Healing Religious Extremism
Moving us somewhat beyond a diagnosis of the fundamentalist problem and towards certain prescriptions for healing and peacemaking actions, Robert Eisen directed our attention to the history of the relationship between Judaism and Islam, paying special attention to the collective memories that still survive as a result of these interactions. In a whirlwind tour, Eisen recounted something of the respective histories of Judaism and Islam, pointed to their similarities, and drew a series of implications from this analysis. Eisen pointed out that the origin stories about the Jewish people link the idea of military conquest to divine blessing such that when the Jews are obeying God’s will, God fights for them. This linkage between military might and divine favor forced a radical re-narration of Jewish identity in the wake of the destruction of both the first and the second temple. Rabbinic Judaism emerged in the 1st century C.E. as a way of tying Jewish identity to the Law rather than to the Land. The military tropes were still prominent religiously, but they now took on an inner, less violent aspect. The rabbis called themselves “holders of the shields”, and likened the study of the Talmud to a kind of battle. The old memory of military conquest was transfigured, its outwardly violent elements suppressed, and the idea of humiliation (exile) became part of Jewish identity. Hope for the messiah and a deliverance from exile never faded, but it was a hope that had come to terms with humiliation as the current state of affairs.
Until the French Revolution, the Jewish diaspora lived daily with this sense of humiliation and exile. The revolution, however, admitted Jews into mainstream European society for the first time as equals. This monumental event had powerful repercussions and one could argue that all of modern Jewish history is an attempt to come to terms with this normalization of Jewish identity. Some, of course, welcomed it eagerly. Others felt that it was seductive, promising an end to humiliation when no such deliverance was, in fact, possible. Others held an even stronger position and felt that the normalization of European Jewry heralded the destruction of Jewish identity. Modern Zionism is, in part, an attempt to say that Jews will not get their dignity through assimilation but only through a return to the Land, a place of their own, and their own standing army. After the Holocaust, the rallying Zionist cry became the need for the creation of a safe haven for Jews, a haven that is the nation of Israel. Rabbi Kook’s innovation was to argue that the cosmic battle between God and the world was one that the people of Israel could take part in, help along, and perhaps speed up. Redemption could be accelerated and participated in, and such participation might even entail picking up a gun.
Islamic history also begins with conquest and with the sense that God’s blessing was manifest in military victory. Indeed, Islamic historians have often pointed to the earl y military might of the nascent Muslim community as a sign of God’s favor upon the new religion. Unlike the Israelite narrative, Muslims know of no rabbinic interlude, no period requiring the divorce of militarism from religion. Nevertheless, Islamic expansionism did come to an end at least by the middle of the eighteenth century when Christian/European colonialism became a global power. The end of World War I saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the parceling out of its lands to various Christian European states. Like their Jewish counterparts, Muslims too felt something seductive in the European presence and assimilation was attractive to many. But they also felt the destructive aspects of European culture and many saw assimilation as a betrayal of Islam. The fall of the great Islamic empires could only be seen as a rip in the historical fabric, an indication that all was not as it should be. Like Zionism, Muslims too constructed a nationalist response to the allure of European culture. This took many forms-from the secular program of pan-Arabism to an Islamic pseudo-messianism which held that, through a return to the Koran, Muslims could wage a successful jihad and drive their enemies out. Once Israel was established, its existence was quickly identified as the ultimate humiliation of Islamic identity. Israel was thus seen as a challenge: a foreign western power placed in the midst of the Islamic people as a test of their fidelity. Israel became a challenge from God and answering that challenge meant rooting out the nation of Israel, wiping it from the map, as it were.
Eisen pointed out that both of these narratives bear many similarities. Both are responses to humiliation: exile, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, on the one hand, and colonialization, secularization, and decline, on the other. Both communities see the other as the ultimate expression of evil: Muslims regard Israel as the outpost of the (foreign/American) great Satan, while Israelis, as we saw in Greenberg’s discussion of Amalek, came to associate the Arabs with the Nazis. Moreover, both communities are scared of the other, and with good reason. Muslims see the power of the Israeli army, replete with American support and the most powerful technologies of war. Israelis see themselves as a small minority (only 6 million strong) surrounded by hundreds of millions of Muslims bent on erasing their country. Reflecting on his experiences in dialogue, Eisen noted further that the level of ignorance regarding the other on both sides is staggering.
Eisen suggested a number of practical ways to move the peacemaking process between these radically estranged communities forward. First, he suggested that the most important step is for representatives of their various communities to acknowledge their own past narratives, their temptations to militarism, and the humiliations of history. Confessing one’s own fear is a powerful act that opens a space for genuine dialogue. Second, beyond knowing and acknowledging one’s own story, peacemakers should be able to say that they know their dialogue partner’s history, as well. When we come to dialogue as informed participants, we can reach out to our partners by saying that we know their history, tradition, and their genuine fears. This involves would be peacemakers in: intellectual work (learning well the history of the other community); emotional work (the ability to empathize, without however presuming to get inside the heads of the other); and action (particularly in the form of dramatic gestures that demonstrate a real openness to the other).
None of this is easy work, for either Jews or Muslims. Both cultures pride themselves on being strong and the confession of fear is often very hard. One strategy might be to involve clerics since clerics have the double advantage of already knowing their traditions intimately and often having more practice at baring their emotions (as compared, for example, with heads of state). It is perhaps arguable that the Oslo peace accords failed precisely because they were brokered by secularists and without religious involvement. As Landau pointed out, religious parochialists on both sides rejected the equation of shalom/salaam with secular governance. The Oslo accords were a non-starter because they treated both sides without paying due regard to the weight of their traditional religio-historical identity. Whoever is involved, this peacemaking work desperately needs to be undertaken and soon. Only by understanding the common cultural and historical inheritances of both Jews and Muslims, Eisen concluded, can we begin to move forward and overcome some of the real socio-emotional blocks to reconciliation. Summary for the September 10-14, 2006 Symposium on Jewish Fundamentalism Hosted by Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research (CTR) 11:38 AM