By Dr. Joseph Chuman
The terrorist attacks have left us anxiously wanting to know why this has happened. The stunning assaults on our country and its people have confronted us with dark clouds of ignorance that leave us insecure, and make the future seems more ominous than at any time since World War II. We have arrived at an alien and difficult thicket and we do not know what lies behind it.
When I examine my own thoughts and feelings, I find that I am not frightened. I am not even especially anxious. But I am preoccupied with a new and unsettling sense of worry. I am worried that we have entered a new phase in which our security cannot be taken for granted. I am worried that our nation has become categorically vulnerable in a way in which it never has been. What this boils down to most of all is a sense of worry for my grandchildren, and the need for self-protection that has entered their lives, and from which I have happily been free. I am saddened that this is the future deeded to them and that they will have to carry this burden.
September 11th has initiated a war; it is also raises many murky questions that leave us unsettled. We in the West have been rudely awakened to the world of Islam, and the violence and hatred against us, which is perpetrated in its name. More than one sixth of humanity is Muslim, yet, we Westerners, know virtually nothing about it. Ignorance, of course, breeds fear. It raises questions of whether Islam is characterologically a violent religion, or not. Whether it is intractable. How broadly and deeply hatred of the West permeates the Islamic world. Whether Islam and democracy are incompatible. Whether peace and mutual co-existence are possible or whether a protracted clash of civilizations is just beginning to heat up.
How we answer these questions will cause us to feel deeply fretful and anxious about the future. Or will enable us as a nation to plan new strategies, and serve as a basis for optimism and hope.
As crucial as these questions are, I want to focus on a different but related question this morning, in order to deal indirectly with the issues above. It is a question that underlies these distinctive questions that we may be asking about Islam. The broader issue I wish to discuss is how religion relates to violence in general and terror in particular.
I have often suggested that one needs be cautious in talking about religion, in general, as if there were such a thing. There are multitudes of religions, interpreted in countless ways by billions of people. They differ remarkable in beliefs, practices, values and everything else. Moreover, the religions are often expressions of ways of life, of cultural modes of being, which cannot be organized so neatly into discrete packages we call religion, as we think of it in the West. To talk about ‘religion’ is to discuss an abstraction. Nevertheless, there may be distinctive modes of religious thinking that cut across the different religions, especially when religious thinking becomes extremist. It is that religious extremist mindset that I want to focus on this morning.
Before I do, I can’t resist mentioning a dangerous condition in this country, which has permitted religious extremism here at home to gain more influence than leaves me comfortable.
As I have mentioned before, for the past two decades American society has had a love affair with religion. There has been a great deal of anxiety about moral and social breakdown in this country drugs, crime, abortion, divorce, sexual permissiveness, teenage pregnancy, pornography, failing schools, etc. Though there are undoubtedly many social problems we face, anxiety over these issues has been fueled by conservative and ultra-conservative leaders, who have told us that religion provides the only cure. The underlying problem is secular, godless values, — secular humanism if you like, for which a return to God and religion is the only response.
This pro-religious propaganda has resulted in a popular belief that religion can only be good. In turn, this sunny view of religion has allowed right-wing religious demagogues in our country to make the most moronic and vile pronouncements, clothe them in sanctity of religion, and thereby leave them almost invulnerable to public criticism and attack. So, a few years ago when Pat Robertson on his TV show prayed that a hurricane be diverted from the shores of North Carolina and strike instead the evil precincts of New York City, nary a criticism was raised. Without much reflection such a hateful pronouncement is something that no one over the age six ought to be believe. Yet people such as Robertson are considered to be serious religious thinkers, after whom the media fawn, and who therefore are deemed worthy participants in the public debate on a whole range of issues.
George W. Bush’s Faith Based Initiative, which would give tax money directly to churches to do their social services, is the political high water mark of this notion that religion is totally good and the savior of our social ills. But imagine the unthinkable consequences if this ill-conceived program would have been in place before September 11th. There is good evidence that certain mosques were being used as fronts to raise and then ferry donations to support terrorist groups in the Middle East such as bin Laden’s. Had this program been in place it would have meant that US government money your tax money and mine — would have been used to underwrite those terrorist operations directed at destroying American society itself. We would have helped bankroll that very assault. It is now postponed, but when this issue comes up again before Congress, I hope this point is powerfully made, and puts an end to this ill-conceived idea. But, again, it arises from a climate that sophomorically and uncritically makes the assumption that religion can be nothing but a positive resource that works only for the social good.
