Ancient Answers


The true heart of Islam

It is commonplace for people in this country to speak of Islam as incompatible with Western ‘values’. I myself have fallen into that trap more than once – even in these pages a couple years  back. Muslim leaders have often been attacked for not speaking out against terrorism.

The fact of the matter is that Muslim leaders have repeatedly condemned terrorism that purports to be in the name of Islam. The Manchester attacker a couple of weeks ago had been reported to the police by members of the Muslim community in Manchester who had grown fearful and suspicious of his extremist views. Unfortunately, the police failed to take these warnings seriously – and that has also been true of other terrorists.

The Guardian newspaper now reports that a large group of imams in Britain will refuse funeral prayers to any individuals who carry out terror attacks. This is a very bold and courageous move and it should silence critics – though I doubt that they will ever be silenced. Only the elimination or expulsion of Muslims will satisfy those whose own hatred matches the hatred of the terrorists and their Islamic State masters.

Consider some of the statements quoted in the Guardian article:

“We will not perform the traditional Islamic funeral prayer over the perpetrators and we also urge fellow imams and religious authorities to withdraw such a privilege. This is because such indefensible actions are completely at odds with the lofty teachings of Islam.”

“It is the Islamic duty of every Muslim to be loyal to the country in which they live. We are now asking questions to understand how extremism and hatred has taken hold within some elements of our own communities.”

“We know that many of these people have previously led a life of delinquency. It is often the case that the path towards extremism is outside of the mosque and at the margins of society. We are all grappling with this hateful ideology. This is an ideology that makes killing and hating cool, and uses the words of Islam as a cloak to justify it.”

“To condemn is only half way. We must also actively confront loudly and clearly.”

These are bold statements and give me hope that terrorism will be defeated by the only people who can defeat it – Muslims themselves. Instead of demonizing Islam and building walls against them and spreading false stories about sharia law and other nonsense, we need to work together with them as people of faith. We Christians should weep with them, rather than attack them and their religion. We should weep for our own sins of violence and fundamentalism.

It took Christian churches about 1,800 years to stop reading the Bible with fundamentalist eyes and understanding. It took us many centuries to stop reading certain passages of the Bible as justification for wars and crusades and inquisitions. And there are still Christian fundamentalist sects that use the Bible to justify killings, capital punishment, neglect of the environment, nuclear weapons, damnation for gays, subjugation of women, war in the Middle East (so their “rapture” will come), and other forms of hatred too many to list.

The point that I’m making is that our Jewish-Christian Bible has many passages that can inspire hatred, violence and wars. Most Christian churches have come to a place in our evolution where we can place those passages in context and relegate them to the margins of our faith traditions. The same struggle has to happen within Islam, and the decision of these imams in Britain is a sign that it may already be happening. And perhaps Muslims will overcome the fundamentalist tendencies within their faith communities in less than the 1,800 years it took Christians!

We need to pray – not only for our Muslim brothers and sisters, but also with them. Our sorrows are their sorrows too. Their struggles to overcome the fundamentalist temptations have also been our struggles. What these British imams are revealing is the true heart of Islam. It is time for us who are not Muslims to open our hearts too, and stop judging. It is time for Christians too, to reveal the peace and love that Jesus taught – the true heart of Christianity.


The evils of rigidity


As the world is once again shocked by another brutal terrorist attack – this time in Brussels – I want to quote some words written by the late, great French theologian and philosopher, Jacques Ellul (1912-94), in his book Living Faith. He wrote of the connection between rigidity and violence, and thus the two faces of violence – the violence of rigid religious fundamentalism and government’s response to it.

The more one is afraid, the harder one’s armor becomes, the more it turns into a part of one’s own body like a kind of carapace. Like fear rigidity manifests itself in every area of life. We find it in religious movements as a return to dogmatic narrowness, formalism, scriptural fundamentalism. We see rigidity in administrators and planners – a sure sign that dictatorial tendencies are reappearing. When fear sweeps over society, a security grid will have to be imposed upon it. And this will necessarily be some kind of fascism, whether of the Right or the Left, which, before bringing on the terror, will have people heaving a great sigh of relief, glad to think that at last they know where they’re going, that someone is protecting them. Rigidity in religion will be matched by rigidity in politics.

Ellul wrote this book in 1983, long before Islamist fundamentalism and terrorist movements and the West’s attempts to respond or deal with this phenomenon. Fundamentalism is rooted in fear. Religious fundamentalists invariably leads to violence on some scale. It can be on the scale of “Christian” fundamentalists who bomb abortion centers or kill abortion doctors; or it can be on the more global scale of the Islamist terrorists of recent decades. Either way, it is the same phenomenon: Fear of change and fear of women!

That’s right, you read that last line correct – fear of women! Islamists are afraid of women asserting their equality with men. I know I’m probably over-simplifying things as I usually do in big matters, but I have long believed that the primary fear that motivates Islamist terrorism is not the Israel-Palestine conflict – they use that as a cover – nor Western support of Arab dictators, but the fear that women in their societies will wake up… To whatever they wake up, it doesn’t matter.

And that fear is not only limited to Islamist fundamentalism. It undergirds much of Christian attitudes to women over the centuries and TODAY! Why do churches refuse to ordain women to any role other than cooks and servers of parish dinners and singers in the choir? Why does our Orthodox Church still maintain such strongly patriarchal language in its liturgical practice? Why do we always ask for the “prayers of our holy Fathers”? Why never our holy Mothers? Why even in the prayers of the Soul Saturdays with which we welcome Lent every year do we pray for the souls of our fathers and brothers and forefathers, etc. etc. – all male entities? Do our mothers and sisters not count? Or is it enough that we fill in their general absence with their specific names that we hand to the priest?

Why in the new Liturgy translation that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is printing for parish use has the English version of the Creed reverted to antiquated, gender-exclusive language – “for us men and for our salvation” – in willful, intentional, yes rigid, rejection of the changes that the English language has undergone in recent decades? When a woman has been hearing “for us and for our salvation” for the past thirty years in the previous translation now hears “for us men” is she supposed to think that she is now being excluded from salvation? Or is the expectation that she will mentally footnote this phrase and understand that “men” includes her too? Of course, most other Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world have been using “men” all along! Now the Greek Archdiocese of America has chosen to do likewise. Too bad, our loss.

There is a sickness in the world – the sickness of religious fundamentalism. Sometimes it leads to violence and death, as in Brussels today. More often it leads to the quiet despair of women in the pews of churches that refuse to recognize them as fully important human beings. (And there are other people and groups of people who also sit in quiet despair in our churches or simply drop away to escape the hatred and mistrust aimed at them!)


We’re all in this together. Whether it’s death or quiet despair, the evil is the same. It flows from fear and rigidity. And the fear and rigidity of religious violence lead to a political response that usually results in the tyranny of the state. We see this trend growing in Europe and in North America; not to ignore Asia and elsewhere. In one brief paragraph, written over 30 years ago, Jacques Ellul brought to our attention both sides of rigidity and fear: the violence of religious fundamentalism and the violence of the state’s response to it. The future of life on our planet is looking pretty bleak right now. Sorry I can’t be more positive today on this, another black day of violence and hatred.