Obedience Beyond Humanity
by Hans de Veen
On November 2, 2004, a wave of disgust went through
the Netherlands so severe that it was felt in the rest of Europe and
around the globe. The assassination of Theo van Gogh in an eastern
neighborhood of Amsterdam left such a mark on Dutch society that it
still makes many people hesitate nowadays to say something negative
People were not really shocked because the murder took place in broad daylight in a crowded urban street or that the victim was a celebrity, but because the act was committed because of a religious conviction. It seemed that the religious motivation even aggravated the act. After the victim was shot a couple of times, the killer stabbed him and cut his throat. He then left a testimony of his motivation on the victim's chest attached by a knife. These horrific actions showed clearly that the crime was intended to be a ritual murder. The cold-bloodedness made it obvious that it was a premeditated act, planned and thoroughly thought through.
Theo van Gogh had the reputation of a rude critic. He was an absolute opponent of Islam and was also notorious for his harsh criticism of Christianity. Many people considered him inconsiderate and ill mannered. On Dutch television he often expressed his outspoken views about religion, freedom of speech and so on, in which he seemed to spare no one. So after the news of his killing got around, many people said he brought it on himself. Yet many more were filled with indignation that such an atrocious act could take place; and that not only a life was taken, but that it was intended to take away, or to silence, freedom of speech. That's why that same evening a large crowd gathered at the Dam-square in the heart of Amsterdam, the city which was always a refuge for those in search of freedom. The protesters all carried something that made noise, just to symbolize that they wouldn't let themselves be silenced.
Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer of Theo van Gogh, assumed that he wouldn't survive the act, because he believed that he would be killed by a police bullet. The police, however, were able to apprehend him without killing him. His intention of becoming a martyr was obvious by the aforementioned fact that he attached a testimony on the victim's chest. Why else would he have made a five page long letter in which he explained his radical convictions? He never took into consideration the fact that he would appear in a court of law. He knew that everyone would be curious about the content of his testimony. If he had simply written a letter to the Parliament or to a newspaper, his intention would have been left unnoticed by the majority. But by this severe act, his motivation and, so he believed, the Islamic cause, would get all the attention he thought it needed.
The goal of the murder was at least twofold: One, the scorner had to be killed, and it would set an example to anyone who would openly criticized the Prophet or Islam. Two, attention was drawn to the cause of an Islamic empire. Perhaps that was as important as the first goal, because the introduction of the testimony opened with, "An open letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali." Ali, a Muslim apostate from Somalia, was at the time of the murder a member of Parliament for the Liberal VVD party. She was also a close friend of Theo van Gogh and even cooperated in one of his films in which Islam was severely attacked.
Ali was called in Bouyeri's testimony a fundamentalist infidel, and her political party was
likewise attacked. Of course, many remarks about her apostasy and her criticisms of Islam were made. It is not possible within the framework of this writing to fully discuss the content of the testimony, but it could be summarized thusly. The Western political system, of which the Netherlands is a part, is evil; and Muslims everywhere should struggle to establish an Islamic state where there is no room for objectivity or any criticism of Islam. Bouyeri specifically addressed Ali because she was, from a fundamentalist Islamic perspective, a deserter and a traitor who embraced, and thereby represents, the wicked democratic system.
That the prime goal of the writing was attention is shown by the fact that Theo van Gogh wasn't mentioned at all in the testimony. The main purpose of his death was to disseminate Bouyeri's demented doctrines.
The trial that followed was obviously focused on the death of Theo van Gogh, so the murderer had to alter his course to a great extent to account for the murder. Immediately after Bouyeri was sentenced to life imprisonment, the judge gave him the freedom to speak in the courtroom. Of course his statement was full of religion, but at a certain moment he addressed the mother of Theo van Gogh. He said that he didn't hate her son nor that he ever did. He was only obeying a divine order. Bouyeri even mentioned that he would have done it if it was his own father or brother.
This leads us to a very important characteristic of fundamentalism: total obedience. It is not a specifically Islamic characteristic; it belongs to all groups who claim to represent the divine will. It appears to many people nowadays that only Islam shows that characteristic, but that's because many of the world's conflicts at present take place in areas where the majority of the people happen to be Muslims. But when we closely examine the strict non-Muslim religious sects, we stumble over the same characteristic. Whenever there is a book or institution that claims to speak the words of God, fundamentalist problems arise.
The Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories justify their presence in the area with Biblical revelation. There are among those settlers religious fanatics who are convinced that it is a religious duty to expel the Arab residents from the entire area. From an impartial secular point of view, this is very unfair; but the God of the Bible is often unfair.
The Roman Catholic Church claims divine authority because, supposedly, Peter received the keys of Heaven from Jesus. Peter is therefore considered by tradition the first Pope of Rome and, after Jesus, the establisher of the Church. According to this line of thought, the Church represents the will of God. Whatever the Church binds on Earth is bound in Heaven, and whatever it looses on Earth is loosed in Heaven. This is the reason that devout Roman Catholics can never criticize the Roman Catholic Church for not being in accord with the Bible. It has the liberty to change anything that will serve its purpose. That's why devout Roman Catholics say that they base their beliefs first on Tradition and second on Scripture. Scripture is, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, part of Holy Tradition.
