At the used book store this weekend, I stumbled across Reza Aslan’s “No god but God,” a book I have wanted to read, and not simply because it sounds like the slogan I used to use for this blog (“There is no god blog but The God Blog”).
I neglected to buy it, settling only for a tattered $3 copy of Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle”—how blasphemous, I know—but when I got home, I decided to search Google for reviews of Aslan’s book. The first I came across was not, in fact, a review but a portion of the prologue at The Guardian’s site. I was instantly sucked in, particularly by what Aslan didn’t avoid saying:
Almost immediately following the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, pundits, politicians, and preachers throughout the United States and Europe declared that September 11, 2001, triggered a once-dormant “clash of civilizations,” to use Samuel Huntington’s now ubiquitous term, between the modern, enlightened, democratic societies of the West and the archaic, barbarous, autocratic societies of the Middle East. A few well-respected academics carried this argument further by suggesting that the failure of democracy to emerge in the Muslim world was due in large part to Muslim culture, which they claimed was intrinsically incompatible with Enlightenment values such as liberalism, pluralism, individualism, and human rights. It was therefore simply a matter of time before these two great civilizations, which have such conflicting ideologies, clashed with each other in some catastrophic way. And what better example do we need of this inevitability than September 11?
But just beneath the surface of this misguided and divisive rhetoric is a more subtle, though far more detrimental, sentiment: that this is not so much a cultural conflict as a religious one; that we are not in the midst of a “clash of civilizations,” but rather a “clash of monotheisms.”
The clash-of-monotheisms mentality could be heard in the sermons of prominent and politically influential evangelists like the Reverend Franklin Graham- son of Billy Graham and spiritual adviser to the American president, George W Bush -who has publicly called Islam “an evil and wicked religion.” It could be read in the articles of the intemperate yet enormously popular conservative columnist Ann Coulter, who after September 11 encouraged Western countries to “invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” It could be caught in the rhetoric behind the War on Terrorism, which has been described on both sides of the Atlantic in stark Christian terminology of good versus evil. And it could be found inside the prisons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where Muslim prisoners of war have been forced, under threat of torture by their captors, to eat pork, drink liquor, and curse the Prophet Muhammad.
Of course, there is no shortage of anti-Christian and anti-Jewish propaganda in Islam. In fact, it sometimes seems that not even the most moderate preacher or politician in the Muslim world can resist advancing the occasional conspiracy theory regarding “the Crusaders and Jews,” by which most Muslims simply mean them: that faceless, colonialist, Zionist, imperialist “other” who is not us. So the clash of monotheisms is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, from the earliest days of the Islamic expansion to the bloody wars and inquisitions of the Crusades to the tragic consequences of colonialism and the cycle of violence in Israel/Palestine, the hostility, mistrust, and often violent intolerance that has marked relations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims has been one of Western history’s most enduring themes.
Since September 11, however, as international conflicts have increasingly been framed in apocalyptic terms and political agendas on all sides couched in theological language, it has become impossible to ignore the startling similarities between the antagonistic and uninformed rhetoric that fueled the destructive religious wars of the past, and that which drives the current conflicts of the Middle East. When the Reverend Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, calls the Prophet Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile” during his keynote address, he sounds eerily like the medieval papal propagandists for whom Muhammad was the Antichrist and the Islamic expansion a sign of the Apocalypse. When the Republican senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, stands before the US Congress and insists that the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are not political or territorial battles but “a contest over whether or not the word of God is true,” he speaks, knowingly or not, the language of the Crusades.
One could argue that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself. Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic; it not only rejects all other gods, it rejects all other explanations for God. If there is only one God, then there may be only one truth, and that can easily lead to bloody conflicts of irreconcilable absolutisms. Missionary activity, while commendable for providing health and education to the impoverished throughout the world, is nonetheless predicated on the belief that there is but one path to God, and that all other paths lead toward sin and damnation.
Since September 11, a rapidly growing movement of Christian missionaries has begun to focus exclusively on the Muslim world. Because Christian evangelism is often bitterly reproached in Muslim countries - thanks in large part to the lingering memory of the colonial endeavor, when Europe’s disastrous “civilizing mission” went hand in hand with a fervently anti-Islamic “Christianizing mission” - some evangelical institutions now teach their missionaries to “go undercover” in the Muslim world by taking on Muslim identities, wearing Muslim clothing (including the veil), even fasting and praying as Muslims. At the same time, the United States government has encouraged large numbers of Christian aid organizations to take an active role in rebuilding the infrastructures of Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of the two wars, giving ammunition to those who seek to portray the occupation of those countries as a second Crusade of Christians against Muslims. Add to this the perception, held by many in the Muslim world, that there is collusion between the United States and Israel against Muslim interests in general and Palestinian rights in particular, and one can understand how Muslims’ resentment and suspicion of the West has only increased, and with disastrous consequences.
Considering how effortlessly religious dogma has become intertwined with political ideology since September 11, how can we overcome the clash-of-monotheisms mentality that has so deeply entrenched itself in the modern world? Clearly, education and tolerance are essential. But what is most desperately needed is not so much a better appreciation of our neighbor’s religion as a broader, more complete understanding of religion itself.
Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith. It is an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence. Religion is concerned not with genuine history, but with sacred history, which does not course through time like a river. Rather, sacred history is like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time. Indeed, it is precisely at those moments when sacred and genuine history collide that religions are born. The clash of monotheisms occurs when faith, which is mysterious and ineffable and which eschews all categorizations, becomes entangled in the gnarled branches of religion.
At which point I got back in my car and returned to the book store.