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Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech

by Michael Lame, posted January 6, 2011

Seventy years ago today, on January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address to Congress, which became famous as the Four Freedoms speech:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.”

With regards to these first two enumerated freedoms, FDR expresses his vision for the entire world in a uniquely American way, echoing the language and the principles of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

These two freedoms of speech and religion are closely related. People naturally talk about what they believe in and care about, as well as what they disbelieve and oppose. If one is free to practice one’s religion openly, then one might talk about it publicly, engage in religious disputation, even proselytize. There can be no freedom of positive speech without the freedom of negative, even derogatory speech.

Free speech, then, includes the freedom to publicly proclaim that Judaism is a gutter religion, that Jesus was not the son of God, that Muhammad was a false prophet, or that there is no God at all. Any government worth its salt, anywhere in the world, should stand up for that principle of freedom of speech, even in a country – perhaps especially in a country – which privileges one religion over others.

Compare that idea with the language of the Pakistan Penal Code –

295-C. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

The contrast between the First Amendment and 295-C is stark. Many commentators have pointed out that Pakistan has not actually executed anyone under this statute. On the other hand, “According to official figures, 131 people are being held in jails across Punjab on blasphemy charges. Eleven of them have been sentenced to death, including Asia Bibi, who was the first woman to be given the penalty…35 people, including Taseer, who were accused of committing blasphemy or defending those charged with blasphemy have been killed between 1990 and 2011. They were either victims of extra-judicial killings or found dead in prison in suspicious circumstances.”

Salman Taseer, referred to in the above article, was the governor of Punjab province until assassinated earlier this week for opposing the blasphemy law and championing the cause of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who worked in the fields with other women. Mrs. Bibi claimed she fetched drinking water for the group but some of the Muslim women refused to drink from the bucket she had touched, claiming it was now “unclean”. Words were exchanged about Christians and Muslims, and a few days later the women claimed she had blasphemed against Muhammad.

A couple months ago a Pakistani Christian told me that his community lives under the constant threat of accusations of blasphemy. He said that once an accusation is made, even if it is baseless and before it ever comes to court, it can result in a mob of people surrounding a house, burning it down and attacking its owners.

The 295-C death sentence for a Christian woman and the repeated deadly attacks on Christians, Ahmadis, Shia, and even Sunnis in their churches and mosques in Pakistan in recent years should be cause for concern among peoples and nations around the world. I expect the United State to be the world’s foremost champion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but in this naïve expectation I am often disappointed.

Jackson Diehl wrote in the Washington Post this week of the Obama administration’s “notoriously weak defense of human rights around the world.”

As if to underline Diehl’s point, the next day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the following statement in the wake of Taseer’s murder:

We strongly condemn the assassination today in Pakistan of Punjab Provincial Governor Salmaan Taseer. I had the opportunity to meet Governor Taseer in Pakistan and I admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan’s future generations. His death is a great loss. Our deepest sympathies are with Governor Taseer’s wife and children.

The United States remains committed to helping the government and people of Pakistan as they persevere in their campaign to bring peace and stability to their country.”

That’s it. That’s all she wrote. Why issue such a tepid response? Perhaps from concern about making a bad situation worse, which is often the reason given for not speaking out powerfully about that which is deserving of moral outrage. The words “strongly condemn” are not actually the words of a strong condemnation. But a full-throated blast at the increasing violence and religious intolerance of Pakistani society would raise issues that this administration might prefer to defer.

America’s relationship with Pakistan is complex and the stakes are extraordinarily high. Pakistan’s partnership is essential to military success in Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s political system seems increasingly fragile. The possibility of a failed state with nuclear weapons must keep American policy planners up late at night. The stress of dealing with such momentous issues may have been a factor in the fatal heart attack of Richard Holbrooke.

The U.S. provides Pakistan with billions of dollars in military and civilian aid, partly in the hope of gaining whole-hearted support from the Pakistani military and intelligence communities in the fight along the Afghan border and inside Pakistan against Taliban and al-Qaeda.

