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The Islamic elephant in the room

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks glosses over Islam's inherent violence and also whitewashes Judaism's violent dimension

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is engaged in the most important spiritual mission of contemporary Judaism: facing humanity’s big questions head-on and offering answers drawn from the wellsprings of Jewish faith, philosophy and experience. This is vital, as it demonstrates to those who doubt Judaism’s relevance that our faith in fact contains a wealth of invaluable wisdom to be shared with the world.

Rabbi Sacks has applied himself to this mission with impressive diligence, persistence and intelligence, as well as captivating grace and humility. In this regard, he should serve as an inspiration to us all. As for his messages themselves, here the situation is more complicated: some of these are brilliant, others problematic and require refining, and still others disturbing in their tendency toward political correctness and cry out for refutation.

In his most recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, this mixture reaches a peak.

Altruism that Leads to Evil

Let’s start with the good. Rabbi Sacks puts forth his theses with incredible lucidity and clarity. His general knowledge is enormous, and he backs up his statements with a wide variety of citations and references from philosophers, historians, psychologists, and clergy, from statistical research to topical articles. The reading list at the end of the book could fill all the free hours of anyone interested in expanding his or her education on the topic.

In addition, a large number of Sacks’ analyses — such as of the historical processes that led to modernity or the psychological mechanism of justifying hatred — are among the most poignant that I have read in a long time. A shining example is Sacks’ analysis of secularization as comprised of four stages, corresponding to the past four centuries: the secularization of knowledge by means of science and philosophy in the 17th century; the secularization of power, manifested by the American and French revolutions in the 18th century; the secularization of culture, with art replacing religion in the 19th century; and finally, in the 20th century, the secularization of morality, with individual freedom becoming the central value.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part analyzes the roots of religious violence in our time, which he defines as “altruistic evil” — i.e. evil done in the name of a lofty goal — which stems, in his opinion, from “radical dualism” (demarcating black and white opposites and labeling your opponent as absolutely evil) which stands in contradiction to true monotheism. The second part includes studies of the stories of the “rejected brothers” of Genesis — Ishmael, Esau, and Joseph’s brothers. Reading between the lines, Sacks discovers that the Bible regards them with empathy, and he therefore calls for an attitude of forbearance towards “others.” Some of his interpretations are convincing and some less so, but all are challenging. The last part of the book is Sacks’ call to the three monotheistic religions to work together to foster tolerance and negate extremism and violence.

One of Sacks’ strongest contentions, which should be voiced more, is the connection between the rise of religious violence and the decline of values in the West. The sentence presented as summing up the message of the entire book, “Altruism misdirected can lead to evil,” I wholeheartedly endorse.

The Voldemort Effect

Let’s move on, however, to the two essential problems that the book suffers from. The first one is this: Rabbi Sacks seems unable to name the Islamic elephant in the room. Although any intelligent person will know that the reason for writing a book on religious violence at this time is the rise of worldwide jihadi terrorism, and although almost all acts of religious violence are being committed in the name of Allah, not in the name of the God of Israel or Jesus, Rabbi Sacks insists on speaking of a vague “religious violence,” as if it crouches at the door of the three “Abrahamic faiths” in equal measure.

So, for example, in surveying religious violence of recent years, Rabbi Sacks moves from a description of the rise of radical Islam to a list of persecutions puzzlingly classified according to the religion of the victims — from the persecution of Christians to the persecution of Muslims to the persecution of Jews. Beyond the fact that some of these persecutions were not religiously motivated at all, Sacks goes so far as to interweave Baruch Goldstein and the murderers of Mohammed Abu-Kheidr — two singular and non-representative incidents of Jewish terror — somewhere between the Khmer Rouge and the Islamic State!

True, in all religions, individuals can commit horrible acts of violence in the name of their faith. But is it true that all religions are equally prone to this? If not, and if we want to solve the problem of religious violence, shouldn’t acknowledging this openly be a priority?

Let’s start with the fact that there’s a gaping chasm between Judaism and the two other great monotheistic faiths. Judaism never strove to impose itself on the entire world, and beyond the conquest of the land of Canaan in the days of Joshua, its history contains practically nothing in the way of campaigns of conquest or the tremendous religious coercion of its two offshoots.

Secondly, there is an essential difference between Christianity and Islam as well. Christian violence constituted a flagrant violation of Jesus’s teachings. Jesus preached loving one’s enemy, turning the other cheek, and disassociating from politics. His ideal of complete non-violence was so extreme, it included forbidding self-defense. He displayed this himself, when he instructed a student intent on defending him to return his sword to its sheath, saying “He who draws the sword dies by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). For about three hundred years the Church faithfully maintained this legacy of martyrdom. Only when Christianity became the religion of the Caesars did it betray this path, and in adopting a kind of “identification with the aggressor,” began persecuting disbelievers as it itself had been persecuted. To a great measure, this violence wasn’t inherently Christian, but the old Roman violence now enacted in the name of Christianity. In a way, Christianity’s error was to completely negate violence, resulting in its repression and eventual eruption.

Muslim violence, on the other hand, constituted a direct continuation of Mohammed’s teachings. Mohammed’s career moved gradually from passivity in the Mecca period, to tolerant rule at the beginning of the Medina period, to violent conquest and forcible conversion to Islam in the final years. (Read Mohammed’s last messages in Sura 9 of the Qur’an, keeping in mind that, according to most commentators, later Suras nullify their predecessors.) Accordingly, immediately after his death, his followers launched an unprecedentedly rapid campaign of conquest, and within a little over a hundred years set up an empire larger than Rome at its height. Indeed, the Crusades were first and foremost a reaction to the alarming Islamic invasions. The Hadith literature of both the Sunnis and Shi’ites devotes pages upon pages to praising Jihad and the martyr who gives up his life for it. A Christian returning to his primal sources finds non-violence and non-politics; a Muslim returning to his finds a call to violent political conquest.

