OTTAWA -- 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 faiths 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, 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 favorable 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, as does groups like the Muslim-Christian Dialogue of Ottawa.
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 1970s, each of these faiths saw fundamentalism among its followers take center stage.
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, the country 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 1960s and the 1970s in the United States, 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 Sharia).
It is interesting that the five essential practices of Islam, the pillars of Islam – praying five times daily, declaring faith in the unity of God and the prophethood of Mohammed, 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 United States 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 nationalists.
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 Sept. 11, 2001 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 neighbors experience and which no society can safely ignore."
Who can disagree?
Hon. David Kilgour, J.D., is a former Canadian Secretary of State for Africa and Latin America (1997-2002) and Asia-Pacific (2002-2003). He can be reached at www.david-kilgour.com.