by Thomas L. Friedman
New York Times, November 27, 2001
If 9/11 was indeed the onset of World War III, we have to understand what this war is about. We’re not fighting to eradicate “terrorism.” Terrorism is just a tool. We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism.
World War II and the cold war were fought to defeat secular totalitarianism – Nazism and Communism – and World War III is a battle against religious totalitarianism, a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated. That’s bin Ladenism. But unlike Nazism, religious totalitarianism can’t be fought by armies alone. It has to be fought in schools, mosques, churches and synagogues, and can be defeated only with the help of imams, rabbis and priests. The generals we need to fight this war are people like Rabbi David Hartman, from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. What first attracted me to Rabbi Hartman when I reported from Jerusalem was his contention that unless Jews reinterpreted their faith in a way that embraced modernity, without weakening religious passion, and in a way that affirmed that God speaks multiple languages and is not exhausted by just one faith, they would have no future in the land of Israel. And what also impressed me was that he knew where the battlefield was. He set up his own schools in Israel to compete with fundamentalist Jews, Muslims and Christians, who used their schools to preach exclusivist religious visions. After recently visiting the Islamic madrasa in Pakistan where many Taliban leaders were educated, and seeing the fundamentalist religious education the young boys there were being given, I telephoned Rabbi Hartman and asked: How do we battle religious totalitarianism? He answered: “All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth. When the Taliban wiped out the Buddhist statues, that’s what they were saying. But others have said it too. The opposite of religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism – an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth. America is the Mecca of that ideology, and that is what bin Laden hates and that is why America had to be destroyed.”
The future of the world may well be decided by how we fight this war. Can Islam, Christianity and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays, and that he welcomes different human beings approaching him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage? “Is single-minded fanaticism a necessity for passion and religious survival, or can we have a multilingual view of God – a notion that God is not exhausted by just one religious path?” asked Rabbi Hartman. Many Jews and Christians have already argued that the answer to that question is yes, and some have gone back totheir sacred texts to reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism, and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths. Others – Christian and Jewish fundamentalists – have rejected this notion, and that is what the battle is about within their faiths.
What is different about Islam is that while there have been a few attempts at such a reformation, none have flowered or found the support of a Muslim state. We patronize Islam, and mislead ourselves, by repeating the mantra that Islam is a faith with no serious problems accepting the secular West, modernity and pluralism, and the only problem is a few bin Ladens. Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities. Bin Laden reflects the most extreme version of that exclusivity, and he hit us in the face with it on 9/11. Christianity and Judaism struggled with this issue for centuries, but a similar internal struggle within Islam to re-examine its texts and articulate a path for how one can accept pluralism and modernity – and still be a passionate, devout Muslim – has not surfaced in any serious way. One hopes that now that the world spotlight has been put on this issue, mainstream Muslims too will realize that their future in this integrated, globalized world depends on their ability to reinterpret their past.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company