One may ask, what is the purpose of publicizing these facts? How does it advance the cause of solving religious violence? And shouldn’t we also publicize the many positive things in Islam (which certainly exist)? The answer is provided by Muslims working on behalf of Islamic reform (see the lectures and writings of Raheel Raza, Maajid Nawaz, and Tawfik Hamid, starting with Raza’s eye-opening film By the Numbers: The Untold Story of Muslim Opinions and Demographics). Reform, they stress, will not occur by politely emphasizing the beautiful passages in the Qur’an and the Hadith while concealing the more central yet less pleasant passages (what Sacks euphemistically calls “hard texts”). Neither will it occur by covering up the problem and focusing on general “religious violence.” It will occur only through truly recognizing the inherently problematic nature of Islam and the need for its deep reform. These individuals speak out against what they call the “Voldemort Effect”: avoiding calling Islamism by its name. This, they maintain, sabotages the struggle for reform in Islam as well as indirectly contributes to the forsaking of Islamism’s victims.

Channeling, not Suppression

The second major problem may seem opposite from the first, but in fact derives from the same blind spot: just as Rabbi Sacks would have us believe that Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions, he whitewashes the violent dimension in Judaism, diminishes its importance, and presents it as something entirely of the past.

Sacks claims over and over again that the Bible argues against extolling ancient imperialism. But he ignores the fact that the entire Five Books of Moses calls for the establishment of a Jewish political entity in the Land of Israel, with the Prophets extending this vision to the entire world. He extensively cites the Sages and Jewish legislators who rebuke the taking of personal revenge, but ignores the fact that on the national level revenge is viewed as positive (“Do not take revenge” is said specifically regarding “the members of your people”), and not only when enacted by God (which is why it’s perfectly acceptable today, under its new name, “retributive action”). He invokes at great length the prohibition on murder, but ignores the many forms of capital punishment that the Bible commands, including for transgressions such as of idol worship and Sabbath desecration, which harm no other person. He speaks about religious tolerance, but ignores Judaism’s rejection of pluralistic polytheism in favor of a single Torah whose values can be imposed upon others and in whose name one may kill.

Rabbi Sacks of course has good reason for skipping over the violent and political foundations of the Written Torah: the Oral Torah tremendously modified and softened them, building a passive and refined religion that deals not with politics or warfare, but with establishing peace between individuals. Yet we should not forget that Judaism never abolished the force of the Written Torah (as Christianity did). Quite the opposite: we regard it as holy, read it in synagogue every week, and devote ourselves to its study. Why?

The reason is that Judaism neither considers violence wholly profane, as did Jesus, nor proudly adopts it as a method for fulfilling God’s will, as did Mohammed. The Jewish model is of acknowledging violence — as an existing fact, an inherent drive, and a sometimes justified tool — and at the same time, channeling and sublimating it. When they work together, our two Torahs achieve this balance: the Written Torah drops violence upon us from heaven in order to awaken us from our pagan slumber (reminding us, for example, that life without devoting a day of the week to the memory of our having been created isn’t worthy of being called life), while the Oral Torah softens the fall and restores our stability (ensuring that, in fact, Shabbat desecrators will not be stoned).

In great measure, this second criticism of the book balances the first: it recognizes that the Islamic elephant in the room did not emerge from nowhere. It has its seed in our own Bible. The aspiration to put an end to materialism, hedonism, and paganism, and subordinate the entire world to one rule, is sourced in us. We, however, don’t attempt to achieve this goal through coercion and terror, but rather by shining our light and giving humanity the chance to mature at its own pace.

Recognizing this is important. First, it makes it possible for us to understand the motives of radical Islam. Radical Islam cries out what the West wants to ignore: there’s truth, there’s good and evil, not everything has to be tolerated, and there’s no value to human life without something holier. If we don’t state these truths in sane, balanced words, others will express them in the worst possible actions. If the West wants to fight for the souls of young Muslims, as it must, echoing these messages is a vital ingredient.

Secondly, acknowledging the violence in Biblical Judaism allows us to tap into the spiritual resources and faith needed to battle radical Islam. Rabbi Sacks claims that his book is “not an argument for powerlessness” (p. 223). But that’s exactly the feeling one gets. If religion is always against violence, if it’s good only when it’s private and passive, if it’s never allowed to use force in its name — from where will we draw the strength to take on a murderous enemy permeated with a religious fervor like that of the Islamic State?

To conclude, the recognition of our own violent foundations is important in order not to fall into the trap of Christianity — suppressing this aspect of human nature and decrying every type of violence as condemnable. Beyond the falseness in this, repressed violence has a way of bubbling up from under the surface and bursting out uncontrolled. Not only misdirected altruism can go bad but also emotions such as national pride, militant urges, and the desire to respond with force in the face of danger and injustice.

In Western culture it’s highly desirable to promote the values of tolerance and coexistence. After all, we live in democratic societies that advance due to inner dialogue among their members. But in the face of the threat of extremist Islam, we can’t rely only upon this tool. After we’ve identified the enemy, we have to channel into the source within us from which radical Islam itself draws its strength: the belief in the righteousness of our cause and the confidence to use force on its behalf. The answer to religious violence is not completely negating it, but properly directing it.

Originally published, in Hebrew, in Makor Rishon; translated by Gila Manolson.

Nir Menussi writes and lectures on Judaism, Hasidut and modern culture.

About the Author
Nir Menussi writes and lectures on Judaism, Hasidut and modern culture.
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