LONDON — Because of the events of 9/11 and al-Qaeda terrorism, we have all become deeply concerned about the malevolent aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. It is not always easy to remember that most followers of Islam are moderate and tolerant.
In medieval times — during the Crusades — Muslims were more tolerant than their so-called Christian enemies. But some Islamic practices, particularly those restricting the rights of women, are contrary to our understanding of what constitutes respect for human rights. Shariah laws and punishments, such as stoning, seem barbaric to most non-Muslims as well as many Muslim observers.
The application of certain Shariah laws in Sudan, northern Nigeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has led to widespread and justified criticism of the regimes in these countries. The basic problem lies in the belief by Islamic fundamentalists that their interpretations of the teachings of the prophet Mohammed are the whole truth and that only through strict adherence to the tenets they teach can salvation be achieved.
The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations still maintain that salvation can only come through belief in Jesus Christ and adherence to his teachings. In centuries past, the church’s Inquisition persecuted and tortured those regarded as heretics. Protestants responded by persecuting Catholics and other dissenters. Religious quarrels were often used by temporal rulers to further their own interests. As a result, much of European history is bloody and cruel.
Even today, as in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant differences can lead to violence. The dividing line between the Protestant north and the Catholic south in Germany shows that old differences are hard to bridge.
The United States now claims to have the largest proportion of practicing Christians of all kinds in the world. Some are so-called Christian fundamentalists who assert that the Bible story is strictly true and, accordingly, deny the validity of the Darwinian theory of the origin of species and the geologically and scientifically based assessments of the age of Earth and the solar system. Some also assert that the Jews have the God-given right to occupy the whole of the Holy Land of Israel.
Of course, the majority of those who claim to be Christians strongly uphold the principle of religious toleration and of charity toward all men. But Christian as well as Islamic fundamentalism supports intolerance, which undermines the basic freedom of religion.
The chief rabbi in England recently upset ultra-Orthodox Jews by making the eminently sensible comment that no religion has a monopoly on truth. His view would be supported by all reasonable Jews and those of other religions who are tolerant.
There are Hindu fundamentalists in India who foment trouble with Muslims and push Hindu nationalism with the aim of undermining the secular nature of government in India and causing conflict with Pakistan.
Buddhism, meanwhile, has the reputation of being the most tolerant of all the world’s major religions, yet some Buddhist sects in Sri Lanka have complicated the task of reaching a settlement with the Tamils in the north of the island.
In Japan, the Nichiren sect of Buddhism had a reputation for intolerance and nationalism. Buddhist priests opposed the Christian missionaries to that country in the 16th century and failed to condemn the persecutions that led to the ban on Christianity in Japan in the early 17th century. The Japanese practice of Christianity was permitted only after the Meiji Restoration.
Shinto in its traditional anthropomorphic forms accepted Buddhist saints and manifestations as Shinto deities and, in this sense, can be regarded as a tolerant “religion.” But State Shinto, which was created in the Meiji era to promote national unity centered on the Emperor, supported the destruction of Buddhist temples and, in prewar years, demanded that Christians and believers of other faiths pay their respects at Shinto shrines.
The Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo, which perpetrated the 1995 sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway, showed how even in tolerant modern Japan religious fervor can be perverted to evil ends.
The worst aspect of Islamic fundamentalism today is its willingness to use all available means to terrorize those who oppose their erroneous beliefs. Suicide attacks are particularly difficult to deal with because warnings are never given and those killed are generally civilians and innocent people. Some have attempted to justify Islamic suicide bombings, such as those against Israeli targets, on the grounds that this is the only way to defend the rights of Arabs in Palestine. In fact, the attacks only exacerbate the problem. Retaliation follows and “provokes” another suicide bombing. Suicide attacks cannot be justified in any circumstances.
The belief by suicide bombers that when they die they will go to paradise is not supported by the teachings of Islam.
Fundamentalists of all faiths forget that humility is a virtue advocated by most faiths. An element of healthy skepticism would also engender greater tolerance. In schools and the media, the intolerance of fundamentalists and the threat that they pose to our way of life and to human rights needs to be exposed.
Religious fundamentalism is one of the greatest evils of our time. It goes against the basic ethics taught by the respected religions of the world and runs contrary to logic and scientific truths.
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