Terrorism and Religions
by Henry S. Wilson
Rev. Dr. Henry S. Wilson, an alumnus and former faculty member of the United Theological College. Bangalore. is currently Director of the Center for Global Theologies and Associate Professor of Global Mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. USA. During the June term 2002. he taught at the United Theological College, Bangalore. The following article appeared in the Bangalore Theological Forum, Volume 34, Number 1, June 2002, pages 58-74. Bangalore Theological Forum is published by The United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
No peace without justice: no justice without truth (Noam Chomsky)
Predominantly the ideologically driven world of the 20th century, as it made its way on to the 21st century, seems to have given way to a more ‘religion accommodating’ world. In fact, the last decades of the 20th century already experienced a phenomenal revival of historical religions in many parts of the world, including the former Soviet Union, Central/Eastern Europe. and China. It is not limited to just the re-emergence of historical religions, but also extended to the emergence of neo-religious movements like New Age spirituality and the surge of religiously based practices and experiences ranging from meditation to medicine. These have made their way into communities all over the world where certain level of freedom for religions and spiritual movements exist.
Religious values and views play a significant role in the lives of people as they deal with issues affecting their communities. Religions teach about ultimate claims on believers’ lives and provide a core vision for it, which invariably colors its followers’ socio-political aspirations, engagements and behaviors. Any macro level issue then cannot be addressed without being sensitive to such realities experienced by people. Whether the future of humanity will be shaped by the ‘clash of civilizations,’ the ‘clash of ignorance,’ the clash of religions and ethnicities, or confrontations between the ‘West and the rest’ is hard to predict. It may be a combination of several of the above as they are all intricately interlinked. It may also be caused by the emergence of hitherto unclear issues of polarization.
Reaction to September 11 attack:
The tragic events of September 11. 2001 were a painful experience for everyone. especially to those who lost dear ones. It was also a rude shock to people in USA and people all over the world who do not subscribe to violence to resolve issues. On the other hand for the perpetrators of this destruction and mass murder, it was an accomplishment. It was a culmination of long-term planning and sacrifice, including the martyrdom/suicide of several individuals. It was supposedly meant to be a retaliatory action for all the direct and indirect support the USA has been giving to the nation of Israel which is in continual conflict with Palestinians. It was for the USA’s infliction of death and suffering on innocent civilians in Iraq by refusing to lift the decade-long economic sanctions. It was for USA’s support of some of the ‘corrupt’ regimes in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It was for the stationing of the USA army in Saudi Arabia the home of Muslim Holy Places of Mecca and Medina. It was for the systematic dissemination of Western values in the Muslim world. In other words, as far as the executors and schemers of the terrorist act, it was a repayment for all the insults against Islamic faith, and for the injury to Islamic communities brought about by the USA and its Western allies in collaboration with several Muslim regimes in the Middle East. [Bergen. 2001: 19-20]
Even though such feelings on the part of the Islamic extremists were well known to the leaders in the USA and the rest of the world from the earlier incidents, like, the bombing of the World Trade Center in1993, the bomb attacks on USA embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, the incident of September11 came as a total surprise. The magnitude of this destruction, both to property and to people, on the USA soil superseded the US intelligence network.
In spite of the attempt of national leaders and the mass media to interpret the incident as a malicious terrorist act of disgruntled and frustrated people full of evil intensions, for many North Americans it was difficult, if not impossible, to accept it as non-religious. The immediate public reaction in the USA was colored by ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘Arabophobia’, somewhat similar to Christianophobia and Judeophobia among a number of Muslim communities around the globe. The assumption on the part of many was that all the Arabs were Muslims, even though many publications made it known that 77% of Arabs in USA are Christians (the survey report conducted by the Arab American Institute in 2000). The majority of the world’s one billion Muslims are Asians and Africans living in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Central Asian countries. The interpretation of dress attire also got mixed up resulting in attacks on Sikhs who wear turbans as part of their religious duty. Also, statistical disputes surfaced with survey reports from different agencies contradicting one another. ‘The Mosque in America’ a report commissioned by Muslim Communities, arrived at a figure of about 6 million Muslims in USA. This was contradicted with a figure of 2.8 million in a report commissioned by American Jewish Committee. A figure of 1.8 million was reported by the American Religious Identification Survey. [Rachel Zoll, 2001:8A] This example indicates the influence that the sheer number of adherents of a particular religion have on the socio-political affairs of modern states, and in a world where truth seems to get blurred amidst statistics.
