An end to wars of hatred
It will take much more than military action to wipe out the religious extremism sweeping the Middle East, says Jonathan Sacks
Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30
Today in the Middle East, there is a revolution against secularism of two different kinds. The first is the secular nationalism of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq - all regimes widely seen to be corrupt and oppressive. The second is the secular culture of the West, judged by those for whom tradition resonates to be decadent, materialist and soul-destroying.
While the 17th Century was the dawn of an age of secularisation, the 21st Century will be the start of an age of desecularisation. Worldwide, religious groups have the highest birth rates. Over the next half-century, there will be a massive transformation in the religious make-up of much of the world, with Europe leading the way. With the sole exception of the United States, the West is failing to heed the Darwinian imperative of passing on its genes to the next generation.
In a world of declining superpowers, sclerotic international institutions, a swathe of failed or failing states and a Hobbesian chaos of civil and tribal wars, religious extremists are seizing power. This means that we have little choice but to re-examine the theology that leads to violent conflict in the first place. If we do not, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end.
The violence cannot be ended by military means alone. Moises Naim, in his seminal work The End of Power, makes this absolutely clear. Wars, he says, are becoming increasingly asymmetric, large armies against smaller, non-traditional ones. They are also being increasingly won by the militarily weaker side. A Harvard study has shown that in asymmetric conflicts between 1800 and 1849, the weaker side in terms of soldiers and arms achieved its aim in 12pc of cases. In the wars between 1950 and 1998, the weaker side won in 55pc of cases. Hence Naím's conclusion that "when nation-states go to war these days, big military power delivers less than it once did".
The challenge is not only to Islam, but to Judaism and Christianity, too. None of the great religions can say, in unflinching self-knowledge: "Our hands never shed innocent blood." As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly? What is God saying to us, here, now? We are not prophets but we are their heirs and we are not bereft of guidance on these fateful issues.
As one who values market economics and liberal democratic politics, I fear that the West does not fully understand the power of the forces that oppose it. Passions are at play that run deeper and stronger than any calculation of interests. Reason alone will not win this particular battle. Nor will invocations of words like "freedom" and "democracy". To some, they sound like compelling ideals, but to others, they are the problem against which they are fighting, not the solution they embrace.
There is nothing accidental about the spread of radical politicised religion in our time. It came about because of a series of decisions a half-century ago that led to the creation of an entire educational network of schools and seminaries dedicated to the proposition that loving God means hating the enemies of God. The end result has been a flood of chaos, violence and destruction that is drowning the innocent and guilty alike.
Today Jews, Christians and Muslims must stand together, in defence of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honour of God himself. The real clash of the 21st Century will not be between civilisations or religions, but within them. It will be between those who accept and those who reject the separation of religion and power. Those who believe that political problems have religious solutions are deluding themselves as well as failing to understand who Abraham was and what he represented. The confusion of religion and politics was what Abraham and his heirs opposed, not what they endorsed.
What then must we do? We must put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism. Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.
There must be an international campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate. Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan, if radio, television, websites and social media pour out a non-stop stream of paranoia and incitement, then Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its commitment to religious freedom, will mean nothing. All the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.
We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbour and stranger, the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faith, races, can live together in grace and peace.
These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and none. This does not mean that human nature will change, or that politics will cease to be an arena of conflict. All it means is that politics will remain politics, and not become religion.
We need also to insist on the simplest moral principle of all, the first to be confirmed by computer simulation: the principle of reciprocal altruism, otherwise known as tit-for-tat. This says: as you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect. If you ask for tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance. If you wish not to be offended, then you must make sure you do not offend.
As John Locke said: "It is unreasonable that any should have a free liberty of their religion who do not acknowledge it as a principle of theirs that nobody ought to persecute or molest another because he dissents from him in religion." This principle alone, properly applied, would have banned at the outset the preachers-of-hate who radicalised so many impressionable minds in the West, turning them into murderers in God's name.
Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: we are all children of Abraham. We are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God's love does not work that way. Today, God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God's name by honouring his image, humankind.
Extracted from Rabbi Lord Sacks's new book, 'Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence', published June 11 (Hodder & Stoughton). He was the British Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013