It’s hard to think about the Sept. 11 attacks without thinking about the place of religious violence in the world today. But whatever concerns I had Tuesday, were tragically magnified by the murder of J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three of his staff, in Benghazi, Libya.
Even if they had not been murdered though, the question of religious violence would have been on my mind as Sept. 11 approached and was observed.
How could it not be, when the single worst terrorist attack on American soil was done in the name of God? And, as I was reminded in the last few days, I was not the only one thinking about religious violence.
In the run up to the 11th anniversary of the attack and mass murder, my e-mail, Facebook page and Twitter feed were abuzz with competing messages all about religious violence, Unfortunately, the only think they all shared was how deeply problematic they all were.
What I found then, and see unfolding today in the wake of the attack in Libya, is a verbal war between those who think that religion, or Islam in particular, is the problem, and those who insist that there is no problem of violence in Islam or religion in general. Essentially, we have reductionist haters lining up against dangerous apologists. Aside from each being wrong, the only thing they share is their need of each other to fuel their respective approaches – approaches which leave us all in greater danger and some of us as their actual victims.
The haters thrive on any bad act perpetrated in the name of whatever tradition they hate, conflating what some people do in the name of that tradition, with the totality of the tradition’s followers or what the tradition is all about. Not only is that inaccurate, it’s a deeply cynical use of other people’s suffering.
As much as those who hate Islam, or see religion as inherently foolish at best and dangerous at worst, decry events from Sept. 11 to the murders in Benghazi, they use them as pretext for what they already believed before the events occurred.
Those who insist that none of this has anything to do with either religion in general, or Islam in particular, are almost as bad. They refuse to accept that when people claim a faith and act in accordance with their best understanding of that faith, their acts are, for better or worse, a part of the faith and the violence they do is in fact, religious violence. The argument that one must separate issues of so-called culture from “the true faith” – common among the apologists found in every tradition -- are simply ways to claim one’s own understanding of the faith while pushing away all of those with whom one disagrees, thus avoiding responsibility for how the tradition they both love is being used.
And although it should be clear, problems, including the problem of religious violence, don’t get solved by avoiding responsibility. Problems get solved when as many people as possible assume responsibility – especially those where the problems occur most.
Ultimately, though, this about cultivating a human capacity which we need not only to better address the problem of religious violence, but one we need simply to sustain healthier human relations with anybody or any tradition. This is about learning that we can love both people and traditions not because they are perfect, but because they are perfect for us. We need not pretend away the problems, nor deny the challenges in order to preserve the relationship. In fact, we do that only when the relationship is weak to begin with.
This is about offering critique, when needed; not denigrating whole traditions or entire populations as the basis for doing so. In fact, no tradition could survive a test which equated its worst moments or actors with the entire tradition or all those who follow it. If one doesn’t know that, one doesn’t know history, and now is the time to know enough history that we can create a safer present, not to mention a better future.
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