In late March of this year, the chief cleric of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheik Abdul Rahman al?Sudais, declared that Arabs should once and for all give up any attempts for peace with Israel. He said the Jews were “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the killers of prophets and the grandsons of monkeys and pigs.”(AP wire 4/21/02) Shortly thereafter, Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Montazeri issued a fatwa proclaiming that Israeli/Palestinian conflict must be resolved by peaceful negotiations, and that to use suicidal terrorism is contrary to the Muslim religion. Further, Montazeri said that those who use such means to kill women and children would be condemned to the fires of eternal damnation. (Ledeen NRO 4/29)
The contrasts are remarkable. Iran, whose Shi’ite government has sponsored terrorism so often and so successfully, is confronted by a religious leader who speaks religious truth. Saudi Arabia, which advertises on American television its active alliance with the United States against terrorism, is belied by clerics that preach the rankest hate in the name of religion. The Iranian Ayatollah denounces terrorism; the Saudi Sheik provides an ideological grounding for it. But polar opposites though they be, both show that terrorism is a spiritual evil. It is not grounded in economics. It is not grounded in politics. It does not come out of poverty, or a reaction against modernity. It is neither a necessary nor an inevitable part of a national liberation movement.
Terrorism comes out of malevolence. It is a political program by which a minority seeks to obtain and maintain power by destroying those aspects of life that are essential to human flourishing. The terrorist directly targets family, home, work, friendship, leisure, stability, worship, mobility, and freedom. He seeks to exterminate those parts of human existence that make life worth living. Terrorism can only truly be understood as an evil directed against the human spirit. It is a spiritual, not a psychological, malady. It is evil in its essence. It is a sin, perhaps the deepest sin of all.
Obviously, radical violence of the political sort is not always religiously connected. In fact, most radical violence is neither religiously inspired, nor is it even religiously connected. The sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols was not religious in any sense. The mass murders by Nazism and Communism were actually done in the name of atheism, and often against religion. For all those people who distort religion into violence, or who claim a religious covering for their inexcusable deeds, let us never forget history. Let us not forget the 20th century when more people were killed in the name of atheism than were ever killed in the name of religion.
Still, violence in the name of religion is what is on everyone’s lips today, and too many people have died in the past decades and are suffering now for us to ignore it. Violence in the name of religion is a scandal to all true believers. So let us look at why people do it. What makes a person kill or suppress in the name of religion?
Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders have cited chapter and verse to show that terroristic acts are contrary to the teachings of their respective religions. That is true. But if we plumb more deeply into the mind and soul of the terrorist, we find that he is not merely doing wrong. He is striking at the very heart of the revelatory traditions of the three Abrahamic religions. Those traditions inform us of the true spiritual roots of his malice.
The first and most obvious is his unbridled lust for power, a lust that uses religion for a cover. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, many people condemned others to the Inquisition, because if a person were convicted of being a secret Jew or secret Muslim, his lands were given to the informer. In England, King Henry VIII supplanted the Pope as the head of the Church of England because he lusted after having the power of a male successor, and he lusted after the riches of the abbeys and monasteries. The nobles came to his side when they could be bought off with the monasteries’ lands. What drove many massacres by the Ottoman emperors against Christian populations was the personal ambition for ever greater imperial power. The genocidal war of the government of the Sudan against the Christian and animist South is of the same ilk. On videotape, we saw Osama bin Laden describe the collapse the World Trade Center Towers with visceral satisfaction as he reveled in the power that he was able to use on so many innocent people. The religious radical who terrorizes innocent people seeks to control them for his own ends and to place them in his arbitrary control. It is a lesson taught well by the atheist Lenin.
A second spiritual fault in the radical is his lack of faith in his own religion. This may sound strange, but it is true. The violent religious fanatic is so unsure of his own faith that he must destroy those who believe otherwise. That is his security. He must put out of existence any competing vision, lest the hollowness of his own spiritual vision be exposed. Galileo was tried by a church tribunal, because many feared that changing one bit from an earth centered universe would destroy the faith. It is a sign of deep faith, not weakness in faith that has led the Church to apologize for the wrong done to Galileo. In fact, we know that a man is spiritually sincere when he confesses his own faults, and that a religion is spiritually healthy when it seeks forgiveness for the wrongs of its own adherents. Only one who is unsure in his deepest soul of his own faith puts his stock in violence to justify himself. Those who shout their faith the loudest are really only shouting to themselves, trying to drown out the doubt that lurks within.
A third spiritual fault is even more formidable. The radical seeks to replace God’s power of judgment with his own. There is no more insistent message in the Koran, the Old Testament and the Gospel that it is God and God alone who is to judge the spiritual worth of each person. The verses roll out of Holy Scripture over and over again. Judge not, that ye be not judged. (Matthew 7:1) Let him who is without sin throw the first stone. (John 8:7) We may judge another person’s actions. We must enforce justice including appropriate punishment, especially against such an egregious injustice as terrorism. But none of us has the right to harm another because of a weakness in faith. “Wait patiently until God judges between us; and He is the best of the Judges.” (Sura 7:87) God will judge between you on the day of resurrection respecting that in which you differ. (Sura 22:69) But the religious radical decides just who will live and who will die; and by doing so, he seeks to supplant God himself.
Finally, and most sadly, the radical worships a false god. There have been many other gods in human history, and many of them were terrible gods indeed. They thrived, their adherents devoutly believed, on the blood of innocents. They demanded the death of humans. These gods included Moloch in the Middle East, Kali in India, Tezcatlipoca in Mexico, and the gods of the Incas in Peru. The gods of the Celts in Ireland demanded human sacrifice until the Irish were converted by St. Patrick. The people who worship the true God hear the verse in the Koran. “He is the Living, there is no god but He, therefore call on Him, being sincere to Him in obedience; (all) praise is due to God, the Lord of the worlds.” (Sura 40:65) The people who worship the true God listen to the teaching of Jesus: “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:22) The people who worship the true God take seriously the divine command in the Old Testament: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) For God has said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 12:7) What God asks for is a clean heart.
But not the radical. In Afghanistan in 1999, a man by the name of Sayed Abdullah was arrested because someone had said he was a secret Christian. He denied it, but the Taliban unmercifully tortured him for five and one half months. Today he survives, but his body is broken. He can never lift anything heavy for the rest of his life. He is 28 years old. At one point during his tortures, a Taliban guard pulled his head by the hair and put a knife to his throat. “Give me permission to cut his throat,” he asked his superior, “so I may be rewarded by God.” By whatever word that soldier called God, he was not worshipping the God of life.
So it is of all religious radicals, of whatever era, and of whatever faith they claim to be. They use the very language of religion to commit sin. They use the words of God in order to disobey God. They revel in the death of innocent people. Their banner is not that of the one true and living God. They want to bring us back to “the time of ignorance,” when the false pagan gods demanded human sacrifice and not a clean heart.
If the Iranian government wishes to separate itself from the axis of evil, it should listen to the spiritual advice of the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and match its deeds to his words. If the Saudi government truly wants the American people to accept it as an ally in the war against terrorism, it must denounce and end the hateful rubbish put out by the Sheiks that masquerades as religion but is instead its very opposite. Apologists for evil can be no part of our common religious traditions and our common political goals.
David Forte is a Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio and the author of Islamic Studies: Classical and Contemporary Applications. He is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.