04/20/2011 10:15 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2011

The Dangers of Religious Extremism

First off, let's be honest. In the wrong hands -- hate-filled, conflict craving, radical hands that inevitably seem convinced that they are the only right hands regardless -- no religion is a religion of peace.

Terry Jones, Florida's own "Quran-Burning Pastor," certainly proved that about his version of Christianity.

When he burned his Quran, Terry declared he intended to prove Islam violent by provoking a violent Muslim response. But I'm sure he did it in the name of Jesus anyway, counting even potential lives lost to be of less worth than the point he was trying to make.

However, as for all you crazy Muslims who fell into his trap? Violence in the name of the Quran abuses the Quran far worse than Jones did. Terry couldn't have made his point without you. Nice job.

Violent, ignorant and politically motivated Muslims are just one of the three evil fitnah Muhammad warned Muslims about. He said we'd first forget the love upon which our faith was founded, then we'd begin to follow men following things other than Muhammad's Islam and then we'd finally be beset by demon-hearted, Arab-skinned, Arabic-speaking men calling the faithful to the gates of hell.

Sure sounds like al Qaeda to me.

In answer to their call, in the last 10 years alone, so-called "Radical Islamists" have cost the world hundreds of Jewish, thousands of Christian and hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives alike.

Al Qaeda, I just have to ask: is that honestly what following God's Religion of Peace means to you?

However, we all know that Donald Rumsfeld similarly abused Bible verses to exhort his President Bush to follow Rumsfeld's battle plans -- invading and decimating two entire countries with American soldiers busily carving Bible verses onto their rifle butts -- at an even greater cost of human lives.

And meanwhile, in God's Holy Land, rabbis like Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Judea and Samaria, who claims he values "a thousand non-Jewish lives less than a Jew's fingernail," have presided over the retaliatory suppressive oppression of millions of Palestinians and the slaughter of thousands of those "non-Jewish" souls he so devalues -- many of them children -- all in the name of God.

Now, don't get me wrong. As so-called "Religions of Peace," I'm actually a pretty big fan of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I've studied them all enough to know that they're all pretty cool: It just doesn't seem to me that any of them are playing much of a role in what's going on.

Because, as I said at the beginning: In the wrong hands, no religion is a religion of peace.

In truth, no one denies that every religion includes a "radical fringe," who make their living -- or at least a name for themselves -- promoting a particular ethno-religious hegemony based on the idea that God prefers some people to others.

In essence, regardless of what religion we follow, we've all got our Osama bin Ladens, our Donald Rumsfelds and our Dov Liors. And we've all got our Franklin Grahams and our Anwar al-awLakis, as well.

Because regardless of religious background -- and regardless of whether they're politicians, evangelists or weapons dealers -- radicals inevitably share one common characteristic: They benefit from promoting conflict, differences and fear.

But what's making matters so much worse recently is that each of our radical fringes has learned that promoting other religion's radicals as if they're "mainstream" is an effective means to that end.

Basically, radical Christians want you to believe every Muslim is a radical Muslim who hates America and Israel, and radical Muslims want you to believe every Jew and every Christian sides with Dov Lior.

And our world's many 24-hour news networks have found that simplistic and utterly dishonest view of human diversity makes for some very saleable news copy, too.

But here's the newsflash: There's a "Trinity of Truths" I've found in all my interfaith wanderings:
  • God's Peace-Seekers far outnumber Satan's Warmongers in all our religious communities.
  • A path to shared peace can be found in ALL our faiths -- and many others as well.
  • And there are no better proofs that God doesn't love any one group, tribe or nation any more than the rest than the so-called-conflict-promoting "Ayah of the Sword" in the Holy Quran.

Because here's the thing: Muslims, Christians and Jews are supposed to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent creator, who made EVERYTHING, including both space and time.

But that means that our universe isn't just some mechanism that God put into motion, to play out to some eventual end. Instead, it's an artifact: a completed work of Divine Art, complete from conception.

And since that means that everything in the Universe was put into place at a specific and carefully chosen place and time, we all might have to change the way we think about interpreting Holy Scripture.

Because the historical context that a verse came into, and the impact it had when it arrived, can have a profound effect on its meaning today. For example, it's true that At-Taubah 9:5 says:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

And there's no questioning that conflict-crazed radicals of every stripe (and I mean primarily Israeli Zionists, Islamists and Islamophobes) invariably claim it commands Muslims to fight non-Muslims by every means, until the end of time.

But they do so in willful ignorance of what that command actually did. Because it actually brought about the bloodless conquest of Mecca.

And if God knew what was going to happen -- as Muslims are supposed to believe -- then that means He knew it would prevent non-Muslim bloodshed, not promote it.

The same things holds true for the second "Sword Ayah," At-Taubah 9:29 which commands:

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya (which was a tax in return for exemption for military duty) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

Because it came in response to rumors of a vast army of Christians and Jews, a quarter of a million strong, massing in the north and planning to exterminate the 25,000 Muslims then living.

I'm sure it sounded strange to those early Muslims, many of whom likely thought they were marching to their deaths facing 10-to-1 odds, but when they instead met communities looking for peaceful co-existence, Muhammad withdrew the army and sent envoys instead, ensuring that command brought peace to the entire Middle East as well.

Now, I know that Islamists and Islamophobes together will both take offence to those observations, but I'd point out that that's something I think should give us all pause: I mean seriously, if you found Osama bin Laden in bed with Pat Robertson, wouldn't you wonder what's going on?

My bottom line to both groups? Neither Islamists nor Islamophobes can change history, or the way those commands altered the life of Muhammad, his companions or the world around them.

The society they founded, based on the commands of the Quran -- as they understood them -- was a society that sought and valued peace, with egalitarian justice for all.

