A Religious Answer to Religious Violence

by Rebecca Haines

"Kill one man, and you kill all of mankind." According to Islam, these words were revealed to the prophet Mohammed while he was living in Mecca in what is today Saudi Arabia. The Christian poet John Donne expressed this same truth centuries later when he wrote, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind." This understanding of the interdependent nature of human life is echoed in many religious traditions: Humankind is inextricably interconnected and individual human action causes reverberations that have consequences on a far-reaching scale.

Unfortunately, whether one follows the world's ongoing conflicts in diligent detail or merely skims headlines during the morning commute, it is evident that religious, and particularly Islamic, violence dominates the press and monopolizes security concerns worldwide. Both Muslims and non-Muslims cannot help but contrast the constant reports of religiously motivated atrocities to the wise revelation of the Prophet and other people of faith concerning the interdependent nature of humanity. While overriding principles of many faiths make for peace, voices from all sides are starting to wonder, Where have all the peaceful believers gone?

In fact, there are many Muslims struggling to preserve the true face of Islam and rescue it from the radical minority's narrow interpretations. Unfortunately, a lack of adequate media coverage of these moderate voices is one of the major factors distorting relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. With no shortage of grisly reports of terrorism and violence perpetrated in that name of Islam, the non-Muslim response to Islam is often one of fear.

Moderate Muslim scholars and other moderate Muslim voices are trying to make a difference, but often reach only a very small audience. Indeed, they are typically embattled on all sides. In the Muslim world such voices are accused of being liberal and antithetical to state loyalties, while in the West they are suspected of merely feigning moderation and threatening national security. In the Muslim media abroad, moderates are censored due to governmental prohibitions on printed content, while in the West they are restricted by default, upstaged by urgent breaking news.

In the United States, moderate Muslim academics are producing strong scholarship that points out the illegitimacy of terrorism and violence justified on Islamic principles. Intellectuals such as Ahmed al-Rahim, formerly of Harvard, and Bassam Tibi of Berkeley exegete the Qur'an holistically and explain its compatibility with democracy and international human rights standards. In addition, prominent activists such as Ahmed Subhy Mansour of the Free Muslim Coalition and Azar Nafisi, author of the recent memoir collection, READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN, advocate social justice, women's rights, and liberal, uncensored educational opportunity in the Islamic world. In addition, organizations like the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the Muslim Coalition against Terrorism organize demonstrations to protest Islamic radicalism and publicly denounce religiously motivated violence.

In the Muslim world, there are also many moderate academics, journalists, and activists. In his recent book, SHUKRAN, BIN LADEN, Egyptian Sayyid Mahmoud al-Qimny discusses ways in which Muslims can be engaged as legitimate participants in civil processes that offer them an alternative channel of political expression. Likewise, journalist Osama el-Gazhali Hareb writes from Cairo in support of Muslims taking responsibility for Islamic violence. However, despite some moderate voices, most Islamic clerics or religious bodies in the Muslim world still refrain from publicly and resolutely denouncing Islamic radicalism. While Western media plays a role in overlooking Muslim moderates, Muslims of influence abroad are often reticent to definitively denounce religiously motivated violence. In order to deny violent extremism its desired spotlight, both a stronger moderate Muslim voice and a more balanced media portrayal of Islam are necessary.

Unfortunately for the state of Muslim relations with non-Muslims, Islam remains most visible as a common denominator in today's acts of terrorism and violent oppression. But on closer examination, it is clear that not only Muslim religion influences religious violence. After all, other faiths, including Christianity and Judaism, have their own violent extremists who justify atrocities according to religious principles. For example, LRA leader Joseph Kony of northern Uganda interprets the Old Testament as providing grounds for creating an ethnically pure Acholi state, with an army of child soldiers, and toppling a democratically elected government. Similarly, Zionist extremist organizations like Religious Zionist America (RZA) praise Jewish extremism abroad and congratulate the assassination of Muslim religious leaders. In light of violence perpetrated under the auspices of various religions, the issue of religious extremism cannot be framed as simply a Muslim problem.

