|Return to Table of Contents|
|Sacred Violence and Interreligious Conflict:
The Background of a Tragedy
by Father Leo Lefebure
from Chicago Studies 41/1 (Spring 2002)
The tragic and violent histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam form the backdrop of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Reinhold Niebuhr once warned that we must never forget “the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink particularly when they try to play the role of god to history.” Of all the forms of violence, those inspired by religious convictions are among the most horrendous and frightening. Sacred violence is as old as pre-history and dominates the world’s agenda today. In the wake of the terrible events of September 11, 2001, a number of troubling and puzzling questions present themselves: How could the people who committed such atrocities believe that they were acting in accord with the will of God? How can religious leaders seek a constructive way forward? To address these questions, I will examine the troubled history of relations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which form the context of today’s situation.
The traditional moral principles of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam unite in proclaiming paths of peace and reconciliation and in condemning the terrorist actions that occurred on September 11, 2001. All three traditions agree in abhorring the indiscriminate murder of random persons. Regarding wartime situations, both the rabbinic tradition of post-biblical Judaism and the Christian tradition of just war theory have set forth specific requirements for the declaration of war by responsible parties, and both have long forbidden the mass slaughter of civilians in warfare.
The Muslim tradition also sets strict conditions for legitimate warfare. According to the Qur’an and the early Muslim tradition, wars must be defensive and must be waged only against combatants. The Qur’an orders: “Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first” (2:190). Jihad in Arabic means “striving” or “struggle” or “effort.” The greater jihad is the internal struggle to do God’s will and overcome sin within one’s own heart and to build a just Islamic society through peaceful means. Jihad often includes the struggle for social and economic justice, as well as general cultural activities. An Egyptian Muslim teacher Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996) comments:
Jihad in our times encompasses a whole range of activities including inventiveness, development, and construction on land, in the sea, and in outer space. It implies research in all fields to gain wider and deeper understanding of the world around us and all the phenomena associated with it. (A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an [Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1999], 2:64)
As traditionally understood, the lesser jihad involves defensive wars but not offensive military operations. If non-believers attack Islam, the Qur’an demands that Muslims defend themselves with arms (2:190). After the death of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, established the principles for war in an early speech. He prohibited mutilation and looting and forbade the killing of women, children, and old men; and he ordered that all booty of war be given to the general community. The Qur’an also condemns suicide and threatens it with eternal punishment. According to traditional Muslim belief, the person will be condemned to repeat the suicidal act over and over again without ceasing.
The three traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sometimes called “Children of Abraham,” intertwine in many ways. The later traditions have important internal relations to the earlier ones, as Jewish figures appear in the Christian scriptures, and both Jewish and Christian figures appear in the Qur’an. These religions share many important beliefs and values, but members of each tradition have often vilified those in the other religions. Even though the three traditions agree in principle in rejecting random violence against civilian populations, each of them also has a troubling history of violating this norm; and each at times has regarded violence as a sacred, divinely imposed obligation, a sacred war in which God will intervene decisively on the side of his followers and lead them to triumph. Members of each tradition have engaged in atrocities against others, believing that they were fighting on the side of God and justice.
Each tradition has used another tradition as a scapegoat, viewing it as the source of danger and terror, a threatening foe that must be controlled. One of the most frightening results of violence is that it renders us more alike. As a group fights for its vision of what is right and just, it can easily slide into demonizing the opposing group and soon it justifies any measures necessary to gain an advantage.
Judaism and the Ancient World
The roots of sacred violence reach back to pre-historic times. Ancient cosmologies, such as those of Greece and Babylon, often involve violence, suggesting violence was involved in the very formation of the world we inhabit; violence is in our blood, as it were. Ancient peoples in the Near East often viewed war as having a sacred, heavenly dimension. While human armies were waging war on earth, the gods of the combatants were thought to be fighting in heaven, and a god’s power was demonstrated in the victories of the forces on earth. In Babylon, the gods were understood to pass judgment on opposing nations, and the proof was victory on the battlefield. Any victorious conqueror was seen as the representative of the god Enlil. From primordial times, societies have shaped their own identity by opposing another group and invoking divine aid.