It is commendable that the immediate USA government response had been very cautious and non-polarizing. While that was appreciated around the globe, the subsequent severe military attack on the territories of Afghanistan that began on October 7 has cast severe doubts on the USA government’s intensions. Was it a genuine patient search for a viable solutions to resolve the conflict or a time set aside to work out a coalition strategy and military build up? The USA-UK led military assault, which executed severe bombing and destruction, has made many wonder whether acts to curb terrorism have turned themselves into terrorizing acts. Arundhati Roy, an Indian novelist and a recipient of the Booker prize, states: "Nothing can excuse or justify an act of terrorism, whether it is committed by religious fundamentalists, private militia, people’s resistance movements -- or whether it’s dressed up as a war of retribution by a recognized government. The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world. Each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington". [Roy, 2001] To wage war in order to establish peace is a paradox even though it is one of the often-repeated practices in history.
If a nation is committed to a democratic way of resolving issues that effects communities of people within its borders, the same standard has to be applied in the international level to give credibility to the system of democracy which the USA and the European Union are eager to promote in countries where democracy is not in place. Unfortunately, that has been flouted, generating reactions like that of Imran Khan, a former Pakistan cricket celebrity and current head of a new political [Justice] party in Pakistan: "No country has the right to be judge, jury and executioner. . . . International terrorism should be fought with international institutions: the United Nations and the World Court." [Khan, 2001] Arundhati Roy’s observation supplements this further: "The UN, reduced now to an ineffective acronym, wasn’t even asked to mandate the air strikes. (As Madeleine Albright once said, ‘The U.S. acts multilaterally when it can, and unilaterally when it must.’) The "evidence" against the terrorists was shared amongst friends in the coalition. After conferring, they announced that it didn’t matter whether or not the "evidence" would stand up in a court of law". [Roy, 2001] For a greater just and peaceful order in the world, the quest for democracy has to go further than the political management of nation stations. The democratic ethos should be equally applied to all segments of community, both local and global. The social, cultural, economic, religious, ethnic, racial, tribal, and gender aspects of humanity need to be democratically addressed in order for what creative and healthy plurality that does exist among humans to be honored and preserved.
What is unique in the present conflict is the psychological maneuvering on both sides to gain public sympathy, one making use of moral categories of ‘just retaliation’ and the other appealing for religious or moral duty of every Muslim to be engaged in jihad against the infidels and their ways. Al-Jazeera, a 24-hour Arabic satellite news station broadcasting from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, (reaching more than 35 million, primarily Arabs viewers around the world including 150,000 in the United States) came under severe criticism by White House staff as an Arab propaganda media and the news media in the USA were asked to use discretion in using news items, especially those released by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. In the United Kingdom, the broadcasters were summoned to Downing Street office and were cautioned about their screening of Al-Jazeera broadcasts. The Pakistani government was forced to stop the daily briefing from the Taliban embassy in Islamabad on the ground that the briefing violated the ‘diplomatic third country protocol’. The charge was that these briefings were propaganda, campaigns against the USA bombing. Meanwhile the USA countered the Taliban propaganda with its own campaign through the use of Middle Eastern media, besides dropping pamphlets from the air in Afghanistan and creating Radio Free Afghanistan, broadcasting American news and entertainment to Afghans in their local languages. This anomaly of deciding freedom of speech and press has been noted even by the US media.
Democracy, to be practiced and implemented with integrity, demands a free flow of information to citizens; it definitely cannot be overly censored, curbed, or edited to suit the agenda of the political party in power. Ultimately it is not just the vision of a political party that is important for the well-being of citizens, but the freedom that the people have to decide the course of their society knowing the various possibilities that are available to them.
However, such an attempt to mute Taliban voices did not prevent the news and rumors that were transmitted orally, as well as through other channels of information accessible to Arab and Muslim sympathizers. Included was Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad being portrayed as the real culprit, and pointing to an interesting news item that 4000 Jews were forewarned to stay away from the World Trade Center on the day of the attack, thus being spared from the disaster. Opinions of people seem to matter in a war of terrorism and war on terrorism. Conflicting parties claim that their fight is based on principles of justice, with no aspiration of territorial expansion that was predominant in the 1990-1991 Gulf war, struggles in the former Yugoslav region, and other on-going conflicts around the world.
As we evaluate the September 11 event, certain realities have to be accepted in spite of its gruesome nature. Following the incident, one immediate question raised by many in the USA was why do people hate us? One can avoid dealing with such a question, as often done by political leaders, by simply responding that people out there do not like us because of our values of freedom, democracy, and entrepreneurial spirit. A sizeable section of people also stated that we are a peace-loving people and unilaterally a war was declared on us out of sheer malice. In some ways such comments express true sentiments of the people, but, on the whole, people mind their own business and try to be generous towards others, especially those who are in need. However, when such a reality moves from individual and community life to a nation as a whole, a number of engagements of the USA in the world arena are not perceived as benevolent and gracious.
