We live in a time of clashing cultures and a major mischief in a world where almost every culture aggressively propels its “fundamentalism.” Whatever serves the group’s purpose, physically, legally, morally, or in romantic fantasy, is justified as a god-given right as commanded by heaven and any who disagree are guilty of wickedness, punishable by torture or death or both.
Bin Laden plots death to the infidel Americans as well as death to fellow Muslims who fail to follow al Qaeda’s radical Taliban-style Islam. Our own White House has adopted the secular fundamentalist of Cold War nihilism. There was the original gaffe of calling it a “crusade” against the various “theys” who are wicked and dangerous, those who fail to see the value of dropping the bombs in order to create a peaceful and properly righteous world. It is a classic case of opponents whose behavior becomes mirror images of each other.
Nevertheless, as we enter the shadows of war in 2003, there is the light from an astonishing number of candles of peace held by anti-war groups from almost every part of the United States, the United Nations, and in large parts of the world, trying to prevent the compulsive escalation of violence that emanates from the White House.
Ironically, invoking deities for righteous killing, has evoked worldwide cries for peaceful solutions. Both within the United States and among its allies, and within some of the major Muslims regimes, there are growing cries of warning that war will bring incalculable damage that will feed their own radical fundamentalists. The sacrilege in use of religion for death has become increasingly unbearable for millions, perhaps billions of people. Witness in our own country the outpouring of anti-war marches around the country — hundreds of thousands protesting our White House fundamentalist war hawks
It is reported that the 9/11 suicide pilots about to crash passenger airliners into buildings uttered, “God is Great!” Both international and internecine warfare is done with the cry, “Allah is Great!” Thousands die with the same words on their lips.
Given the horrors of September 11 and other murderous acts against the United States, we have been transfixed by the appeal to their god that fundamentalist Muslims kill Americans and their allies.
We seem to have recruited our deity in response. President Bush originally announced a “Crusade” to liberate Iraq and rid the world of Al Qaeda. Muslims and their scholars were outraged because 1000 years has not erased their memory of the Christian Crusades against Middle Eastern Islam.
Whether or not President Bush at the time understood the history that provoked t he Muslim outrage is not clear. But the basis for the outrage is understandable and obviously someone in Bush’s circle had to tell him that for Muslims the term goes back to 11th to 14th century Christian Crusades against Middle East Muslims.
It is one of the ironies of history that Saladin, the enlightened 12th Century leader of the Muslims, had been willing to let the Christians take possession of a their holy places in the Middle East but out of conscience worried that invaders from France and Germany were so crude and unruly they would desecrate their own holy sites. Saladin was correct. At the time, most of Western Europe still lived in a relatively crude cultural state.
Many scholars attribute the idea of those Crusades to the worry of popes that once Western Europe had come under some control, the area was full of unemployed knights, which meant unpredictable mischief in Western Europe. The Vatican thought it prudent to let the idle knights ply their trade away from home, and the Crusades were the answer.
When the first Christian Crusaders actually reached the Holy Lands, a lot of them decided they liked the place and staked out private real estate for themselves. One of the subsequent Crusades stopped at Constantinople, where they hired out as mercenaries to anyone with the price, which included doing some work for their “enemies,” the Muslims. The Children’s Crusade was an even worse fiasco. Its leaders hired Genoese merchants to sail with the children to Palestine, but the Genoese sailed instead to North Africa and sold the children into slavery.
Now Bush’s crusade against Iraq includes “protecting” a different holy place, the Iraqi oil fields, second only to Saudi Arabia’s in potential.
Many of the original Crusaders dwelt long enough in Palestine to do something truly useful. It was the golden age of the Muslims that created most of our basic mathematics and astronomy. It is arguable that the only real benefit the Christian crusades brought to Western Europe was to carry back with them the advanced scientific and scholarly knowledge of the “infidel” Muslims. So “fundamentalists,” whether Christian or Muslim, reflect not the best of their traditions but some of the worst. Whatever good endures seems to be purely accidental.
In our case, modern fundamentalism can take the form of an anti-abortionist Christian rightistist justifying the murder of a doctor who has performed an abortion. Or Attorney General Ashcroft rebuking an American judge and jury that imposed “merely” life imprisonment rather than Ashcroft’s preference, the death penalty.
In Islam, Osama bin Laden invokes his view of the Koran for killing as many Americans as possible. Islamic Jihad picks its enemies whether they are Muslims, Christians, or Hindus. A fundamentalist leader condemns a woman to death by stoning for an alleged breach of local sexual morality. Stoning, beheading, whipping, mass murder – all in the name of invoking the deity or moral code of self-appointed delegates of a god.
Recently, an Israeli settler in the West Bank shot an innocent Palestinian because the Bible said Palestinians are occupying what the Bible says belongs to the Jews. Most Israelis disapproved, some because they are peaceniks who take to heart the part of the Bible that commands “Thou Shalt Not Kill;” other Israelis disagreed because they wish to settle such disputes by secular means.And yet, it is true that the same Bible does glorify death to enemies when it advises, “strike thine enemy hip and thigh.” Take your pick.
The world has enough turmoil in conflicts based on here-and-now conflicts in contemporary technological and political life, without rejecting the genuine moral justice of reverence for life in favor of free-hand interpretations of scriptures applied to life and death issues. In every major religion, scholars and sects argue endlessly on the meaning of words whose origin is ascribed to a deity whose intentions are the subject of unending dissection.
The case of the Israeli settler justifying military defense of his incursion into Palestinian West Bank territory by citing the Bible brought to mind a personal experience. Many years ago, almost the same words about occupying Islamic territories were by Israel’s revered David Ben Gurian, then prime minister of Israel. In a 1956 interview when I was a foreign correspondent, the Negev desert and Golan Heights were in dispute, I asked Ben Gurian to specify the Israeli foreign policy toward its surrounding territories.
It was true back then, as it is now, that clashes based on the dangerous mix of secular ambitions and religiosity seemed absolute and intractable. The surrounding Arab states and their radio stations kept a steady drumbeat that they would “push the Jews into the sea.” It was hard to take them seriously because every attempt they made even to challenge a minor boundary dispute revealed their armies as hopelessly inept and their threats merely noisy rhetoric.
But boundaries were involved in all the back-and-forth rhetoric, so in the interview Ben Gurian was asked to describe Israel’s long-range foreign policy about territorial borders. He replied, “Our foreign policy is in the Bible.”
“But the Bible says the Jews shall live between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Presumably that would take you into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq. Is that your policy?”
Ben Gurian smiled in his mischievous way. “But the Bible doesn’t say when.”
So the 2002 settler on the West Bank was not using an off-hand sound-bite for a foreign correspondent. He was echoing what lies beneath the ambitions of all religious fundamentalism.
This seems to include the thinking of Ariel Sharon. There has been chaos and blood from the moment Sharon marched with his troops to Temple Mount. He had to know that he was lighting the fuse for a confrontation. Jews regard Temple Mount as the sacred site where it is said that King Solomon built the first temple 3,000 years ago. The same site is also sacred to the Muslims who call it Haram esh-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary, from which tradition has it that the Prophet Mohammad, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel, made the journey to The Throne of God.
The Israelis have their Bible to shake in the face of their opponents. The Muslims have their Koran to shake back. The Bible speaks of peace but it also speaks of defending Christian precepts by fighting the wicked. The Koran also speaks of peace but speaks also of defending the faith to the death.
Historically, millions have been killed in the name of God. Once again, the priests and rabbis bless the cannon and the Imams bless the Kalashnikovs.
If there are angels, they are weeping.
Ben Bagdikian is a former correspondent and is the author of The Media Monopoly.