1 December, 2001

Religious Totalitarianism

For this month's message, I've included between the lines below, portions of an editorial written by Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times on 27 Nov, 2001. I think it offers a lot of insight into current events. Let me also recommend the book "Warriors of the Prophet" by Mark Huband, which surveys the development of radical Islam.

"If 9/11 was indeed the onset of World War III, we have to understand what this war is about. We're not fighting to eradicate "terrorism." Terrorism is just a tool. We're fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism.

World War II and the cold war were fought to defeat secular totalitarianism - Nazism and Communism - and World War III is a battle against religious totalitarianism, a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated. That's bin Ladenism.

But unlike Nazism, religious totalitarianism can't be fought by armies alone. It has to be fought in schools, mosques, churches and synagogues, and can be defeated only with the help of imams, rabbis and priests.

The generals we need to fight this war are people like Rabbi David Hartman, from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. What first attracted me to Rabbi Hartman when I reported from Jerusalem was his contention that unless Jews reinterpreted their faith in a way that embraced modernity, without weakening religious passion, and in a way that affirmed that God speaks multiple languages and is not exhausted by just one faith, they would have no future in the land of Israel. And what also impressed me was that he knew where the battlefield was. He set up his own schools in Israel to compete with fundamentalist Jews, Muslims and Christians, who used their schools to preach exclusivist religious visions.

After recently visiting the Islamic madrasa in Pakistan where many Taliban leaders were educated, and seeing the fundamentalist religious education the young boys there were being given, I telephoned Rabbi Hartman and asked: How do we battle religious totalitarianism? He answered: "All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth. When the Taliban wiped out the Buddhist statues, that's what they were saying. But others have said it too. The opposite of religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism - an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth. America is the Mecca of that ideology, and that is what bin Laden hates and that is why America had to be destroyed."

The future of the world may well be decided by how we fight this war. Can Islam, Christianity and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays, and that he welcomes different human beings approaching him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage? "Is single-minded fanaticism a necessity for passion and religious survival, or can we have a multilingual view of God - a notion that God is not exhausted by just one religious path?" asked Rabbi Hartman.

Many Jews and Christians have already argued that the answer to that question is yes, and some have gone back to their sacred texts to reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism, and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths. Others - Christian and Jewish fundamentalists - have rejected this notion, and that is what the battle is about within their faiths…Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities."

Rabbi Hartman's "multilingual view of God", mentioned in the above article, is a view which needs to spread throughout the world. Until we can discard the notion that our beliefs (be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) constitute the "one true path" the world will remain filled with conflict and violence.

And the issue is larger than just religion. Whenever force, destruction, or violent acts are used to impose your views, you are on the wrong path. There are many such examples today: anti-abortion bombers, anti-trade activists, white supremacists, animal rights activists, etc. As long as you are anti- anything, as long as you are consumed by hate, as long as you resort to violence, you are dooming yourself, and those around you, to a life of misery.

It is still possible to oppose ideas you find distasteful. You don't have to become a spineless moral relativist. Stand up for what you believe, just remember to approach the problem with love, and allow others to hold views that don't necessarily match yours. As a wise woman once told me, "reasonable people agree to disagree."

Respect other's beliefs, and accept the fact that you don't have a corner on the wisdom market.

Get over yourself.

Don't blindly accept the dogmas you've grown up with, social dogmas, religious dogmas, political dogmas. Open your eyes. Question your beliefs. Meditate and tune into the universal truth. It's amazing how much is out there ready to be learned. Armed with love and this new outlook, you can make a difference in your family and in your community.


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