The USA has significant material needs, like, for example, oil (the USA, which is 5% of world’s population, consumes more than 25% of world’s oil and other resources). Its business interests are aggressively pursued throughout the world, including arms industries and security plans to protect these interests. The USA often collaborates with local regimes, many times those who are not very popular with their own people, but who are willing to support the interest of the USA in order to benefit from it. The USA has the capital, military power, and the global network to accomplish these goals. Michael Lerner explains this as a new ‘militant religious’ phenomenon. "Global capital is not only an economic system, it is a crusading worldview, a militant religion of its own engaged in a worldwide jihad which seeks to remake every social institution in its image. It frequently employs local elites to use violence to impose this new religion on their own people". [Lerner, 2001] When such economic interests are protected with military support and involvement, the USA is perceived as an aggressor rather than a benevolent nation or people.
With the end of the cold war, the USA was the only remaining super power with enormous military and economic power such as the world has not seen before. The USA can impose its will and ways in whatever situation it wants with a great amount of success. But that is no guarantee that it can be free from any resistance, while such an imposition is perceived or understood as a threat by other nations or communities. Afghanistan, where all the planning for the attack on September 11 allegedly was undertaken, was a clear case of a victim in the geo-political and ideological struggles of the contemporary world. For two decades the people of Afghanistan were subject to severe atrocities carried out on them by outsiders, driven by their own ideological and religious agendas. The ten years (1979-1989) of war against Soviet Union occupation, fought with the military support of the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, ruined the country enormously. The Afghanis, and those who fought in Afghanistan from other Arab countries, rightly claimed that it was their sacrifice that brought the collapse of the Soviet Union and paved the way for the end of the cold war.
Unfortunately, the withdrawal of USA interests in Afghanistan once the Soviet withdrew from the territory contributed to the escalation of chaos and the further break down of Afghanistan infrastructure. Afghanistan continued to be a battleground for factions of warlords in spite of some political stability that was brought to large areas with the establishment of the Taliban (students of Qur’an) rule in 1996 with the backing of Pakistan. But the continued war with the Northern Alliance, imposition of severe Islamic code of conduct by the Taliban, and three years of draught escalated the misery and suffering of the population out of proportion to the means they possessed and the materials provided by the rest of the world. The painful result of these 20 plus years of war and destruction was the demise of one million people, 500,000 wounded, and six million refugees within Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. It is estimated that during this period, in the midst of the human catastrophes mentioned above, 40 billion dollars worth of arms and ammunition was poured into Afghanistan, primarily by the Soviet Union and the USA. The present conflict is adding to that military figure, escalating again resources that will be devoted to the arms industry.
The "betrayal and abandonment of USA" is a historical fact that is remembered by the Afghani people, who expected generous economic assistance from the USA for the price they paid for the demise of the mighty power of the Soviet Union. Antagonism against the USA is further perpetrated by the leadership of the USA in Gulf War, military involvement in Somalia [both Muslim nations], and, as mentioned above, the continued economic blockade against Iraq and support and supply of weapons to the Israeli army (which has been used predominantly against the ‘intifada’ [uprising] of the Palestinian youth beginning in 1987). It is an irony of history that the needs of the forgotten nation and people of Afghanistan were brought to the world’s attention with the tragic event of September 11. However, the question still remains, "Is terrorism an answer and a resolution to a problem?"
Terrorism and some religious responses:
Terrorism is not a pleasant enterprise either to the one who executes it or to the one it is targeted to. By design, terrorism is an unpredictable use of violence against an individual, group, community, or nation to attain the goal of the perpetrators. Its aim may include overthrowing, destabilizing, or replacing the existing systems and institutions or retaliating for the hurt and harm committed. Ideological, political, social, moral, personal, and religious motivations may play a role in such actions. Terrorism has been used throughout history and throughout the world by states, organizations, groups, and individuals. Religious communities have not shied away from terrorism; they often have used flimsy support from their respective traditions. Modern technological advancements and communication facilities have given a greater lethality and mobility to terrorists. The phenomenon of terrorism is not going to go away unless human communities deal with the issues perpetuating them locally and globally.
Through wars and conflicts, terrorist acts have taken a heavy toll on humanity especially on innocent civilians. According to UNICEF, 80% of victims of all such aggressions in recent years have been civilians, mainly women and children. Looking back to the last century, despite all its valuable accomplishments, the 20th Century has turned out be the bloodiest century in human history. It is estimated that more than 60 million people were killed by fellow humans, more than in all the previous centuries of human history. The century ended with about 21 million refugees around the globe, including about 6 million internally displaced people and more than 300,000 child soldiers (under the age of 18), girls as well as boys, engaged in armed conflicts.
