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Evil and its discontents.

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Friday 28 October 2005

Stephen Chan, Dean of Law and Social Sciences, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


Evil and its Discontents  


At the end of human time - and the human world - beasts would appear in the heavens and wage war on God and His angels. The Biblical book of Revelation uses striking imagery to illustrate a final battle between Good and Evil. Whoever wins - and Revelation has Good winning - the human apparatus of self-government and self-control will be lost. Either God's kingdom will rule over earth - or Gog and Magog, Satan's great lieutenants, will subsume the kings of the world into their own victorious rule. More than any other book in the Bible, a Manichean vision is apparent. There would be no battle if God had been all-powerful from the outset. God has to win this battle to prove Himself supreme.  


This is to take the Apocalyptic vision on its own terms of grandeur, and then degenerate it. What was a Manichean and titanic struggle between Good and Evil becomes carnival - not quite burlesque, but theatrically perverse.  


The problem here is that, in the post-9/11 world, we have all become Manichean - concerned with a huge confrontation between two empires, two faiths, two ideologies, each with the same vision of each other. In what is shaping up to be a close-fought battle, each sees the other side as inhuman, sub-human, demonic - something to be summed up in simple language and condemned. Those who slaughter and those who abuse see themselves as pure; and they are, after all, only killing and degrading those who are impure. But the way each does it suggests that the pure have an intimate knowledge of what humiliates: to kill someone as if he were livestock, animal. It is as if the soldiers, rather than being within a Sodom and Gomorrah of their own fantasies, construct their prisoners into an evidence of Sodom and Gomorrah, which, of course, God witheringly destroyed. Finally, each atrocity merely prefigures a God who will win. 


What is at stake as the twenty first century ekes its troubled way into the world is not only the perversity of image; the image is not only an enactment of an underdeveloped or degenerated society; the images are visions of a titanic heavenly struggle. God is with the Good (who fight and are excused their over-zealousness) and is against the Bad (against whom nothing too bad can be perpetrated). What we have at the beginning of the new century is something eschatological - from the end of days. And that is not an author writing colourful words but the stuff of political rhetoric and discourse. Terms like 'The Axis of Evil', and 'The Great Satan', are not extracted from philosophically nuanced reflection. With the image comes the soundbite - and both image and soundbite construct a world that is oppositional, threatening, and immediately at hand. As indeed it is: New York is struck from the sky; US tanks roam the streets and fields of the Middle East. If all that doesn't feel Apocalyptic to those who have suffered it, the image and soundbite will do their best to help the vision along. 


The greatness of Evil was the stuff of John's Revelation. Just as well the stuff of Good is greater. The trouble is that Islam too shares the same Semitic imagination - by which I mean both the Bible and the Koran sprang from the same culture and used the same images, and denounced equally a strong and evil foe.  


Behind both, however, are messages of toleration, forbearance, rules for living with those who are different.  


The trick here is complex. It goes along the lines that it's a long haul back. Withdrawal from Iraq, a fairish settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian problem, and some significant scaling-back of posture in the Middle East would all help to put the 'onslaught from evil' and the war against it on hold. For the world was not expecting, or wanting, a second balance of power - a second cold war - in which two sides stared warily at each other from reluctantly recognised spheres of influence. It will have to be education and thought, and thoughtful engagement for some years. And if now there are 'fundamentalists' in the Middle East, there are also the one-dimensional hawks of Washington - and both need nuance in their own positions, and a cultural appreciation of the other's. Will this come? Or will the beginning of the new millennium be scarred for decades by a new Dark Age, described in terms of a very old Apocalypse?  


Guests on this program:

Stephen Chan  

Professor of International Relations  

Dean of Law and Social Sciences

School of Oriental and African Studies

University of London