Ancient Israel shared that belief that God was a warrior directly involved in earthly battles. Immediately after the deliverance of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds in Exodus, the Song of the Sea proclaims: “The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea” (Ex 15:3). God’s violence strikes not only the slave-holding Egyptians but also other peoples encountered along the way and those already in the Promised Land.
Christians do not read many of the biblical texts on Holy War in the liturgy today, and recent Christian theologians have often ignored them, but they form part of the Christian Bible and are an important backdrop for the later history of sacred violence in Christian experience. As the Israelites are fleeing Egypt, God promises Moses and the people:
When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hitties, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces. (Ex 23:23-24)
The Book of Deuteronomy tells the Israelites that when they approach towns along the way, they are to offer terms of peace to the inhabitants. If the people accept the peace terms, they are to be reduced to serving Israelites at forced labor; if they refuse, all the adult males are to be killed and the women, children, and animals are to be taken as spoils of war (Deut 20:10-15). When, however, the Israelites reach the lands where they are to dwell, they are to annihilate the inhabitants entirely so that they cannot tempt the Israelites to worship their gods (Deut 20:16-18).
According to the Hebrew Bible, at least some ancient Israelites believed that God demanded the complete or near complete extermination of the enemy tribe. This is sometimes justified because the other peoples worship alien gods and thus do not deserve to live. There are similar commands in the Book of Numbers (chapter 31). Later in the biblical narrative, when the Israelites reach Jericho, Joshua orders that the entire city be devoted to the Lord for destruction, except for Rahab the prostitute and those in her house. All other inhabitants, as well as the oxen, sheep and donkeys are to be killed in the name of God (Joshua 6:21). In the First Book of Samuel, Samuel prophesies in the name of the Lord to Saul: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey’” (1 Samuel 15:2-3).
Historical evidence strongly indicates that such massacres never actually took place; nonetheless, they remained for later generations as powerful examples of divine aid in battle and of a divine demand for widespread slaughter of an enemy. Regarding the divine commands to kill entire tribes in the Hebrew Bible, the later rabbinic tradition of post-biblical Judaism would view the wars of conquest of Canaan as a unique situation that offered no precedent for later wars. Some later Jewish commentators would interpret the struggle against the Amalekites as a symbolic metaphor for fighting genocidal evil.
For centuries, Jews lived in Christian- or Muslim-ruled territories and had little effective political or military power. This situation changed dramatically with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and the question of the rights of the inhabitants of the land reemerged in a new form. Modern Jewish teaching and official Israeli policy prohibits mass slaughter of Palestinians. Nonetheless, the massacre of unarmed Palestinians by Zionist forces at Deir Yessin and other villages in 1948 was a major factor in the foundation of the modern state of Israel and remains a source of tension in the Middle East today.
In the fighting that followed the withdrawal of the British, a band of Jewish fighters captured the village of Deir Yessin> on the outskirts of Jerusalem on April 9, 1948. After the Arab fighters had withdrawn, only women, children, and unarmed older men remained. The Jewish fighters from the Irgun paramilitary group lined up the remaining Arabs, variously numbered from over 250 to 500, and shot them dead. Jews from a nearby village came and tried to stop the slaughter in vain. A young Jewish officer protested in vain. The terror continued, as Arab survivors were loaded onto freight trucks and paraded around parts of Jerusalem> in a type of victory march. Afterward, they were executed. Similar massacres took place at other villages, such as Ad Dawayima, Eilaboun, Jish, Safsaf, Majd al Kurum and others.