For Secretary Clinton, these geostrategic issues and the lives of over 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan no doubt outweigh the human rights violations which occur with a high degree of public support in the land of our sometimes-ally Pakistan. But we ignore the attacks on freedom at our peril.

Columnist Irfan Husain, writing this week in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, notes that attacks by local Muslims on local Christians are increasing in other countries as well – Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq are named – and the number of Christians leaving these countries is growing. He asks the awful question about attacks within the borders of such countries, “When did it become acceptable for Muslims to kill Christians?”

One approach that might seem like common sense is to have everyone shut up about their religious beliefs and deal with them as privately as possible, at least in countries where religious minorities do not enjoy the protection of law and law enforcement. But this approach is fundamentally flawed.

There is a real divide in the world on this matter, but not a divide between all Muslims and all Christians or between all religious conservatives (or fundamentalists) and all religious liberals (or moderates) – the terms don’t really fit. The divide is between those who would act to suppress or eliminate their religious opponents and those who are willing to live in the same society – perhaps not on the same block but in the same country – with those who do not share their faith.

The word “freedom” should not be partisan, belonging to one political party or another. The freedoms of religion and speech that Roosevelt held up as universal ideals seventy years ago are under attack again. The State of the Union address which President Obama will deliver later this month provides an excellent opportunity for him to reassert the centrality of those freedoms to America’s vision for the world’s future.

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New York City Mosque: Part III, Religion

by Michael Lame, posted on August 30, 2010

The Cordoba Initiative, the organization which first promoted the controversial Park51 project, works to “cultivate multi-cultural and multi-faith understanding” and “to strengthen the bridge between Islam and the West.” But how is Islam to be understood?

One of the conceptual fixtures of the modern world is the yoking together of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as “The Three Great Monotheistic Religions.” In a global environment which prizes the search for unity, commonality and consensus above all other values, this idea is an easy sell. Too bad it’s not true. Whatever the Big Three are, they are not three of a kind. Managing 21st century international relations would be so much simpler if being a Muslim meant the same sort of thing as being a Christian which meant the same sort of thing as being a Jew. But they are not the same sort of thing, and the assumption that they are makes us stupid.

Based largely on the national experience of Protestantism and Catholicism, it is assumed that Americans know what a religion is. Islam, pigeon-holed as another religion, must be analogous to Christianity. On the other hand, Islam is more similar to Judaism in that it traditionally encompasses an entire way of life: religious tenets, dietary rules, ethical principles, familial requirements, communal activities, community loyalty, political traditions, cultural values, and more. Islam certainly includes religious beliefs and practices but is far broader than what Americans think of as religion.

A good example of the perpetuation of this misconception of Islam as only a religion is found in a recent piece by Jocelyne Cesari, a French political scientist and currently director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard. She asks what she considers to be a provocative question: “Why is Islam no longer considered a religion?” A more useful question might be: “Is Islam best understood as a religion, in the same way that we understand Christianity as a religion?”

By reducing Islam to a religion we limit how we look at it and how we conduct public discourse about it. To call it a political ideology is likewise misleading. But in America, where most people believe in the separation of religion from politics, a thing must be one or the other. So which is it? Is Islam a religion or a political system? One only has to look back to the earliest days of Islam to see that Muhammad served as a prayer leader, a religious teacher, a moral exemplar, a general, a lawgiver, a community organizer, and a political decision-maker – all rolled into one. Islam was a unified whole, not just religion, not just politics, not just a moral system.

Much of the current debate about the proposed new Islamic center and mosque in lower Manhattan is misguided precisely because pundits and politicians categorize Islam as a religion. Then they weigh in on issues of religious freedom, which are largely irrelevant to the question of whether placing the building at 51 Park Place is a good idea or not. The constitutional right to build a mosque on that site is not in dispute.

Thomas Jefferson, the father of American religious freedom, wrote that “Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God.” But this description certainly does not fit either Islam or Judaism, both of which heavily emphasize the temporal and communal as well as the transcendental dimensions of life. Despite the shortcomings inherent in his vision of religion, Jefferson’s view has come to be America’s view.

