Combating Religious Extremism
By Philip Jenks
Some problems are so big nothing can be done.
So it is with the scourge of religious extremists who populate sinister organizations with which the United States is at war: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and a host of collateral groups with common goals. And while they directly threaten few in the U.S., it is chilling to know one of their goals is to kill Americans.
The so-called war on terrorism is more than 13 years old, but the threats continue unabated. Horrible images appear on our HDTV screens with nauseating clarity. Masked terrorists coolly decapitate innocent captives whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Boko Haram extremists kidnap schoolgirls to use as pawns in their fight against a corrupt and ineffectual Nigerian government. In Paris, Islamist gunmen seeking to avenge slurs against the Prophet slaughter writers and cartoonists. A triple suicide bombing in Iraq mutilates and kills 58 civilians.
Who are these people? Why do they hate us so much? And what are we going to do about it?
The answers to these questions are elusive for several reasons. One is that most westerners have scant understanding who these radical extremists are, and — if they are Muslim as they claim — why they appear to have lost touch with the basic truths of Islam.
Virtually all radical extremists would identify themselves as strictly adherent Muslims.
Yet most observers — including most of the world’s 20.8 billion Muslims — see little connection between the extremists and the teachings of Mohammed. “Show mercy to those on earth so that He who is in heaven will have mercy on you,” the Prophet said. (Sunan At-Tirmidhî) “Whoever is deprived of gentleness is deprived of all good.” (Sahîh Muslim)
Mohammed also offered advice that would benefit all persons of faith. “The religion (of Islam) is easy,” he said. “No one ever made it difficult without it becoming too much for him. So avoid extremes and strike a balance, do the best you can and be cheerful, and seek Allah’s help (through prayer) in the morning, and evening, and part of the night.” (Sahîh Bukhârî)
Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris, Muslims around the world rose up in protest against bloody acts by extremists that do more harm to Muslims than their intended targets. Arab Journalist Abdul Rahman al-Rashad, quoted by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times, called upon Muslims to go even further to repudiate extremism.
“The story of extremism begins in Muslim societies,” wrote al-Rashad, “ and it is with their support and silence that extremism has grown into terrorism that is harming people. It is of no value that the French people, who are the victims here, take to the streets. … What is required here is for Muslim communities to disown the Paris crime and Islamic extremism in general.”
Even so, if the words of the Prophet himself are insufficient to nudge violent extremists toward God’s truth, how are the rest of us to understand what motivates them? And, short of confronting them with superior military strength, is there anything that can be done to stop them?
These questions are heatedly discussed in Christian and Jewish circles. Christians in particular, who follow the paradigms of the Prince of Peace, claim a vast gulf between their own idealistic faith and the wild-eyed perpetrators of cruel violence.
But perhaps the gulf is not as wide as it appears, and perhaps violent extremism is not so much an aberration as a dormant impulse in the unconscious minds of persons of faith. Of course we recoil at the carnage brought about by fundamentalist extremists. But our horror may be a reaction to genetic memories of our own Christian barbarism that took place not so long ago.
It is appalling indeed to be reminded that similar brutal acts — and worse — have played a pivotal role in Christianity’s own dark history. Our past is sated with live burnings, disembowelments, and the drawing and quartering of human bodies, all theologically designed to give heretics a suitable send-off to eternal damnation. An Internet search of torture implements of the Inquisition makes simple decapitation seem humane by comparison.
At the root of all these tortures is the conviction of some religious people that their faith is correct and those who have a different faith ought not be allowed to live. And despite relatively rare examples of saints whose lives were loving and kind, the main story of Christianity since the third century has been one of murderous crusades, anti-Semitic pogroms, religious wars, and the sadistic torture of perceived heretics.
One of the more telling examples of misdirected sanctimony took place in Holland in 1569. A Mennonite preacher named Dirk Willems was so sure he was acting Christ-like by rejecting the state church that he refused to back down when his Dutch Lutheran neighbors jailed him for heresy. When Willems escaped from jail, his Lutheran neighbors, in order to be Christ-like, hotly pursued him. In the heat of the chase across a frozen pond, one Lutheran fell through thin ice and was about to drown. Willems, being Christ-like, stopped running and pulled the man to safety. The Lutheran, being Christ-like, arrested Willems immediately — and burned him at the stake.
It’s small wonder that oppressed religious minorities hopped on the first Mayflower to the new world, where freedom from persecution seemed assured. But freedom didn’t come immediately. The Puritans — one of whom was Oliver Cromwell, infamous for his genocidal murders of Catholics in Ireland — sought religious liberty for themselves but denied it to others. In 1651, the Puritan establishment in Boston arrested and whipped the flesh off the back of Baptist Obadiah Holmes because he held an unauthorized worship service in Lynn, Massachusetts.
