Other Discussions on Religion


Religion defines how people view the cosmos and their role in it. Since it is often used to justify unjustifiable violence, an honest discussion about it is required, even though in universities like Stanford such discussion is conspicuous by its absence or vapid formality. Since WAIS is a free forum for informed and civil discussion of topics however controversial, its members are encouraged to express themselves without fear or favor. I shall. Although brought up an Episcopalian, I view all established religions as wrong in different ways and in different degrees. As an Hispanist, I have been bombarded with clerical and anti-clerical salvoes, but also with antithetical views of Islam. Some Spanish intellectuals like Fernando de los Rios praise Islam for its tolerance, others, like neo-Catholic Emilia Pardo Bazan debunk this view.

I have tried to study this issue objectively and have concluded that she is right. I am not thinking of the present confrontation between Arabs and Jews; Disraeli, or Jewish origin, said Islam is Judaism on horseback. My concern ia about the original nature of Islam. Unwittingly, Hollywood, largely Jewish-controlled, shocked me into stock-taking. Some years ago it produced three films, one on Moses, one on Jesus, and one on Mohammed. Each received the nihil obstat from the top authorities of the religion concerned.

While Christ was the ultimate pacifist, Mohammed was the supreme warrior. For Hollywood the his army's victorious assault on Mecca was literally custom-made to attract the paying public with its bellicose violence. I was not a satisfied customer. Jewish violence involved Palestine and Jerusalem, Islamic violence first the Mediterranean, then the world. That it still does was brought home to me today with TV scenes of fanatical Muslim orators in London's Trafalgar Square shouting to their crowd that the banner of Islam would float over London and Washington. Once again, we see the danger of miscalculations.

Ronald Hilton - 08/27/98

Replies to Islam Memo

In response to the memo on "Religion: Islam", Maurice Harari writes:

"I would submit that originally Islam was quite violent. In classical Islam (for several centuries after the advent of Islam in 622 A.D.) the only boundary recognized in the Islamic state was the fluid and transitional boundary existing between Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (Territory of War). The objective of Dar al-Islam was incorporation of the entire world in the Islamic system. There existed, therefore, a state of perpetual war between Muslims and non-Muslims. In early classical Islam a truce of only ten years was allowed in the permanent struggle against the territory of the non-Muslims on the fringes of Dar al-Islam. It is clear, however, that with the advent of the modern nation-state, Dar al-Islam as a religio-political concept cannot be considered to have been operative in recent centuries. Even the classical concept of Holy War (JIHAD) against the non-Muslims has been increasingly "abused" in the sense that Holy Wars have been repeatedly called in modern times, not only by Muslims against non- Muslims, but also by Muslims against other Muslims (e.g. Iran-Iraq War). In short, we cannot generalize and use the same label for a religion for all times. The manifestations of a religion and its use or misuse by the majority or smaller groups may change considerable over time. This seems to have been true for the major religions of the world.

I believe that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are basically three beautiful religions (incidentally born in that order in the same region of the world, the Middle East). Their basic message and ideals are generally moral and inspiring but they are occasionally thwarted by extremists fundamentalists who use violence under a religous cloak to accomplish political ends. The fanaticism of some of these individuals and groups is sometimes so intense that many of them have been conditioned to believe completely in their violent actions as being mandated by their religion - a highly questionable assumption! This should not be acceptable to a civilized humanity. Yes, we need to do much more to help society pursue the paths of peace. I agree that we need to know much more than we do in our universities as well as outside higher education about the complex and intertwined types of issues involved."

My comment: The fact remains that the founder of Christianity was a pacifist, while Mohammed was a warrior. I cannot imagine representatives of any other major religion speaking in the terms used by the orators in Trafalgar Square.

Ronald Hilton - 08/27/98

Hammerton-Kelly's Response

Robert Hamerton-Kelly enters what he calls "this important discussion of religion" with a long statement reproduced here because of his standing as an authority on religion and international affairs:

"In my view, which owes much to the thought of our Stanford colleague Rene Girard, religion is in its origin and endurance a structure of sacred violence; and for that reason it is always integral to the phenomenon of war. Nietzsche, who saw so clearly into the maw of what we Christians call original sin that he went mad, said, in the persona of Zarathustra, "You say a good cause makes a good war; I say, a good war makes a good cause." The terrorists understand this; the shedding of blood creates a (religious) cause. The origin of religion is not in a primitive social contract, as your commentator from Mount Olympus opines, but in the device of ritual sacrifice, discovered spontaneously as a way to channel violence out of the group by focusing it ritually on a single representative victim. Sacrifice is about a near as we shall come to a cultural universal; as far as we know all religions include it, and all human groups have or have had religion.

