Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The Religion of Terror?

There is something inherently wrong with a religion that allows its adherents to carry out such actions as suicide bombings and the taking of hostages, with the threat that the hostages will be executed unless the demands of their captors are met. This is the situation in Russia at this moment, where attackers wearing “suicide bomb belts” have taken a school, with a reported 400 people, most of them children, as hostages. Yesterday, a car blew up outside a subway station in Moscow, killing 10 people; it is believed that a female suicide bomber was responsible. Female suicide bombers are also suspected in explosions that caused two planes to crash in Russia, killing 89 people, on August 24th. These are “merely” the latest incidents in a pattern that goes back over several years in Russia. To the extent that the persons responsible were faithful practitioners of Islam, one can only conclude that there is something inherently wrong with their religion.

Some will say that these are the actions of fanatics, and do not represent the beliefs and practices of the Muslim “mainstream.” I’d like to believe this to be true; but right now, I can’t help but wonder if it can possibly be so. I have a hard time conceiving of a religion that teaches the devaluing of a human life to the point where it can be used as a “bargaining chip” to negotiate for what the terrorist desires to achieve. “If you release persons who have been arrested for having committed a crime, I’ll set free the young boys and girls of your school; but if you don’t do as I say, I will shoot them – and if you try to rescue them, I’ll blow them up, and the school with them.” Is this the act of a rational person? Is this the act of a person who has submitted himself or herself to the will of God?

Where are the leaders of the Muslim community? If these terrorists do not, in fact, represent the beliefs and practices of Islam, where are the leaders who publicly denounce these actions, and call upon the terrorists to release their captives, and lay down their arms? Can you imagine the Pope, or the Patriarch of Moscow, or Billy Graham, remaining silent if this was a band of Christians who were threatening the lives of innocent people, innocent children? (In fairness, there have been some, although it seems that these are usually "scholars," and not the imams, the actual religious leaders. One such scholar gave this interview days after the attacks of 9/11.)

Now, I realize that this is not a “black and white” situation – "Christians good, Muslims evil." All you have to do is think of the strife, the bombings, and the shootings that took place in Northern Ireland for so many years. Perhaps the struggle of the people of (Muslim) Chechnya to gain independence from (Orthodox) Moscow is akin to the struggle between the Protestants and Catholics in Ulster; where the religious beliefs of the two sides were more labels that encapsulated a wider range of socio-political differences, rather than at the core of the struggle. I still think, however, that there is a fundamental difference at work here; and the fact that Christians have acted as terrorists does not diminish the profound difference I see at work in this aspect of the “War on Terror.”

Remember the account in the Gospel of St. Matthew of the time of our Lord’s arrest in the Garden at Gethsemane. St. Peter has drawn his sword, and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Our Lord Jesus tells him to “put up” his sword, for all that live by the sword shall die by the sword. He then makes reference to the power that is inherently his to command: “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53)” But our Lord did not come to bring a sword, but reconciliation between God and mankind, and so reconciliation between all persons. He did not come to conquer by fear or by force, but to conquer hearts and minds by His love for God, and for all mankind. Perhaps I’m ignorant; but I can’t imagine Mohammed having restrained himself or his followers had he had access to twelve legions of angels.

I’m trying very hard not to judge an entire religion based upon the actions of a few of its followers; but I must confess that I can’t help but think that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, engaged in a religious war. Not only that: I think most of us in the west don’t get it. We tend to think of warfare in geopolitical terms: one country against another, or one group against another, fighting to take (or retain) control over territory, and the people and resources of that territory. I fear we are not ready to engage an opponent who has taken the concept of jihad from the level of the struggle against the self in order to do our part in the process of sanctification unto salvation – what we Orthodox call asceticism – and extended it to be “holy war” against the infidels who do not share the same religious beliefs, and must be converted or eliminated. To the extent that suicide bombers and hostage-takers continue to justify their actions on the basis of their religious beliefs – and that religion is Islam – they make it hard to believe that their religion is one of peace, and which places a value on human life.

UPDATE: 4 September 2004

There has been some reaction in the Arabic press condemning the situation in Russia, and
acknowledging that most of the terrorists active in the world today are Muslims.