Wall Street Journal
The West was caughtunprepared by the rise of Islamic State, as it was a decade and a half ago bythe attacks of al Qaeda and as the Soviet Union was by the determination of themujahedeen of Afghanistan in the 1980s. These are among the worst failures ofpolitical intelligence in modern times, and the consequences have beendisastrous.
The unpreparedness was notaccidental. It happened because of a blind spot in the secular mind: theinability to see the elemental, world-shaking power of religion when hijackedby politics. Ever since the rise of modern science, intellectuals have beenconvinced that faith is in intensive care, about to die or at least renderedharmless by exclusion from the public square.
But not all regions of theworld have gone through this process. Not all religions have allowed themselvesto be excluded from the public square. And when secular revolutions fail, weshould know by now that we can expect religious counterrevolutions.
Religion has lately demandedour attention not as a still, small voice but as a whirlwind. If Isaiah’sprophecy that nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares” is to befulfilled, then the essential task now is to think through the connectionbetween religion and violence.
Three answers have emerged inrecent years. The first: Religion is the major source of violence. Therefore,if we seek a more peaceful world, we should abolish religion. The second:Religion is not a source of violence. It may be used by manipulative leaders tomotivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroicacts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, notto hate and fight. The third: Their religion, yes; our religion, no. We are forpeace. They are for war.
None of these is true. As forthe first, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts for their“Encyclopedia of Wars” and found that less than 10% involved religion. A “Godand War” audit commissioned by the BBC found that religion played some part in40% of major wars over the past three millennia, but usually a minor one.
The second answer ismisguided. When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define theirbattle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commitmurder while declaring that “God is great,” it is absurd to deny that they areacting on religious motives. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms.
The third is a classicinstance of in-group bias. Groups, like individuals, have a need forself-esteem, and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense ofsuperiority. Judaism, Christianity and Islam define themselves as religions ofpeace, yet they have all initiated violence at some points in their history.
My concern here is less thegeneral connection between religion and violence than the specific challenge ofpoliticized religious extremism in the 21st century. The re-emergence ofreligion as a global force caught the West unprotected and unprepared becauseit was in the grip of a narrative that told a quite different story.
It is said that 1989, theyear of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, marked thefinal act of an extended drama in which first religion, then politicalideology, died after a prolonged period in intensive care. The age of the truebeliever, religious or secular, was over. In its place had come the marketeconomy and the liberal democratic state, in which individuals and their rightto live as they chose took priority over all creeds and codes. It was the lastchapter of a story that began in the 17th century, the last great age of warsof religion.
What the secularists forgotis that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing thegreat institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning.Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide usas to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves usuninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic stategives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us asto how to choose.
Science, technology, the freemarket and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedentedachievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They areamong the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defendedand cherished.
But they do not answer thethree questions that every reflective individual will ask at some time in hisor her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? The result is thatthe 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.
Religion has returned becauseit is hard to live without meaning. That is why no society has survived forlong without either a religion or a substitute for religion. The 20th centuryshowed, brutally and definitively, that the great modern substitutes forreligion—nation, race, political ideology—are no less likely to offer humansacrifices to their surrogate deities.
The religion that hasreturned is not the gentle, quietist and ecumenical form that we in the Westhave increasingly come to expect. Instead it is religion at its mostadversarial and aggressive. It is the greatest threat to freedom in thepostmodern world. It is the face of what I call “altruistic evil” in our time:evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals.
The 21st century will be morereligious than the 20th for several reasons. First is that, in many ways,religion is better adapted to a world of global instantaneous communicationthan are nation states and existing political institutions.
Second is the failure ofWestern societies after World War II to address the most fundamental of humanneeds: the search for identity. The world’s great faiths offer meaning,direction, a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spirituallife in ways that the free-market, liberal democratic West does not.