The chimpanzees take care of violence in the group by means of spontaneous hierarchies - defeated males go to the margins- humans have to construct such hierarchies culturally, and ritual sacrifice, with its concomitants of myth and prohibition, is the source of hierarchies and so the foundation of culture. In the beginning of human culture was the victim on whom was loaded all the sins (violence) of the group. Christianity is the only great religion to understand this fully, which is why it places the crucified victim at the center of its symbolism. The Christian revelation of the victim is a moral appeal to humankind to take note of this atavistic truth about culture, to stop the ritual and actual victimage of others, and to take responsibility for our own violence, not to project it onto a surrogate victim.

The scapegoating of others continues to this day; it is a favorite way of dealing with violence, and frustration. In the case of the current terrorists the sacrifice of innocents is a balm for the resentment of frustrated revenge. Nietzsche again: resentment is the psychological state that arises when revenge against the perpetrator is frustrated and the victim falls to obsession with the injustice. This obsession includes self punishment, the directing of the vengeance that should touch the perpetrator onto the self; when this becomes unbearable a surrogate must be found, and anyone will do; the sacrifice must be performed, and innocent children are as good as the actual perpetrator for this purpose.

Well, this it the proverbial tip of the iceberg of a theory of religion and violence that I have set out at length in my writings, and would be happy to explain further to anyone who is interested. (cf. my "Sacred Violence," Minneapolis, Fortress, 1992).

The Osmana bin Laden phenomenon is straight from the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood. His reference to us Christians as "Crusaders" is a giveaway. In the lingo of the Brotherhood, there are three classic enemies, the Jews, the Crusaders, and the Secularists ( Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the current Turkish state). To be sure Islam has in general moved away from its violent origins, but the Brotherhood revives the pristine tradition. It is interesting to note that Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia, published a Brotherhood-style declaration in the seventies in which he made the following argument, which might be taken as typical and representative of Brotherhood political strategy. While we are weak we must concentrate on education and persuasion; when we take power then we can eradicate the infidels.( The latter point is implied not stated, and evident perhaps only to those who know the ideology of the Brotherhood, which no recent commentator on the Balkans to my knowledge seems to know. The analysis of the religious dimension of that conflict remains stunted because of the lack of serious knowledge of any of the religions involved on the part of the commentators). Some background might be in order ( If you wish, I could send you by this electronic medium the text of an article of mine published this year in Austria on the religious background of the Balkan wars): In the Qua'ran there are two types of Sura, those from the prophet's time in Mekka, and those from the time in Medina. In the former the attitude to non-believers is mild and relatively conciliatory. They are to be won by education and argument. In Mekka the prophet was a marginal figure, without power and rejected even by his own clan of the Quaraish. He sought solace from both the Jewish and the Christian communities in the area, was ridiculed by the former and received by the latter; he had long conversations with Christian monks in the surrounding hills, which possibly explains why the Qua'ran is so positive towards Jesus and Mary, accepting that he is the messiah of the Jews and she a virgin who had given birth to the messiah.

The Medina Suras, on the other hand, are uncompromising towards unbelievers; infidels are to be converted, enslaved or killed. In Medina the prophet had political power, and a successful army at his disposal, which was to go on to victories over the Persian empire and the city state of Bagdad so incredible that they were plausibly taken as miraculous.

In our time, the strategy of the Brotherhood is based on these two stages in the life of the prophet as reflected in the two kinds of Suras in the Qua'ran. When you are out of power be flexible and concentrate on education and persuasion; when you are in power, be obdurate. This is the inspiration behind the current revolutionary ferment among the Sunni Muslims, and bin Laden in an extreme mutation of this. The Iranian case is significantly different because it is Shi'ite and the Shi'ites have a different relationship to violence than the Sunni's. Nevertheless, all religions are structured around a central core of sacrificial violence, and the progress of a religion might be measured by the extent to which it has produced a prophetic criticism from within against the violence in itself. All the great religions have produced such a critique, that's what qualifies them as great, but some more than others ( Christianity and Buddhism having gone farthest in this regard), and all are susceptible to resurgence of the primitive sacred from within when the level of cultural and moral disorder reaches the triggering stage- eg, the emergence of the sacred strongman in situations of political and economic crisis- watch democracy disappear in Russia. All great religions also have their ongoing people of crisis, the fundamentalists and fanatics whose personal being is so disordered that they must sacrifice continually, live in a state of sacrificial hostility to the world in which they find themselves, blaming it for their woes, separating from it and punishing it whenever they can. In the mean time they punish surrogates in their midst, e.g. the women of the Taliban."

My comment: We must thank Bob Hamerton-Kelly for this incisive account of what is still and always has been a key problem of mankind. Too bad Herbert Hoover is not around to read it, since it goes to the heart of his creation of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. Oh well, Hoover Archivist Elena Danielson will read it, and Bob should not be surprised if she now hounds, or should I say begs, him for his papers.

As for the article he mentions, I would be grateful if he would send me a summary of it with the reference so that we may locate the complete text.

I see no hope for Islam or for fundamentalist Christianity unless they drop their insistence on the inerrability of their sacred text. Mainstream Christianity has done that, but Islam has not, nor can it. We welcome your comments.

Ronald Hilton - 08/30/98