By ICRD Intern Mostafa Foda
There is currently a great deal of discussion by policy-makers about evolving a “counter-narrative” to the current surge of extremist violence. Perhaps, as one African Imam stated at the State Department’s Ministerial Event on CVE, it is not a counter-narrative that is needed…it is the original and fundamental narrative that must be revived – and that the extremists’ interpretation of their religion is the corrupted counter-narrative.
The word religion derives from the Latin religionem, which means to bond. Many religious leaders throughout history have recognized the power of religion to connect individuals and communities together despite political or social rifts. However, history has also shown that religious doctrine in the hands of leaders motivated by more earthly interests, such as power and greed, can diminish the connecting principle of religion and instead emphasize divisiveness as a justification for violence. A frequently cited example, used to highlight the troubled past of all faiths, are the Christian Crusades, which left an indelible mark on Muslim-Christian relations over the past centuries. Nevertheless, unifying values such as compassion and a desire for peace for all humanity are universal themes in human faith practice, and primary motivators for most religious leaders, even in the midst of conflict erroneously justified through a religious narrative.
Religious justification for either violence or peace is a matter of interpretation, and unfortunately often a matter of manipulation. All faiths, if the principles of the sacredness of life and of creation are to be believed, should naturally value peace over war. However, when political and theological discourse falls prey to power interests, religious doctrine can fairly easily be manipulated to serve the latter. This process may take centuries; for instance, the writings of St. Augustine (4th Century), Pope Gregory VII (11th Century), and Thomas Aquinas (13th Century) span over half a millennia and within them are to be found extremely powerful incitements to authentic discernment and the development of deep and abiding positive spiritual values. However, the works of these thinkers also played a central role in the development of the doctrine of so-called “Just War Theory,” which, with strong endorsements from regional Monarchies, offered a clever logic by which the clear doctrinal admonitions to Christians to be agents of peace could be religiously circumvented. Among other things, the Just War Theory was employed to sanction the response to Turkish invaders bent on the wholesale subjugation of the Byzantine Empire. As many religious leaders with earthly interests have done, Pope Urban II leaned on these arguments when calling for a “Battle for the Cross,” or Crusade, to reclaim lost Byzantine territories in the Near East for the Emperor.
As demonstrated in the Crusades, selective doctrinal reinterpretation, coupled with rhetorical hyperbole with respect to an external threat, are effective and oft-utilized methods by which aggression is justified in the name of faith. Violence between Muslims and Christians was not the norm in Near Eastern communities such as Antioch, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together peacefully. On a Sunday, one could hear the Church bells ring and right next door, a man stood atop of a minaret announcing the call to prayer; all three Abrahamic faiths embraced their respective differences and their shared values. This spirit of connectedness across the faiths generated stability and economic prosperity among the people of Antioch, which unfortunately attracted the Crusaders. Antioch became the first Crusader Kingdom when Bohemond (a successful leader of the Crusades) proclaimed himself the “Prince of Antioch,” profiting mightily from violence waged in the name of Christianity. Such are the fruits of men who act not upon the belief in God, but rather their own vanity and desire for power.
Although the walls of Antioch were breached, the fortress of pluralism it represented remained impenetrable. For instance, Muslim historians of that age (who were also well-educated religious scribes with a deep understanding of Christianity) resisted the facile inclination to identify all Christians as Crusaders in order to arouse a greater conflict of identities to rally their faith community. They instead made an important distinction, referring to the Crusaders as “Franks,” a reference to the language they spoke rather than their religious affiliation. Two predominant themes can be found in the chronicles and annalistic works both during and following the Crusades: (1) shock that men who identified with the Christian faith perpetuated such violence, and; (2) a clear conviction that Christianity and the Crusades were not synonymous. These and other writings show the respect Muslim leaders had for Christians, with whom they had collaborated in creating a peaceful and prosperous community, and their recognition that the mandate implicit in the Crusade – that Christians should wage war against Muslims – was a distortion of the fundamental Christian values they had witness in the lived tradition of other believers.
Similar discernment between the core values of a religion and the distorted interpretation and application of that faith by those with more mundane interests is evident today among many religious leaders. High-profile Abrahamic faith leaders, such as John Paul II and numerous Jewish leaders in Europe, have been vocal advocates for a clear separation of the discourse promoting violent extremism from the core tenets of Islam. Vanity, avarice and the desire for power are no less present among religious leaders today than in the historical examples cited above. It is a dangerous and misguided perspective to singularly point to religion as a cause of violent conflict. Very few religious faithful are violent, and the myriad historical conflicts that have found other justifications, whether impelled by the spread of Communism and Maoism or driven by ethnic and nationalist rhetoric, more than suffice as evidence to support this point.
When religion properly serves its function of connecting people not only within but also across faiths, it becomes an instrument of healing, aspiration and compassion. There are innumerable present-day examples that reflect the spirit of Antioch: Nigerian Christians receiving cards from their Muslim neighbors during Easter – despite Boko Haram’s nearby violence; Christian Copts in Egypt who, despite persecution by Muslims, form a wall around praying Muslims to protect them against government forces; Muslims and Jews breaking bread together at an iftar dinner for Ramadan, in spite of ongoing gunfire exchanges between Israel and Gaza. Sadly, many of these stories go untold to make room for the more sensationalist images of the few adherents to a violent interpretation of faith. But such are the practices of religious communities who act in true faith – convinced that through serving God above their own interests and fears they might bind what is broken, and bring light to the darkness.