Thursday, April 26, 2007

Is your violence more evil than mine?

Most Americans are not ready to see similarities between Arab and American religious fundamentalism, and they are not ready to see a connection between American excessive state militarism and Middle East indiscriminate violence.

When I argue with American audiences that it is not only the Middle East that is plagued by religious intolerance and the violence associated with it I am distanced one notch from my audience. When I point out that the televangelical media dominate the air waves with messages of intolerance, I move another step away from my listeners. I risk further misunderstanding when I state that the US and Israel commit immense state violence under the law, whereas organized groups in the Middle East commit immense violence outside the law.

Part of the problem of cross cultural communications on the topic of violence is related to the fact that we have no reliable ways of figuring out which type of violence is more obscene or more evil than the other.

A few examples illustrate how difficult it is to measure the intensity of evil in acts of violence. The Muslim-to-Muslim gang murder of innocents in Iraq is an extreme example of evil. Think comparatively. How violent was the spread of a million Israeli cluster bombs in south Lebanon last July? The suicide bombings by Islamic Jihad in Israel are cruel. Again look elsewhere. Where on the scale of evil do you place the act of the US occupation of Iraq and the ensuing destruction of the country?

In my talks, I find my way back to my audience, inch by inch, as I discuss examples of indiscriminate violence and oppressive intolerance in the Middle East and condemn it with passion. I talk about suicide bombings that victimize non-combatants in Iraq and Palestine. I cite the hateful rhetoric that emanates from shady clerics that hijack Islam with Jihadist sermons. I deplore the bigoted religious education in fanatic Islamic schools. Slowly, I find my audience giving me back the eye contact I look for. I express regret that some Islamic countries do not offer full religious freedom to their citizens, whereas the Koran clearly requires of Muslims not to force spirituality on people. I explain that it is regrettable that some Muslim countries do not allow the construction of churches. I refer to the seventh century example set by Caliph Mu-a’wiyah who rebuilt the great Church of Edessa at his own expense after it was destroyed by an earthquake. By now I have my audience back. But people love simple answers to complicated questions. So when I try to interpret in political terms the growing violence that rages in the Middle East it is not easy to pass the message.

To challenge my Western audience to imagine the agony of the people of the Middle East I list the many ways in which Christians have expressed their harsh violence to Islam and the Muslim world. I begin with the conflict of theologies.

For centuries, there has been a silent but provocative war of theology between the West and Islam. Christians in the US may have to be reminded that while Islam considers Christianity and Judaism to be sister religions this interfaith recognition is not reciprocated by Christianity or Judaism towards Islam. Traditionally, Christians do not expect Muslims to go to heaven. Charismatic American churches increasingly act like merciless, exclusive, insurance agencies that sell to Christians, and only Christians, policies of affluence in the present life and paradise in the afterlife. The way to heaven is paved with stones of hope for an end-of-time return of Christ, a return that celebrates a holocaust prepared for non-believers. A religion that celebrates such massive collective punishment to the majority of the world population must register a high score on the Richter scale of violence.

Beyond theology, US violence is expressed directly through warfare. Middle Easterners see the US as an invader of their land. Arabs see the Iraqi occupation as an American massacre. The Muslim world regards Israel as a satellite state of the USA. Arabs perceive Lebanon as being under the influence of the US. They fear plans of a future attack on Iran.

Muslims have their own version of history. They interpret the military support that Americans gave to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s as an attempt to defeat the first Islamic revolutionary regime, Iran. In the region, Israel is viewed as a product of a Judeo-Christian alliance against Islam. The presence of American troops in the Gulf States is regarded as a Christian presence that spells future trouble for the Muslim world.

Americans must stop looking at Islam as a conflicted faith that is need of reform. Americans should not offer Western solutions to Muslims. They should rather look at the Muslim world as a region in political conflict with the West and seek ways to work out solutions that are negotiated by the two sides.

While the manifestation of violence and its intensity may vary from one country to another or from one culture to another, it is difficult to weigh the morality of violence objectively in each society. The best we can do is to listen to the narrative of the other side and to learn how to deal constructively with the challenge. To blame the religion that is on the other side of the fence as the cause of all trouble is a seductively simple framework. This attitude offers an easy exit from taking responsibility. Comparing religions on their capacity to elicit violence is a dead end; this comparison can only add fuel to international tension.

The way we perceive evil in others is fundamental to the way we go about achieving personal and global justice.


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