Even though human conflicts and the September 11 tragedy can be explained in political and social terms, explicitly or implicitly religious components shape and motivate them depending on the persons who give leadership to them. There are no easy answers for the wide range of religious and ethical questions that have been raised subsequent to September 11 tragedy. A lot of reflection is needed to ponder an adequate response. Conflict in human communities cannot be totally avoided: it is bound to happen regularly. But the issue is how we can best utilize the resources that are available to us to avoid, defuse, and prevent conflicts. Can religious resources be utilized to achieve these goals?
Preventing religious teachings and visions from becoming a tool to perpetuate terrorism, as in the case of September 11, is crucial for the well being of humanity and the rest of the creation. Since religious communities are shaped by the plurality of circumstances and environments in which they are located, close cooperation and better understanding among religions is the only way to achieve this goal. In times of desperation and calamities, it is normal for people to turn to their ultimate visions for life. For most, these visions are provided by their religious heritage. Accordingly, following the terrorists attack, people in the USA and in many part of the world responded religiously. Prayer services, memorials, joint faith worships, vigils, and religious discourses were in place immediately after the incident. A German theologian, visiting soon after the incident, noted with surprise the slogan, "God bless America," echoed in almost every public and private building. His remark was that such a pious and religious benediction is hard to find in Germany and in Europe in the present context. However, in Europe some other-closely religio-cultural actions would certainly take place. The lighting of candles, and their placement in windows or public places as a message of peace and solidarity, and the organizing of a concert for a peace rally both would be important actions.
While the majority of the world was going through shock, a small group of sympathizers of such terrorist action were jubilant, not because they delighted in death and the suffering of others, but rather they felt that their religious perspectives provided them with a means of response to what they perceived as evil. For them it was a successful accomplishment of a planned action to uphold Islamic truth. It was a moral revenge and a spiritual act. Religiously it was jihad against evil society and the infidels in America, an interpretation that was not accepted by the majority of Islamic leaders, theologians, and communities the world over.
The three religions directly implicated in the September 11 event are Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It is not so much that these religions directly contributed to it, or led the way to it, but rather that the people who are directly or indirectly associated with all the happening around the event come primarily from these three religious traditions. The USA and the rest of the Western nations are predominantly shaped by Christian values and worldviews, the Middle East and Central Asia by Islamic traditions and cultures, and Israel and Jews living in USA by Jewish values and traditions. Even Hinduism is indirectly implicated, as there is an ongoing conflict in Kashmir between the so termed ‘Muslim terrorist’ and the government of India, a nation with a majority of Hindus. In the past twelve years of intense struggle, more than 36,000 have been killed, including ‘terrorist’ freedom fighters, as well as soldiers, police, and civilians. This has caused enormous damage to the social fabric of the society, not to mention the material damage.
One of the affirmative disclosures of this tragic event was the value of intense interfaith work that has been going on with some vigor since the 1960s. The interfaith unit of the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Inter-faith Relations, the many national and regional councils of church and denominational programs among Christians. and similar attempts among the Jewish and Islamic communities and world bodies, have, through their interfaith work, created a new ethos for addressing issues when religious feelings are brought out in conflicting situations. The presence and participation of people of different faiths at the worship service in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., and at many interfaith services, especially the one held in Yankee stadium in New York, were witnesses to such positive attitudes that have developed as a result of interfaith ministries. Who could have imagined that Dr. Billy Graham would be willing to participate and preach in a service at the National Cathedral alongside a Jewish Rabbi and Muslim Mullah, sharing the same chancel area as worship leaders, and reading and praying from their own sacred texts and traditions?
Even earlier, those who had given their time and talents for interfaith relations shared a celebrative moment when the United Nations recognized the importance of interfaith relations and summoned a conference of religious leaders in New York just prior to the Millennium summit meeting of world leaders in August 2000. One can draw on the result of the careful work that has been done by religious bodies, educational institutions, and local communities regarding better understanding between the Islamic faith and societies since the Gulf War in 1991. However, the task became complicated when reports from investigation of September 11 identified those involved in the terrorist acts as adherents of Islam, and alleged to be highly motivated by their religious teaching. It only further demands from all those who are aspiring for peace and justice a renewed commitment for interfaith work at all levels.
Islam, Christianity, and Judaism:
What does Islam, Christianity, and Judaism teach regarding the perceived and/or real adversaries to its faith and community? We have to recognize that none of these religions are monolithic. They are divided into numerous groups, denominations, and sects, some with distinct theological emphasis and ethical practices. In these religions there is a huge spectrum of opinions and expressions. In actuality, what is witnessed is Islams, Christianities, and Judaisms with all their internal pluralities. The range of attitudes stretching from liberal to conservative, just to use one denominator, is wide and complex. What one can summarize from these religious traditions has to be broad-based and limited to the generic characteristics that undergirds each of these religious families, even though such an exercise is extremely presumptuous.
