«War, Terrorism and Cultural Crisis: The escalation of mimetic rivalry and re-sacralising violence in modernity This essay examines the nature of ...»
I left them because I was afraid and deeply troubled by this horrible situation.
The justice they were calling for when they first arrived in Fallujah turned out
Thus, as mimetic rivalry moves to its extreme, so the structures of sacred violence are taken to their extreme to cope with the instability. Yet, in doing so, violence reveals itself more clearly as the heart of worship. However, even as violence becomes more central, the movement from attributing violence to the divinity (in the archaic sense) to celebrating violence for itself (in the modern sense) is seemingly not yet complete, as the extremists still seeks to justify their violence through reference to the divinity. Yet, it is important to not misapprehend the nexus of violence and the sacred here: it is violence that sacralises the action of terrorists (not the other way around) and this violent sacralisation is becoming ever more brazen and explicit (a ‘hyper’ sacralisation). While there seems to be a return to archaic forms of religiousity, there is an important difference: the victims of the extremists are not fully divinised. They are condemned as “dogs” and monsters, but they are not revered as supernatural gods, like victims in archaic cultures were. Rather, more ‘infidels’ are sought out for sacrifice to an arbitrarily constructed system of sacralised violence.
The establishment of victor and victim, according to Girard, is the foundational cultural difference. In archaic cultures, this cultural difference is Cockburn, “Life under Isis”.
sacralised by divinising the victim: instead of identifying the power of reconciliation in the mob’s action, the victim is attributed with supernatural power to mediate and unify all desire. This is a crucial attribution for archaic culture, as Girard shows, because it allows them to distance themselves from the dangerous power of violence and to justify their own precarious relationship with it. For example, in numerous archaic myths, the victim is represented as a god who is responsible for the whole process of crisis, reconciliation, and peace involved in scapegoating.50 Sacrificial rituals are, then, inaugurated to imitate the original violence against the victim and appease the deity, who is believed to have the power to cause disorder and order.
In the case of modern violence, however, the victim is generally not divinised by the mob. Rather according to the terrorists, the victim remains in their view an enemy who needed to be eliminated, while the transcendent effects of violence are ascribed to God (and their group and brand of religion). The cause for this lack of full sacralisation is, as discussed, the growing awareness of the innocence of the victim and the desacralisation of violence (starting in the West). The attempts to resacralise human culture (particularly aimed at the desacralised West) by religious extremists following the effects of desacralisation represents a new stage of sacralisation than that present in archaic cultures. Rather than seeing the victim-god in control, the Islamic extremist sees their construction of God as in control, and so by extension, they regard themselves as having power over violence because of their divine commission. The Islamic extremist is the agent of God, because God (ironically) does not act on his own behalf; rather the extremist acts on God’s behalf, supposedly with God’s blessing and help. In this way, the sacred power of violence is transferred onto a third party (in this case, the revealed Islamic “God”) who explicitly delegates the Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 275; I See Satan Fall, 65–72.
power over violence to the mob, rather than the victim. Thus, the extremist mob wishes to be seen to be in direct relationship with violence (rather than to distance themselves from it).
There is a similar transference of violence in totalitarian regimes. For example, in East Timor during Indonesian rule (1975-1999), the perpetrators of violence (the agents of the state) were willing to be explicitly identified with the power of violence through the mediation of and projection onto a third party, namely the ‘sacred’ nation-state. This was particularly exemplified in torture where, if successful, the victim ascribed blame onto himself (through confession) and justified the actions of the state agents, which in turn justified the omnipotent status of the state in ‘protecting’ order through violence. Violence was explicitly embraced for its own
cathartic value and for the order of the state:
“For the purposes of the Indonesian state, the victim was not divinised as in archaic religions, though he or she was attributed with blame and the power to disrupt the social order. Instead of worshipping the victim, then, the state transferred the power of victimage onto itself by having the victim legitimate the state’s monopolisation of violence and the rivalry the state had created, and by spreading propaganda about the victim as a deviant or subversive enemy. Rather than the victim being sacralised, the state became the depository of the violent sacred as it determined blame and order (which even the victim recognised).”51 In a similar way to a totalitarian state, Islamic terrorist groups sacralise violence by attributing it to God, and by way of God, to themselves. In this way, the terrorists become the guardian of the divine will and order, meaning that they can Joel Hodge, Resisting Violence and Victimisation: Christian Faith and Solidarity in East Timor (Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 126.
