Faith, Hope and Love Versus Fundamentalism

In a recent meeting at the United Nations, members of the United Religious Initiative, a U.N.-funded nongovernmental organization (NGO), cited the atrocities of Sept. 11 as they indicted religion itself for fostering terrorism.

Their rationale: “[T]here is a lot of terror and violence in Scripture.”

No doubt, verses that seem to encourage violent behavior and attitudes toward enemies can be found in the Koran as well as the Bible. For example, the Koran contains the words: “Then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them” (Sura 9, verse 5).

The Old Testament is replete with calls for violence against the enemies of Israel and those who pollute the purity of Yahwist religion: “Fair Babylon, you destroyer, happy those who pay you back the evil you have done us! Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock” (Psalm 137:8-9).

And, in the New Testament, Jesus says: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51-53).

Taken at face value, these passages seem to make the case for the anti-religion lobby. But the fact of the matter is that these texts are taken out of context and give a decidedly false impression of three major religions. The problem is not religion per se—but, rather, religious fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is usually the route taken by those who feel themselves or their culture to be threatened. To secure their identity they: (1) look for simplistic answers to difficult and multifaceted issues by dividing the world into good (themselves) and evil (their perceived enemy); (2) ground their rationale and actions in a selective reading of a sacred text by excising verses from the complete work, i.e. the Bible or Koran; (3) remove the text from any historical reference of time or culture, giving their fight cosmic significance; and (4) rely on the textual interpretation of a charismatic leader who ignores or distorts the mainstream thought of sages and scholars who have been recognized as keepers of the authentic community tradition.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all “religions of the Book,” are all susceptible to fundamentalism.

Nevertheless, while the true believer is aware of episodes and counsels to violence in sacred writ, he also knows that these passages are cushioned and outweighed by the broader call for peace, justice and compassion, as well as formulas for moderation.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all ‘religions of the Book,’ are all susceptible to fundamentalism.

This balanced and reasonable application of religious truth and behavior is especially taught in the long-recognized secondary sources of scriptural interpretation and commentary used by the great religions. For the Jews, the Talmud has been indispensable for understanding the Torah. For Christians, the writings of the Church Fathers and the great councils guide the Church in applying Jesus’ teachings. And, for Islam, the writings of the Islamic-law scholars are invaluable in understanding Allah's revelations to Mohammed. These commentaries exist to protect religion from fanatics who might act unwisely and thereby denigrate the totality of religious truth.

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Islamic law at New York University, provides a good example of what Koranic scholars must present to Muslims. A recent article in the New York Times quotes Haykel as saying that Osama bin Laden's barbaric violence cannot fall under the rubric of jihad (a struggle in the cause of Allah that includes killing) for the following reasons:

(1) Individuals and organizations cannot declare a jihad, only states can. (2) One cannot kill innocent women and children when conducting a jihad. (3) One cannot kill Muslims in a jihad. (4) One cannot fight a jihad against a country in which Muslims can freely practice their religion and proselytize Islam. (5) Prominent Muslim jurists around the world have condemned these attacks, and their condemnation forms a juristic consensus (ijma) against bin Laden's actions. This consensus renders his actions un-Islamic. (6) The welfare and interest of the Muslim community (maslaha) is being harmed by bin Laden's actions and this equally makes them un-Islamic.

In fact, Haykel goes on to explain, the Koran's numerous injunctions against jihad prove that bin Laden has acted contrary to the tenets of Islam, making him a moharib, or brigand.

Explanations such as this are vital if further acts of misguided religious zeal are to be prevented. The dangers of fundamentalism should concern believers of all faiths. The lesson of Sept. 11 should weigh heavy on all religions to teach the errors of fundamentalism and the false religion it produces. Not to do so would only lead to more tragedy in the future and provide fodder for more attacks on religion itself.

Father Michael Orsi is chaplain of, and a research fellow at, Ave Maria Law School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.