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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Preemptive absolution, Al Qaeda style

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 18th, 2004

A month ago, I mentioned Philip Pullman’s great fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials.” In the final book, the “Church,” fearing that the heroine will commit heresy, sends out a priest to assassinate her. The priest has undergone “preemptive penance” as part of his training:

Preemptive penance and absolutions were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court*, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed … so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit.

From Thursday’s New York Times: Spain Says Bombers Drank Water From Mecca and Sold Drugs

“The leaders of [the] operation, evidently concerned about the effects of their plot on their souls, ‘swallowed holy water from Mecca,’ [Spanish Interior Minister Acebes] said, adding, ‘They met periodically to carry out purification acts that would legitimize the committing of acts that could offend Islam.'”**

Of course, this kind of thing guts any pretense to moral authority of the “beliefs” such criminals hold: to say that yes, something is bad, but some variety of ritualistic hocus-pocus absolves you of blame in advance is to simply say “I can do whatever I want whenever I want to.” That they don’t see that themselves is part of the end stages of the psychological, or if you will the spiritual disease, that afflicts them, whether they are nominally Muslim, Christian, or something else.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, as Pullman can seem to suggest, that religion itself is simply a lie dressed up as a priest, or that churches or religious orders inevitably prefer self-preservation to moral idealism. But as the Archbishop of Canterbury implied in a (surprisingly favorable) review of Pullman’s work, the story is on to something else: people who seriously fear the death of their own religion or God are capable of the greatest crimes to avert that fate — however illogical the prospect may seem. Both the stakes and the rewards seem infinite, while the boring demands of everyday morality seem petty by comparison.

I think much more should be made of of the profoundly unIslamic and faithless elements of Al Qaedists’ own beliefs and actions. Al Qaeda can, should, and ultimately must be discredited in the Islamic world, on Islamic grounds. People who drink Mecca water to make their crimes go away in advance shouldn’t just face prison or death on the battlefield (although that’s a good start). They should also become objects of derision and contempt among the true and moral followers of the creed they’ve forsaken.

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* In Roman Catholic usage, the word “consistory” itself turns out to mean “an assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.” The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a detailed account of the term, showing that these assemblies were once an integral part of the Catholic Church in helping manage ecclesiastical affairs, but now seem to be more or less ad hoc congresses of the principal cardinals of the church. In his use of the term, Pullman imagines an organization that resembles the Dominican order and its Inquisition. The term has also been used elsewhere; for example, “Consistorial Courts” in the Church of Ireland were charged with administering wills and the like, and may thus have also achieved a degree of worldly power.

** The wikipedia entry for Mecca says that “The water of [the Meccan well] Zamzam is believed to have special properties. Few pilgrims return from the Hajj without a large plastic bottle of Zamzam water.” An Islamic web site, “Soundvision,” says that Zamzam water is believed to have medicinal and even nutritional value, but makes no mention of conferring absolution from future sins.

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