What Religious Terrorism Teaches Us About the Potential Intolerance of Religion and of Atheism -- Rabbi Neil's sermon from January 9, 2015

There is no question that the terror attacks in Paris over the last couple of days are unequivocally evil and should be utterly condemned by all. They shouldn’t have to be condemned by only the Muslim community, although they have been very clearly. The reason they shouldn’t have to be condemned by only the Muslim community is because these acts are obviously the result of extremism and not of mainstream religion. Why should liberals have to apologise, or distance themselves, from the actions of extremists? We all know the nature of extremism is to take things to the extreme, to an unhealthy level. We know that walking into an office and murdering cartoonists, even cartoonists whose images bore a disturbing similarity to caricatures found decades ago in Der Sturmer, is the antithesis of religion. We all know that this is not what Islam is about. And yet, it seems, we don’t all know that. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted this week that “No, all religions are NOT equally violent. Some have never been violent, some gave it up centuries ago. One religion conspicuously didn’t.” Some religions have never been violent? I’m not sure I can think of one. We like to idealise eastern religions but even they have had their extremists in history, too. And Judaism? Let’s be real…. our primary sacred text calls for the annihilation of entire peoples. Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Muslims at prayer in a mosque in 1984, or Yigal Amir who assassinated Yitzchak Rabin in 1995, demonstrate that Judaism is not without its murderous extremists. But Dawkins likes to suggest that Islam is the worst of a bad bunch. I’ve seen much of this online this week, particularly accusations from right-wing Christians defending their religion against the evils of Islam. Of course, Christianity pretending it, too, doesn’t have blood on its hands is nonsensical. The Crusades, the Witch Trials, the Inquisition, the pogroms – all systematised Christian murder. Hitler himself said on October 27, 1928 “We tolerate no-one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity. Our movement is Christian.” In 2011, Anders Breivik killed eight people bombing government buildings in Norway and then massacred 69 more people, mostly teenagers, in fulfillment of his disturbed Christian manifesto. When that happened, were there calls for the Christian community to condemn his actions? No, he was seen as a lunatic. But when Muslim lunatics kill people, the entire Muslim world apparently has to condemn the actions.