According to a recent Pew Forum survey, Muslims who perceived a threat against Islam and their Muslim identity were more likely to support terrorist or extremist acts. Feelings of fear or powerlessness contribute to radical recourse with hopes of retaining one's identity. What is more, the Arab Human Development Report of 2003 cites education as the single largest and most damaging deficit of the Islamic world today. Poor education fuels a surplus of unskilled labor, which in turn overwhelms demand, creating mass unemployment. Muslim countries are largely among the world's poorest, and those in the well-educated minority either migrate to the West in search of more technical or academic careers, or remain in frustration at their unused skill. The majority of the world's Muslims tend to be poor, politically suffocated, undereducated, and find their identity threatened by the influence of more prosperous nations. While religious extremism surfaces in all faiths, there seem to be more potent underlying causes demonstrated among those that struggle for identity and prosperity.

Post 9/11, non-Muslim countries have sought to implement various tactics to control and prevent manifestations of Islamic extremism. From the much criticized results of the Patriot Act, to European models of domestic intelligence, attempts to address Islamic terrorism have often demonstrated a pattern of treating symptoms rather than causes. Governments have implemented practices of unreviewable deportations and stricter immigration policies, as well as imposing censorship laws reminiscent of the totalitarian governments they purport to oppose.

Policy responses to Islamic radicalism have ironically appeared mostly in the form of restrictions on moderate Muslims, regarding points such as the wearing of heyyjab (head coverings), or the right to speak or publish in Arabic. These are measures that are more likely to alienate and further marginalize Muslim populations, exacerbating the prevailing sense of disenfranchisement, rather than encouraging integration and legitimate, healthy, civil participation.

Rather than constructing separation walls and constitutional amendments, what is needed is a practical religious dialogue with one clear objective: a consistent ethic in and across the major faiths that provides firm grounds for denouncing unjust use of violence. Too often, reactions to extremism exacerbate polarization rather than overcome it. Governments, institutions, and citizens opt for either the tight-fisted suppression of religious expression aimed at assimilation, or the ghettoizing methodology of "safety" found in distinct societal divisions. These fail to strike at the root of religiously motivated violence.

While religious ideology can be manipulated into potent incitements to extremism, redeeming religious principles can be preserved as points of contact across civilizational barriers, and act as catalysts to cross-cultural reconciliation. All the major faiths have a stake in building a faith-based consensus on a responsible ethics of violence, including strategies to alleviate the primary deficits that nurture the roots of radicalism.

Thankfully, a host of both religious and non-religious organizations in the United States and around the world are taking up this task of inter- and intra-faith dialogue. Not only has it long been considered by some as the moral responsibility to understand one's fellow humans, but contemporary security imperatives make this conversation an essential matter for the world's quality of life.

Aside from aforementioned Muslim anti-violence advocates, there are many good examples of the world's leaders participating in interfaith dialogue. In 2002, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the dean of Al-Azhar seminary in Cairo, and a chief rabbi of Israel initiated the Alexandria Agreement, a commitment to dialogue between their respective faiths. This meeting forged relationships that have since served to diffuse several impending outbursts of violence in Israel and the West Bank. Another example of positive initiative in this area is the Tolerance Project, an educational research program that aims to explore principles of pluralism and peace in the three Abrahamic traditions and integrate them into religious school curricula. Thus far, it conducts conferences for educators at three important sites: Berlin, Sarajevo, and Jerusalem.

Positive programs by government and non-governmental figures are rising to meet this need, and religious scholars are playing an important role in providing the academic expertise on the interpretations of religious principles in a twenty-first century context. It is important for people from all faiths to support and expand these efforts, as an ecumenism not of religious relativism but of practical ethics, to address a specific problem that affects everyone as global citizens.

In counterbalance to the Prophet Mohammed's revelatory warning about the taking of one person's life, the Qur'an follows with, "Save one person, and you save all the world." If acts of violence can have far-ranging effects, initiatives of peace can do the same.

Rebecca Haines is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Engagement – http://www.globalengage.org/index.asp. In addition to English, she studied History and Political Science in the Middle East at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, Canada.

 

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