Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


October 29, 2001

Forum examines religion and violence

By Michael Terrazas


They are sometimes called the three “Abrahamic” faiths, and on the evening of Oct. 24 in Winship Ballroom, scholars and practitioners of each—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—gathered to discuss the three religious traditions’ long and ambivalent relationships with violence in the name of God.

Sponsored by the University’s Working Group on Religion and Conflict, this “Forum on Religion and Violence” drew a standing-room crowd to the Dobbs Center to hear seven speakers touch on a subject that’s been center stage in the world since the morning of Sept. 11. Moderated by Emory College Interim Dean Bobby Paul, the panel included:

  • Michael Berger, associate professor of religion at Emory.
  • Rabbi Leila Berner, rabbi at Congregation Bet Mishpachah in Washington and an affiliate at George Washington University.
  • Richard Martin, professor and former chair of the religion department at Emory.
  • Rev. Mary Elizabeth Moore, professor of religion and education in the Candler School of Theology.
  • Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic law, ethics, theology and critical theory at Duke University.
  • Imam Ibrahim Pasha, associate imam of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, a progressive masjid in the Muslim American Society.
  • Rev. Thee Smith, associate professor of Christianity at Emory.
Leading off, Martin said research on terrorism has mushroomed since the 1970s—Woodruff Library has 40 feet of shelf space devoted to the subject, he said—but that work connecting terrorism with religion is still relatively scant. Some scholars insist terrorism is not a product of the modern world but can be traced back through the Middle Ages to Roman times, Martin said.

Martin distinguished terrorism from “violence” in general, and said the former is an “aberration of orthodoxy.” The temptation is to label terrorists as delusional, he said, but, “If we dismiss terrorists as insane, we forfeit our ability” to understand them and their motives.

Next up was Berger, who pointed out the fallacy in assuming that he or any other religious scholar could speak for an entire faith. “There is no such thing as a single, uniform tradition called ‘Judaism’ or ‘Christianity,’” he said, adding that each tradition is made up of myriad communities.

That said, Berger did attempt to trace the relationship between Judaism and violence starting with when the Jews became “stateless” 2,500 years ago. The Talmud sanctions only two types of violence, Berger said: preemptive violence, meaning either self-defense or violence to prevent another Jew from bringing harm to the community, and suicide in the face of coerced conversion. The former, Berger noted, was the apparent rationale behind the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Berner echoed Berger’s first point, saying, “There are as many Judaisms as there are Jews.” She said much of the contemporary Jewish world has secularized its thinking, viewing the ancient texts more as moral guidelines than strict authority. This thinking, she said, puts the onus on “individual ethical behavior, but the larger goal combines ethical and religious tradition with realpolitik.”

Berner herself acknowledged a realpolitik-al conundrum: “How do we avoid escalation of violence when some of us are feeling very violent?” Most people are not pure pacifists, she said, but when violence is justified, they wish to “wage war in the most ethical and humane way possible.” Berner then paused and chuckled at the irony of that statement.

Moore devoted her time to discussing “words and wounds,” tracing the double-edged concepts of love, justice and peace through the ages. Christians killed countless innocent Muslims and Jews during the Crusades, she said, all in the name of Christ. “These were not infidels,” she said. “These were devout Jews, devout Muslims.”

Moore said the World Council of Churches has declared 2001–10 as “the decade to overcome violence,” and added, “We are not yet the credible messengers of nonviolence that the Gospel calls us to be.” Still, like Berner, she acknowledged reality: “There are situations where we cannot legitimize violence—but we can also not condemn it. War is simply sometimes the only last resort.”

Quoting a selection from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Smith said the wrongdoer is not a stranger to society, and society must acknowledge how “the hidden will in all of us co-enables the wrongdoer.” Smith cautioned against the “runaway moral indignation” that transforms into a sort of “civil religion” called patriotism and sanctions its own form of “sacred violence.”

“What we may be forfeiting by choosing a military response [to Sept. 11] is a chance at spiritual consensus,” Smith said. “Each religion needs the other to understand itself. No single tradition ... can get us out of this mire.”

Pasha began by saying, “I am a Muslim. I am also an American. I am in love with both of those identities, and [after Sept. 11] I have anger in both capacities.”
The root of both words “Islam” and “Muslim,” Pasha said, is “peace,” and true Muslims are obligated to follow the path of peace. “The true Muslim is one who accepts peace to be God’s will and who accepts God’s creations—especially the human creations,” Pasha said. “Whoever is not working to attain this peace has not arrived where God wants them to be.”

Finally, Moosa asked rhetorically, “Isn’t it amazing how wonderful and perfect all our traditions look with the benefit of hindsight?

“To find any of the major religions not being implicated in violence throughout history would be as rare as finding hens with teeth,” he said. “Peaceful religion, I say to my students, may only be found in the mind of God—and I sometimes have doubts about that.”

Moosa said America and the West cannot expect all countries to experience religion in the secularized way they do; indeed, he said, instituting a separation of church and state in the Islamic world would require a revolution of religious thought.

Still, Moosa insisted that although Western policies are partly culpable for the endemic violence in Muslim countries, the leaders of Islamic states must take a hard look in the mirror if they really want to end bloodshed. “Muslims must acknowledge their own failures,” he said. “U.S. policies are part of the problem, but they are certainly not the whole problem.”

“The question of ‘Why?’ [Sept. 11 occurred],” Moosa concluded, “is the most important question that we owe to future generations.”


Back to Emory Report October 29, 2001