The overt distinction between religion and politics in American life, already referred to, also owes something to Jefferson. Most Americans are still comfortable with the Jeffersonian interpretation of the First Amendment as “building a wall of separation between Church and State.” This particular idea has a pedigree stretching back to the New Testament. “Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” represents a uniquely Christian perspective on the distinction between the spiritual and material realms.

One cannot just as simply take Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State” and substitute “Mosque” for “Church”. Drawing such a line was anathema to the integrated, all-inclusive Islam as originally conceived and as practiced for centuries. For some Muslims today, the re-integration of the religious and political dimensions of Islam is a goal to be desired and worked towards. Other Muslims wish to move in the opposite direction, towards a further separation of these two realms, in keeping with a more western-style approach to governance and religious belief.

While it makes sense that many American-born or American-educated Muslims adhere to the church-state separation principle and wish to apply it to the Islam they profess, such a distinction rings false to millions of Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries from Morocco to Indonesia. In many of these countries the state supports mosques, pays the salaries of imams, and applies at least some aspects of sharia law. Several of these countries call themselves Islamic republics; several others have declared Islam to be the official state religion. All of them are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Religion and politics are interwoven in these countries in a way that is unfamiliar to Americans and difficult for us to understand, let alone consider as a legitimate alternative model for a modern society.

The nature of Islam, its similarities and differences from Christianity and Judaism, its compatibility with an American tradition of distinct roles for religion and politics – these are questions that need to be asked, whether the questioner is accused of “Islamophobia”, a failure to appreciate the First Amendment, or any other charge designed to silence criticism and stifle debate.

To ask these questions specifically of Islam does not exclude the possibility of asking similar questions of Christianity and Judaism. Yet there is a difference. The United States was founded by Protestant Christians for Protestant Christians. Catholics were only begrudgingly included in the experiment. Jews were an afterthought. Muslims were not part of the equation at all. Two hundred years later, and with a national Muslim-American presence only emerging in recent decades, Islam is still the new kid on the block.

There is another difference, and that is the not irrational fear of domestic lethal terrorist acts committed by Muslims. Certainly Jews and Christians are capable of committing atrocities in the name of their faith or their community. Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli religious Jew originally from New York, murdered twenty-nine Muslims and wounded dozens more while they were praying in a Hebron mosque. The massacre occurred on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which also fell during Ramadan in that year of 1994. Judaism did not launch that attack, but a Jew did, and he did so as a Jew.

The atrocity that directly affects America and Americans is 9/11. Islam did not launch that attack, but Muslims did – not all Muslims or most Muslims, but at least nineteen Muslims planned and executed a deadly attack against civilians on U.S. soil. Their faith was strong enough that they were willing to blow themselves up, to become martyrs as they saw it. They didn’t just happen to be Muslims anymore than Baruch Goldstein just happened to be a Jew.

Whether we are Muslims, Christians, Jews, or none-of-the-above, as we re-think Islam and its role in the United States, we need to be willing to ask tough questions and to critically evaluate the answers we receive. Some offer answers designed to vilify and condemn all of Islam and all Muslims. Others give answers intended to exonerate Islam of all responsibility for deadly violence and to deny that real Muslims could possibly perpetrate 9/11 or other such acts. Both these sets of answers should be rejected as inaccurate and inadequate.

A new Islamic center in New York City, wherever it is finally built, could serve a useful purpose by providing a forum for honest discussion of these issues. If, however, its founders have already decided to represent Islam’s best face as its only face, then the effort is misguided and America will be the poorer for it.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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New York City Mosque: Part II, Cordoba

by Michael Lame, posted on August 16, 2010

Most of the editorial comments, pro and con, regarding the proposed new mosque complex for lower Manhattan, are concerned with Who and Where: the people behind the mosque and its proximity to Ground Zero. My purpose in these articles is not to support or oppose the project but to examine a different set of questions, What and How: What are the assumptions and premises of the project promoters? How do they intend to build interfaith bridges to Christian and Jewish communities?

The first article examined the ideas of the group led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf regarding jihad and the supposed hijacking of Islam by violent extremists. Presumably these ideas will help shape the new Islamic center’s outreach to Christians and Jews.