I trust that we humanists do not have such a sunny view of human nature or religion, which is, by our lights, a human creation.
Religion also inspires noble deeds
There are certain humanists, I realize, who are allergic to religion. I am not one of them. If religion inspires awful deeds, it also inspires very noble ones. There is simply no way one can explain the work of Martin Luther King without reference to his deep commitments in the Black Baptist faith; nor Gandhi’s faith and inspiration as a devout Hindu. The ability of the people of Le Chambon, a village in France to unite to rescue imperiled Jews during World War II under the watchful eyes of the Nazis, was inspired by the their Protestant faith, in fact, of a rather fundamentalist kind. And religious apologists will often turn on secularists with the evidence that Stalin’s massacres and the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields were the outgrowth of secular ideologies, gone amuck. Such indictment is not so readily dismissed.
But humanists have long appreciated that much of humankind’s sorry history of bloodletting has been fostered by religious motives and justified by religious sanctions. In the first century, BCE, the Roman poet Lucretius had said, ‘Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.’ ‘How many evils does religion inspire!’. It was Voltaire who during the European Enlightenment declared ‘Ecrasez l.infame.’ ‘Crush the infamous thing.’ referring to the Christian church and its irrational superstitions. Such have been the rallying cries for militant atheists, rationalists, secularists and humanists, over the ages, who have appreciated the destructive power of religion and ecclesiastical authority. They would point to the religious hatred and bloodletting of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Wars of the Protestant Reformation, and a multitude of other historical and contemporary wars sanctified by religious faith. Those who have killed and died in the name of religion compose one of the sorriest of phenomena in the career of humankind. The terrorist assaults coming now with the sanctions of Islam, are but the latest in the history of the malignant underside of religion.
But like apologists for religion, such anti-religionists, I believe, often grossly simplify and caricature religion, in this case in order to condemn it. The story of the relationship of religion and violence is much more complex, and can’t be properly understood divorced from the economic and political climate in which religion finds itself and operates.
We live in a time of religiously inspired terrorism. But it need be mentioned that not all terrorism is religious. Much is strictly political and secular. The Shining Path guerillas in Peru engaged in terror, as do the Basque separatists of Spain. The purges of Stalin and Pol Pot, were not religious. Death squads in El Salvador and Brazil are not composed of religious terrorists. And much of the bombing by Americans in the Vietnam War were terroristic attempts to deter villagers from harboring the Viet-cong and North Vietnamese troops. Yet the ends here, again, were political and not religious.
But what is about religion than can does lend itself to violence? After all, all the major faiths espouse the values of peace, brotherhood, love and compassion as the ends toward which they reach. In the three monotheist faiths, God is a loving God, whose love is to be emulated by his earthly devotees as among the highest ends and purposes of religious devotion.
The divide between believers and non-believers
While promoting the supreme values of God’s goodness and human peace, the great religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and even Buddhism, are committed to values of absolute justice and are strewn with images and myths that are saturated with conflict, violence, and war. Apparent in myths of all historical religions, is the divide between believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who are blessed and those who are accursed in God’s eyes. If one is so moved and committed, one can find in sacred scriptures and traditions God’s justification for murder, apocalyptic strife, even genocide. We should be smart enough about human nature to know that if one has a grudge, one can always find justification within one’s religious texts or traditions, to act out one’s anger and revenge, and do so in God’s name and with God’s blessing. It is this underside of religion that is smoothed over these days, and such a move is both intellectually untenable and very dangerous. Religion can be employed in the service of good or evil, and it is very misleading and wrong to deny it. I have long been upset in what I perceive to be a dereliction of honesty by religionists who are moderate and who refuse to take responsibility for their extremists and fanatics who do their despicable deeds in the name of those faiths. It does no good, and I believe it is too facile, for moderate Christians, Jews and Muslims to say in the face of violence committed in the name of those religions .These acts of violence are not really Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, because this is not what our faith teaches.. Well your faith does teach those things, and you can’t so readily dismiss them.