Word spread quickly of the massacres, and about 300,000 Palestinians fled their homes in the following weeks. Altogether, about 750,00 would flee in terror. Jewish settlers later moved into many Arab homes and began using the furniture and eating from the abandoned dishes and utensils. Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun paramilitary group, who would later become Prime Minister of Israel, sent a congratulatory note to the soldiers who had done the massacre at Deir Yessin: “Accept congratulations on this splendid act of conquest. Tell the soldiers you have made history in Israel” (quoted in Marc Ellis, Oh Jerusalem! The Contested Future of the Jewish Covenant [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999], 31). In his memoirs, Menachim Begin later wrote that the legend of Deir Yessin was as good as half a dozen battalions.
Martin Buber, the most important Jewish thinker at mid-century, fiercely condemned the attack. Buber wrote repeatedly to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion about the massacre, but Ben-Gurion did not reply. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, Ben-Gurion was at that very time explicitly sanctioning the expulsions of Arabs from Palestine (Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 [Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 113-115).
Israel would proclaim the right of return for Jews throughout the entire world, but for the Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes under the threat of mass murder, there would be no right of return, even though many of them retained the title deeds to land and the keys to their homes. They and their children and grandchildren populate the refugee camps that continue to be part of the problem in the Middle East today. Meanwhile, Jewish immigrants to Palestine moved into the areas abandoned and used everything in them, houses, lands, shops, furniture, all manner of utensils (T. Segev, The Seventh Million, 161-62; quoted in Andrea Dworkin, Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation [New York: Free Press, 2000], 228).
The massacre at Deir Yessin would be rarely mentioned by later Israelis and is little known to many Americans, but to Palestinians and Arabs, it is a powerful marker of the violence at the foundation of the modern state of Israel. To the minds of many Arabs and Muslims, the memory of Deir Yessin marked Israeli Jews as mass murderers who used terror and the threat of terror to drive Palestinians from their homes. Palestinians have repeatedly asked for some acknowledgment of the massacre at Deir Yessin and other places, but in vain. Muslim militants often justify their own terrorist atrocities as defensive responses to Israeli terror.
Are these actions related to the biblical commands? Many of the fighters for Israel’s independence were secular Jews who did not believe in God. Nonetheless, the Bible offered an historical precedent to them. David Ben-Gurion claimed that the Bible was the Jews’ sacrosanct title-deed to Palestine, with a genealogy of 3,500 years (The Rebirth and Destiny of Israel, 100). The biblical commands have played a role in the thinking of some Orthodox Jews.
In 1963, an Israeli socio-psychologist, Georges R. Tamarin, investigated the impact of biblical passages on contemporary attitudes in Israel. He showed school children in Israel aged 8½ to 14 passages from the Book of Joshua about the conquest of the Promised Land and the destruction of its inhabitants, and he asked if they approved. Sixty-six percent, a sizeable majority, approved totally and an additional 8% approved partially. When asked if the Israeli army should follow the commands in the Book of Joshua, 30% agreed totally and 8% partially. Other children were given the same story, but the proper names were changed so that it told of a Chinese war god named Lin who ordered his followers to destroy an enemy tribe. The children overwhelmingly rejected this image of a god and the idea that it should be imitated. When asked the same questions, only 7% approved of the genocide totally and 18% partially, leaving 75% opposed. In the controversy that followed publication of the results, the professor who did the study lost his professorship at Tel Aviv University.
Some rabbis in Israel, as in the extremist movement of Gush Emunim, have sanctioned vigilante violence against Arabs, leading, according to the 1982 Karp report, to “killing, wounding, physical assaults, property damage, and the use of armed and unarmed threats” (Ehud Sprinzak, The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right, 99; quoted by Dworkin, Scapegoat, 301).
Some Israeli Jews have spoken of Eretz Israel, referring to an expanded nation with biblically authorized borders and have insisted on called the Occupied Territories by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria, claiming biblical right to lands confiscated from Palestinians. All this added to the hostility between Israeli Jews and Arabs and, more broadly, the entire Muslim world. Muslims generally perceive the United States as one-sidedly supporting Israel, providing weapons and training to the Israeli soldiers who enforce a brutal and humiliating occupation and who support the continuing confiscation of Palestinian property and land.
