Monday, April 25, 2011

Religious extremism and how to counteract it

     I used the Holy Week break to read Miroslav Volf's new book, Allah, in which he argues convincingly that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I will not attempt to review this book today, but I do want to observe, as he does, that many Christians and Muslims find it difficult to accept a common deity. This attitude sometimes results in extremism. Thus the question arises: How can such extremism be counteracted? Terry Jones is a recent example of an extremist from the Christian side, but there are many more names that could be added, some very prominent, but most unknown. The Muslim list is probably equally long. In the last chapter, Volf suggests ten ways in which we can fight extremism, whether Christian or Muslim. Extremism has many causes, he explains: political, economic, cultural, religious, and so on. Thus a multi-pronged approach is required in response. He rejects the military option and questions the just war theory, since the criteria for a just war cannot be met today. While he wrote this book primarily for Christians, he invites Muslims to reflect on his proposal.
     Extremists, as Volf notes, are unreachable by reason, but he sketches an environment that will discourage extremism. I will list these ten ways, but try to explain them largely using my own words:
    1. Discourse about truth. In the post-modern age religious truth claims must not be discounted. Instead these claims should be debated in public in order to combat religiously-motivated violence.
    2. Acknowledgment of a common God. This is the heart of the book. If Christians and Muslims have a common God, they will share many values. Therefore, instead of accenting differences and promoting a "clash of civilizations," we must emphasize similarities, such as in the area of morality.
    3. Belief that God is loving and just. If God is loving and just, as both faiths agree, then it should be possible for Christians and Muslims to live together.
    4. Adherence to the command to love neighbors. Christians and Muslims today are often next door neighbors, which makes the divine imperative even more real. Moreover, Christians are commanded to love even their enemies. Thus there is no room for extremism.
    5. A healthy sense of the fear of God. The love of God ought to motivate us to place him above anything else, including our own religious communities and political visions if these limit our love for him in some way.
    6. A stand against injustice. As a friend once wrote, justice means more than "just us." It means that we must defend just solutions to the problems of others no matter what their faith, as in the Middle East, for example.
    7. A stand against prejudice. As I wrote in an earlier posting, we tend to demonize the "other" in order to fight them. Prejudice is one tool that we use to do so. Love and justice eradicate prejudice and exclude demonization.
    8. A stand against compulsion in religion. Freedom of religion will do much to counter extremism. Islam teaches this, but does not always practice it. Yet Christians must promote religious freedom, and not resort to extremism in turn.
    9. A stand against disrespect. Publishing the Danish cartoons and burning the Qur'an are symbols of disrespect that all Christians must reject emphatically and publicly protest when they do occur.
    10. A stand against political exclusivism. Love of God and neighbor demand political pluralism where all religious communities have equal rights to be heard and the state does not favor a particular religion.
    Implementation of these ten ways will go a long way to combating extremism. They will not eliminate it, of course, but they will help to reduce it and make our world a better place to live.

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