Yesterday I read yet another article about the IS-movement in Iraq and Syria. I thought about the refugees, the human tragedies, the losses of lives. I watched the photos of Isis supporters standing in the back of pickup trucks, brandishing automatic weapons. Young men, some of them almost boys, with beards yet not fully grown, Dizzy and extatic with selfrighteous zeal. And I thought about these young men. How do they view their actions? How do they justify the violence and murders? What are the mechanisms leading up to these extremist actions?
If there is something life has taught me it’s that there are no easy answers. All parties in a conflict are convinced of their right to fight, their moral supremacy. There are no isolated or random processes in human history. If you look closer, there is always a very logic string of causes and actions, leading up to an almost inevitabe end. Only it’s very hard to see it during the process. In hindsight, however, things can sometimes appear blatantly clear. However much we want it, there are rarely a clearly defined good side or bad side. Mostly there are series of events, with people more or less willing to fight, to die or to kill for what seems right. People to a higher or lesser degree equipped with lethal weapons, to a higher or lesser degree willing or feeling obliged to go over dead bodies to reach their objectives.
And then I picked up the book I was reading, and I shuddered. A graphic novel based on true events from the 19th-20th turn of the Century China: The Boxer Rebellion or the Boxer Uprising.
I do want to stress to you all that I draw no parallels to the background events or any kind of moral justification for one or the other when talking about the IS movement or the Boxers. But I do find the psychology deeply interesting: Young (and old) people feel devoid of greater context. They feel depleted of control in a changing world full of real or imagined threats. Religion offers a righteous framework and promises moral supremacy and even eternal life for those who will give their life for the Cause.
“Righteous Fists of Harmony”
Very simplyfied, the Boxers (as westerners chose to call them) were people left destitute and unemployed after series of floods and draughts in the Shandong province in 1897-1898 which forced farmers to flee to the cities. The rebellion had various different causes.
By 1900 foreign powers (France, Japan, Russia, and Germany and more) were grabbing land and imposing unequal treties for Chinese citizens. It appeared that China would be cut up into pieces, each ruled by foreign powers. Christian missionaries also flooded the country, both Protestant and Catholic, and were unrightfully exempted from Chinese laws. Many Chinese feared that the missionaries and quite possibly all Christians were representing imperialist attempts of “carving the melon,” i.e. to divide and colonise China piece by piece. All of this created Deep frustration and xenophobia among the Chinese.
One reaction came in the form of the Boxers
The Boxers were local farmers and other workers made desperate by draughts, floods and widespread opium addiction,They blamed the Christian missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Europeans colonizing their country.
They called themselves “Righteous Fists of Harmony. They were well-trained and athletic young men who practiced martial arts. The foreigners therefore called them “Boxers”. These young, desperate men believed in spirit possession which involved the whirling of swords and chanting incantations to Taoist and Buddhist spirits. Once the ancient spirits possessed them, the boxers belived themselves invulnerable to guns and cannons, as well as being able to fly. Discipline, training, diet and prayers would lead them to superhuman feats. They would also be assisted by millions of spirit soldiers descending from the heavens, helping them to purify China of foreigners.
The confrontations were marked by escalating brutality and murder.
Protestant and Catholic missionaries and their Chinese converts were massacred throughout northern China, some by Boxers and others by government authorities.
After first supporting the Boxers, the Chinese authorities finally felt obliged to take a more diplomatic stand, and the rebellion was quelled.
Gene Luan’s work Boxers and Saints is a graphic novel for youths and adults alike. This beautiful box set first caught my eye because of its cover: Two books, two opposite views of an historical event, two stories. The first tome shows half of a young male Boxer rebel, and when juxtaposed to the second book, the face is completed by its other half – the young christian female convert.
The story first seemed very fictious to me, but once I realized how much was based on true events, I was really intrigued.
Once again I find myself thinking of all the individual stories behind extremism and violence. What extreme stress, frustration and feeling powerless can do to us humans.