Religious extremism is the problem
2011 began with some bleak news for Muslim-Christian relations around the world.
Recent attacks against churches in Iraq, Nigeria and Egypt have killed dozens of Christian worshippers. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is standing by the country's controversial blasphemy law which critics say threatens religious minorities.
How should political and religious leaders deal with these challenges to interfaith relations?
There are two elements to the issue at hand, the political and the religious. While they have different solutions, the problem is the same: extreme religious fundamentalism, or more specifically, extremist Muslim fundamentalism.
Some claim that the kinds of problems mentioned are political and religion is just a front. While there are those who use religion for political power, throughout history most who have killed in the name of religion have done so out of perverted religious ideology, not out of political beliefs. Suicide terrorists gain no political advantage out of their actions, but they think their deed will give them a spot in paradise. Religious extremism has been at the core of much of the world's violence, just like all the situations mentioned above. In contemporary times, the most common root is an extreme Islamic ideology that not only cannot stomach people who think or believe differently, but promotes their oppression or destruction. However, it is important to acknowledge that Christians are not the only victims of such violence. In fact, during the last several decades, Jews and Hindus have more frequently been the victims of this same form of violence.
Religious hatred of others is not something new to our world. It has been going on for a long time. As I have previously written in this forum, Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms have resulted in the annihilation of millions of innocent people in the world. Members of each tradition who adhere to such a narrow views of reality have not only terrorized, oppressed, and killed people of other religions, but they have killed members of their own religions who are more open minded and accepting of others.
Over the last several centuries, Christianity, has for the most part eschewed violence as a means of conversion, but Islam has not. Moreover, the rise of Wahhabi Islam in the nineteenth century brought with it a new wave of justification for fundamentalist violence. Much of the terrorism done in the name of Islam today has its roots in this new fundamentalism, either directly or indirectly. There is a common concept among many Muslims in which the world is divided into two types of places. Where Islam is freely practiced is referred to as "Dar Al-Islam" (Place of Islam"), while all other places are called "Dar Al-Harb" ("place of war"). For Muslim fundamentalists, this becomes a justification for seeing all countries not controlled by Islamic law as places where war should be waged, both against the governments as well as against their residents. In short, such extremists find a justification in their version of Islam to terrorize and kill innocent people in order to coerce or force countries to accept Muslim rule. Again, I am specifically referring to extreme fundamentalists, not to the vast majority of Muslims, many of whom have also become victims of extremist violence.
How, then, should political and religious leaders deal with the issue? First, acknowledge reality. The vast majority of terrorism and related violence today is coming from an extremism that has become deeply imbedded in contemporary Islam, not from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism. If any organization, religious or otherwise, preaches to its members violence against a country and its citizens, then the government of that country has both the right and the duty to take actions to protect itself and its citizens. The number of fundamentalist Muslim clerics who preach violence against innocent people in the U.S. and other countries has greatly increased over the last several decades, yet little is done to stop them. Why is shouting "fire" in a theater not allowed, but indoctrinating followers to purposely terrorize and kill innocent people allowed? How much different is this from what Charles Manson or Hitler did?
Extremist Islam has been growing over the years in reaction to an increasing move toward secularism in the western world. What used to be considered fringe has come to be seen as mainstream for an increasing number of Muslims and Muslim leaders. A good example can be found in the teachings of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent and popular Egyptian Muslim scholar whose regular program on Al Jazeera is estimated to have an audience of 40 million Muslims. In 2003, he stated clearly, "It has been determined by Islamic law that the blood and property of people of Dar Al-Harb are not protected." At about the same time, Sheikh Ali Goma'a, who shortly thereafter became and is still now Grand Mufti of Egypt, said in a newspaper interview referring to any Israeli who is found outside his country, "...it is permitted to kill him, because he is a Harbi and the Harbi spreads corruption throughout the face of the earth."
When such a mind set is prevalent among prominent so-called religious teachers in positions of respect and authority, there will be no shortage of followers who will find justification, and even joy, in killing anyone who does not adhere to their narrow ideology. Until this changes, the violence will not end. Thus, all peace loving people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, have to take a collective stand against such ideologies, in whichever religions they exist. We could all learn a great deal about the concept of religious tolerance and peace from India in this regards. For most of the country's history, there has been a high degree of tolerance and respect of religious diversity. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs have lived in harmony with each other, participated in each other's religious activities, and even intermarried with very few problems. If one chooses, one can find individual situations in which violence has arisen over religion in the country, but these have been relatively rare. This is because the concept that all religions are but paths to the same divinity has been a dominant theme in the religious ethos of India, at least until the arrival of the proselytizing religions of Islam and Christianity. Once their armies and their missionaries arrived and began forced conversions, along with the killing and oppressing the majority of the population, only then did religious violence become more a part of the society. Even then, it has been minimal in comparison to what has been occurring in the Middle East. Clearly, the mediating influence of religious tolerance in India is a major reason.
Whether they be politicians or religious people, our leaders must be more aggressive in standing against this ideology of hatred. They need to help create an environment whereby open minded Muslim leaders who speak out against fundamentalist violence are given a wide forum, and protection, for many of them fear the extremists as much as others do. Our leaders should also limit the support our government provides to countries that openly allow and even promote such narrow views. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan come immediately to mind.
We also need to stop depending on Middle East oil is another process that must be put on center stage. While our politicians argue with each other and then fill their pockets with taxpayer money, one of the most important tasks they have, to free us from our bondage to Middle East oil, is largely being ignored. If we can become energy independent, we could stop sending billions of dollars to countries where fanatical religious ideologies are supported. Maybe then our political leaders could find some back bone to stand up to extremism. As for our religious leaders, they, too, must stop kowtowing to Muslim clerics who speak nice to them in a gathering, then go to their mosques and promote violence. They must be willing to criticize those who use the cloth of a cleric to promote hatred and bigotry. There is no shortage of decent, moderate, and open minded Muslims in our country, but they are seldom given a forum to speak. However, moderate Muslims must begin to be more vocal in their denunciation of the extremism in their own religion. Change has to come from within. Those of us who are non-Muslim should do what we can to help, but religious Muslims who support peace and religious tolerance have to take the lead. They have to identify the ideological problems and also the problem makers within, and they have to make necessary changes.
Finally, we need to teach an objective understanding of religion and religions in all our public schools, just like we teach about math and biology. Integral to this must be the teaching of respect for people of other faiths, and a denunciation of the practice of forced or coerced conversions. Religious beliefs are integral our world, and they are not going away anytime soon. Therefore, we should learn about them like we learn about other aspects of society and contemporary life, and we should also learn to respect religious diversity in the process. We need to have more open discussions about the various religions as they have contributed to our world, and we should not be hesitant to critique and criticize where warranted while acknowledging those aspects that are positive as well. Only then will we have the knowledge and ability to begin to diminish the violence and learn how to live with each other in peace.
January 7, 2011; 5:19 PM ET
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