Religious fanaticism is perverse, a sinister mutation from, already unhealthy, religious fundamentalism.
Right now the cutthroat Islamic State is foremost in the news. A few centuries ago, Christian fanaticism in the Crusades would have made the headlines and evening news. They were equally brutal, barbaric, and certainly not very Jesus-like as they raped and killed Muslims and Jews to rescue the Holy Land from the “infidels.”
In the “Peoples Crusade” an army of around 10,000 men, women and children set off in the early summer of 1096 for the Rhine valley. The fired-up crusaders massacred thousands of Jews in the German cities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, all in God’s holy cause. When the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they killed Muslims, Jews, and even native Christians who threatened their control of the Holy Places. Another rage of Christian fanaticism came a few centuries later with the Spanish Inquisition.
After Osama bin Laden’s fatwa in 1998, the world started looking at Muslim fundamentalism and radical “jihad.” Bin Laden’s fundamentalist concept, however, was far different from the actual meaning of the term. (Fundamentalists in all religions adapt — and even fabricate — parts of their traditions to fit their immediate goals and ideologies.) Within an authentic understanding of Islam, “jihad” means struggling for a certain and generally positive spiritual objective. In the Qur’an “jihad” does not endorse acts of military aggression.
I often remind people, in my lectures about fundamentalism (and I have another big one in November), that Muslims once led the world in science, mathematics, literature, and philosophy. Most of my listeners, however, remain incredulous, because the media have done a good job of programming people to see Islam as sinister and destructive; and of course because Muslim fundamentalists and fanatics have excelled in terrorism and violence, tarnishing the image of Islam, and making Muslims, in general, despicable in the eyes of other communities.
Yes… I think one can really say that the biggest threat to peace and security facing the world today is the rise of religious fanaticism and extremism among some people who claim to be Muslims. To be sure, fanaticism is not confined to Muslims alone, but is found to exist in other religious groups, too. But what we are currently finding among Muslims looks much worse in magnitude.
So what should we do? What can we do? We can bomb and kill the fanatics. History, however, is quite clear that killing fanatics guarantees a new group of fanatics and turns the fanatic-killers into fanatics as well; and every bomb on a fanatic fundamentalist stronghold is a boomerang.
On August 27th, fifty-three Catholic and Protestant leaders sent a letter to President Barack Obama, to halt American airstrikes and pursue peaceful means to resolve the conflict. (See: http://ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/religious-leaders-encourage-obama-move-beyond-war-iraq-syria ) They suggest an eight-point program:
(1) Stop U.S. bombing in Iraq to prevent bloodshed, instability and the accumulation of grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State’s existence among its supporters.
(2) Provide robust humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence. Provide food and much needed supplies in coordination with the United Nations.
(3) Engage with the UN, all Iraqi political and religious leaders, and others in the international community on diplomatic efforts for a lasting political solution for Iraq; and work for a political settlement to the crisis in Syria.
(4) Support community-based nonviolent resistance strategies to transform the conflict and meet the deeper need and grievances of all parties.
(5) Strengthen financial sanctions against armed actors in the region by working through the UN Security Council. For example, disrupting the Islamic State’s $3 million/day oil revenue from the underground market would go a long way toward blunting violence.
(6) Bring in and significantly invest in professionally trained unarmed civilian protection organizations to assist and offer some buffer for displaced persons and refugees, both for this conflict in collaboration with Iraqi’s and for future conflicts.
(7) Call for and uphold an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. U.S. arms and military assistance to the government forces and ethnic militias in Iraq, in addition to arming Syrian rebel groups, have only fueled the carnage, in part due to weapons intended for one group being taken and used by others.
(8) Support Iraqi civil society efforts to build peace, reconciliation, and accountability at the community level.
I would add that we all – Christians and Muslims and Jews — need to engage in local and broad-based educational programs that: (a) inform about authentic religious beliefs and traditions in all three Abrahamic religions; and (b) inform parishes, Mosque, and synagogue communities about the nature of religious fundamentalism and how to defuse it by practicing healthy religion.
Inter-religious dialogue is not just a polite and appropriate exercise. It is essential for our global life and security.