter the story through these mythical constructs.

That is all part of the secondary myth.

The reality, as these posts have been demonstrating on the basis of Israeli records, is otherwise.

The modern state of Israel was founded upon an ideology, a belief, an expectation among its key leadership that the Palestinian Arab population would have to be expelled from their long-held homes and lands. This belief among Zionism’s founding fathers that the state of Israel would require the removal of the bulk of Arabs from Palestine preceded World War 2, preceded the Holocaust, and made possible the forcible expulsion of thousands of Palestinians at Israel’s founding in 1948. The difference that the Holocaust made to the argument for Israel’s founding was that it facilitated international support for the new Jewish state. Popular sympathy for the horrors suffered by the Jews in Europe blinded many to the injustices being foisted upon the traditional inhabitants of Palestine.

There are many other secondary myths that serve to support the above myths. Among these are myths about the events that precipitated the flight of many Palestinians in 1948 and the respective views and actions of the governments involved in that war and subsequent wars. I will address these, too, and again on the basis of Israel’s archives, and in particular through the works of Jewish historians sympathetic to Israel.

In May this year Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely addressed foreign ministry staff in Jerusalem and 106 Israeli missions overseas by video link, and declared:

This entire land is ours. All of it, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, and we are not here to apologise for this. . . . 

She afterwards added:

We expect as a matter of principle the international community to recognise Israel’s right to build homes for Jews in their homeland everywhere.

The Telegraph‘s correspondent Brian Tait noted that her speech was

laced . . . with biblical commentaries in which God promised the land of Israel to the Jews. 

Hotovely, as we have seen, merely expressed what has been the conventional thinking and beliefs of most of Israel’s founding fathers from the very beginnings of the nation. As we have also seen, the same figures have found it more politic at times to not be so open with Western media about such sentiments.

The situation so far

The previous post brought us up to August 1938 with the British government finally deciding not to support immediate hopes of Zionists for a Jewish state in a partitioned Palestine.


  • It was clear to the British government from the Arab reaction that the recommended population transfers for even a two-state solution could not be carried out without violence and injustice to the livelihoods and deeply rooted feelings of the local population;
  • Without a state of any kind the Zionists understood that there was no way to effect a transfer of Palestinians at all.

The British therefore:

  • Decided it was time to slow the pace of their support for a Jewish state until they took time to consider seriously the Arab grievances;
  • Called for a general conference on Palestine to consist of Arab, Palestinian and Zionist representatives — due to be held in London in February-March 1939.

The Zionist leaders therefore:

  • Continued to press the British government for more liberal Jewish immigration into Palestine;
  • Continued to lobby for more freedom to to purchase land from Arab landowners;
  • Judged it prudent to avoid embarrassing the British government with further public calls for the transfer of the indigenous Arab population.

It was clear that the British were not going to risk antagonizing the Arabs at a time when the clouds of war were rising.

The Jewish Agency therefore turned its attention towards that other promising power and potential supporter, the United States.

Ben Gurion’s memorandum

read more »

How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

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by Neil Godfrey

Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have

  • surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
  • noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.

Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.

Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”

— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.

Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)

So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?

Let’s get started. read more »


What’s Wrong with the Word “Pericope”?

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by Tim Widowfield

English: From Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dion...

From the Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dionys. Cod. 587 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I discover the most curious things en route to learning something else. I can’t even remember why now, but for some reason I recently stumbled upon the definition of pericope (peh-RIH-kuh-pee) at the Oxford Biblical Studies Online site.

If you’ve read my posts on the Memory Mavens, you’re no doubt aware that I sometimes refer to a common practice in current NT studies wherein scholars tend to associate concepts, ideas, and even words they don’t like with form criticism. By such association, they dismiss anything they find offensive. “Don’t touch that,” they imply. “It has form-critical cooties.”


Here’s an unexpected example from Oxford:


A term used in Latin by Jerome for sections of scripture and taken over by form critics to designate a unit, or paragraph, of material, especially in the gospels, such as a single parable, or a single story of a miracle. (emphasis mine)

Reading that definition, you might get the impression that Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius resurrected a word that hadn’t been in use for 1,500 years. But can that be true? Well, it would appear the Mark Goodacre thinks so. In a post from back in 2013 he recommends we abandon the term, for several reasons, and concludes: read more »


Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

A bibliography of a few Vridar posts taking an in-depth look at the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah and how it was understood before Christianity. . . .

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

This post looks at some work by Martin Hengel and demonstrates the way other pre-Christian texts — Sirach and Zechariah  — interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant figure.

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.

A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.

It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.

Other posts: read more »