Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire


Calling all moderate religious believers

Beth FriedenModerate members of all religions, it is time to speak out. In order to keep people from attacking your religion, you must reassure them that you are not out to conquer or destroy them. (Unless, of course, you are, in which case this article is not addressed to you and you may stop reading at any time.) What is more, you have a responsibility to your religion to curb its extreme side.

It is a difficult time to be religious in this world. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is. Muslims all over the world are finding themselves harassed, discriminated against and even attacked by those who cannot separate them from the extremist elements of Islam. Anti-Semitism is rising as Israel continues to dehumanize the Palestinians in violation of international law. In the U.S., three prominent books have been published just in the last year attacking religion, and even many liberal Christians feel censored by political correctness.

Senior politics major Mollie Price spent last fall semester in Cairo, Egypt, after Israel had invaded Lebanon. She arrived to find posters angrily calling for justice and clearly equating Jews with Israel. She told me, “There was justified outrage against Israel. The line I tried to keep between Judaism and Zionism dissolved before my eyes…I wanted to scream, ‘Not in my name, Israel!'”

Price discovered that religion is a huge part of identity in Egypt. People asked her all the time what she was. She explained, “After I got over my initial fear of telling people that I was Jewish, I found that most people I spoke with seemed to understand what I meant when I said that I was Jewish but not Zionist. Jewish and not supportive of the Wall. Jewish and not supportive of Jewish settlers who camp out in Gaza and the West Bank.”  Turns out Muslims understand what it’s like to have their religion hijacked by orthodox extremists. Maybe Christians do, too.

Many would be surprised to learn that not all Jews are Zionists. In most countries where the Jewish population is relatively small, news of Israel may be all people know about Jews. Certainly Israel presents itself to the world as the representative of authentic Jewry. Its domination of Judaism in the news helps cement the assumption that all Jews support Israel in all its actions and policies. And the U.S., which has the largest Jewish population in the world, is the home of Zionism in many respects. The American Jewish establishment supports Israel fiercely and clearly has an effect on government policy toward it.

Not all American Jews agree with that policy. There are those of us who feel for Israel’s inhabitants but also know we cannot support the injustices Israel has committed and commits every day against the Palestinians. But no one will know that unless we tell them. Forgive me for using the phrase, but we’ve got to come out of the closet here.

The situation is similar for many moderate religious folk today. Muslims are already quite tired of reminding people that they didn’t personally bomb the World Trade Center. Jews are going to have to join them in reassuring people that we see more in Palestinians than blind hatred, that we do not except Israel from all humanitarian standards. Non-proselytizing Christians will have to speak up to let the rest of us know we don’t have to be nervous around them. It may not be fair that we have to deal with these stereotypes, but it is the case nonetheless.

Why might we have a responsibility to make people aware of the moderate side of our religions? Because extremism endangers religion in many ways. Israel threatens its very existence and the lives of its citizens by oppressing and antagonizing the Palestinians unjustly (and believe me, it is unjustly; they’re not all suicide bombers, people). Christianity in the United States is being pressured to stand down even in the private sector because non-Christians feel threatened, particularly because crusading types like President Bush have gained so much political power in recent years. Moderating religion makes the world a safer place to be religious.

Stanley Fish of the New York Times contends that, in the context of the U.S. at least, “The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces.” To make a statement like that, Fish has to believe that the defining characteristic of religion is not belief in a higher power or even practical application of that belief, but the specific mission to enforce one’s specific truth. Either that or he’s just ignoring that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have different sects of varying orthodoxy. I don’t buy it.

Fish is not pleased with Richard Dawkins, who argues in “The God Delusion” that our practice of respecting religious beliefs just because they are religious makes the world safe for extremists like Osama Bin Laden, whose religious beliefs just happen to be more unfriendly and, well, extreme than your garden-variety believer. This extreme position certainly doesn’t jibe with our Constitution, but it expresses the feelings of those who see religion as a force for evil in the world.

If we would like to prove Dawkins wrong, we moderates must moderate our religions. We must be louder than the extremists among us. If we believe in liberal democracy like that of the United States, we must try to keep the darker elements of faith under control. It is in moderation that we find common ground.

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