It is very painful to watch the images coming from Iraq and Syria. It has often been said that our history began in the Sumerian city of Ur, about 5,000 years Before Christ. There is a continuous cultural line that runs from that remote Mesopotamian city to New York, Paris, or Montevideo. And thus the new jihad unleashed by the Islamic State affects all of us. The caliphate being forged in blood and fire, in the regions joining Iraq to Syria, not only revels in the slaughter of Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, but also in the destruction of what remains of a splendid pagan past.
Many of these predatory Islamists are young men raised in the West. Why do they do it?
What is the sense of pulverizing with hammer blows a centuries-old winged man-bull, or a majestic Assyrian lamassu belonging to a religion whose origins are whispers long lost to the past?
Certainty is to blame. The violent fanaticism of the jihadists comes from their absolute conviction that they know who the true God is and have no doubt that they are faithfully executing the orders conveyed to them by their sacred book, the Quran.
If we are to believe the Bible, when Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments imparted to him by Yahweh, he knows that the fifth of those precepts is "thou shalt not kill." Yet the anger provoked in him by the sight of the Israelites worshiping a golden calf forged by his brother Aaron leads him to order the execution of 3,000 people. Moses was certain that this act was the will of God.
Constantine, who in 313 issued in Milan the Edict of Toleration, cowardly retracted it in 354 and ordered the destruction of hundreds of pagan libraries and temples. The calcinated rocks gave origin to limestone factories. Five years later, the Christians in Syria, then an illustrious corner of the small Hellenic world, preceded the Nazis by 1,700 years when they organized the first extermination camps for pagans and Jews, in the city of Skythopolis.
Since then, and for centuries, the Jews have been the target of persecution. Pope after Pope, region after region persecuted them, crushed them and expelled them. The Germans, English, Italians, Polish, Russians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Christians, and Muslims all did it. Everyone who could do it, did it, generally in the name of some true God.
Unquestionably, killing enemies of the true God has been a universal and widely practiced sport. In the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III unleashed the genocide of the heretical Albigenses, also known as Cathars. Tens of thousands were executed. When he was cautioned that he was murdering the just and the wicked, he answered that it did not matter. God would sort them out and send the former to heaven and the latter to hell. That was just the preamble to the terrible religious wars that devastated Europe during the Renaissance and the Reformation, exterminating literally millions of people.
At the same time, in the Americas, while building cities and universities, the priests and the conquistadors massacred Indians, burned codices and destroyed temples or turned them into churches, to destroy forever any vestige of pagan beliefs that they considered demonic because some of them practiced human sacrifice.
Might it be less dangerous to be an atheist? Not at all. The Marxist-Leninists, convinced that "religion is the opium of the people" (a phrase from Karl Marx), persecuted Christians in Russia and Europe, while the Chinese and Cambodians have added Buddhists to the list of victims.
In atheist states, thousands of temples have been destroyed, or confiscated and put to other use. Albania's Enver Hoxha turned the negation of God's existence into a national dogma and even created a Museum of Atheism in which students learned to hate believers. Mosques and churches alike became lay buildings.
In Cuba, more than 200 Catholic and Protestant schools were expropriated, and dozens of priests had to seek exile. To rub salt on the wound, the most pitiless and sinister detention center of the Communist political police is "Villa Marista," a former Catholic school. In the words of a former prisoner who lost his teeth, hair, and religious faith in that prison: "They used to save your soul there. Now they crush it."
Let's admit it: only uncertainty makes us flexible and accepting. Whoever does not doubt is a very dangerous being. He can kill with a steady hand. Just like the jihadists.