A seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa was told several years
ago that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East was the
widespread view there that Muslims and Jews do not worship the same God. This
misunderstanding, we were told, encourages members of both faith communities to
dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the other. When added to other
regional issues, the result is ongoing terrible murders, bloodshed and mayhem.
In reality, we Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God, albeit in
different ways and with differing emphasis. Each of our great monotheistic
faiths believes that life has profound value and meaning. But how many
Christians, for example, know that the Koran makes numerous and favourable
references to Jesus? This profound ignorance about each other is a major
obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All of us must work harder in
this new century to eliminate this knowledge deficit. Groups like the
Muslim-Christian Dialogue of Ottawa are doing useful work to light candles of
There is another important area of misunderstanding among all three
religions: the large differences of viewpoints within each of them. No one has
written about this issue more perceptively than Karen Armstrong in her book, The
Battle for God, which examines reasons why fundamentalism has grown in all three
faiths. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one example she cites. It began as a
secularist dispute on both sides, but today it is seen through an almost
exclusively faith prism by both Muslim and Jewish protagonists. By the late
1970's, each of these faiths saw fundamentalism among its followers take centre
The rise of Christian fundamentalism, says Armstrong, parallels that of the
two other religions, although for time reasons, I'll only mention a couple of
features she cites of the American experience with it.
The 1787 Constitution of the Unites States does not mention God at all; the
First Amendment formally separated religion from the state. By the middle of the
19th century, however, our neighbours had become strongly Christian. I recall
reading not so long ago that fully half of the U.S. population today belongs,
not merely adheres, to a church. The American Evangelicals, who seek a
"righteous empire" based on Godly, not Enlightenment, concepts became
increasingly influential in the early part of the 20th century.
As Armstrong puts it, fundamentalism in all three faiths "exists in a
symbiotic relationship with an aggressive liberalism or secularism, and under
attack, increasingly becomes more extreme, bitter and excessive." During the
1960's and the 1970's in the U.S., faced with such an ethos, Protestant
fundamentalists there grew much more vocal. One of their major concerns was that
the First Amendment was to protect religion from the state, not vice versa.
The Battle for God notes that in the 16th century Muslims constituted
approximately one third of the world's population. Three new Muslim empires were
founded in that century alone: the Ottoman, the Safavid and the Moghul, with all
three providing a cultural renewal for their nationals comparable to that
provided by, say, the Italian Renaissance.
I fast forward to the year 2000 because of my limited time. According to
Armstrong and many other commentators, fundamentalist Muslims around the world
are today deeply concerned about two features of Western society:
1. the separation of religion from government/ politics;
2. they want their own communities to be governed by the laws of Islam (the
It is interesting that the five essential practices of Islam (prayers five
times daily, declaring faith in the unity of God and the prophethood of
Muhammed, paying a tax to ensure the fair distribution of community resources,
observing the fast of Ramadan as a reminder of the difficulties of the poor, and
visiting Mecca [if circumstances allow]) have some quite similar features in
Christianity and Judaism. Equally, some sacred events and other essences of
these latter two faiths seem quite acceptable to Muslims generally.
I'd argue that believers of all three religions, each holding that humankind
is no mere molecular accident, should agree on a host of issues, including the
growing inequality of world incomes, the need to protect the natural
environment, human dignity everywhere, and the necessity for peace and harmony
among all peoples and nations.
How many Canadians, I wonder, know that about 50,000 Jewish Spaniards were
welcomed by the Muslim Ottoman Empire when they were expelled from Spain after
1492? Yet centuries later, notes Armstrong, reform Judaism, especially in the
U.S. after 1870, was progressive, liberal and disposed to privatize faith. Many
believers in traditional Judaism felt themselves besieged and some even refused
to participate in secular education or to participate in modern communities.
Many Zionists who led the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine,
she asserts, were in fact atheists, who lacked an understanding that the land
they sought was occupied by 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, who would be expelled
from their homes in 1948. Religious Jews countered that secular nationalism in
the Middle East or anywhere is usually a recipe for disaster. As we know, the
past century is full of horrific acts, including genocides, committed by secular
I've already gone on too long and provided only a sample of the points made
in The Battle for God. The author's conclusion is that fundamentalists in all
three religions have succeeded in rescuing their respective faiths from attempts
to privatize or to suppress each of them. Fundamentalism is now part of the
modern world and, whether some like it or not, is here to stay.
Armstrong notes: "…the liberal myth that humanity is progressing to an ever
more enlightened and tolerant state looks as fantastic as any of the other
millennial myths we have considered in this book. Without the constraints of a
higher mystical truth, reason can on occasion become demonic and count views
that are as great, if not greater, than any of the atrocities perpetrated by
fundamentalists." Armstrong wrote her book before the events of September 11th,
but some of the related points she makes at the end of it still seem valid.
First, liberals and fundamentalists in all three faiths must build bridges and
attempt to avoid future confrontations. Each side must maybe try to understand
what motivates the other. Fundamentalist must develop a more compassionate
assessment of their opponents to be true to their religion's traditions.
Secularists, says Armstrong, "must be more faithful to the benevolence,
tolerance and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its
best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and
needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience and which no
society can safely ignore."
Can any of us this morning disagree?