ISIS, Machiavelli and Martin Luther

Most Muslims are at their wit’s end trying to defend Islam against the horrific actions of ISIS and their ilk. Many have even gone to great theological lengths to explain how ISIS is diametrically opposed to the tenets and principles of Islam. Unfortunately, the efforts of these well-intentioned souls often fall on deaf ears. Rarely, if ever, are the naysayers and Islamophobes informed in any meaningful way on hermeneutics or exegetical constructs concerning matters of faith. Usually these critics, many of whom are academics or supposed intellectuals of some repute (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchen, etc.), abandon any attempt at critical evaluation and reduce themselves to henpecking literalists to bolster their misguided claims and accusations – ironically enough, the same foolish methodology that fundamentalists like ISIS employ in their draconian attempts at indoctrination and terror.

Never mind the most obvious, but seemingly lost fact that Islam is, by no means, monolithic. There are upwards of 1.5 Billion Muslims in the world today whose beliefs are incredibly wide and varied in scope. Asking a Muslim what they’re doing to combat terrorism is like walking up to some random Mexican and asking them what they’re doing to fight the Cartels. Or perhaps a more perfect analogy is asking a Nigerian what they plan on doing about gang violence in South Central Los Angeles. In other words, it’s a nonsensical and loaded inquiry based almost entirely on gross, superficial gleanings informed by wild ignorance and fear-mongering.

The reality is that the likes of ISIS are neither driven by the tenets of Islam nor can be challenged by them. Battling ISIS on theological grounds is a mostly fruitless effort. The supposed beliefs of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen are simply a threadbare disguise. At root, they are driven by greed and power, not living a virtuous life as a defined by the Quran and the example of the Prophet (pbuh).

With that in mind, let’s put aside all the seemingly endless theological refutations against the horrific crimes committing by ISIS. Instead, let’s turn to Niccolo Machiavelli, that shrewd, provocative Renaissance philosopher whose seminal work, The Prince, details the acquisition of political power by any means necessary – something ISIS is hell-bent (pun intended) on achieving.

 Virtue and Vice in a Machiavellian World

 Virtue and vice have no inherent metaphysical value in relation to power according to Machiavelli. They are simply tools to facilitate gaining and maintaining authority. Of course, this runs completely counter to any religious notion of virtue and vice, but no matter.  Concepts of goodness have no teleological or eschatological purpose in Machiavelli’s sociopolitical world.  Virtue is simply a means to a decidedly worldly end:

“Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power…” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Notions of goodness and salvation are mere abstractions to be manipulated when necessary (I’m reminded of that sad and profound scene in the film Paradise Now where some two-bit mullah tries to convince the main character to become a suicide bomber). Machiavelli even argues that ethics and virtue in a classical, Aristotelian sense can be outright foolish and impractical. In fact, in The Prince Machiavelli elaborates even further and insists that acts considered wrong or deplorable might need to be committed for the sake of achieving and maintaining power:

“The term that best captures Machiavelli’s vision of the requirements of power politics is virtù. While the Italian word would normally be translated into English as “virtue,” and would ordinarily convey the conventional connotation of moral goodness, Machiavelli obviously means something very different when he refers to the virtù of the prince. In particular, Machiavelli employs the concept of virtù to refer to the range of personal qualities that the prince will find it necessary to acquire in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things,” the two standard markers of power for him. This makes it brutally clear there can be no equivalence between the conventional virtues and Machiavellian virtù.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To be clear, Machiavelli is not contriving some diabolical sociopolitical theory from thin air.  He is simply drawing from endless examples throughout history to assert his claims.  As a result, vice and virtue are relative concepts and ought to be gauged mainly by whether or not they facilitate one’s sociopolitical might.

The Brutal Measures of Martin Luther

What’s often lost in all the volatile discussions about Islam, Islamophobia and terrorism, especially here in America, is just how violent the roots of Protestantism are. Many are aware of atrocities committed under the banner of Catholicism (Crusades, Inquisitions, Conquering of the Americas, etc.), but America is largely Protestant. Most of us simply know Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, as a rebellious German priest who challenged the Catholic hegemony that enveloped most of Europe. However, few are aware of how he evoked the name of Christ in a very Machiavellian sense to justify the barbarous oppression and slaughter of thousands of the German working poor desperate to free itself from the crushing boot heel of feudalism.

Martin Luther was desperately trying to consolidate power with various German princes against Catholic rule. To do so, Luther twisted Christian virtue as he saw fit. In fact, the following quote could easily echo the words and sentiments of al-Baghdadi or Bin Laden:

“The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders…He who will not hear God’s word when spoken with kindness, must listen to the headsman, when he comes with the axe.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

Even more compelling in a Machiavellian sense is how Luther manages to deform the very notion of God’s mercy and later condemn any act of rebellion against authority as blasphemous (of course, he fails to acknowledge his own monumental act of rebellion against the Catholic Church):

“The Scripture passages which speak of mercy apply to the kingdom of God and to Christians, not to the kingdom of the world…Rebellion is no joke, and there is no evil deed on earth that compares to it.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

To be clear, it would be in gross error to associate Luther’s brutality with Christianity as a faith and philosophy.  Not only in error, but nonsensical as well.  Luther certainly was fueled by aspects of zealotry and self-righteousness, but these driving forces were diametrically opposed to the supposed virtue he espoused.  Instead, it was greed and power that ultimately drove him to encourage such injustices.

Like Luther, al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen distort, corrupt and deform the beliefs they supposedly profess to pursue their nefarious ends. Sadly, this is nothing new. Human history is replete with such mayhem and corruption whether it’s ISIS, Pope Urban II, Mao, Stalin, etc. And, thank God Almighty, it is also full of brave souls who continue to defy such tyranny no matter the odds. Amen.