"THE NEW JIHAD" screamed the first line of a really, really big headline in last weekend's Wall Street Journal. The next few lines were equally and credibly, or incredibly, alarming: "A brazen new generation of battle-hardened extremists has rebelled against al Qaeda, seeing the old guard's leadership as too politically passive and restrained in the use of violence." Also, in bold type, a take-out: "The rise of a self-declared caliph exposes a theological battle between al Qaeda and its rebellious affiliate in Iraq."
Meanwhile, the New York Times and other newspapers and blog posts in which we do our sightings presented their usual quota of religiously-based or religion-related stories about violence. Islam, for a variety of reasons, dominates in this coverage, but the testimony is non-sectarian. In any week there are stories of Buddhist violence in Myanmar, Hindu in India, Jewish in Israel-Palestine, Christian in Africa, etc.
Whoops! Even as I write this I picture over my shoulder charges by "New Atheists," and other formally and noisily anti-religion-people, who are often as ideological as the creed-people against whom they war.
Fortunately for this republic, the anti-religion-people do not ordinarily resort to violence. At first glance one might grant them their point: just kill off religion, all religions, and you will live in a world of peace. On second glance, that doesn't work. People gather around their "idols of the tribe" even when they do not define themselves in reference to sacred icons. Historians are hard-pressed to come up with illustrative instances of "golden ages" and "good old days" of amity. Does the story end with people of good will simply stunned?
This issue of Sightings was inspired not so much by the headlines referred to above but by a wise column written by Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times (July 9, 2014). He takes off from a characteristically horrifying story about a Christian woman in the Sudan who was sentenced to be hanged after a 100-stroke lashing because she would not renounce her Christian faith.
Kristof, a widely-traveled and conscientious reporter and columnist, sees and knows many such stories. One of his personal friends, Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer, offended extreme fundamentalists in Pakistan and was shot by some of their breed. And on. . . and on. . .
Here is where many of us who report or editorialize on religion identify with Kristof. At least I did, as I read this line of his: "This is a sensitive area I'm wading into here." He realizes that Islam-haters in America and the West seize on such stories "to denounce Islam as a malignant religion of violence, while politically correct liberals are reluctant to say anything for fear of feeding bigotry. . . .Yet there is a real issue here of religious tolerance, affecting millions of people, and we should be able to discuss it."
So we try to discuss it. For example, it is unfair and does no good to compare "our" holy books favorably to "theirs" when seeking the roots of holy violence. Sacred violence matches sacred violence. Robert Alter's fine translation of the biblical Joshua and Judges stuns. End of the story? There are many angles to these.
In today's world, I get inspiration from the American Muslims who abhor all the violence and who host and invite me and Jews and other Christians of my kind to their hyper-peaceful Iftar dinners during Ramadan.
These are small beginnings, but they are beginnings.
Sources and Further Reading:
Coker, Margaret. "The New Jihad: A new generation of Islamist extremists battle-hardened in Iraq and Syria sees the old guard of al Qaeda as too passive." Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2014, The Saturday Essay.
Kristof, Nicholas. "Religious Freedom in Peril." New York Times, July 9, 2014, The Opinion Pages.
Alter, Robert. Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Mansur, Salim. "Dishonoring the Message of Ramadan: Muslim extremists avow their faith yet violate a sacred month meant for prayer and reflection." Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2014, Opinion.
Schwartz, Stephen. "Ramadan Amid the New Middle East Crisis." Huffington Post, June 27, 2014, Religion Blog.
Said, Abdul Aziz. "Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East: Keynote Address for USAID Ramadan Iftar." Lecture delivered at American University, Washington, DC, September 16, 2008.