Friday, October 26, 2012

Road From Medievalism To Modernity Is A Long One

Religion in the Modern Age

By its very nature, by its design and purpose to uphold particular indivisible truths, religion and religious belief divide people into camps of "us" and "them": those who believe the accepted religious narrative and those who don't. Those who conform to the religious doctrines and practices and those who don't. Those who have religious faith and those who don't. The more fundamentalist the faith the lesser the invitation to debate, analyse and reason with others, notably the non-believers.

By definition and by default, the non-believers' non-acceptance of the accepted religious narrative, places such person outside the camp, as an outsider, a heretic, an infidel; and in its reactionary forms, where a harsh interpretation of religious law is considered necessary, law-breakers (including blasphemers) are worthy of execution. I know that this simple equation doesn't account for all individuals and for all cases but it's generally true of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The faithful, like all faithful individuals, see a need to defend not only their religion in general as fundamentally and completely true, but also their religious narrative and their religious patrimony. It's considered an honour and a necessity to do so. Anyone who dares to question the accepted religious narrative and its accepted interpretation is considered a heretic, a free thinker, an unbeliever. At the core of it all is the "belief," and to add a further argument, a belief in the full religious narrative, doctrines, "truth" and history of the founding of the religion. This narrative runs across all religions, and its severity and degrees of restriction are in relation to how much it has come in contact with modernity and Enlightenment ideas.

At its onset and earlier formative years, religions tend to be aggressive and seek dominance and adherents or followers. In many ways, it's a numbers game, and the more followers the greater the validity of the religion's truth claims. Greater numbers, besides instilling validity, also ensures that it survives in a sea of competing ideas and ideologies. And while the ferocity of religious zeal ebbs and flows, there is a point in its historical development that particular religions make peace with its surrounding ideologies, notably secular modern ones. The road to medievalism to modernity, however, is a long one.

Today, Islam is the religion that receives extensive news coverage, since its ideas and ideology, in its current form, seem contrary to the ideas present in modern western culture. The voices of the extremists, those of the fundamentalists, speak loudest, backed by claims of tradition and honour and truth. Of course all religions make such claims. In the case of Islam, many commentators say it has been hijacked by extremists, by Islamists who want to install a fundamentalist medieval version of Islam, including strict interpretations of Sharia law; yet, while this battle is taking place, many others point out that such individuals do not represent the views of the majority of Islam's followers.

This should not be surprising, given that within Judaism and Christianity today there remains small groups of extremist followers who want to preserve the very old traditions of the elders, and feel threatened by modern ideas and modernity. It is just more pronounced and noticeable in Islam, which is following a certain arc of historical development. That being the case, the extremists have done a disservice to Islam and its Muslim followers. The moderates within its ranks have a tough road ahead of them, although not insurmountable, as history shows that modernity eventually informs all religious beliefs and ideologies and overtakes pre-modern ideas. There is no reason that Islam should be an exception; its people can prosper.

