The world’s major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), which together account for over 3 billion believers out of the world’s total population of 6 billion people all have their dark histories of violence in the name of God. During the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, practitioners of Judaism and the religious and political leaders of the day were threatened by the new teachings of Christ. Christ in his short three and a half years ministry on earth had a running battle with the Pharisees and Sadducees. This would eventually culminate in his crucifixion. Even after this, his disciples (Peter, Andrew, John, James and the rest of them) had some very tough times in the hands of the rulers of the day. James was crucified, Andrew was burnt to death on a pole and John was banished to solitary confinement on an Island where he eventually died. In the middle ages, historians have detailed the Crusades, forced conversions, pogroms, the Inquisition, Islamic jihads, all atrocities committed by believers using God’s name. More recently we know of the Jim Jones saga (the Guyana Tragedy) of November 1978, the Waco Texas massacre of April 1993 and closer to home, the Reverend King debacle of 2006.
Since 9/11 (the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11 2001), there has been a new interest in the question of faith, reason, religion, politics and violence. The focus of this new interest principally now is on Islam. Christianity has certainly been bloody, as has Judaism in its more extreme forms but Islam is certainly the one with bloody borders right now. The global war on terrorism led by the United States has led many to believe that the West (represented by the United States and Europe) is out to wipe out Islam. But then questions arise…
What is the role of faith in the life of the world?
How can intolerance amongst the world’s major religions be tackled?
How do we confront and combat the religious extremism that gives rise to terror and violence?
How do Muslims confront the ideological battle between radicals and moderates?
Are Muslim sensitivities and Western liberties doomed to clash?
The Catholic Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI in an address at a university in Germany tried to answer some of the questions raised above. Roughly put, his argument was this: to Benedict, Islam’s conception of God so stresses God’s will that God can be understood to command the irrational. For the pope, the Christian encounter with the classical world married faith and reason and thereby precluded, in principle, such misunderstandings of the nature of the God of Abraham, a nature that is, according to this argument, rooted in love and reason, not the will to dominance. Seen in such a light, “jihad,” which means “struggle,” can too easily be taken literally (as a call to violence against others) rather than figuratively (as many Muslim scholars argue it should be). Benedict sought to delineate what he sees as a fundamental difference between Christianity’s view that God is intrinsically linked to reason and Islam’s view that God is absolutely transcendent. In quoting the conversation between a 14th century Christian Byzantine emperor and an Islamic Persian however, Benedict exacerbated tensions between Christianity and Islam. In the aftermath of the lecture, demonstrations erupted across the Middle East and Europe and some churches were bombed in Gaza. Maybe Benedict should not have quoted the emperor in the first place but the bombings, demonstrations and violence in the aftermath of the lecture brings us back to the real points of Benedict’s teachings: irrational violence is displeasing to God and does mainstream Islam have the capacity to be self-critical.
Any religion and not just Islam can be manipulated and perverted to evil ends. In Islam, Christianity and Judaism, there is tremendous discussion going on about revelation and reason and there are people in all three who have landed outside the rational. Is the ideology of hate that fuels al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers evil? Yes it is and too few Muslim leaders have spoken out against it in compelling and memorable terms with many of them arguing instead along ideological and political lines. Al-Qaeda’s ideological battle against the West goes beyond faith and reason and for all intents and purposes has been more damaging to Islam than whatever the U.S. and Europe may have done.
Interestingly according to reports, Muslims in the United States have less to fear from their government than those in Europe. Even though U.S. Muslims may not agree with the tactics the U.S. government is using in fighting the battle against Islamic fundamentalists, many of them believe in the principles of the battle. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, U.S. Muslims have been mainly integrated into the society and understand that radicalism hurts them more than helps them. Europe however which has always been a closed society and due to increasing immigration and globalisation now finds itself struggling to come to terms with the influx of Muslims into its society. This will be a difficult thing for Europeans to do considering the increasing tendency toward godless secularism in much of Europe. Americans have come to terms with the relationship between the State and religion. Religion is part and parcel of the American way of life. Europeans however went to painstaking lengths to remove any mention of God in their new E.U. constitution. An Italian MP was removed from the E.U Parliament for condemning homosexuality and gay marriages. All of these gives fringe elements in not just the Islamic world but even amongst Christians (represented mostly by Catholics in Europe) the belief that they have a duty to militarily and forcefully evangelise Europe and the West.
