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contributor perspectives

Aug 20, 2016 | 13:16 GMT

Of Murder, Men and God

Board of Contributors
Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
The geopolitics of religious violence
(CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

Human history is littered with killings in the name of God. Some target specific communities: the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the persecution of Yazidis. Some are political, including the assassinations of Umar, Uthman, and Ali, the second, third and fourth "rightly guided" caliphs of Islam after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Religious wars are also not uncommon through the ages: the Crusades, the Battle of Jericho, and the Battle of Badr are just a few examples.

But into which category do we put the recent killings of Catholic clergy by Muslims?

The targeting of Catholic men of the cloth by Muslim men proclaiming "Allahu Akbar," meaning "God is greater" in Arabic, leaves people of faith and citizens of the world with a sense of helplessness. Targeting clergy is a different kind of terror.

Navigating a New Reality

Complex geopolitical eruptions have created the recipe for the attacks on clergy that have occurred in the past 20 years, along with confounding religious edicts and social upheaval that cannot yet be measured for lasting impact on personal and communal life.

When did the eruptions begin? The world wars of the 20th century, and the subsequent dissolution of old empires and creation of nation-states, were terminus for some social structures and launched new ones that have yet to find their balance – especially from North Africa to Central Asia. When my octogenarian professor of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, Dr. Father Lawrence Frizzell, traveled across Lebanon, Jordan and Syria in the 1960s he was met with welcome. The Canadian diocesan priest rode in buses filled with men inhaling the scent of national freedom. Their nations had new presidents (or in Jordan, a homegrown king) rather than colonial governors or imperial caliphs.

"Were you safe?" I asked him.

"Always," he answered.

Citizens of Damascus still extolled the example of Emir Abd el-Kader. A hero to the tribes of Algeria and a rebel to the French in their 1840s quest to colonize it, el-Kader was exiled to Damascus. When the French overlords of Syria imposed unfair taxes on Muslim homes and livelihoods, the enraged Muslim population of Damascus rose against its Christian neighbors. El-Kader, a devout Muslim, made his Damascene home a safe-house for Christians, protecting any seeking safety. His biography, Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) by John W. Kiser, sheds light for our times.

On his journey, Father Frizzell enjoyed hospitality in homes and villages with Christians and Muslims. "It is my duty to help a stranger," said a teenager driving him from Damascus to Maloula. The world in which he safely sojourned was too new to know it had traded one form of dictatorship for another. Foreign authorities had been replaced with indigenous presidents-for-life.

When political stability is scarce, religion might play a steadying role. But despite many good efforts within faith communities, and with the assistance of the media's megaphone, dogma seems to be trumping righteousness.

The riotous joy of those days and fleeting stability that followed crumbled in the wake of Gamal Abdel Nasser's failed Pan-Arabism, Hafez al Assad's increasingly brutal dictatorship, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the allied attack on Iraq in 1991, the fall of the World Trade Center's twin towers 10 years later, and related catastrophes since. The vacuum of instability created space for terrible vengeance.

Twisting Holy Text to Suit an Unholy Cause

When political stability is scarce, religion might play a steadying role. But despite many good efforts within faith communities, and with the assistance of the media's megaphone, dogma seems to be trumping righteousness.

The targeted killing of Father Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old auxiliary priest at Eglise St.-Etienne in northern France, is a case in point. The priest was murdered during worship. Two suspected assailants, both of Algerian origin, were shot dead by local police. France's Muslim population, on alert since the July 14 massacre in Nice and the November 2015 attacks in Paris, responded with grief and condemnation. They flocked to churches across France in solidarity with their Christian countrymen and women. These voices of concern and compassion, however, thud dully against the trumpets of the Islamic State that claim two of its "soldiers" attacked the church. Why would two Muslim boys, radicalized or not, attack a church?

Even with scholarly guidance, the lay reader of the Koran may endeavor to frame his or her understanding and yet remain perplexed. Chapter nine, "Repentance," verse 29, instructs,

"Fight those of the People of the Book who do not [truly] believe in God and the Last Day… "

But what determines true belief?

The same chapter, verse 31, cautions against equating Jesus Christ with God, which is considered idolatry in Islamic theology.

"They take their rabbis and their monks as lords, as well as Christ, the son of Mary. But they were commanded to serve only one God: there is no god but Him; He is far above whatever they set up as His partners!"