Islam is not unique in the history of humanity and religious belief in its use of violence, harsh rhetoric, inflammatory language and excessive force to keep the faithful in line and to warn the "infidels" or non-faithful of the consequences of their lack of faith. Consider the following about a far older religion—Christianity. In Christianity, there were many notable extremist elements during its long 2,000-year history, before it became informed by western liberal ideas and thought, including the Scientific Revolution, the European Enlightenment and the Jewish Haskalah. Some people might be surprised to learn of the following less than noble history of Christianity and its long 2,000-year history of anti-Jewish violence. In A Brief History of Antisemitism, we read:
Although Jesus' death had been ordered and carried out by non-Jews, most Christians believed that the Jews and their priests were responsible. St. Paul later proclaimed that the Jews "killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God's will and enemies of their fellow men..." (I Thessalonians 2:15-16).
As Christianity spread, the differences between Christianity and Judaism became more and more pronounced. But it was not until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that anti-Judaism became a serious threat to Jewish existence.
By the fourth century, Jews were generally despised by Christians everywhere. St. Augustine, one of Christianity's most influential leaders, likened the Jewish people to Cain, who had murdered his own brother and thus became the first criminal in biblical history. St. Augustine wrote that Jews were a "wicked sect" and should be subjected to permanent exile because of their evil ways. John the author of the book of Revelations even called Jews "the children of the devil" (John.8:44).
Laws were passed throughout the Christian world to "protect" the "faithful" from Jewish "contamination" by forbidding them to eat with, do business with, or have sex with Jews, and by the sixth century, Jews were not allowed to hold public office, employ Christian servants, or even show themselves in the streets during Holy Week (the week commemorating the time between Jesus' "Last Supper" and his crucifixion).
Beginning in 1096, Christian leaders launched a series of crusades against the Muslims to win control of Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus. On their way to the Middle East, the crusader armies attacked Jewish communities along the route. The First Crusade was especially bloody. Entire communities of Jews were forced to choose between baptism or death, and since few Jews would renounce their faith, the First Crusade resulted in nearly 10,000 Jews being slaughtered during the first six months alone.
Godfrey Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, vowed "to leave no single member of the Jewish race alive," and ordered the synagogue in Jerusalem burned to the ground with its entire Jewish congregation trapped inside.
This hatred and slaughter of Jews (and Muslims) continued essentially unabated for centuries, and did not end with the entry of Christianity's newer sect, Protestantism, despite its early attempt to exhibit some tolerance of the Jews. For the most part, Christianity has entered and resides in the modern age. Even so, the charge of deicide in the past and today the demonization of Israel by the Leftist church plague Jewish-Christian relations [see here].

That Islam is today marked by continued spasms of hatred and intolerance is undeniable and problematic for western society as a whole, which of course includes Israel and the Jews; yet, it is equally problematic for the citizens of Islamic nations, who are being denied an opportunity to become tolerant and modern and free—as is their human desire. What is not always noted in the major media is that the violence is hardly representative of the majority of Muslims, but is advocated and provoked by extremist fringe groups who want to sow discord and who want to use violence to silence dissent, discussion and open debate. An example is the response of Libyans after the murder of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi [see here and here].

Moreover, it must be said that Islam's record of bloodshed is no worse than that of historical Christianity; and Islam is a far younger religion, dating to the seventh century C.E.  Few will find such thoughts comforting, but it's not a matter of comfort but facts: the history of religion cannot be cleansed of its history of violence; the historical record is full of bloodshed. No one abhors the violence more than me, but violence never ends when we want it to; it ends when its perpetrators view it as no longer profitable, and decide to embrace the view of tolerance, openness and free speech; and equally important to stop the hatred and focus their energies on doing good. That will take time.

Yet, the process has begun with the raising of important questions within the Arab world: Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, a retired Saudi Naval Commodore, writes in an article ("It's time to stop the hatred") that first appeared in the Arab News, and has been republished in The Canadian Jewish News (Oct 18, 2012):
The real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom and lack of respect for the human lives. As well, the Arab world has had many dictators who used the Arab-Israeli conflict to suppress their own people, These dictators' atrocities against their own people are far worse than all the full-scale Arab-Israeli wars.
That Islamists are in power in Egypt, Tunisia and in Gaza give many in the West reason to be concerned; yet, it is a necessary transition that might not turn out all bad. Slogans are not enough; the Islamists have to govern and bring about the necessary changes for their constituents. In the Palestine-Israel Journal, Khaled Hroub writes
In the next era these two issues, or mechanisms — the slogan of “Islam Is the Solution” and speaking in the name of religion — will be subjected to an open and comprehensive public test. This may take a long time, the life span of an entire generation, but it seems that it is inevitable and the passage of this historic stage of the life of the Arab peoples is necessary to gradually turn their exaggerated mania concerning identity into an understanding of the political, social and economic reality. Or, in other words, to turn people’s awareness and public opinion from placing their hopes on dreamy ideological and utopian slogans to confronting reality and holding parties and movements accountable according to the information provided in their actual programs and reality on the ground.
My hope is that Islam can (eventually) evolve to a more moderate form, as Judaism and Christianity have done before it. Some hard-line Western commentators consider such thinking as not possible, looking at current events in the Middle East as proof that Islam can never reform. I don't agree: Jewish commentators in "civilized Europe" might have thought the same thing about Christianity a scant hundred years ago.