By: Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Center for Interreligious Understanding
Professor Marshall Breger, Catholic University of America
Suhail A. Khan, Institute for Global Engagement
The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
We are here as a single voice that comes from the three Abrahamic faiths, because we are seeing a new slogan ripple from downtown Manhattan across the US. Its timing particularly resonates as some of us have just returned from an unprecedented tour of concentration camps in Europe, where we stood side by side with a delegation of the most influential US Imams and Muslim leadership. Together, those of us who are Jewish and Muslim, came face-to-face with the unambiguous lesson that religious demonization can and does lead to unimaginable violence and horror.
This angry and emotionally-charged debate over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” (which is not at Ground Zero and is a community center that includes a mosque), is about the perceived threat and rights of a religious minority, Muslim Americans. While many people are legitimately concerned for the sensitive reconstruction of property near Ground Zero, if the controversy was simply the proposed Islamic center in downtown New York, the danger would be contained. Ugly and messy, perhaps, but contained. But throughout the nation a slogan has emerged: No More Mosques. Not just near Ground Zero but in Staten Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, California…
Thus radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh calls for a moratorium on mosques everywhere as political advisor Dick Morris sounds the alarm: “The proposed mosque near to Ground Zero is not really a religious institution. It would be — as many mosques throughout the nation are — a terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and training center.”
And a good deal of this rhetoric has crossed the line from antipathy to mosques to hate speech about the religion of Islam itself:
While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich conjures up Nazi imagery, Evangelist Franklin Graham describes Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion” and Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” host Pat Robertson says Islam isn’t a religion but a “worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world.”
Their ignorance and inaccurate diatribes about Islam would not be worth noting were it not for the frightening impact this fear-mongering zeal is having on the fabric of American society. The Pew Research Center just released a study that shows the American view of Muslims has declined in the last five years and today, more Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of Islam than have a favorable one.
Are there extremists who promote violence in the name of faith? No doubt. Zealots of all three Abrahamic faiths have done so for time immemorial. The early Christian apologists told us “there is no crime for those who have Christ”. The Crusaders pillaged entire cities. Jewish Sicarri zealots provoked a war with Rome. Fast-forward to the cross-burning KKK, and the Kach followers of Rabbi Meier Kahane, designated by the US government as a terrorist organization. We personally cringe and publicly reject what these extremists stand for. Clearly it is neither Christianity nor Judaism just as 9/11 does not reflect the essence of Islam.
But we must not commit the cardinal error — indeed cardinal sin — of taking one aspect of a religion (often torn from context) and condemning an entire faith community for its errant fanatics. In our zeal to attack the extremes, we should not attack the spiritual truth of the religions themselves.
We would do well to remember the words of President George W. Bush after the horror of 9/11: “Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.” And the post-9/11 statement issued by fifty-seven leaders of North American Islamic organizations, seventy-seven Islamic intellectuals, and dozens of concerned Muslim citizens: “As American Muslims and scholars of Islam, we wish to restate our conviction that peace and justice constitute the basic principles of the Muslim faith….Groups like al-Qaeda have misused and abused Islam in order to fit their own radical and indeed anti-Islamic agenda. Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s actions are criminal, misguided and counter to the true teachings of Islam.” And the words of President Obama last year “There are extremist organizations – whether Muslim or any other faith, in the past – that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name.”
In 2005, a Fatwa, an Islamic ruling that carries the weight of religious law, was issued against Islamic extremists by the Fiqh Council of North America. This association of Islamic legal scholars interprets Muslim religious teaching and guides millions of American Muslims. Its 18-member council issued this Fatwa that condemns all acts of terrorism and religious extremism as fundamentally un-Islamic: “There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism. Targeting civilians’ life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram – or forbidden- and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not ‘martyrs.'” This Fatwa was endorsed by more than one hundred Muslim organizations in the US.
Islam’s teachings and ethics are very similar to Jewish and Christian teachings. Islam teaches the love of God and love of fellow human beings; the living of an ethical life that emphasizes justice and charity, and being kind and generous to all human beings. The authentic teachings of Islam consider Jews, Christians and Muslims to be “People of the Book” and therefore not infidels.
The kind of caricature and reductionism we have recently seen does nothing to help fight terrorism, the real and murderous enemy all of us — regardless of faith or no faith at all — currently face and must defeat. It gets in the way.
As Americans of all faiths we must recognize, marginalize and reject the divisive rhetoric of a vocal minority. We are seeing the early days of a potential tsunami of prejudice currently called Islamophobia and there is no place in our civil society for it. Hate is hate: just take a tour of a concentration camp and it is clear that hate knows no bounds. As we toured Dachau and Auschwitz it was also clear that the only way to make real the commitment of “Never Again” is to stand united under the law, against injustice, and loudly reject the roiling wave of prejudice churning on our horizon. To not do so is to go against the American principles of inclusion and fairness. And it goes against the very spirit of our faiths.
To read the landmark statement issues by the Imams after their trip to
Dachau and Auschwitz, please see: