Thursday, September 4, 2003

Religious dogma underlies violence

Fanatics believe God on their side

By Abe Aamidor
Indianapolis Star

Faith drives some people to do awful things, whether it's alleged killer Eric Rudolph, who is believed to be part of the "Christian identity" movement, or Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult responsible for deadly poison-gas attacks in a Tokyo subway in 1995.

Renewed violence in Israel and inside territories of the Palestinian Authority serves to prove that things haven't changed much since the Crusades, or the conquest of the ancient Land of Canaan itself.

Although there are always local conditions affecting any conflict, people often kill in the name of God.

Richard B. Miller, director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University, says extreme religious fundamentalists "look at the world as shaped by a spiritual and moral conflict" and view themselves as part of the struggle.

"They see themselves as called to be part of a wider mission that's being directed by God," Miller says.

In part, the problem is the authoritarian nature of the three Western monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In a strict sense, the laws of God will always trump the laws of man, according to these religions.

Separation not easy

Rabbi Arnold L. Bienstock of Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Indianapolis says the authors of the U.S. Constitution knew what they were doing when they built a high wall separating church and state.

But it's easier said than done.

"The religious traditions of the West - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have the belief that they possess the absolute truth," Bienstock says. "Then the question becomes how to handle those who disagree."

It took centuries for European nations to overthrow "official" churches, or at least make them titular, and to tolerate other beliefs.

Many observers say the Islamic world is just now going through battles with secularism and modernity, although the religion has its own history of tolerance and distinctive position on the "dhimmi" peoples, namely Christians and Jews living in Islamic lands and who occupy a position somewhere between the believers in Islam itself and other religions.

Yahya R. Kamalipour, a native of Iran, is a professor at Purdue University-Calumet.

"There are over 1,000 religions in the world, and ... Christianity, Judaism and Islam happen to be at each other's throat in Jerusalem, where they are rooted. That is puzzling to me," Kamalipour says.

New world vs. old

The problem of radical fundamentalism and religious violence is usually self-serving, Kamalipour says. Leaders recruit followers to their causes by invoking God's will or law, but are serving narrower interests.

"How does one become God's representative on Earth?" he asks.

Kamalipour also speaks of globalization as sparking much of the conflict between the Islamic world and the increasingly liberal West. Again, it's the modern world clashing with a tradition-bound world.

Indiana University's Miller says people in the West, including Americans, should not assume that modernity and secularism are right, or that everyone else in the world wants them.

"There's a kind of surprise by how intractable religious beliefs and practices are," Miller says.

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