By Eugen Schoenfeld Eugen Schoenfeld
Listening to the news about terrorism in Paris, I became outraged. I asked myself: How can people who claim to follow Abraham’s moral dicta and who believe in peace and justice commit such atrocities? Aren’t they aware how Abraham confronted G-d to save human lives even of the supposedly evil and unjust? We Jews, who were the first to adopt Abraham’s way of life, throughout our existence, individually and collectively, have sought the peace and justice denied to us by Christians and Muslim. Even after the Holocaust, we Jews continue to face aggressive anti-Semitism.
I come neither to justify nor to condemn Islam. But an important question must be asked: Is religious aggression a singular characteristic of Islam, or is Islam’s aggressiveness no different from that of other religions? Perhaps we are too hasty to condemn all of Islam when Muslims are no different from other religions and their aggression is a function of some other force or forces. Maybe, before we condemn, we should consider the dictum suggested by Matthew in the Christian Bible: Be sure not to see the speck in another’s eyes before we notice the log in our own. Or adhere as we are instructed in Mishnah Avoth: Do not judge others unless you have experienced their problems. Most religions have at their onset advocated aggression against other faiths.
Faith and war have a long interrelationship. The Bible informs us that the first aggressive act between human beings occurred when Cain, motivated by jealousy, killed his brother Abel.
Not everything in the Bible is a model for an ideal life. On the contrary, many biblical stories suggest that faith in G-d leads to radicalization. For instance, the Bible teaches us to love our neighbor and do justice while also instilling into us aggression to hate those who do not believe in our G-d. While the Bible depicts G-d as a benevolent entity, it also depicts G-d as an aggressive and hostile entity who, when angered, assumes a bull-like character: His nostrils flare, and His breath is exhaled as steam. The Bible often describes G-d as one who is jealous and vengeful. He cannot stand other gods before him and demands total and unquestioned submission to his will. Throughout the rebellious period in the desert when the Israelites question G-d’s capabilities, He becomes angry, and He commands Moses to kill unto the thousands the Israelites who oppose Him.
War and G-d go hand in hand. In the Torah we are told of a lost book titled “The Wars of G-d” (Numbers 21:14), which I assume described all the wars the Israelites waged in the name of G-d. After all, the wars the early Israelites waged to conquer Canaan were waged at G-d’s command. G-d was perceived as the leader of the army and was called Adonay Tzevaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the General of the Army, the G-d of might. This role of G-d as the Israelite warrior was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant when it had been carried by priests at the head of the army. G-d punished Saul, the first Judaean king, because he wasn’t adequately ruthless in fighting the Amalekites.
Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, also associated war with religion. At the Battle of Milvan Bridge, Constantine, in response to a dream, gathered his troops, and formed a cross from two arrows and declared: “In hoc signo vinces” (with this sign you shall conquer). We should not forget the Crusades, which for three centuries were waged in the name of G-d against Islam. Let me mention the aggressive nature of the Inquisition, which condemned thousands of non-Catholics to die, and the brutality of the Thirty Years’ War.
Let us not forget that G-d was also present in the battles of World War II. The German soldiers wore belt buckles scripted with the slogan “Got mit Uns” (G-d with us), and we Americans declared, “In G-d we trust.”
Muslims also took their symbols into war. Their flags were emblazoned with passages from the Quran to symbolize it was a holy war. Their battle cry was “Allahu Akbar.” And like early Judaism and Christianity, Islam did manifest hostility and aggression to members of other faiths. They were all infidels. Like the Christian Bible, the Quran prophesied the doom of all infidels, particularly those considered to be most competitive and hence most dangerous to Islam — namely, Jews and Christians.
Most of us immediately associate atrocities committed by Muslims with Islam. No doubt there is a relationship between the teachings of Mohammed and the atrocities, just as the Bible justifies aggression. In the Quran’s fifth chapter (Surah), the prophet in the name of Allah prophesizes the destruction of Jews and Christians if they fail to embrace Mohammed’s revelations. But the Christian Bible has a similar tone. Recently I was confronted by a Christian who was sorry for me because as a Jew I’ll not be given salvation, and my destiny is hell. Christians, I believe, are changing, and many disregard such teachings.
What makes Christianity and Judaism different today from Islam? Christian and Jewish cultures have evolved into more modern stances, while Islam is still a primitive religion.
Religion reflects the intellectual state of the society in which it exists. Primitive societies and their religions emphasize the need for a homogeneous culture and do not permit the existence of heterogeneous points of view. The laws in primitive societies are punitive and seek to assuage the collective consciousness through vengeance. Hence, a violation of the laws reflects a need for the release of public anger through flogging, cutting off body parts, stoning, etc. Moreover, primitive societies are ruled by tradition and by charismatic leaders who supposedly reflect G-d’s will. G-d (or G-d’s representative) insists that we obey G-d, and he, or the religious leaders, defines what G-d wants and what G-d demands of human beings — we must be His protectors. From a primitive perspective, to accrue G-d’s favors and his protection from nature, the believers must be willing to fight his battles with other gods. This view is similar to the one we encounter in Exodus when we are told G-d worries that the Egyptian gods will be seen as more powerful than He is. G-d wants, and perhaps needs, our involvement with his battles against other gods, at least against the believers of other gods. The flags we Jews carried into battle against the Greek gods were inscribed with a single word, “maccabbe,” an abbreviation of the Hebrew statement “Who is like you, O Lord, among the mighty?” Christianity in a similar manner claimed absolute greatness for G-d and Christ. Of course Islam declares that Allah is the one and only G-d.
Christianity and Judaism, unlike Islam, have undergone their revolution toward modernity. This is evident in the increased heterogeneity of beliefs. There are many forms of Jewish and Christian beliefs, and some people still wish to adhere to a primitive belief — and they may. But most people in the West accept a more secularized belief. Freedom of diverse and heterogeneous beliefs and views is fundamental to modernity. But Islam has not entered modernity. Islam is still one belief system mired in primitiveness.
As long as Islam remains a monolithic belief system, it will continue the wars that began in 620. Religious wars are still the norm against infidels and among Muslims. We cannot alter their belief system. They, like Christianity and Judaism, must undergo their own revolutions before they become modern. We cannot force on them the ideals of democracy or the tolerance of heterogeneity.
But what should we do? We must leave them to their own wars. In a sense, they must fight their own wars and revolutions as the Western nations did. One cannot and should not get involved in their battles. Of course, we must be vigilant against being drawn into their wars. Hence, isolation — this is what we have done when there is a threat for a pandemic.