It took the Roman Catholic Church centuries to accept basic human rights. It was only in the early 1960s at Vatican II that it accepted the freedoms laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On what other grounds could the establishment of the Inquisition be justified? If the human rights had always been accepted by the Church of Rome, the Inquisition would have been stopped before it started. The origin of the Inquisition was based on the presumed divine authority of the Church. People could never know what was good for them, but the Church knew. So people were forced to submit to the rules established by the Church. There could be no appeal to the human conscience. Life had to be lived in accordance with the law of the Church without question.
Many Christian denominations and some Islamic factions nowadays recognize the separation of Church and State laid down in most constitutions in the Western world, because their revealed religions made a compromise with reality. The reality is that Fundamentalist Christianity and Fundamentalist Islam are very unpleasant ways to live. So liberal Christians and Muslims have reduced their religion to a point where believers are free to leave at any time or adhere to whatever doctrine they please. And it is for certain that most people who adhere to those liberal religions never wish to trade those human liberties for a theocracy.
On the other hand, although the majority of the believers in revealed religion wish to keep things as they are, some strive for purity. They disdain the mediocrity of the majority of their fellow believers and feel a total contempt for the Western democratic societies with their personal freedoms. They believe that those societies have drifted away from God and His rules, and should be brought back. This is the belief of radical Muslims, Christian fundamentalists and Orthodox Jews.
Although they set aside the principals of personal freedom in exchange for theocracy, the
question arises, are those fundamentalists bad people? We cannot consider them common crooks. When they feel obliged to kill, they don't kill for greed or lust. They kill out of conviction. They kill as soldiers, obeying the man-made orders of their imaginary General. I am convinced that Bouyeri would never have killed anyone without his religious conviction.
It might seems strange, but I can very well understand the fundamentalist's thinking, because I was one myself in a way. I wasn't a Muslim or a Christian fundamentalist. I was a Karaite, although born in a Catholic family. Karaites are a sect within Judaism that only believe in the Old Testament and not the Talmud. If one only believes in the teachings of the Old Testament, one will have major problems, because the Old Testament contains horrific tales and rules (see Exodus 21:17 for example). I often felt that at a certain moment in life I might get into a position that would force me to choose to do things which are against the morality of the majority of the people. But looking back, I must admit that I never fully embraced that religion. For instance, I was always shocked by the heinous story of the fall of Jericho. So I told myself that I would rather undergo divine punishment for disobedience than do something that would harm my
conscience or other people.
Looking at this phenomenon philosophically, the moral person is, in such cases, always inwardly divided, certainly when the welfare of other people is concerned. The fact that one has to think twice before committing a horrific act and not promptly obey a divine command is for me proof that there is a conflict between rationality and irrational religion. If divine orders are done reluctantly, they are done through fear--fear of severe punishment. Although the God fundamentalists fear is a delusion, He is still a powerful tyrant. I believe only tyrants force people to set aside their humanity, promising them paradise. We should look at history and see whether the tyrants of the past have ever granted their followers the Utopia they promised. Although I made up my mind never to do anything through my religious conviction that would harm others, I remained inwardly divided and full of fear. I could, however, stick to those seemingly innocuous religious obligations which concerned me and my family, like dietary laws and the Sabbath. Yet, keeping the Sabbath forced me to quit my job as a conductor on the train, a job which suited me very well, instead of what I'm doing now. I regret this decision to this day.
Looking back at it, I can only say that even though I was fearful, my rationality was always stronger than my religious motivation. When I had to explain to others about my religion, I always felt a certain embarrassment, just as I always felt when Christians are talking about what Jesus has done for them. So doubt entered my mind more and more, and I lost faith. Disappointment and anger followed, but what I gained is liberty. It was an excellent trade!
Although I walked on the edge, I didn't fall off. I stayed on the sane side. Mohammed Bouyeri went over the edge. He followed the extreme logic of his extreme religion. If doubt sometimes entered his mind, he must have considered it a sin. He told the court he had to do it. It was his obligation, just as I said to my employer who forced me to work on Saturday that I couldn't, because I would break the law of the Ten Commandments. As the commandment that says not to kill is part of the Ten Commandments, so is keeping the Sabbath. I would, in that case, commit a similarly terrible crime according to divine law. Now I see what delusions I believed!
My motives were sincere, but my actions were foolish. I jeopardized my family's welfare by quitting my job in total trust in a man-made deity. Fortunately, unlike Bouyeri, I didn't commit a crime and I'm still able to go out on the street. The difference between a religious criminal and a common criminal is that the latter is fully aware that he is doing something wrong and is probably driven by lust or greed. The former, however, is doing it for a supposedly greater cause, and is giving God a helping hand. That great cause forces religious criminals to break the law of the state. Bouyeri has to spend the rest of his life in prison, and from a Deist point of view, he threw away his God-given talents and potentials, together with that of his victim. I don't wish to stand in his shoes when he wakes from his delusion and finds out that he wasted his life. If he ever does.
It's our great task as Deists to do whatever we can to free the world from the yoke of a
supposedly demanding God who asks obedience beyond humanity. Creation shows no sign that such a God exists. God doesn't demand from us that we destroy our talents by sacrificing our lives or taking life from others. God gave them to us for the betterment of Creation.
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Click here to read the actual survey. (It's in PDF)
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