Throughout the Muslim world, an ideological battle is raging between radicals and moderates. On one side are the proselytizers of radical Islam, many of whom celebrate the hateful vision of Osama bin Laden. On the other side are Islamic moderates, those who believe Muslims can coexist peacefully with people of other faiths because they do so every day, all across the world. The U.S. and the West have tried to influence this battle in favour of the moderates by championing democracy in the Middle East. This concept has however backfired. Many new governments across the Middle East (Hamas in Palestine, Hizbullah in Lebanon) are composed of radical Islamic groups, the simple reason being that they are the ones trusted by their people to provide them with the basic things of life – food, clothing, healthcare and shelter. Many governments across the Middle East and North Africa are corrupt, feudalistic and authoritarian. In largely Islamic societies, a lot of them have embraced secularism as a way of protecting their regimes. Since the secular governments across North Africa and the Middle East have not worked, the alternative being proposed by Islamic militant groups is welcomed by most of the people. While a vast majority of the world’s more than 1 billion practising Muslims are peaceful citizens getting on with their lives, the fervour of those who adhere to radical forms of Islam has intensified since 9/11 due to increasing hostility towards policies of western governments and their own repressive regimes.
In Southeast Asian countries with sizable Muslim populations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, radical Islam does not command a wide following. Islamic fundamentalist parties have lost political support in recent elections in Indonesia and Malaysia. This could be attributed to the strong performance of Asian economies in recent years for which governments across the region take credit. Many citizens therefore do not see why they should throw away the economic goodwill they are enjoying for religious extremism that will drive away foreigners and investors. Muslim communities across the region are however vulnerable to the radical influences of extremists because of the substantial financing that Islamic schools and mosques continue to receive from wealthy fundamentalists. Other questions arise in the battle for the soul of Islam. Will control of Iraq devolve to the moderate Shiites and Sunnis or to the fundamentalist insurgents of both sects who have made parts of the country terrorist sanctuaries? Will pro-democracy reformers in Iran wrest power from the country’s aging theocrats or be squelched by a new crackdown? Can Pakistan’s secular military government and Saudi Arabia’s ruling family survive the increasingly violent campaign waged by bin Laden linked extremists to destroy them both?
Terrorists have claimed that Islam’s holiest texts sanction the atrocities they commit. Religious zealotry has come to drive and rationalise the actions of Islamic extremists across the world. Muslim leaders across the world must come out and in compelling and unequivocal terms condemn terrorists and extremists as deviant hijackers of Islam. Muslims who continue to condone terrorists and extremists under the guise that they are upholding the teachings of Islam’s holy texts by fighting a ‘jihad or holy war’ will soon realise that they are ostracising not just sympathisers from other faiths but even moderates from among them. It is time also for teachers and preachers across the spectrum of the Christian and Islamic faiths to start encouraging studies of their respective texts. Under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, religious study was discouraged for decades; many of the young insurgents in Iraq are educating themselves as they go along and interpreting religious texts to suit their whims and caprices.
It is time for religious leaders across all religious divides to articulate a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence. Finding a way for the children of Abraham to live together in something approaching peace is a perennial challenge. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his address, “We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity.” Governments across the world and especially in Europe must make efforts at integrating people of all faiths into the mainstream society. Believers of all faiths must also make efforts at following and obeying the laws of the land where they reside. As the late Pope John Paul 2 said three months after 9/11, clashes ensue between Islam and Christianity when either of the two religions is misconstrued or manipulated for ideological or political ends. Western societies and leaders of other faiths must find a way of beginning the difficult conversation with their Islamic brothers, which will include a clear definition of differences as well as a search for common ground, which is so badly needed. It is however obvious that as long as moderates on all sides of the divide continue to keep quiet against the cycle of hatred of fundamentalists then such search for a common ground will be futile.