Almost all religion exists on a continuum from liberal and tolerant to fanatic and xenophobic, and it is dishonest to glibly claim innocence by asserting that those who do evil in your name are not somehow related to your faith that justify violence. You may believe that your faith comes from a pure and perfect God. But all religion must pass through the minds, interests and impulses of human beings, who are anything but pure and perfect. By clothing your own belief and faith in the sanctity of religion does not give the practitioner of religion a magic ticket that bootstraps him or her out of the human condition. Even if religion comes from a good God it is still interpreted by men who will corrupt it out of their own impulses, interests and needs. In this regard, we need keep in mind that Islam has no monopoly on religiously sanctioned violence. In the past fourteen hundred years, far more violence has been committed in the name of Christianity than in the name of Islam. Even today violence and terror are sanctioned by Christianity — by both the IRA and the Protestant minority in Northern Ireland. In our country, a radical fringe of the anti-abortion movement justifies its killing of abortion providers in the name of a brand of fundamentalist Christianity. Much of the anti-government militia movement, which is now happily in decline, was inspired by the so-called Christian Identity movement, a lurid anti-Semitic, anti-minority cult, which proclaims that Anglo-Saxons are the true chosen people, and those claiming to be Jews are imposters and the descendents of Eve mating with Satan. They also hold that we need to replace the United States with a Christian Republic. This was the theology behind the Aryan Nation movement in this country. It was also a creed that inspired Timothy McVeigh in his bombing of the Murrah office building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Though it received scant press coverage, McVeigh had contact with a commune called Elohim City on the Texas-Arkansas. He read their literature. What is better known is that he was inspired by a book called the Turner Diaries, which served as a blueprint for the Oklahoma bombing. This book, which was a favorite of the militias, is based on Christian Identity ideology.
Historically, there has been little terrorism in the name of Judaism, in great measure because the number of Jews worldwide is very small, and for two thousand years Jews have been an imperiled minority without political power.
With modern Israel, that has changed, and we see the emergence of right-wing fanatics who kill in the name of Judaism. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn born and raised doctor, entered the Muslim side of the Tomb of the patriarchs and massacred more than 30 Muslims at prayer in Hebron on the West Bank. He is revered as a hero by many of his compatriots. Goldstein had been a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane. In Kahane’s theological notions, the modern secular state of Israel is anathema, Jewish possession of the West Bank is Biblically sanctioned, and the presence of non-Jews is a humiliation. Kahane’s religious vision was one of .messianic catastrophism,. in which the Messiah will come in great conflict in which Jews triumph and praise God with their successes. In short, human actions will bring cosmic results, a idea which has long been a staple of right-wing Jewish theology. Nor should we forget that Yitzchak Rabin’s assassin, a young man by the name of Yigal Amir, justified his murder of the Prime Minister on religious grounds stating that he had no regrets and he had acted on orders from God. In part, Amir’s act was sanctioned by militant rabbis who referenced Jewish law that permits the destruction of a .pursuer. if need be to save one’s life. Rabin was labeled such a pursuer on the grounds that he was willing to cede territory to the Palestinians that would put Jewish lives in danger, and a religious sanction was neatly found.
Hindu nationalists gaining influence
We tend to think of Hinduism as a non-dogmatic, inclusive, and relatively tolerant religion. Yet for the past twenty years, Hindu nationalists have gained tremendous influence and political power in India. There has resulted an intensification of Hindu-Muslim violence, and the killing of Christian missionaries in India. In 1992, thousands of Hindus mobbed the city of Ayodhya in northern India, and despite the efforts of 100,000 police to stem the violence, the mob utterly destroyed the Babri Mosque, sacred to Mulsims, on the grounds that the Indian god, Ram, was born exactly on that spot.
Buddhism is perhaps the most pacifistic of the great religions. But its record on violence is not totally clean In Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalism has helped sustain a lengthy and bloody civil war with the minority Hindu Tamils, who are seeking an independent state. And in what has been the most ominous of terrorist attacks in modern Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo, a Buddhist cult, mixed with Christian Armageddon elements, was responsible for dropping the very deadly nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway. That attack in 1995, which killed twelve and left over 5,500 injured, some permanently, was frighteningly easy to pull off.
And now we come to Islamic terrorism. The recent list of attacks both against Islamic states themselves and the West is large and growing. From the Egyptian Islamic Group that assassinated Sadat in 1981 and killed foreign tourists at Luxor in the 1990s, to the state sponsored terrorism of Iran, to the Hamas and Islamic jihad groups on the West Bank, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the incredibly brutal and terroristic civil war sustained by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria. And then those directed at American targets: The first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993, inspired by the Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who preached out of a mosque in Jersey City, and which paved the ground for the assault of September 11th; the bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November, 1995; The Khobar Towers near Dharman in June, 1996; the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in October, 2000. Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group has been implicated in all of these assaults, and of course, the recent unspeakable assault on American land.
