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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

Moral Purity And Persecution In History
Barrington Moore Jr.

Princeton University Press: 2000
158pp. Index. Hb.: ISBN 0-691-04920-3.

Trying to understand, let alone explain the human motivation and capacity for cruelty, is a daunting task. In seeking an official source for this lack of tolerance, Barrington Moore has provided an historical context for the theory and practice of moral purity and its antithesis, pollution. The value of Moore's analysis lies in providing insight into the rationale of the human appetite for slaughter that has continued unabated into the 21st century. One of his surprises was discovering the ease with which the creation of "moral approval for cruelty" (p57), initially limited to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had blurred the divide between East and West as moral justification for Stalinism, Nazism, Fascism, "imperial patriotism of Japan prior to its defeat in the Second World War",(pix) and Mao's Chinese Cultural Revolution, "to produce some of the twentieth century's worst misery". (p128) Identifying the earliest links between moral purity and violent action led Moore to the Old Testament - the "moral template of Western civilization" (p33) where the struggle to establish monotheism?in a world where they were "surrounded by polytheistic societies and facing widespread reluctance among their own followers" who sometimes preferred the "taste of manna and the hankering after the fleshpots of Egypt - the advocates of monotheism had to be stern, convinced of their righteousness" (p129) and ruthless in their enforcement. Moore traces the continuation of this survival tactic of coercive terror to the 16th century French conflict between Protestants/Hugenots and Catholics, that laid the groundwork for transforming religious moral purity into political revolutionary purity during the French Revolution. In a "vindictive and cruel persecution of their opponents, along with the demonization of their enemies", the French Revolutionary leaders, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and briefly Carnot, "resorted to the guillotine as the instrument for transforming society". (p104) In an era of increasing internal conflicts, accompanied by corresponding escalation of global humanitarian and military interventions, Moore's discussion of the paradoxical and complex history of moral justification for the murder of the "impure" is both timely and relevant. Tracing the use of moral violence in its historic context not only helps to identify the underlying socio-political-economic causes of ancient and modern sectarian conflicts, but reinforces the necessity for understanding the potentially deadly goals of those who establish moral values for political, ethnic, and religious groups.

Marcia Byrom Hartwell, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

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