The New York Times Magazine has a piece on the Iranian bomb and Islamic attitudes toward use of extreme measures in battle. In Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam Andrew Wheatcroft suggests that the Islamic attitude toward battle and war lagged the West in regards to a transition to rational and utilitarian paradigm in theory and practice. In other words, medieval values of valor and courage as opposed to victory at all costs persisted longer in the world of Islam than in Christendom, to the disadvantage of Muslim powers after 1500. So it is interesting to see how some Muslim scholars are now rationalizing barbarities, and how most Muslims now accept suicide bombers as martyrs. I bring this up, because as an unbeliever
1) I am always struck by the enthusiasm that followers of “higher religion” have toward assailing or battling those with whom their disagreemants are on the smallest matters of creed or ritual interpretation (to the point where one wonders if the foot soldiers who die for the sake of the creed can even genuinely discern the differences for which they lay their lives down!).
2) …and yet, there is such slippery ease with which the clerics and intellectuals of said “higher religion” can re-interpret the propositions entailed by their beliefs when the situation warrants. When I was a child in the 1980s many of the more traditionalist Muslims would not accept the taking of pictures because it was idolatry, and yet now the most radical of the ghazis videotape themselves, and it seems clear that this media serves as a focal point of devotion and adoration!
I suppose from the perspective of the unbeliever the question is this: what is the structure and nature of religious beliefs which allows such plasticity which masks itself as rigidity? Consider that Islamic radicals kill ostensibly in the name of a traditional society, but in the process they sanction the usage of non-traditional tactics such as female suicide bombers! To me, the heart of the piece above is that Islamic scholars will expend a great deal of time rationalizing whatever suits their own ultimate needs, so the background implication that there is some true axiomatic logic which demands that a group of believers espouse a particular set of beliefs down a chain of propositions seems ultimately implausible. Though killing will continue in the name of small differences, those differences are themselves subject to the contingencies of the age.
Addendum: Of course, remember that there is a difference between what people believe and what they believe they believe, and what they say motivates and what truly motivates them. Such considerations need to move past the simple analyses of the past such as Freudianism or Marxist materialism, but there various vectors can I think eventually help in constructing a model of the mind as it moves through the social and physical universe.