target anyone for punishment or praise in the name of the Almighty. Like the totalitarian state seeking enemies and dissidents, terrorist groups create rivalries and seek to justify them by reference to divinely-commissioned violence that is structured around a discourse and imagination of enemies. These groups become like the archaic sacred that Girard describes (ironically, in the name of the one, revealed God) by distributing disorder and order. Any violence these groups perpetrate, then, is ‘righteous’ as it restores order by dealing with cultural crisis, the cause of which is ascribed to offences against the divine being and law in the terrorists’ view. In rectifying this crisis through violence, the terrorist restores cultural and cosmological harmony and religion’s rightful place in the cultural pecking order. Thus, just like the violent nation-state, religious extremists resort to archaic forms of sacred violence, though in an accelerated, modern form of explicitness and absoluteness, which seeks to make them like gods wielding ultimate power. Like archaic cultures, they seek to produce order through defined sacred structures, with laws, myths and rituals. For terrorist groups, their sacrificial rituals include the actions of the suicide bomber or lone-wolf, which are imitated actions that sustain individual and group identity.
However, these modern forms of the violent sacred are highly unstable as they focus more explicitly on violence. As Girard argues, no scapegoating process is completely effective in the modern period, because violent unanimity cannot be built when the awareness of the innocence of the scapegoat is so widespread. 52 For this reason, modern Islamic terrorists must bury this awareness under even more extreme forms of violence. They recruit people (often young, marginalised, ignorant or in crisis) by appealing to a discourse of enemies and threats to true religion and civilisation, while arguing that the West’s decadence and corruption is ruining the Girard, I See Satan Fall, 161-69.
world. However, the paradox of the situation is that religious extremists are fighting against an enemy they cannot defeat: the deconstruction of sacred violence cannot be un-done, and no amount of renewed violence will provide the unanimity and order they seek. This is evidenced by the way in which the discourse of violence is deconstructed and rejected by members of extremist groups themselves. For example, as I showed above, some of those who travel from Western countries to fight for Islamic State or Al-Qaeda in the Middle East have come to realise the brutality and emptiness of the extremists’ efforts and discourse, and seek to return to their home countries. In contrast, of course, others are more convinced and radicalized by the sacred violence, showing that it still has an effect, though not a unanimous one.
Because of the inability to enforce or attract unanimity, modern violence becomes more extreme, believing that more victims are required to achieve the goal of order. 53 This acceleration of sacrifice, however, becomes increasingly pathogenic as violence itself becomes the focus.
Conclusion Girard’s analysis of warfare and violence provides an important window into understanding the dynamics of modern violence. This essay has particularly argued for understanding modern violence, especially extremism, as being motivated by a cultural crisis that is characterised by a breakdown of scapegoating structures and institutions that were meant to restrain violence (such as warfare). This insight helps to clarify the underlying conditions for modern violence, both from totalitarian nationstates and extremist groups. Further, the essay has argued that Girard’s category of the This phenomenon of increasingly bloody and numerous sacrifices to a failing system of sacred violence was, for example, exemplified in the dying days of the Aztec regime.
‘violent sacred’ (or ‘sacred violence’) can be deployed to interpret the phenomenon of extremist violence, as extremist violence aims to re-construct the archaic world based on the ‘violent sacred’. It does so, however, in an absolute way that fetishes and celebrates violence, moving beyond how archaic cultures imitated and contained violence. The extremists’ efforts in this regard are made under the cover of the divinity, on whose behalf the extremists act, aggregating the power of violence to the extremist group. To resist this violence requires a clear understanding of what is at stake: namely, the slow and ambiguous emergence of a more just political order underlaid by a worldwide cultural shift, based on solidarity with the innocent victim.
While this cultural shift may require occasional defence with arms, this defence must be proportional and directed to protect the innocent. Moreover, it should be understood that armies and security services are not enough to address the extremist threat and the underlying cultural crisis motivating them. It must be recognised that the liberation effected for humanity through the biblical revelation of the victim has given it a definitive but unstable freedom at the level of mimetic relationality and identity.
While this essay has largely been diagnostic – meaning there has not been space to explore a full response to the cultural crisis – I hope it is clear that freedom from sacred violence must be fostered – not resulting in a naïve freedom to do what one wants, but in a freedom to be for others, rather than in rivalry with them. This freedom requires conversion from violence, in relationship with the innocent and forgiving victim. It is the particular task of civil society, and even more particularly the church, to foster this freedom: to build solidarity with victims in various ways, but ultimately to enable this solidarity to be grounded in and seen as an encounter with God himself, who is not violent or on the side of violence, but rather is the truly loving victim of violence, “the lamb slain since the foundation of the world”, coming