I’ve been part of conversations over the last few days in which people have quoted the Quran at me, showing that it says that unbelievers would be cursed. My response? So what? The Bible says worse! So what if you’re cursed, that’s quite clearly not a justification for murder. Nowhere in the Quran is there a call to murder innocent civilians. That is quite clearly, unequivocally a perversion of Islam. This isn’t about free speech. That is, in my opinion, a deliberate avoidance of the key topic. Free speech should exist and the right to satire is important, although when it extends to naked caricatures of Mohammed I would suggest that is pure racism. Not racism deserving of death, of course, but I believe that has gone beyond satire. We are entitled to condemn terror attacks on satirists while also pointing out the racism of the satirists. This is why I don’t agree with the Je suis Charlie message that is being posted online. I am not Charlie Hebdo, I am not the racist satirists. I do not agree with their cartoons or their message. So I actually posted on my Facebook page something different. Je ne suis page Charlie. Je suis Ahmed Merabet. I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed Merabet. That leads to the natural question, who was Ahmed Merabet? You may have seen the footage of the terrorist executing the injured policeman. It turns out that the policeman, Ahmed Merabet, was a Muslim. A Muslim guarding the institution that lampooned his religion. And this is why people like Richard Dawkins are totally and utterly wrong. There are Jewish terrorists, there are Christian terrorists and there are Muslim terrorists. And the fact that they exist says nothing about Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Not everyone would agree with that. Comedian Bill Maher has been doing the rounds over the last couple of days, telling people that “We have to stop saying ‘We shouldn’t insult a great religion.’ First of all, there are no great religions, they’re all stupid and dangerous.” Opportunistic atheists like Maher have seized on these latest terror attacks to launch a vitriolic attack not only on religion but also specifically on Islam. Only a few months ago, Maher, aided by atheist Sam Harris, called Islam “the mother lode of all bad ideas.” Maher and Harris are not alone in their atheistic attacks on Islam. He says that it’s not racist to call Islam a violent religion. In that, he’s correct. It’s not racist. It’s just ignorant. Totally, utterly ignorant. Islam is no more violent than Christianity or Judaism. It is a system of thought and all systems of thought are open to perversion. Whether a system of thought is religious or secular, there will be people who follow that way of thinking who are liberals and people who follow that way of thinking who are extremists. Nationalism, capitalism, communism, religion, it doesn’t matter – all systems of thought are open to extremism and perversion. Atheists can get on their high horse and talk about how atheism doesn’t lead to murder but forget the blood on Stalin’s hands or the ethnic cleansing and religious intolerance openly displayed by China’s ruling atheists. That is why Maher’s statement is so utterly ignorant. We live in a globalised capitalist society that is so fundamentally unjust, that so punishes the global poor while rewarding the tiny elite that I would suggest that that is stupid and dangerous. Because it’s not religion that makes people extremists. Extremists can latch onto religion but only once they’re extreme already. Poverty, global inequality, war, the loss of hope, these are the things that lead people to extremism. These are what are stupid and dangerous. But it’s far easier to point fingers at a handful of extremists for the occasional act of terrorism than it is to blame bankers, politicians and ourselves for the long drawn-out and deliberate deaths of countless millions around the world due to our selfishness and greed. People like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins aren’t interested in addressing the real causes of terrorism because to do so would undermine their very world. They point the finger away instead of at themselves. They point the finger at religion, they demonise it from afar while clearly simplifying it to the point of absurdity. And that is why acts of terror the likes of which we’ve seen this week reveal not only the potential intolerance of religion but also of atheism. Because instead of soul-searching, instead of turning within and seeing how our systems of thoughts can be misused and instead of committing ourselves to ensuring that they won’t be misused, this week too many people who call themselves religious and people who call themselves atheists have just engaged in finger-pointing, have absolved themselves of any responsibility for the attacks in France this week. How could I be responsible? people say. I’m a liberal, I have no part in this! But we do. The key to ending terrorism is in understanding its origins in an unequal world and we all have a part to play in that. We didn’t fire the guns but we did continue a world in which terrorism could flourish. We are not responsible for the deaths of those innocents directly but we have to come to terms with the fact that around the world our impact, the impact of rich people like ourselves who pollute and consume voraciously, is so much more devastating on human life than this one highly publicised act immediate act.

Why do Maher and Dawkins think that Islam is violent? Because they refuse to address the violence in their own selves. We cannot – dare not – become that dogmatic. We cannot become extremists like them. We cannot point fingers at others, such as all Muslims, and accuse them of violence that they did not commit. We cannot point fingers at terrorists and pretend that we are not also violent. Of course, there is a world of difference between violence caused by intent and violence caused by neglect, or deliberate refusal to acknowledge the harm we are doing. But violence is still violence nonetheless. We are violent and they are violent. Islam isn’t violent. We are all violent.

Not all Jews are the same, not all Christians are the same, not all Muslims are the same, not all atheists are the same. But there are extremists in all of these systems of thought, extremists who simplify the Other in order to justify their own violence of intent or of omission by trying to make the Other look worse than they are. Regardless of what ancient sacred texts may say from any tradition, contemporary religious thought has, despite the ignorant rantings of Richard Dawkins and religious extremists, clearly reinterpreted them into peaceful teachings that recognise difference while still being able to find sancity in the other. The irony is that the more prominent atheists and religious speakers demonise Islam, the more they become exactly like the extremists they hate. They may not kill, directly, of course, but they become identical in thought, even if their words and actions differ.

This week, we mourn the loss of innocent civilians gunned down in their workplaces and their shopping centres. And we mourn the demonisation of the Other, of people of different skin colour or thought pattern. At the same time, we celebrate the life of Ahmed Merabet who showed, as have many before him, that Islam, indeed all religion is about protecting life, cherishing life and even self-sacrifice in the pursuit of protecting others. May we address the violence within us, the tendencies we have to demonise the Other and may we learn from his example that, God or not, we are all special. May such be God’s will. And let us say, Amen.

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