Islam believes in diversity of religions. Islam actually took birth in the context of Judaism and Christianity being the prevailing religions. Islam shows a special respect towards Judaism and Christianity because of the common faith heritage. Islam expects the followers of these religions to live an upright life as the wish of the creator. The Qur’an teaches: "And those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians -- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord" (2:62) [Ali, 1997:33-34]. (Ref. Surah 2:148; 22:67). As far as a Muslim is concerned, deviating from Islamic faith is regarded as an offense, which could be punishable even by death.
According to the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammad gave priority to seeking reconciliation and peace with Jews and Christians, as well as with other opponents and enemies. The Qur’an clearly prohibits offensive war, and believers initiating aggression. Surah 2:190 states, "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you. But do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors." [Ali, 1997:76] Even though peace and reconciliation are given priority, there are the possibilities of individuals reading several texts of the Qur’an to find support in engaging in acts of aggression and war like that of September 11, aiming at those who are identified as enemies of Islam or to those who have wronged the Islamic community. "To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged" (22:39). "O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and hypocrites and be firm against them" (66:9). Those who are killed in genuine war (jihad) as martyrs will live in the presence of the Lord. "Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord" (3:169) [Ali, 1997: 832,1494,172] (Ref. Surah 22:58).
As soon as the perpetrators of the terrorist act had been identified as Muslims, the word ‘jihad’ was repeatedly referred to by the media, as was the case in the 1970s during the Islamic revolution in Iran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. According to Marcel Boisard, Muslim jurists classify ‘jihad’ (which means ‘intense effort/total endeavor/striving’) into four different types: 1) the intense effort by the heart; 2) the tongue; 3) the hand; and 4) the sword. The effort of the heart represents the internal spiritual and moral struggle; it aims at victory over ego. The effort of the tongue represents the calm preaching and teaching of the morals of Islam. The effort of the hand represents the setting forth of good conduct as example for the Islamic community and others. The effort of the sword corresponds to armed conflict with enemies of the Islamic community in circumstances where believers are persecuted and their freedom curtailed. This last category, engaging in the efforts of the sword, is further divided by Boisard into six types: I) against the enemies of God; 2) for the defense of frontiers; 3) against apostates; 4) against secessionists; 5) against groups who disturb public security; and 6) against monotheists who refuse to pay the capitation tax [Boisard, 1988:24-25]. Even then, certain conditions are attached to minimize the violence and damage done to people and property.
On the basis of the majority of the identified perpetrators of September 11 being Saudi Arabians, including the alleged plotter and financier, Osama bin Laden, one could conclude that what has been behind the September 11 incident, and some of the earlier incidents of terror, is the religious worldview of the Wahhabiya (ahl-al-tawhid ‘People of Unity’) movement. This particular movement within Islam owes its inspiration and teachings to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1787) of Arabia, who in the 18th century called on Muslims to return to the pristine teachings and practices of early Islam. True Muslim believers, Wahhab felt, should uphold the absolute Oneness of God (Unitarianism), abandoning all the kafir (unbeliever) elements like the veneration of saints, grave cults, decorations of mosques, and the Sufi innovations and luxurious living that subsequently crept in. If the original grandeur of Islam is to be regained, the Islamic community must reorient their total life by strict adherance to the Qur’anic teachings and enunciations by the prophet Muhammad. Islamic state law must govern the people’s life. All polytheist and infidels interfering in the way of this puritanical Islam are to be considered adversaries, including individuals, groups, religious bodies, or nation states.
In the face of opposition among the Muslim community itself, Wahhab and his teachings were sympathetically received by the local Dir’iyah prince Muhammad ibn Sa’ud and his family in 1745. This religious and political solidarity was instrumental in Arab resistance to the Ottoman Empire, and to the expansion of the Sa’udi rule over the Arabian Peninsula. After decades long struggles, when Ibn Sa’ud was able to establish the Kingdom of Saudi in 1932, Wahhabiya assumed the prime religious position in the Kingdom. In order to make sure that the Wahhabiya vision of Islam was adhered to both in public and private spheres, a number of measures were introduced including the office of ‘religious police’ -- mutawwi’un (enforcers of obedience). However, in recent decades even the Sa’udi royal family has come under the criticism of staunch Wahhabis for their openness to non-Muslims and values in their territory, and increasing laxity towards citizens. Therefore, it is not so much democracy, but the modernization and westernization that are a threat to Muslims of Wahhabiyah orientation and calls for opposition including jihad to protect the integrity of their vision of Islam.