Another key to understanding Imam Rauf’s thinking is his use of the name Cordoba. His non-profit group is called the Cordoba Initiative and, until very recently, the mosque project was called Cordoba House. In order to emphasize “the community center aspect of the project rather than religion,” that name has now been changed to Park51, a more hip, New York style name that offers no associations to another place and time (except perhaps to Studio 54, which I’m sure is unintentional). Cordoba House, by contrast, summons up a host of images and historical references for those familiar with Islamic, Spanish, or medieval history and culture.

The Cordoba Initiative’s website offers this explanation of the Cordoba connection:

“Despite what many think, Islam and the West have a long history of coexistence and harmony. For nearly 800 years, the city of Cordoba in Spain endured as a shining example of tolerance among the three monotheistic religions. Muslim, Christian and Jew cohabited in prosperity during a period known for its outstanding literary and scientific productivity.”

From this blurb it sounds as if medieval Cordoba was an idyllic oasis of brotherly and sisterly love, the sort of world we should all aspire to re-establish. Many writers have waxed rhapsodic about a golden age of peace and prosperity in Muslim Spain. But is that really what it was like? “Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding” warns historian Richard Fletcher, author of Moorish Spain. “The simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was a land of tranquility.”

The 800 years referred to by the Cordoba Initiative constitutes the entire era of Muslim rule in Spain, stretching from 711 to 1492. Yet Cordoba itself, the cultural and for long periods of time the political capital of al-Andalus, succumbed to Christian conquest (or reconquest) in 1236.

Imam Rauf’s book, What’s Right with Islam: a new vision for Muslims and the West, narrows the pertinent time frame, explaining that the Cordoba Initiative is “named after the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain.” This formulation is also problematic. To be a bit more precise regarding chronology and terminology, the Umayyad emirate of Cordoba, established in 756, was proclaimed a caliphate in 929. Barely a century later, in 1031, the last Umayyad caliph abdicated, after which Cordoba ceased playing the central role in Spain’s political and intellectual life.

Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal, in The Ornament of the World: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain, further whittled down the time period in question regarding Cordoba’s heyday: “From about the mid-eighth century until about the year 1000 this was an Islamic polity, centered in Cordoba, which at its height, in the mid-tenth century, declared itself the center of the Islamic world.”

Though any identifiable Cordovan era of good feelings lasted closer to 250 years than to the 400 or 800 years posited by Rauf, those two and a half centuries also contained episodes of intolerance and bouts of anarchy. Still, for Rauf, the name Cordoba “reminds us that Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic and tolerant society on earth.” That is a big, bold, though commonplace assertion. The idea of an Andalusian golden age, when Christians and Jews lived contentedly under Muslim rule, has become a fixture of Western historical thinking over the last hundred years. But is it true?

Professor Fletcher weighs in on the question: “Early medieval Spain was multicultural in the sense of being culturally diverse, a land within which different cultures coexisted; but not in the sense of experiencing cultural integration. Toleration for Christians and Jews as ‘Peoples of the Book’ is enjoined by the Koran. But in practice it was limited – Christians under Islamic rule were forbidden to build new churches, to ring church bells, to hold public processions – and sometimes it broke down altogether. In 1066 there was a pogrom in Granada in which its Jewish community was slaughtered. Thousands of Christians were deported to slavery in Morocco in 1126. Thoroughly dismissive attitudes to Christians and Jews may be found in the Arabic literature of al-Andalus. It is a myth of the modern liberal imagination that medieval Islamic Spain was, in any sense that we should recognize today, a tolerant society.”

Regardless of historical accuracy, the very name of Cordoba exerts a powerful appeal for many who long for a multi-religious, harmonious pathway to the future. As Rauf writes, “We strive for a ‘New Cordoba,’ a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace.”

In considering the “Old Cordoba”, however, one should not forget that Cordovan tolerance was predicated on Islamic rule. Jews and Christians, once they accepted their status as dhimmi, protected albeit subservient peoples, could participate in the intellectual, artistic, and economic life of the broader community. But one fact was clear throughout medieval Spain, that a single faith was dominant – Islam in the south and Christianity in the north – and the other religious communities were allowed to remain at the pleasure, or rather the sufferance, of the dominant religious-political power.