Christianity was born in a world filled with violence, and violent apocalyptic imagery shapes much of the New Testament. Even though Jesus himself proclaims a path of peace and nonviolent resistance to evil, the Book of Revelation renews in Christian form the vision of a holy war fought by God and the angels against the forces of evil in the world. At the climax of the battle, the leaders of the evil armies are thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur (Rev 19:20). “All the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21). Like earlier apocalyptic writings, the Book of Revelation promises that a mighty evil empire will be destroyed and justice will at last be established, with Christians exulting triumphantly in heaven.
Conflicts at the beginning of Christianity would bear bitter fruit in later centuries. Some Jews were involved in seeking the death of Jesus, and some Jews persecuted early followers of Jesus, who were themselves also Jews. Stephen was stoned to death and the young Saul sought out followers of Jesus with murderous intent. The New Testament authors tragically prepared the way for centuries of anti-Jewish attitudes and practices by presenting John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ fierce criticisms of Jewish leaders. These criticisms in their original context continue the tradition of self-criticism of the Hebrew prophets, which is one of the great contributions to the world’s religious history. However, later Christians who were not Jews would later interpret the harsh language of John the Baptist and Jesus as indicting all Jews at every time and place. The gospel writers also place special responsibility on the Jewish leaders who are said to have pressured a reluctant Pontius Pilate to have Jesus crucified. Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew presents the crowd in Jerusalem as crying out: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Mt 27:25).
In the first century, the bitter struggle over whether Jesus was Messiah was still an inner-Jewish debate, since most of the first generation of followers of Jesus were Jews. In later centuries, when most Christians were not Jewish, the New Testament’s criticisms were often taken as a wholesale condemnation of all Jews at all times. For centuries Christians blamed each successive generation of Jews for the death of Jesus, and interpreted the voice of the crowd in the Gospel of Matthew as inviting retribution in each generation. Thus Christian Good Friday celebrations often led to attacks on Jewish communities.
St. Augustine influenced later church policy in Europe, declaring that the Jews should be allowed to live, but kept in a state of misery because of their crime of killing Jesus. For centuries, Christian self-understanding was shaped by the use of Jews as scapegoats for various problems and disasters.
Abuse of Jews for killing Christ lasted until within living memory. A friend of mine, an older Jewish rabbi in Chicago, was born in Germany in 1916 and grew up in Munich playing with Christian boys. One day when he was seven years old, all his Christian playmates jumped on him and began beating him up. They had always had the usual childhood struggles, but nothing like this had ever happened before. When they had finished, he dusted himself off and asked them why they had done that. They told him they had just come from catechism class and had learned that he had killed Christ. He did not remember doing any such thing and went home to his father, who tried to explain the situation to him. Far worse atrocities happened over and over again in Jewish-Christian history, as Good Friday celebrations frequently led to attacks on Jewish ghettoes.
In Christian history the idea of a holy war and of a right to conquer and colonize other peoples would have a long and horrifying history. In the early third century the great theologian Origen interpreted the conquest narratives in the Hebrew Bible as commanding an allegorical struggle against sin in one’s own soul; he thought it would be horrendous to take such passages literally. Not all later Christians agreed. In 1095 at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called Christian Europe to arms against the Muslims who held the holy places in Jerusalem. Seljuk Turks had taken possession of the Holy Land in the 11th century and had begun to torture Christian pilgrims for entertainment. In response, the pope invoked the language of holy war and described the Muslims as “more execrable than the Jebusites” (Edward Peters, The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971], 9), invoking the ancient image of the foes of Israel who were to be exterminated.
As the armies formed wearing the sign of the cross, some Crusaders struck first at defenseless Jews, especially those living in France and the Rhineland. Estimates are that 10,000 were killed. Even though church leaders protested against it, violence against Jews was a recurrent feature of the Crusades.