Besides the Wahhabiyah movement, there are also other groups within Islam who subscribe to the jihad of the sword as a religious belief for the protection of community and faith. It is clear from the above discussion that Islam is not a pacifist religion. Today, however, the majority of Muslims, and several International Islamic Organizations, will interpret even the fourth category of jihad as a concerted effort to overcome the evil found within human society so that peace with justice is accomplished for all humans throughout the world. Muslim leaders also try to promote peace with justice through their participation in inter-religious organizations like the World Congress of Religions for Peace. Also. Islamic nations, as active members of the United Nations, work closely with other nations of the world in shaping a common future for humanity, bringing in the Islamic ideals of peace and justice.
Christianity had its origin as a marginalized and persecuted community. However, after recognition by the emperor Constantine in 312 CE., it soon developed it own means of using force to achieve its objectives. This included punishment, persecution, imprisonment, banishment of those who strayed away from the true faith, torture, execution of those who refused to repent and recant their false beliefs, and crusades to retrieve lost territories and reclaim members. These methods of force developed steadily as Christianity’s power consolidated with the sponsorship of the state and its own organizing skills. Many of these acts throughout history were carried out with the help and blessings of Christian rulers and political powers.
During the Protestant Reformation, such forces were unleashed against various groups of Christians, resulting from complex combinations of faith, ethnicity, culture, class, geo-political loyalties and past histories. Such inter-Christian rivalries in the physical sense have vanished today. Physical conflicts of any substantial nature today are mostly perpetuated by socio-political and ideological disagreements, rather than by religious differences. Alongside such developments, where force was used for achieving the goals, there was always a counter voice focusing on non-violent methods of resolving issues, shaped by virtues of love and mercy.
Christianity has both pacifist and nonpacifist theological stances depending on denominations and historical traditions. For nonpacifists, the ‘just war’ theory, developed by theologian and church father, St. Augustine (354-430 CE.), has a variety of interpretations that can be applied again and again in situations of war. War and violence are considered as answers when they are used as instruments for justice, self-defense, or for defending innocent lives and preventing enormous damage to material means. This holds as long as they are undertaken by competent authorities, and when all means of reconciliation have been exhausted. The plea for negotiation has been spurned, and can be used only as a last resort when there is a reasonable hope for victory.
Those who are committed to pacifistic views can point to the fact that in the New Testament there is not only reaffirmation of the commands of loving ones neighbor as oneself (Matt.19: 19, 22:39; Mk 12:31. 33; Lk. 10:27) [based on the teachings in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18)]. but also the stipulation to not resist the evil doers with actions of aggression (Matt. 4:39), and even to love ones enemies and pray for them (Matt. 4:44; Lk. 6:27, 35). Inspired by the teaching of Jesus on non-violence and his own Hindu faith tradition, Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated the power of pacifistic means of accomplishing the social and political changes. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to build on it in his own struggle towards racial justice. The teaching of Jesus, and examples of Gandhi and King, have been emulated by many individuals and groups around the world, demonstrating that pacifism is a viable option in the world of war and violence. Both pacifistic and non-pacifistic views continue within Christianity, leaving the choice to its members.
However, with the development of separation of church and state, Christians of many denominations leave the issue of war, violence and aggression to the best judgment of the state as long as they have the satisfaction and confidence that the state is duly elected and acts within broad stipulations for just war. The New Testament teachings to submit to ruling powers: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities: for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1) and, "For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution" (1 Pet. 2:13), make it possible for many Christians to take such position. Where political principles of church and state separation are in operation, resistance to any state promoted war and violence, whether by Christians or people of other faiths, become both apolitical opposition and a faith action. A number of individual Christians, Christian organizations, and churches in the USA and around the globe have raised their voice against the way the USA, primarily in support of the UK, has proceeded to retaliate since October 7. Since any change to that status can only be brought by state legislation, the task of church becomes more of a conscience raiser and an advocate for change of state policy based on its own faith perspective. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the influence of Christian communities and churches on state policies where they are a sizeable majority.