Sufferance as the basis for a multi-religious society is not a model that will appeal to 21st century Christians, Muslims, or Jews. For that reason alone, Cordoba is a questionable symbol of inter-faith co-existence. A better model might be … New York City! Predominantly Christian, with sizeable Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu minorities, a Jewish mayor and a Catholic state governor, NYC is a place where religious freedom is guaranteed by law, with constitutional protections to prevent arbitrary revocation of that freedom. Whether the designated location for the Park51 mosque is a good idea or not, whether its current backers are the right people to build it or not, no one is questioning the legal right of Muslims to build mosques in America and to practice Islam openly.

As we have seen, the suggestion of Cordoba as a relevant religious-diversity prototype for New York City raises questions of historical accuracy and acceptable majority-minority relations. In looking for examplars, we might do better to reverse the geographic direction of the search by asking: Does New York’s multi-faith freedom of expression offer a good role-model for the cities of the Middle East?

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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Disrespecting Religion

by Michael Lame, posted on May 14, 2010

Cartoons of Muhammad are back in the news thanks to Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist, who depicted the founder of Islam with a man’s head on a dog’s body in his notorious 2007 drawings. This Swede’s work should not be confused with the set of twelve cartoons that initially appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005, which has caused such a worldwide ruckus ever since.

Earlier this week, a few minutes after he began a university lecture, Vilks was attacked by several young Muslims. Although the attackers were detained, they succeeded in terminating the talk, and subsequently “officials at Uppsala University said they doubted they would invite Lars Vilks again”, according to an AP news story. Offended Muslims 1; Vilks 0.

Drawing Muhammad as a dog is doubly offensive to many Muslims. The predominant Sunni view is that Muhammad may not be portrayed at all, and among Sunnis and Shi’a, dogs are widely considered to be unclean. Since Muslims revere Muhammad as a model for mankind, to show him with a dog’s body is an explosively insulting act.

Should governments stop publication of such religiously offensive works? Should publishers self-censor? Yale University Press did just that last year by refusing to reproduce the Danish cartoons in a scholarly book about their impact.  What should be done about such controversies? Can they be prevented? (Read Yale’s self-justification at

A view frequently expressed in the world of interfaith and intercultural dialogue is that the way to promote peaceful coexistence begins with mutual respect. One should learn to be respectful of other people’s faiths, beliefs and traditions. Specifically, the West needs to be mindful of Muslim sensibilities and exercise more restraint in pictorial images and negative references to Muhammad and Islam. This sounds reasonable and constructive but I believe it moves us in the wrong direction. Even if we could successfully teach people, starting when they are children, to respect other people’s beliefs, we should not do so. Respect for the views of others’ rightly comes not at the beginning but at the end of a process of learning about those views, seeking to appreciate them, examining them critically when appropriate, and only then determining how to relate to them.

Respect is due to that which merits respect, and not every belief, religious or otherwise, deserves our respect. All cross-cultural sensitivity set aside, some beliefs are simply evil:

The Aztecs believed in human sacrifice. The Nazis believed that Jews were sub-human. In South Africa the belief is now rampant that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.

Some beliefs are factually inaccurate: The earth is not flat. Muslim is not a synonym for terrorist. 9/11 was not an inside job.

How should we relate to other people’s beliefs, especially when they are religious beliefs held by millions of people? We could start by reading the books that other religious groups hold as sacred texts – the Tanach, the New Testament, the Qur’an.

If reading another group’s scriptures is a key to understanding their religion, then Christians are more likely to know something about Judaism than are Muslims, since the Tanach or Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible. Jews, on the other hand, do not read the New Testament, yet often seem to have absorbed knowledge of Christianity as the dominant religion in almost all countries where they live. Most Jews and Christians know little about Islam and have not read the Qur’an (which is not an easy read in English or probably in any language other than Arabic).

