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Bored? Listless? Try a jihad

by
06 March 2015

JUST a little Christianity this week: the story in The Guardian that "A group of Churches has called for an urgent overhaul of the Government's benefits sanctions regime, describing it as punitive, inhumane and un-Christian. The Churches say the sanctions regime deliberately causes harm to claimants, and suggest that it is aimed more at cutting welfare payments rather than helping people back into work."

Nothing very remarkable there, you may think, until you look into the detail of the "group of Churches" involved. They are "the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and the United Reformed Church, as well as the charity Church Action on Poverty."

To a newsdesk, this list is - forgive me - the epitome of worthy but dull. I must have binned a hundred press releases or more rather than waste energy trying to interest a news editor in them.

It's possible that Patrick Butler, who wrote the story, is just a more persuasive journalist than I am. But I'd prefer to think that what's really happening here is an illustration of the way in which the collective news sense of the media works like the human immune system: it recognises only what it has seen before. You have to present a foreign protein to it again and again until it recognises it and generates antibodies, which will, from then on, fix on to some feature on the coating of the story and attempt to digest it.

In this case, it appears that "Churches attack government cuts" now stimulates an automatic response, and it doesn't matter which Churches or which cuts. This is a bit unfortunate for the clergy who want to provoke thought rather than reaction.

It's doubly unfortunate for the bishops of the Church of England, who really don't want to be thought of as revolutionary scourges of the Establishment - especially as the immediate counter-attack is always to point out that they are revolutionaries with palaces, chauffeur-driven cars, and seats in the House of Lords. But that's showbusiness, I'm afraid.

OTHERWISE, there was the fascinating matter of Mohammed Emwazi, or "Jihadi John", and what turned him into a young man who could cut throats on camera. I was at an interfaith event in Bradford the night before The Washington Post identified him, and both the Christian and the Muslim speakers said enlightening things from unexpected angles.

I quote from memory. The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Toby Howarth, said that we had to understand that the jihadi narrative was hugely attractive to young men: the video clips of the Paris killers loping down the street, pausing to shoot a policeman, and then driving easily away, might have come straight from a video game. There is a part of every adolescent which yearns for that kind of untouchable immunity, especially as a member of a similarly entitled gang, and in prosperous peacetime societies it comes to the fore.

Shaykh Fuad Nahdi, meanwhile, simply observed that life for an observant Muslim teenager in Britain was really, really boring: "No sex, no alcohol, no rock and roll."

That means, of course, that the counter-measures must themselves work within the imagination. Intellectual argument won't do. What's needed is something that unpicks the pictures, or untells the stories.

Malise Ruthven, writing in The New York Review of Books, has some fascinating examples of the jihadi imagination and the apocalyptic imagery that flourishes within it: "There are nearly fifty references to 'the Hour' or the 'Appointed Time' in the Koran and the signs by which it can be recognized are manifold and abundant: 'Piety will give way to pride and truth to lies, while licentious practices such as music, drinking of wine, usury, adultery, homosexuality, and the obedience of men to their wives will pre- vail. Sex will be performed in public places, cousin marriage will give way to extrafamilial unions, and there will be no Imam to lead the faithful in prayer. . .'

"For jihadists, such signs are rife in the Middle East today."

Ruthven goes on to write: "The parallels between this ideology and the beliefs adopted by Christian fundamentalists known as 'premillennial dispensationalists', who expect all born-again Christians to be 'raptured' or physically transported to heaven while others perish in earthly mayhem, are so strong that it is hard to escape the conclusion that they draw on the same ancient reservoir of Near Eastern myth.

"In the Muslim version a great wind will take the souls of the believers, before the trumpet sounds and all are resurrected to face divine judgment."

Damian Thompson at the Telegraph used to argue with great force that the appeal of millennial fantasies to Charismatic Christians in the 1990s derived largely from the fact that they were so much more interesting than the prospect of the world going on as usual. The part played by boredom in the genesis of horror should not be underestimated.

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