Without creating an equivalence among all these acts of terror, is there, nevertheless, something that the religious mind set, when brought to extremes bares in common across the various religions?
I believe there are:
Religion is the human preoccupation, par excellence, for focusing the mind on absolutes. Religion speaks to good and evil, insiders and outsiders, holiness and defilement often in terms that are categorical and uncompromising. There are believers who are sanctified by God, and there are infidels who and heretics accursed by God. And we need to remember that nothing commands like one’s commanding God. The stage is set by religion for justifying hatred of the other, namely xenophobia. In religious terms, the despised outsider is not only hated by me, but by God, the author and governor of the universe. To expel, oppress, or kill the outsider, is therefore to do God’s work in His name. Religion speaks also to divine justice, which is absolute justice. While this principle can often lead to the most ennobling idealist ends, as the career of Martin Luther King had shown, the divine call to justice can also lead to the most wicked of deeds.
Religious scriptures, as mentioned, are strewn with violence, military defeat of enemies and even genocide. Crucial to this violence is that it is holy violence that takes place on the cosmic plane. An expression of this violence is Cosmic War that is usually an all-or-nothing proposition.
I remember in high school reading the Greek epic, The Iliad. You might recall that while the Greeks are battling the Trojans on the earthly plane, the gods of Olympus have their favorites. The Trojan War was going on two levels between the Greeks and the Trojans on the level below, and between Athena and Hera and the other gods, on Olympus.
The absolute, eternal cause
War becomes holy war when the battle you are fighting against your enemies is a battle for God’s cause, the absolute cause, the eternal cause. What you are acting out on the mundane field of action is a replica of a struggle that reaches up to heaven and is sanctioned by it.
Read the Christian book of Revelation and you will see a phantasmagoria of violent images in which the followers of Christ are saved, and the followers of Satan and the Anti-Christ are thrown into pits fire and suffer eternal torture. These are the End Times, the Final Judgment, when Christ the alleged Prince of Peace has no trouble damning unbelievers to never-ending agony. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson love this stuff. It is the type of scriptural authority that allows you to hate people you don’t like with total impunity. With God on your side, hate can take a holiday from the sense of responsibility, self-reflection, and hesitation that hateful attitudes usually inspire in more mature individuals. Killing another human being is difficult. But if you are righteous in this extreme way, it can become a guiltless act. The more you hate in God’s name, the more sanctified you become. In the Biblical mentality, vengeance is often a righteous act.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Joshua is mainly devoted to God’s demand that the Hebrews take over the land, by literally wiping out entire towns and peoples. It is ethnic cleansing with divine sanction.
The most beloved of sacred Hindu epics, the Bhagadvad-Gita has the God Krishna, disguised as a charioteer urging King Arjuna into battle for the conquest of the world.
In times of peace, among more sophisticated and sober interpreters, these texts are read allegorically and symbolically as tools by which to spiritualize life in the service of seeking the highest.
In times of strife, oppression and desperation, in the hands of fundamentalists, they are read, not symbolically, but literally, and the consequences can be deadly. That is what fundamentalism means: Religious scripture is understood literally, without allegory, without symbolism, and without humor. Another essential component of many traditions is sacrifice, usually of an animal, but sometimes of a human being. Sacrifice is an act of killing. When applied to human beings it can elide with a concept of self-sacrifice, of martyrdom made holy in response to oppression. Religious terror on the world stage is as much symbolic as it is strategic. It is theater. The purpose is to demand attention, all the while infuriating and humiliating its victims. For the perpetrator it supplies a heady dose of the exhilaration of power in the midst of conditions that have made one relatively powerless. Its goal is to dramatically impose one’s issues on the global stage, even if victory on the plane of politics is only a remote possibility. And so this brings us to Islamic terrorism. The question of the moment is whether there is anything distinctive to Islam, beyond these generic characteristics of the fundamentalist mind set that makes it especially incorrigible. If we, the lay public, are confused about this, it is not our ignorance alone which breeds this confusion. Those who study Islam are sharply divided on his issue.