But Christians and Jews are not the only interfaith illiterates. While Muslims revere Jesus (Isa ibn Maryam) as a prophet, their knowledge of him comes primarily from Qur’anic verses regarding his birth, miracles performed, mission as a messenger, ascension and return. Muslims don’t read the Sermon on the Mount or the parables, for example, since the New Testament is not part of their scripture. The core of Jesus’ preaching as presented in the Christian Bible is absent from the Qur’an. One cannot understand Christianity as practiced by Christians from reading Islamic sources.

Even if we study another religion with empathy, read its canonical texts and commentaries, attend its worship services, listen to its preachers, we still may come away thinking it is misguided or silly or just plain wrong. Alternatively, we may become hugely respectful of another tradition. Should we feel as free to show our disrespect as to show our respect?

No one likes to have his or her beliefs ridiculed, but there are many things we don’t like that should not therefore be prohibited. It seems to me that anything worth taking seriously is worth making fun of. We should not be restricted to poking fun only at those who we know in advance can take a joke. Humor in its various guises, including ridicule, sarcasm, and satire, can entertain, but it can also bite. And therein lies the danger. If one pokes at a sacred cow, one takes a risk. The risk, however, should not be one of physical harm. A cartoonist is expected to run the risk of being thought unfunny or banal, not the risk of assault or murder.

What about the hurt caused to those at the receiving end of the ridicule – in the case of the cartoons, the worldwide Muslim community? The hurt is both real and deserving of empathy, but that recognition should be tempered by the facts of Islam’s power and longevity. A global community, now numbering more than a billion souls, that has weathered 1400 years of controversy and conflict is not seriously threatened by cartoons or blogs. And a faith that proselytizes should be prepared for some push-back.

We each have a right to believe as we please. We have a right to express our belief publicly, and others have a right to throw it back in our face. We have no right for our beliefs to be respected or a right that others refrain from ridiculing our beliefs, even those beliefs we hold most dear.

Capitalists don’t respect communism. The Left doesn’t respect the Right. Republicans and Democrats often show public disdain for one another’s politics. If we don’t respect each other’s ideologies, politics, and artistic taste, why should we respect one another’s religious beliefs? My version of a desirable future is a world which is safe for anti-Semites and for those who condemn anti-Semitism to co-exist in, a society in which people can express their disrespectful and obnoxious opinions freely.

But religion is different, we are told, and dangerous. It’s alright to vilify liberals or conservatives but not Muslims or Jews. Why not? There are at least two reasons why religion is often treated as a category apart from everything else. One is that religion is seen as a matter of faith, not reason, and therefore not subject to rational debate regarding the truth-value of specific beliefs. But I question whether religion is truly unique in this regard. Living in Washington, DC, every day I hear political views presented with the same certitude about the unknowable that typifies much religious discourse. Emotional fervor rather than cool reason can equally animate devotees of hip hop or jihad, global warming or Chabad. Religion has no monopoly on strong sentiment or unshakeable faith.

A second reason given for treating religion differently is that people are physically afraid of what might happen when conflicting religious convictions are passionately expressed. Although the United States has been spared wars of religion, Europe, Asia, and Africa have experienced them over the course of centuries: Catholic vs. Protestant, Sunni vs. Shia, Hindu vs. Muslim. Yet in the last two hundred years, most of the world’s wars have not been fought over religion but over ardent adherence to equally powerful ideas and ideologies – abolitionism, nationalism, fascism, communism, self-determination, among others. Not all ideological differences lead to violence, however. And while the competition between faiths has not ended, we would prefer that it continue non-violently.

Some think the future is more likely to be non-violent if no one’s religious beliefs are challenged or offended. That might be true if each faith community were static, neither shrinking or increasing in numbers nor seeking to convert others. But that is not the case. Both Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions, and perhaps Judaism will become so in the future. The 21st century debate – not always an elevated one – about the role of religion has already been joined. Among different religions and between secularism and religion, the competition is on. It appears in myriad ways, from disputed control over “the Holy Basin” in Jerusalem to banning burqas in Belgium, from village warfare in Nigeria to the publishing of cartoons in Sweden and Denmark. The only question is whether we will face these difficult questions openly and honestly or feign a respect that isn’t there in the hope that all will be well.

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