Connections between racism, religion and war.
Oct 31, 2010

Connections between racism, religion and war.

Public support for war is a tricky thing. On the one side if we view the opponents as members of the human tribe, it is hard for us to maintain the horrors of war as justified. On the other side, if we cast the opponents as being of a fundamentally different tribe from us - described by religious, racial or political differences - then it is much easier to accept and even support aggression against them.  Our societies have achieved, for some time now, the commendable fact that there is at least some accountability between leaders and the people. Thus the nature of racial and religious differences, and the way these viewpoints are manufactured and reinforced, is of critical importance in the acceptance of state wars.

The last decade gives a clear picture of how the mechanism works. Our wars in Muslim countries are, by any objective standard, going very poorly and the atrocities committed by all sides are horrific. Yet the public remains by and large muted and apathetic. Not at all coincidentally, islamiphobia is very prominent as I have talked about. False equivalencies between terrorists and Muslims get drilled into our heads by the media and often originate in the continual discussion of terrorist threats - real or imagined - generated by white house and pentagon press briefings.  Nearly 20% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, no doubt universally understood to be a pejorative claim. Muslims have been cast and are perceived by many as a violent, backwards religion desiring to take over the world and other nonsense. The result is simple: the anti Muslim sentiment makes it easier to support wars against Muslims and as such having the political establishment reinforces this sentiment allows them to carry out wars of aggression.

Domestic religion plays a role in this as well, because it reinforces the us-them mentality. Believing in a religion that makes fundamentally incompatible claims with other religions as well as asserts its excludable superiority paves the way for believing other religions are somehow inferior. It is not a necessary conclusion, of course, but it is an unfortunately common one. It is of course not just Islam that is considered the "other" and vilified. Communism was frequently derided as godless and atheist and undoubtably this sentiment perpetuated popular support for conflicts with the soviets.

Racism has been integral to numerous other empires before the US, and indeed far more overtly than today. The so called white man's burden was a popular meme invoked in justification of the British Empire. The infamous 20th century fascist regimes were of course racist at an unparalleled level and that racism made their atrocities publicly palatable and indeed supported. The force of racism or religious identification is a powerful force indeed when justifying war.

These factors like religious, racial or political differences are best seen as all being under the issue of tribalism. Tribalism identifies each and every one of us by groups we feel we belong to. Issues like religion are prominent in our tribal identifications simply because religion is such an important factor in society in general. The clearer and more rigid the boundaries are between tribes we identify with and those we do not, the easier it is to perceive people from other tribes ad fundamentally different than us. When our tribes are larger, more inclusive and less well defined, it is hard to make apologies for acts of atrocities based on fundamental differences between people. The latter is a humanist approach and pacifism follows quickly from it. I reject tribalism in general as a fundamentally divisive force.

There are good reasons to reject racism, bigotry, religious intolerance and even claims of religious superiority on their face. However, these reasons are compounded by the one identified here, namely, that these tribal forces help people dissociate from and apologize for the horrors of war.

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