In Islam, secular politics doesn’t exist
In one camp there are those Islamicists who will point to the fact that Islam, unlike Chritianity and Judaism, have never experienced the Enlightenment, which has had a secularizing and liberalizing effect. They will point out that Mohammed himself was not only a religious prophet but also an administrator and military man, and that much of the early history of Islam involves military conquest. Scholars in this camp will point out that Islam is totalistic in the sense that there is no separation between the religious and political realms. The idea of an independent secular realm in which politics can function simply doesn’t exist in Islam. In Islam since everything is religious, this ensures that force, when it is used, is used in the name of religion. They will point out that although Islam provides a secondary, though protected status, for The People of the Book, that is, Jews and Christians, those outside these faiths are labeled .unbelievers. and .infidels. and have no such protections at all. They either accept Islam or are out to death. Most scholars, who have studied the ‘sharia’, or Islamic law, have concluded that Islamic Law is incompatible with modern notions of human rights. This is because the modern idea of human rights is secular in origin, originating from social contract theory, whereas, in the Islamic concept of rights, rights come only from God. All these factors and more add up to a concept of Islam that is essentially intolerant, immune to secular ideas, and anti-modern.
There are those Islamicists who say otherwise. They claim that this understanding of Islam is simply too static. They will point out that Islam, like all religions, changes its contours based on political and economic circumstances and needs that have little to do with the religion itself. Christianity, throughout its history, has been virulently intolerant at times, and in other epochs has fostered tolerance. In Islam, for example, the concept of jihad, which means ‘struggle’, some times has been interpreted as an internal spiritual struggle of the individual believer. When Islam is under political distress, jihad will be given a more literal and militaristic interpretation. They will point out that the Koran places great value on peace, brotherhood and tolerance. That the spread of the faith must not be by coercion, and that there have been historical periods when Islam exhibited great tolerance, both toward other Islamic sects within the faith, and non-Islamic peoples. They will point to the fact that Islam is anything but monolithic. That it spans more than 50 countries, many language and ethnic groups. That it is tremendously diverse and differs from place to place and time to time. What makes segments of the Muslim world prone to violence is not that Islam is inherently violent, but certain economic and political circumstances that allow extremism to arise, and that these circumstances are relatively new and not consigned to Islam alone.
Though I am not a scholar of Islam, I suspect that the second interpretation is closer to the truth. In the broadest sense, religion itself does not cause violence, but becomes violent when ignited by a felt reality of oppression and humiliation. So to the payoff question: Are we now engaged in a war against religion? Against Islam? I believe the answer is ‘yes’, but only one virulent, extremist expression of Islam. But to say that is not enough. It is to understand that that extremist expression of Islam also has roots in historical, economic and political discontents that are widespread in the Islamic world.
An analysis of those discontents must await another time. But I think it is generally correct to say that for much of the last century there has been among Muslims a growing discontent with what is called ‘secular nationalism’, that is, a state and society built on secular premises. It is argued that in imitation of the West, the Islamic world has tried the model of the secular state all but a minority of Islamic countries have secular governments of some kind but this model derived from the West has failed to deliver the goods. What it has delivered are self-seeking, corrupt, often military dictatorships that keep themselves in power while they oppress their people and subjects. And these potentates, whether in Egypt, Saudi Arabia,, or previously in Iran with the Shah, are kept alive by American aid for American interests.
Islamic masses grow more desperate
In many ways the West has won, and the masses in many Islamic countries grow more desperate. Under such realities, there is logic in the appeal to their own Islamic roots as sources of pride and power. And those who have violent agendas can and do bend and exploit the Islamic religion for their purposes.
If the war against terrorism, which I believe must be fought, is going to be long, then the battle against the conditions of despair that serve as the context for terrorism is going to be much longer.
In the final analysis, it depends on our faith in democracy. It is a faith that people everywhere yearn for participation in the political and economic affairs by which they can govern and control their own lives. This is true in the Islamic world as well. And it must be noted that democracies seldom nurture terrorism.
Though it is a long, complex story, I think we as a nation need to take a harder look at the Islamic world — not just at its leadership at the top, but at its people below. We need to get to know it and the aspirations of the people who live in that world, not to exploit it or remake it in our image. But, in time, to develop a policy that will help others to govern themselves free of oppression. By so doing, we will assist in undermining the temptations that turn religion into a force for violence and hate.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.