The third reason has to dowith demography. World-wide, the most religious groups have the highestbirthrates. Over the next half-century, as Eric Kaufmann has documented in hisbook “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?”, there will be a massivetransformation in the religious makeup of much of the world, with Europeleading the way. With the sole exception of the U.S., the West is failing toheed the Darwinian imperative of passing on its genes to the next generation.
This leaves us little choicebut to re-examine the theology that leads to violent conflict in the firstplace. If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of theterror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end.
The challenge is not only toIslam but also to Judaism and Christianity. None of the great religions cansay, in unflinching self-knowledge, “Our hands never shed innocent blood.”
As Jews, Christians andMuslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Doesthe God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demandhuman sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate ourenemies and terrorize unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly?What is God saying to us, here, now? We are not prophets but we are theirheirs, and we are not bereft of guidance on these fateful issues.
As one who values marketeconomics and liberal democratic politics, I fear that the West doesn’t fullyunderstand the power of the forces that oppose it. Passions are at play thatrun deeper and stronger than any calculation of interests. Reason alone willnot win this battle. Nor will invocations of words like “freedom” and“democracy.” To some, they sound like compelling ideals, but to others, theyare the problem against which they are fighting, not the solution they embrace.
Today Jews, Christians andMuslims must stand together, in defense of humanity, the sanctity of life,religious freedom and the honor of God himself. The real clash of the 21stcentury will not be between civilizations or religions but within them. It willbe between those who accept and those who reject the separation of religion andpower.
What then should we do? Wemust put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom aswas put into the spread of religious extremism. The proponents of radical Islamhave worked for decades to marginalize the more open, gracious, intellectualand mystical traditions that in the past were the source of Islam’s greatness.
It has been a strategyremarkable for its long time-horizon, precision, patience and dedication. Ifmoderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. Wemust train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace theworld in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.
There must be aninternational campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate. Education inmany Islamic countries remains a disgrace. If children continue to be taught thatnonbelievers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greaterand lesser Satan, if radio, television, websites and social media pour out anonstop stream of paranoia and incitement, then Article 18 of the UniversalDeclaration of Human Rights, with its commitment to religious freedom, willmean nothing. All the military interventions in the world will not stop theviolence.
We need to recover theabsolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has beenat its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twinimperatives of justice and compassion, the insistence on peaceful modes ofresolving conflicts, forgiveness for the injuries of the past and devotion to afuture in which all the children of the world can live together in grace andpeace.
These are the ideals on whichJews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to includethose of other faiths and none. This does not mean that human nature willchange, or that politics will cease to be an arena of conflict. All it means isthat politics will remain politics and not become religion.
We also need to insist on thesimplest moral principle of all: the principle of reciprocal altruism,otherwise known as tit-for-tat. This says: As you behave to others, so willothers behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect. If you askfor tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance. If you wish not to be offended,then you must make sure you do not offend.
Wars are won by weapons, butit takes ideas to win a peace. To be a child of Abraham is to learn to respectthe other children of Abraham even if their way is not ours, their covenant notours, their understanding of God different from ours. Our common humanity mustprecedes our religious differences.
Yes, there are passages inthe sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms that, interpretedliterally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity andIslam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them inthe larger context of coexistence, respect for difference and the pursuit ofpeace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism—text without context, andapplication without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith.
With the rise of radicalpolitical Islam, our world has become suddenly dangerous not only to Jews,Christians and others but to Muslims who find themselves on the wrong side ofthe Sunni-Shiite divide. There will be military and political responses, but theremust also be a religious one, or the others will fail.
We must raise a generation ofyoung Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety butsacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the Godof love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, and practice cruelty in thename of the God of compassion.
Now is the time for us to saywhat we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham. Weare precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one hasto be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. God is calling us to let go ofhate and the preaching of hate, and to live at last as brothers and sisters,true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honoringGod’s name by honoring his image, humankind.
Lord Sacks is the formerchief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.This essay is adapted from his new book, “Not in God’s Name: ConfrontingReligious Violence,” which will be published by Schocken on Oct. 13.