The sack of Jerusalem by Christian Crusaders on July 15, 1099 was merciless and bloodthirsty. Crusaders fighting in the name of Christ and wearing his cross as their emblem breached the walls of Jerusalem about 3:00 p.m., the very hour when Christ had died. After routing the Muslim defenders, they engaged in a general massacre of the Muslim and Jewish populations and confiscated their property. According to Crusader historians, 70,000 people were slaughtered in one part of Jerusalem, and 10,000 in another (F.E. Peters, Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginnings of Modern Times [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985], 284-85). The survivors were put to work hauling away the bodies. When the Crusaders had finished their bloody business, they washed themselves off and sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving to a merciful God.
One Christian eyewitness commented:
So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood (Peters, 285-86).
People reported that they could still smell the stench of the dead six months later at Christmas. This event is still remembered in the Muslim world as a horrendous atrocity, and is in the minds of militant Muslim extremists today. Crusaders who died in battle were promised a plenary indulgence and died in the hope of immediate entrance into heaven.
The memory of the Crusades is often more vivid in the minds of Muslims than of Christians, and some Muslims see the Crusades as continuing today in a different form. Shaikh Muhammad al Ghazali comments: “This [the peaceful conversion of Christians to Islam] was brought to a halt by the vicious and relentless Crusades waged against the Muslims. They started over one thousand years ago, and do not seem to have come to an end yet” (Thematic Commentary 1:105). This image remains vividly imprinted on the minds of many Muslim as the great symbol of Christian mass murder.
The traditional anti-Judaism of Christians poisoned the atmosphere in Europe centuries before the rise of Adolph Hitler. While Christians had never called for the complete destruction of Jews, centuries of abuse and discrimination had rendered the Jews an easy candidate for the Nazis’ new and more vicious form of scapegoating. Christians also traditionally demonized Muhammad, depicting him in the vilest fashion as licentious and ambitious, an inventor of pseudo-revelations to support his own lusts, and a pork-eater who broke the rules of Islam in his own conduct. Centuries of Christian abuse of both Jews and Muslims shapes the situation in the Middle East down to the present day. To militant Muslims today, the United States is the heir to the Crusaders.
The rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E. changed the course of world history, posing new challenges for Jews and Christians alike. According to the Muslim tradition, Muhammad received a divine command to fight against his enemies in Medina at time when he and his followers were weak and threatened by powerful opponents. After the hijra (migration) to Medina in 622, Muhammad ordered raids against caravans from Mecca, with varying degrees of success; but when things looked particularly bleak, he won the decisive battle at Badr in 624, and was able to return to Medina in triumph. Muslims view his early victories as the result of direct interventions by God. He eventually was able to return to Mecca and reign in peace at the end of his life.
Muslims understand the Qur’an to come directly from God and to demand total obedience from all humans. Islamic law, Sharia, is based on the Qur’an, together with the reports (hadith) of the teachings and decisions of the prophet Muhammad (the Sunnah, the well-trodden path), and, in cases not covered directly by the above, on analogies (qiyas) to explicit teachings. For Sunni Muslims, the fourth source of Sharia is the consensus (ijma) of the community of scholars of law.
It was the responsibility of the Islamic government to enforce Sharia as the expression of the revealed will of God. In principle, early Muslims believed the Islamic state was supposed to extend to the entire world so that the will of God would be acknowledged everywhere. Any non-Islamic form of rule was an affront to God’s sovereignty. Islam understood itself to be at war with idolatry, which constituted blasphemy. Thus early Islam divided the world into two regions, distinguishing the dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam, from the dar al-Harb, the realm of war. The latter included all states and communities outside the Muslim world.
Muhammad understood himself to have a divine mandate to fight against polytheism (shirk). Since the divine mandate is to spread Islam throughout the entire world, the dar al-Islam was, at least in theory for early Muslims, always at war with the dar al-Harb, and this struggle was one meaning of the word jihad. Sometimes this involved large-scale military operations, like the invasions of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, North Africa, Spain and France, India, and the repeated attempts to take Constantinople.
Shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632, Muslim armies raced through lands held by the Sassanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, sweeping through Palestine and North Africa and entering Spain in the early 7th century and reaching into France in the early 8th century. Like the ancient Israelite narratives of the conquest of Canaan and like medieval Christians, early Muslims understood their rapid victories as a palpable sign of God’s favor. The power of God was manifest on the battlefield. Jihad in the military sense did not always mean large-scale conflicts. Sometimes jihad consisted of small-scale plundering raids that brought no permanent results. Often, there was peace on the borders of the Muslim world.
Jews and Christians constituted a special case as people of the Book. When they lived in the dar al-Islam, they and their religious observances were protected by the Qur’an itself, but they were to live in a subordinate status and pay a poll tax (the jizya). As a matter of principle, Muslims did not force Jews or Christians to convert through violent means. This protection was also extended to Zoroastrians and sometimes to Hindus in India. From the 7th century until the 17th century, Muslim armies repeatedly threatened to conquer Europe.
Islam and Modernity
Since the late 18th century, Islam has been divided into three strands that cut across the traditional divisions between Sunni and Shiite. There is tremendous variety in each of these strands of Islam. Moreover, it is important to remember that there is tremendous diversity in the Muslim world.
Customary or traditional Islam includes the variety of forms in which Islam has been practiced across a huge area from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond. Islam was very flexible when it came into new regions, and there are a wide array of customary practices that have long been accepted but that appear to conflict with strict Muslim Sharia, such as telling the stories of Hindu gods in Indonesia, venerating sacred stoners in southeast Asia, and honoring the tombs of holy men in North Africa.
One important movement since the late 18th century has been liberal or modernist Islam. This movement stressed the importance of ijtihad, or creative interpretation, against the rule of taqlid, the repetition of traditional teachings. Representatives of liberal Islam have often been critical of traditional Islam and have sought to reshape the tradition. They have been in dialogue with modern European thought and have argued for democracy and human rights and the equality of women on Muslim grounds.
This movement uses a variety of interpretative strategies to harmonize their teachings with the Qur’an, ranging from the claim that the Qur’an directly supports the liberals’ positions to the argument that the silence of the Qur’an on many issues (such as the proper form of government) allows for creative innovation and experiment. Some liberals argue that some Qur’anic teachings were originally intended for the specific context of 7th-century Arabia, but they are not timeless principles for all cultures and centuries. Modernist Muslims believe in social evolution, and favor the transformation of Islamic practice by critically accepting certain ideas from the West and rejecting practices such as polygamy and male domination of women.
A third strand of Islam since the 18th century fiercely criticizes traditional or customary Islam for deviations from pure practice and belief and seeks to purify Muslim societies of later corruptions. This movement is variously called Islamism, fundamentalist Islam, revivalist Islam, or restorationist Islam. No term is perfectly adequate. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in 18th century Arabia, is one of the most important leaders, and one branch of revivalist Islam is called Wahhabism. This is the form of Islam that is officially practiced in Saudi Arabia today.
This movement was strongly influenced by historical events. In 1798 Napoleon landed with an army in Egypt and defeated the Ottoman army near the pyramids. The event was symbolic that the tide of military technology had turned decisively in the 18th century; and from 1800 on, the Muslim world would be increasingly inferior in technology and military prowess to the European powers. This change in the balance of military power is one major factor in the growth of militant Muslim movements. For revivalist Muslims, the reason for the decline of Islam’s power is the weakening of Muslim faith and practice, and the cure is a strict enforcement of Sharia.