Yet verse 33 clarifies that it is God's job to deal with idolaters, not human beings':

"God insists on bringing His light to its fullness, even if the disbelievers hate it."

The Koran (9:34) also criticizes corrupt religious leaders.

"Believers, many rabbis and monks wrongfully consume people's possessions and turn people away from God's path. Prophet, tell those who hoard gold and silver instead of giving in God's cause that they will have a grievous punishment."

This verse identifies a common complaint about religious hierarchies. This is what irked 16th-century priest Martin Luther. Today, televangelists may be prosecuted and found guilty of fraud. Islamic law, like constitutional law, demands due process: accusation, trial, evidence, judgment and sentence. But all evidence points to Father Jacques' pious life. He truly believed and was not hoarding riches. What is the excuse for his execution?

Clarity regarding Muslims' relationship with Christians comes in a covenant between the Prophet Mohammed and the monks of St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in the year 628. The document from which this is excerpted is archived at St. Catherine's.

"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them…

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet…

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants."

Religious War, or War on Religion?

On July 29, 2013, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio was away from his monastery. Deir Mar Musa, built outside Damascus in the sixth century, was his home for decades. The Jesuit monk had lived in Syria since the 1980s, studying Arabic and Sharia at the University of Damascus and dedicating himself to interfaith dialogue and preserving the monastery. He was exiled in 2011 for criticizing President Bashar al Assad's handling of Syria's civil war and returned two years later at his own peril. They say he approached Islamic State leaders in Raqqa, intent on negotiating the release of prisoners.

"Paolo's vision was to create a monastic order dedicated to Abrahamic hospitality and Christian-Islamic dialogue," said Emma Loosley, a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at England's Exeter University who spent time at the monastery. "Until the war, Deir Mar Musa was a meeting point for Syrians of all faiths from across the country." Father Paolo has not been seen in the three years since.

Twenty years ago, in March 1996, seven Trappist monks were abducted from their monastery in the mountains above Algiers. Algeria was in the midst of turmoil involving its military regime. An aborted election compounded things, as did mercenaries returning from Afghanistan who had adopted extreme cultural views of Islamic life. The monks had dedicated themselves to productive engagement with their Muslim neighbors. On the eve of Easter, armed men came through the priory gates and — saying wounded rebels needed medical attention — rounded up the doctor, Brother Luc; the abbot, Christian de Cherge; and Brothers Paul and Celestin. Djamel Zitouni of the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) took credit for the kidnapping. Two months later, the monks were found dead. Thousands attended the state funeral at the Cathedral of Algiers, including Christians and Muslims. The murders remain unsolved. This spring, DNA evidence was brought from Algeria to France for forensic examination, but no reports have been released yet. The French families of the murdered men carry on a campaign for interreligious appreciation.

Each of these tragedies occurs in a different country, in a different time and under different geopolitical circumstances. Sociopathic behavior is evident, as is meager political reasoning and aberrant religious rationale.

Rather than hailing any of these crimes as battles in a religious war between Muslims and Christians, as the Islamic State and the GIA appear to urge, analysis indicates that these Muslim attacks on Christians are acts of sedition, treason against Islamic precepts, values and covenant. The agreement that the prophet signed with the monks of Sinai concludes:

"No one of the nation (Islam) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."

Covenant and commentary notwithstanding, it is difficult for me to write dispassionately about these killings. Father Jacques Hamel and my professor, Lawrence Frizzell, are contemporaries. Father Paolo was a friend to the Abraham Path Initiative, on whose board I serve as vice chair. The monastery he preserved was to have been a stop along the cultural route of Abrahamic hospitality for which this NGO stands. I am close with family members of the monks of Tibhirine. In 2004, I filmed the abandoned monastery in Algeria's Atlas Mountains in preparation for a documentary on the lives and legacy of those monks. The walls of the priory whisper loss and hope. Plainsong and Quranic chant echo in the chapel, where the monks and their Muslim companions shared worship. Their family members continue reaching out to people of different faiths in honor of the monks' visionary work.

What can we expect in the future? More violence. More advantage taken of unmoored young people by culturally extreme Muslims. We can also count on men and women of faith and ethics to stay their ground. We can count on growing moral support among the Abrahamic traditions and beyond. And we can expect that without emphasis on religious and secular education within disenfranchised, displaced populations, another generation may be sucked into the vacuum of inexcusable vengeance.

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