Today, of course, Christians are more ecumenical, and in 2015 we are pained to remember how our ancestors deviated from the path of the Prince of Peace. Not that we have changed that much. “I like your Christ,” said the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi. “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Gandhi knew Christians didn’t burn each other at the stake any more, but neither were they entirely free of the primordial drive that made them do it in the first place. It is, after all, a distorted application of Christian views that inspired the beating, rape, and lynching of African Americans, the bombing of churches and public buildings, the murder and beating of LGBT persons, and more.
Religion is a nasty business. And as we seek to understand what motivates extremists, we can get some insight by peering into a mirror darkly. We are humans, and we share ontological weaknesses. Our innate human ability to hate aggressively is at the heart of the human soul. Why do extremists hate us so much? Because they can.
Even so, extremists don’t hate us just because they don’t like our looks or the cut of our credos. We have given them ample reason to mistrust and despise us.
Meetings between U.S. religious leaders and Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in January and February 2007 revealed remarkably different views about the two countries.
The Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, then associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), was part of a 13-member delegation in Iran representing the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Baptist and United Methodist churches. They spent six days talking with Iranian religious leaders, government officials and general citizens.
Premawardhana said the group reminded Iranian leaders of the simmering U.S resentment over Iran’s capture of 52 U.S. hostages for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981. The brazen act sanctioned by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini continues to enrage Americans.
But the Iranian narrative is quite different, Premawardhana pointed out. For them, the enduring image of the U.S. is the bully that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and replaced him with the hated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was regarded as a tyrant.
The Iranian story is one of many outrages and indignations suffered by Muslim caliphates and governments at the hands of European powers, ranging from the bloody medieval crusades to remove Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land to the systematic seizing of land and redrawing of traditional national boundaries by imperialistic European oppressors. U.S. and European citizens who wonder why they are hated scantly notice this history, but Muslim children are thoroughly immersed in the tradition.
Today, a new narrative has formed. U.S. drones and aircraft that target suspected extremist leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen are also killing uncounted numbers of civilians, including children and first responders. In addition, scores of suspected terrorists have been held for years in Guantanamo and other prison facilities without charges and, in many cases, without convincing evidence. For a generation of Muslims who played no role in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it may be regarded as heroic to support extremists or join their ranks.
So what are people of faith going to do about this inextricable mess? How are we going to stop the killing, the drones, the suicide bombings, the terror?
It’s tempting to suggest that religious leaders already have the answers in their own traditions. Mohammed and Hillel both spoke out against violence and hatred, and the loving words of Jesus have been amplified by a panoply of saints: Teresa, Ignatius, Francis, Romero, and more. Few have been listening to them so far, and there is no good reason to believe their words will have an impact now.
On the other hand, it beggars belief that the three Abrahamic faiths that changed the world no longer hear God’s true voice, or embrace their power to speak God’s truth to one another.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashad is partly right. His call for Muslim communities to rise up and repudiate terrorism and extremism is important.
But equally important is for Muslims and members of all faiths, especially the Abrahamic trio, to rise up and renew the message of love that emanates from the God they all worship. The young terrorists who believed virgins in heaven would reward their martyrdom somehow missed the cautionary words of the Prophet himself: “You will not enter paradise until you have faith. And you will not complete your faith until you love one another.”
For U.S. leaders, most of whom reside in the Abrahamic tradition, an important next step would be to acknowledge errors in foreign policy that enraged Muslims and pushed them to the brink of murderous extremism.
No one, of course, expects that to happen, and I can’t imagine any U.S. president admitting that launching CIA-led coups, propping up brutal regimes, or launching deadly drones were errors.
So if truth is to be told, it falls to religious leaders to tell it. Alas, as any priest, minister, rabbi or imam will tell you, speaking God’s truth in any house of worship can be politically hazardous.
But the truth that must be told, as hazardous as it may be.
The late Bob Edgar, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches and president of Common Cause, never hesitated to speak truth to power. “A central tenet of the Christian faith is that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is God, and that in the Bible he speaks for God,” Edgar wrote in 2006.
“There are ‘red-letter’ editions of the Bible with the words of Jesus printed in red,” Edgar said. “In one of those red letter paragraphs Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …’” (Matthew 5:44).
“A lot of people stop at that verse,” Edgar said. “But right after that, Jesus continues ‘ … so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’” (Matthew 5:45).
“God takes no side in war,” Edgar concluded. “Do not let anyone tell you differently.”
That’s an inexplicable reality for Americans who felt the sting of 9/11 and cry out for vengeance against radical extremists who killed thousands of innocent people.
But it is also unfathomable to extremists as well as innocent Muslims who live in the path of U.S. drones and bombs that God does not endorse violent retribution against their murderers.
The difficult truth is that God’s love extends to both sides. And accepting that truth may be close to humanly impossible.
But it is a truth declared by Jesus, Mohammed, and volumes of Holy Scripture from many traditions.
And it is a truth all participants in the “War on Terror” will have to embrace if there is any hope of bringing it to a close.