In the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, we not only read about faith traditions, but also Jewish social history. Early Judaic tradition operated with an unique understanding of covenant relation between God and the Jewish community. As long as Israelites were faithful to the covenant they could count on the protection of God. When Israelites broke the covenant, they were reprimanded, including facing defeat by their enemies and captivity by foreigners. In the midst of all this, God’s faithfulness always endured, giving them hope against their adversaries. In some Jewish traditions, God is understood as permitting occasional war and providing victory to Israel, God’s chosen people. This includes the songs of Moses and Miriam, which speaks of a warrior-Lord who triumphed gloriously over Pharaoh’s mighty army (Ex. 15:1-21). Another, the laws of war, is encoded in Deuteronomy 20:1-20. Even the central symbol of God’s presence among people, ‘the ark of covenant,’ was carried into the battlefield to assure victory against the adversaries (Num. 10:35-36; 1 Sam. 14:1-8). At the same time, prophetic voices repeatedly spoke about God’s expectation of Israelites to be a light and blessing to nations (Isa. 42:6. 49:6. 19:24). It also expressed God’s special care and concern towards the poor and the marginalized, both of Israel and the neighboring communities, through acts of justice, tempered by a merciful and forgiving attitude (Duet. 10:18, 24:17; Ps. 82:2-4; Isa. 1:17; Amos 5:23-24; Mic.6:8). The prophets, on occasion, envisioned that all nations would be drawn into Lord’s house and live in ‘shalom’ (peace and well being). "Nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:4b; cf. Isa. 56:1-8; Mic.4: 1-4)
In modern times, major voices of Judaism are manifested in the movement of Zionism, with the founding of the Zionist organization in Basel in 1897. It was a sociopolitical movement with secular leadership meant to overcome all the adversities that were faced by the Jewish community. Nevertheless. Zionism has drawn on the religious and ethnic sentiments of its community. As a model for mission, it has focused on the wish of their ancestors exiled in Babylonia (597-538 BCE) to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. However, there has been no consensus among the Jewish faithful regarding the physical return to Zion, the retaking the land, and the founding of the State of Israel that happened in May 1948. Those who have not subscribed to political Zionism understand the return to Zion as a spiritual yearning for the messianic rule of justice and peace, not to be substituted with human accomplishment of resettlement in the former territory, or of establishing a nation-state. While supporters of political Zionism see it as an act of ‘self-emancipation,’ especially in the context of the horrors of the holocaust, the affected Palestinians and Arabs see the Zionist claim for a separate state as a ethnocentric and ‘ethno-territorial’ agenda. Therefore, the Palestinians and their sympathizers see Zionism as a scheme of violence and terror. According to them, "The methods of Zionism were designed first to ignore, then to isolate, then finally to dispossess, evict, and if possible exterminate the native non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine" [Zionism & Racism, 1977: 243].
The number of wars and armed confrontations since 1948 with Arab neighbors, the continued occupation of neighboring territories, and the prevention of the formation of the independent State of Palestine, has made Palestinians, Arab neighbors, and a large section of the Muslim world perceive the State of Israel as the aggressors and perpetuators of terror against the Palestinian people. However, the State of Israel sees all its aggression on the Palestinians and neighbors as self-defense and self-preservation. Even though acts of war and aggression were not necessarily done as religious acts, for outsiders, these acts of terror, and religion, exist in a symbiotic relation as the Sate of Israel is primarily anchored on a faith community. Rabbi Lerner explains the complexity further:
"the critique of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinian people, cynically manipulated by Bin Laden and his cronies, is nevertheless basically legitimate. What is amazing is that even at this moment when the Middle East is exploding, there is no serious analysis of Israel’s role. A unique combination of Jewish establishment power and Christian guilt (deserved) for the Holocaust has led to an amazing reality in America: there is no public discussion of the role Israel has played in generating the wild level of anger at the West from which the terrorists are able to recruit" [Lemer, 2001]. The issue here is how to relate particular religious vision about social reality and communal identity in a complimentary and a relational way in the midst of plurality of communities and religions. Marc Ellis articulates this as a probing question: "Did the Jewish experience of atrocity demand a focus on Jewish survival and empowerment, or did this experience speak to Jews of the need to build a world where atrocity would never happen again to any people?" [Ellis, 1997:xiv]
A Way forward:
Amidst records of the glorious achievements of world religions, there are also examples of the misuse of religion to accomplish selfish goals or distorted objectives. However, the historical religions have shown resilience to such misuses by reemerging from these stark periods through the efforts of the faithful. When the noble ideals of any of the religions are distorted, it is in fact a breach and betrayal of the tradition that is sacred to its followers. Therefore, such movements, despite their claims, should not be confused with any enduring historical religions. However, the challenge does not lie in just ignoring them but in preventing such occurrences in the future so that the wealth of the human spiritual traditions is not squandered. One way forward is to promote greater understanding and relations between people of different faiths, and to uphold that endeavor as a binding spiritual and moral commitment, regardless of one’s religious affiliation. The ‘golden rule’ of love and care towards neighbors, which is found in all historical religions, can be interpreted to support this vision.
