By Leon Hadar
February 10th 2015
A few days after Islamic State (IS) militants shocked the world by releasing a video showing a captured Jordanian pilot being burned to death, US President Barack Obama told a mostly Christian audience gathered for the annual National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) in Washington, DC, to get off their proverbial moral "high horse" and stop thinking that the brutality committed by IS and other Islamist terrorist groups was unique, recalling that "during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ."
To any graduate of an Israeli high school, Obama's history lesson would have sounded familiar. In fact, in the Jewish historical narrative, the atrocities committed against the Jews by the Christians during the Crusades and the Inquisition, including the burning to death of entire Jewish communities, have been compared to the horrors of the more recent Jewish Holocaust. (And Israeli high-school students may also experience a case of cognitive dissonance when they learn that Jews and Muslims joined forces once upon a time in fighting against their then common enemy, the Crusaders.)
By comparing the burning of heretics at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition to the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, or by suggesting that the religious zealotry of IS is reminiscent of the Crusades, Obama was certainly drawing legitimate historical analogies.
In fact, intolerance and even bloodthirstiness -- not to mention justifying slavery, the subjugation of women and the stoning of homosexuals -- were seen as grounded in Christianity, as well as in Jewish religion and tradition, including the Hebrew Bible where an angry and vengeful God instructs the Children of Israel to destroy the non-believers.
That was then. But since the dawn of the Enlightenment era in the West, two of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, have been going through major reforms and learning to adjust to the new secular age. It is true that as late as the early 20th century, race laws in the American South were justified in the name of Christianity, while some Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories insist today that their religion permits them to displace and even use violence against their Arab neighbours.
But it is the Muslim world that currently seems to be the major source of religious intolerance and of various forms of Medieval behaviour, like chopping off heads, killing gays, enslaving women and incinerating hostages.
From that perspective, while modern Christians and Jews have been progressing slowly but steadily toward embracing religious tolerance and other Enlightenment values, like individual freedoms and women’s rights, many Muslims are regressing to the Dark Ages.
President Obama's remarks may have been an attempt to avoid alienating Muslims by blaming their religion for groups like IS. Similarly, the current White House occupant, not unlike his Republican predecessor, has argued that IS and other Islamist terrorist groups "distort" and "pervert" Islam for "their nihilistic ends."
It is true that the majority of the world's Muslims are not jihadists. But then the radical Islamist agenda, including the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian violence it legitimizes, seems to have real appeal to many Muslims. Very few Christians today would interpret their religion the way the Crusaders did centuries ago, and most Jews would dismiss out of hand the genocidal injunctions of their God in the Bible.
In fact, the West, including Israel, is preoccupied with debates on whether to legalize same-sex marriage, whereas homosexuality is punishable by death in most Muslim societies, including the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hence, Obama’s attempt to suggest that all religions have been "hijacked" by extremists was a distortion of reality that seems to relieve Muslim leaders of their responsibility to examine why their religion is being used to perpetrate murderous acts.
Better still, Obama and other Western leaders, including secular Israeli public figures, could embrace a more honest and effective approach in dealing with the current wave of Islamic extremism by admitting that contrary to what the US president said last week, God does condone terror and for most religions the spread of superstition, intolerance and violence hasn't been the exception -- but the rule.
At the same time, they need to emphasize that much of the material and moral progress that the West has experienced in recent centuries -- in science, political freedom, economic growth, and human rights -- has resulted from the erosion in the influence of religion and the triumph of secularism. It is no coincidence that polls conducted among scientists suggest that the majority are agnostic or atheists.
Hence, confronting Islamic extremism and violence will involve more than just modernizing Islam and making it more tolerant. But even more importantly, such a campaign would require embracing a secular agenda under which religion, as such, loses its dominant position. People don't hijack religions to promote intolerance. Religions hijack people and make them intolerant.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikstrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.