It is important to note that not all revivalist Muslims seek violent conflict with the West. The Saudi government, which practices Wahhabism, is an ally of the United States. Revivalist Muslims generally reject the ideas of social evolution and modernist interpretations of Islam. They generally see the Christian West as a corrupt, decadent society driven by greed and power, exploitative and predatory. The United States often, though not always, appears as the heir of the British and the French and the medieval Crusaders. To the revivalist world, the greatest threat from the West today is popular culture, which undermines traditional Islamic values in a swirl of hedonistic capitalism and moral relativism. Revivalist Muslims demand the strict enforcement of Sharia, the traditional code of Islamic law, but they disagree among themselves on what this means in practice.
Militant Revivalist Islam
There are many varieties of revivalist Islam; in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 I will focus on the more militant factions. For many, their struggle is not defined solely by the state of Israel or the United States but involves the broader goal of establishing a worldwide Islamic caliphate, beginning with Muslim nations. Revivalist Muslims often see Islam in a defensive posture against an international conspiracy to destroy them, led by the United States and represented on traditionally Muslim soil by Israel. They see the proper answer to the present crisis as a return to strict practice of Islam. Revivalist Muslims are confident in the finality of Islam and in its ultimate victory through the power of God.
Their view of the world is shaped by 19th- and 20th-century history. In the 19th-century Western powers encroached more and more on Islamic countries and usually looked down on other cultures as inferior to Europe. In the wake of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed a secular republic in Turkey, dissolving the caliphate in 1924. Meanwhile, Great Britain and France moved into areas formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. To many Arabs, it seemed like the return of the Crusaders, and there were violent protests and strikes.
Some believed that there was a vast Western conspiracy against Islam. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the caliphate was the first stage. The repeal of Sharia by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and by Reza Shah in Iran further undermined traditional Islam. Both rulers ordered their people to wear Western dress and abolished the women’s veils. The foundation of the modern state of Israel was still another major blow. In response, militant Muslim clerics began calling for a jihad against the corrupt and satanic West, the heir to the massacring Crusaders and the supporter of the murderous Israeli fighters.
After World War II, an Egyptian militant, Hassan al-Banna, head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (one of the most prominent fundamentalist currents in Sunni Islam), led a campaign of terror against the secular government of Egypt for being “anti-Islamic.” Their activities became a model for other Muslim militants. They sought to mobilize the population against the government. They bombed cinemas, set hotels on fire, attacked unveiled women, and raided homes. Pro-Western officials in government were murdered. Young militants from all over the Muslim world came to learn from al-Banna. He was gunned down on the street in Cairo on February 12, 1949, and his movement was shattered, but his example lived on as a model for others. It is noteworthy that the first organized campaign of terrorism was not against Israel or the U.S. but against the secular government of a Muslim nation.
One of the most influential twentieth-century revivalist Muslims, Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, charged that all Muslim countries in the mid-20th century were in a state of jahiliyya, ignorance and infidelity, like the pre-Islamic era, because they did not implement God’s program for society. He proposed a vision of social justice and equality based on Islamic sources, and he called for the overthrow of all existing governments in Muslim countries because they were not faithful to Islam. He came to the United States in 1948 to study our educational system, and he was horrified at the laxity of morals at that time, at the separation of church and state, the equality of women, the freedom of expression, the criticism of religion, and the indulgence in worldly pleasures. He traveled to the South of the U.S. and was shocked by the systematic racial discrimination. He excoriated the West for being depraved and dissolute. He called permissiveness “that animal freedom” and termed women’s liberation “that slave market” (Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, eds., Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought, 17). Thirty years before Ayatollah Khomeini came to international attention, Qutb demonized the United States as the Great Satan. He predicted that just as Roman decadence brought down the Roman Empire, so American decadence would have the same effect.
Qutb rejected the interpretation of jihad as only defensive warfare, claiming that Islam must fight to destroy all the Satanic forces in the world: “It either completely dynamites the reigning political systems or, subjugating them, forces them into submission to acceptance of Jizyah [the poll tax]” (226).