Basically, Muhammad founded something much like George Washington's America. If you don't believe me, then check out the history of early Islam for yourself. Because interpreting the meaning of the Quran into our lives today, illuminated by the life Muhammad lived back then, is what Islam is supposed to be about. And that history fixes everything in both senses of the word "fixes": repairing misinterpretations and making the true interpretation immutable to the end of time.

But then, here's the other thing:
Those same rules should apply to Jews and Christians, too, because they worship the same omniscient, omnipotent and "temporally un-encumbered" God as us. And it honestly looks like He doesn't want them fighting with us either.

For instance, I know Jews claim God gave them Israel because of the Covenant of Abraham.
Interestingly enough, the Jewish right to the land is even stronger in the Quran. There, the Arabic word describing the relationship between them and the Holy Land is KatabAllahu, which means something pretty close to God-ordained.

However, about that Covenant, God was very clear. In Genesis 18: 17-19 He says:

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.

So all God's promises to God's Chosen people are dependent on the quality of the justice they bring.

Justice? That certainly doesn't sound like what's going on in the West Bank and Gaza today.

And there's no question -- if the Children of Abraham are right about God -- that He would have known what would be happening in Israel and Palestine, when He said what he did.

In fact, He's even clearer later on. In Ezekiel 47: 21-23, He commands Israel:

You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.

And again, there really shouldn't be any question -- at least not among believing Jews and Christians -- that the God of Abraham would have known that those aliens would include Christians and Muslims. I mean, unless you think God's a complete moron, if He'd meant to leave Muslims and Christians out, He'd have said so, right?

Now, there's a growing cadre of conflict-seeking Jews, Christians and Muslims who are together promoting the idea that we're fast approaching an Armageddon where we all fight with each other, to the death and beyond.

But there's actually a Bible verse in John's Revelation that promises we're all going to come out of this together. Revelation 12: 1-2 describes Israel this way:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

(I know some today think it's talking about Mary, but that doesn't fit within the greater narrative, and certainly wouldn't have been the interpretation back in the day.)

Inevitably, when I show those verses to conflict-seekers in all our religions, they invariably see the same thing: an impending conflict between Israel, Christianity and Islam because the woman is standing, they assume quite disrespectfully, on the moon.

Except in the Holy Bible, the moon has nothing to do with Islam. Except for indirectly explaining why the moon is associated with Islam in the first place, all the while refuting Golda Mier's astonishing declaration "there is no such thing as a Palestinian" all in one fell swoop, taboot.

Because this isn't the first time in the Bible the sun, moon and stars come together. The first time they come together is in the Old Testament, in the story of Joseph, son of Israel and Rachel, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dream-Coat.

In Joseph's dream, before he's kidnapped by his brothers and sold off to Egypt to basically found the Nation of Israel, he has a dream of 11 stars (his brothers) bowing down to one star (him), in which his father, Jacob/Israel (symbolized by the Sun), and mother, Rachel (symbolized by the Moon), figure quite heavily.

So biblically, the moon would never be treated disrespectfully because it symbolizes the woman who became Mother of Israel herself.

But it's why the moon is her symbol that makes for the inclusive happy ending, because it turns out that it's because she was a proto-Palestinian!

Holy-Land-living, monotheistic, non-Jewish, Semitic Arabs have actually been part of the Bible's narrative from the very beginning. Called the Ishmaelites (literally the "people of Ishmael") or the Midianites (the family Moses married into), their symbol has always been the moon.

And despite Golda Meir's claim, that pretty much proves that today's Palestine's forbearers have been there all along.

And Israel's crowning glory isn't the 12 Jewish sons of Jacob/Israel, because according to Orthodox Jewish law, they're not even Jewish! Although their daddy was, their mother wasn't. And their coupling is what makes the crowning glory of God's Israel not Jewish Israel alone, but instead Arab/Jewish unity, "clothed" by Israel, and supported by all the world's Muslims and our Islam.

Islamic Zionism, the way it should be.

Now I know that observation isn't going to be popular in certain circles. In fact, how you respond is one of my own litmus tests for religious radicalism: that test being how much you're influenced by the requirement that others must suffer for you to be truly content with your own walk with God.

But just think about it for a moment: Does faith have to be a zero-sum game? For you to win, does someone else have to lose?

The fact is, Muslims and Christians are both looking forward to Jesus' Second Coming and to Jesus the Christ's leadership after his return as well.

The only significant doctrinal difference between the two religions is Trinitarianism and Christ worship, which weren't even part of Christianity until 400 years along.

In fact, when you read John's Revelation in that light, you realize that today's Muslims have a lot more in common with John's Christians than today's Christians do.

What if the suffering John's describing isn't Jewish suffering or Christian suffering, but is instead Palestinian suffering? That kind of changes things, doesn't it?

And although I know most Jews don't agree that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, I have to ask you all to consider, since Muslims and Christians outnumber you almost a thousand to one: What if we're right?

Regardless, I've yet to find a Jew, Muslim or Christian who doesn't consider Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" a near prefect representation of their own best faith in our Shared Creator. And with Easter fast approaching (another thing Muslims and Christians agree about by the way: We ALL think he's risen, Muslims just don't think he died first), maybe it would be a good idea for us all to read through it again, just to get a feel for the sort of faith we really share. Because in answer to the conflict-seeking, power-hungry radicals in all our religions, I think we have an opportunity to take a truly radical step for ourselves, finding the multi-religious path to peace God actually intends for us, predicated on what I think is the obvious message hiding in all our diversity:

That regardless of which faith if any we follow,
For our World to exist as it does,
With all of us living upon it together as we do,
Then God -- if God Loves us, as we believe -- must Love everyone else as well.

So then...who's with me?