Humans do not read and relate to history in the same way. This is true especially when past relationship is in conflict. The conquerors and the conquered, the colonizers and colonized, the winners and losers in military confrontations, trade and commerce dealings, or religious relations, will certainly read history and events differently, if not in opposing terms. Such a past cannot be wiped out easily. Provisions can be worked out to reconcile the past memories and amend past mistakes through religious values (repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation), socio-economic means (such as providing assistance to development, promoting fair aid and trade, restitution, and reparation), and by political goals (of consensus building and solidarity).
There are a number of individuals and organizations (religious and secular) that firmly believe in non-violent strategies as the only, if not the best, way to deal with the past and to build a just future society. According to Glen Stassen and Steven Brion-Meisels, the following principles can accomplish that goal of non-violent eradication of the roots of terrorism: "address the roots not just symptoms; recognize the role of all parties; take independent initiatives that reduce violence and promote justice; re-engage with international forces; use force only to apprehend and protect; increase the capacity of multicultural, civilian-based organizations; and foster inter-cultural understanding and reconciliation" [Stassen & Brion-Meisels, 2001]. Not all people, however, may be as optimistic as Stassen and Brion-Meisels.
Even if we cannot completely eliminate war and terrorism, we can considerably reduce their use, and definitely reduce the number of supporters and sympathizers for such means, in settling a community’s frustration, anger, disappointment and desperation. Open forums can be created to express various views and to resolve disputes; including genuine programs and policies of justice to be promoted to deal with all prevailing injustices. The United Nations Organization is already playing that crucial role, but it has not been very effective when major national powers or consortium of powers take the issues in their own hands over the wish and aspiration of others, especially those who disagree with them and their methods of settling disputes. Osama bin Laden made good use of this when he called for Islamic nations to withdraw from the UNO, accusing those Arab nations who work closely with the UNO as infidels.
However, this important organization, the UNO, is an institution, which mainly caters to the welfare and the interest of nation states. Ordinary people do not feel strongly connected to it. In many cases they may turn to religion for solace. For the majority of people, the state is there to provide material and physical security. For issues relating to the meaning of life, people turn to their religious and/or ethical traditions. Today, almost all the historical religions have become transnational, and are sometimes as productive as any international non-governmental organization (NGO) in responding to human crisis. Therefore, it is important that religions, in all their potential, be used for the betterment of humanity. This will reduce the misuse of religion as the wrong tool in the hands of disgruntled people, preventing those who will use its teaching and vision for totally opposite causes than what they were meant to be. Religion is for ushering the abundant life of wholeness to everyone.
It has been observed that through the ages, human worldviews has been steadily expanding from tribal to national to global dimensions of awareness and operation. For centuries, major religions of the of the world have served humanity with a global vision and outreach, and are not strangers, but rather pioneers, to this emerging secular consciousness of global dimension of humanity. However, in recent decades, religions are increasingly committed to respecting, and even promoting, local and regional identities by moving away from an expansionist spirit, and to facilitating self-determination and self-expression so that global thrust doesn’t usurp local gifts and resources. Such spirit needs to pervade the secular promotion of globalization for the sake of ensuring justice. The search for security is a common quest of every human and every community. The reality is that "The greatest security will not come through armies or counterviolence, not through revenge or hatred, but through building a world of love and open-heartedness, a world in which the recognition of the sanctity of everyone on the planet shapes every economic, political, and social institution" [Lerner, 2001].
Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all share Abrahamic heritage and roots. They -have many faith aspects that are common, which are widely recognized or affirmed. One common heritage they all share is the prophetic tradition. Prophetic voices have been raised, and evil has ‘been exposed and challenged, whenever a community has faced forces detrimental to the well being of the community and its neighbors. People have been called to turn away from idols to following God, seeking forgiveness and amending their ways for a renewed way of life. The equally important heritages include care and concern towards neighbors, especially those who are poor, marginalized, neglected and oppressed. These values are shared with all the historical religions of the world. As human interaction increasingly takes place between communities, it is bound to increase certain amount of friction, suspicion, and tension between different communities. Those are not insurmountable problems, provided there is greater understanding of the other community’s core values and the commitment to uphold them in all circumstances. Such an attitude should be considered a religious or spiritual act, to be held by all people who want to take their religious identity seriously within the contemporary context of religious plurality. Religious leaders and institutions have a crucial role in promoting these core values and commitments. This will involve downplaying the exaggerated differences between religions (which unfortunately get most of the attention).
The proposal outlined in this paper, asking for religiously affiliated people to work together to face the issues of terrorism, violence and injustice, in not meant to diminish the important role that all other human agencies, state sponsored or voluntary organizations, groups and movements, have to play. Rather, this is to uphold the importance of religion in people’s worldview, especially in our historical times when many of the age-old values are crumbling. This makes people insecure, who then turn to familiar heritages that are still preserved in historical and enduring world religious traditions. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have a major share in this, being the faith of half of world’s humanity today.
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