Because Qutb declared the Egyptian government illegitimate and called for its overthrow, Egypt’s ruler Nasser imprisoned him in 1965, where he was tortured and eventually hanged in 1966. He is still widely honored as a martyr.
After the Israeli victory in the 1967 war, militant Islam spread more rapidly, and there developed more and more an inner war within Islam itself between Modernist and Revivalist Muslims. Revivalist Muslims blamed the Arab defeat on lack of fidelity to Sharia and became more hostile to Modernists. Since the 1970s, there has been growing conflict between the revivalist and modernist movements in Islam. The Islamic revolution in Iran led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 added momentum to the revivalist drive to establish Islamic governments. The struggle of militant Muslims is not only against the U.S. or Israel. A large number of liberal Muslim intellectuals have been assassinated, and many others have been threatened or attacked or forced out of positions.
If this sorry, long history of violence and disrespect toward members of other religious traditions were the final word, there would be little hope for future interreligious relations. Fortunately, this is not all there is in these traditions. Each tradition possesses the resources to condemn violence, and each tradition faces the challenge of engaging in a critical reflection on its own history.
On September 14, 2001, three days after the attacks, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and leaders of several Muslim organizations in the United States issued a joint statement condemning the attacks and noting the regular dialogues in which Muslims and Catholics participate as friends and partners. The leaders asserted:
We believe that the one God calls us to be peoples of peace. Nothing in our Holy Scriptures, nothing that is Christian or Islamic justifies the terrorist acts and disruption of millions of lives which we have witnessed this week. Together we condemn those actions as evil and diametrically opposed to true religion. (Origins 31/16[Sept. 27, 2001]:276)
Followers of Jesus read the history of the Christian tradition critically in light of the teaching of Jesus himself. It is clear that his teaching condemns the horrendous violence so often done in his name and challenges his disciples to fashion other ways of relating to members of other traditions. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear that Jesus called his followers to view all people, in particular members of a different religious and ethnic tradition who were commonly despised at the time, as their neighbors. To love our neighbor requires that we know our neighbor. If our neighbor practices a different religion than our own, the command to love our neighbor includes the responsibility of getting to know our neighbor’s religious practices.
Muslims and Christians in 8th-century Baghdad created a community of learning in which they could share their knowledge. Jews, Muslims, and Christians in early medieval Spain engaged in conversations that would shape the cultural and intellectual history of Europe. In the fifteenth century, at the very time when Pope Nicholas V was declaring yet another Crusade on Muslims after the Fall of Constantinople, John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa argued that warfare was not appropriate for followers of Christ and called for a new form of dialogue with Muslims called contraferentia (conference or dialogue) based upon principles of peace and mutual respect.
In 1986 Pope John Paul II invited religious leaders from all the world’s traditions to come to Assisi and pray for world peace. Representatives of a wide array of religious traditions attended—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, traditional African religious leaders, animists, and Shintoists all participated. As the Pope entered the gathering, he spoke of the need for Christians to remember past crimes towards members of other traditions and to ask God’s forgiveness and seek understanding and reconciliation. No such gathering had ever taken place on this scale before in the history of the world.
It is significant that the pope did not invite the religious leaders to Rome but to Assisi, the town of St. Francis, a figure who reaches out across religious boundaries and touches the hearts of many from a wide variety of traditions. In particular, Francis has a special significance for Muslim-Christian relations. At a time when Christian Crusaders and Muslim warriors were fiercely battling each other, Francis sought the path of dialogue, and journeyed to Egypt to meet with the sultan and explain the message of peace of Jesus to him. The sultan welcomed him and listened to Francis with respect. While the sultan did not convert to Christianity, he appreciated the courage of Francis and sent him home with honors. In a world troubled by violence, the example of Francis, together with the peaceful encounters of so many other members of diverse traditions, stands as an inspiration for the way forward.
by Father Leo D. Lefebure
Chicago Studies 41/1 (spring 2002), © Civitas Dei Foundation 2002, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.