Egypt is at the crossroads. Its emerging constitution, however, betrays the brightest hopes of the so-called Arab Spring. A draft approved by Egypt’s Constituent Assembly includes blasphemy laws and ignores the rights of women; it even permits child labor. Pray it’s just a rough draft. Citizens have taken to the streets in protest. We can only hope that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi remembers his courageous early promises of basic human rights and religious freedom and reasserts his independence from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi would do well to heed the words of Abdurrahman Wahid, the first democratically elected president of Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Wahid wrote “Omnipotence needs no defense” as the title of his essay in my book, “Abraham’s Children.” While the title alone should be enough, he goes on to explain: “Omnipotent, and existing as absolute and eternal truth, nothing could possibly threaten God. And as ar-Rahman (the Merciful) and ar-Rahim (the Compassionate), God has no enemies. Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes.”
Wahid concludes: Those who kill or harm people in the name of the Merciful are nothing less than blasphemers. Fidelity to Islam’s deepest truths requires religious freedom not religious oppression; as stated in the Koran, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
Former President and Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy Carter expresses deep anguish over the injustices committed by the children of Abraham He laments the lack of progress towards peace in Israel/Palestine, and the countless atrocities done in the name of God. He writes: “The blood of Abraham, God’s father of the chosen, still flows in the veins of Arab, Jew, and Christian, and too much of it has been spilled in grasping for the inheritance of the revered patriarch in the Middle East. The spilled blood in the Holy Land still cries out to God—an anguished cry for peace.” And so while religions may divide, they also contain the power to unite. He calls upon those oppressive Muslims, Christians and Jews who are “draped falsely in the cloak of God’s will” to hear and then heed God’s clarion call to work together for peace, justice and human rights.
Of course much of what is attributed to religion is more genuinely attributable to a desire for power or a thirst for revenge. God’s love seems scarcely to animate religious hate speech and the ensuing violence. The fight is often more about the land than God. The anger of the oppressed, not love of God, is sometimes the primary motivation. Our inability to see the other as fully human is a function of our deeply human but all too familiar prejudices, not our devotion to God. It may very well be that God alone can liberate us from our devotion to self (and other selves like our own) so that we can value and then embrace those who are deeply different from us.
Morsi could likewise find inspiration in his Jewish brethren (generically speaking). Leah Shakdiel, Israel’s first female member of a local religious council, works to bring the values of peace, equality, human rights, and social justice to the next generation of Israelis. She is deeply concerned about Israel’s persistent dehumanization of Palestinians that justifies their treatment as little more than animals. She stands with Jews and Arabs who are mutually committed to one another’s flourishing. Her advice to her fellow believers: “Expose exclusive, egocentric, chauvinistic versions of religion as racist, show how they override all other content of faith and practice and text, show how these versions of religion, lead to crimes committed in the name of the Almighty, how His name is borne in falsehood and desecrated in public.” According to Shakdiel, the Jewish religion, properly understood and practiced, serves liberation not domination.
The Abrahamic religions can and should be a power for good and not evil, a power to unite and not divide, and a power to love your enemy. Each of the three religions expands the concept of neighbor to include those of other faiths and practices. God is working through his frail followers to bring peace and justice to the world. But the Omnipotent and All Merciful One who grants this redemptive power needs no defense.
Kelly James Clark is senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University and author of the recently published, “Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict.”