Christian and Muslim Extremism in history

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Submitted by Ken Wear August 3, 2004;

Because of the influence of extremist elements of the various religions taught among men, it is questionable if religion has been, over all, a curse or a blessing. It is an assessment you must make for yourself. It is not my purpose here to rail against the dark side of religion. I wish to present the Realpolitik -- the politics of reality -- of the War on Terror as best I can, a war that is presented to the world as having a religious foundation.

On a personal level, religion offers comfort in times of stress and provides motivation to live according to moral imperatives. Collectively, on a political level, it has supported charities (often misguided) that have brought modern medicine to backward peoples but also supported cruelties and led peoples to move against other peoples. History describes efforts to -- impose or offer, you choose -- one community's version of religion on the larger community. Thus cruelties were inflicted by Middle Age Christians in their Inquisition -- efforts to force persons, by torture if necessary, to come into the folds of the Church -- or the Christian Crusades against Muslims, or Muslim invasion of country after country across northern Africa in their first two centuries, forcing persons, at the point of a sword, to acknowledge Allah and accept Koranic teachings.

My life has been dedicated to reason, from which science has sprung, so I cannot speak of all the religions practiced among our kind. This fundamental weakness in this presentation results from my career in science, which has become a religion to many adherents to what they regard as science. But it is a topic in need of examination if the poisonous aspects of religious teachings and practices are to be moderated. And it is a topic from which I cannot remove my own bias. There is a degree of mysticism in my -- scientifically unprovable assertions -- bias, as you will discover in my presentation of Rational Theism. That said, let me present what I regard as essential information about religion that I feel hinders our species in our quest for a more perfect society.

Both Christians and Muslims teach charitable enterprises to heal sick minds and bodies, to feed the hungry, to clothe and house the impoverished. There are also evils, and I cannot offer an inclusive list, but examples abound:

The dark side of Judeo-Christian tradition

  • Priests in early Judaism presented deity as a fearful personality so individuals needed the intercession of privileged persona to shield them from the wrath of deity, thus affording priests power over the faithful while damning all others.
  • The monarch of Rome recognized Christianity as the state religion and then assumed the position as its head. National Catholic churches splintered off; because of Rome's military conquests the Church of Rome became dominant in Western history. (England's monarch quarreled with Rome, severed ties with the Pope and established the Episcopal Church.)
  • The Church of Rome (Roman Catholic) church reverted to the earlier priestly notion of intercession and created a hierarchy that abused its moral underpinnings, such as the selling indulgences to confer the church's protection (a practice apparently continued even today).
  • I refer above to the Inquisition and Crusades.
  • The Church of Rome, through 3/4 of its history, retarded scientific advances by punishing those who dared speak ideas contrary to official church doctrine.
  • The Roman Catholic and Protestan missionaries alike are responsible for much of the world's miseries today, through population increases beyond the carrying capacity of cultures submitting to their influence, Catholics by demanding unfettered sexual activity with no possibility of aborting unwanted fetuses, and both Cathlics and Protestants failing to encourage development of industries to support the larger population resulting from introduction of medical facilities and practices.
  • Both Catholic and Protestant traditions have split, forming a host of denominations opposed to each other with competition for converts often producing disagreeable confrontations.

    The dark side of Muslim tradition

  • All non-Muslims (and Muslims converting to another faith) are regarded as infidels.
  • Islam has splintered into many sects and members of one sect regard members of another sect as infidels.
  • Infidels are candidates for the sword.
  • Through most of the world political organization of Muslims remains tribal with the tribal leader as absolute authority (including dictation of sect to which loyalty is required), resulting religious cohesion, inter-tribal hostilities and inter-sect violence.
  • Sharia law supersedes the Koran, with various versions of Sharia among the various sects.
  • Notably the Shia and Sunni sects are violently opposed to each other, often resulting in massive killings, especially in recent times using suicide bombers.
  • I refer above to the Muslim march across north Africa
  • Many Muslim extremists strive to subvert the benign teachings of their faith to purposes foreign to the founding spirit in an effort to seize and retain power in pursuit of their own goals. The present War on Terror is one result.
  • Afghan Muslims (and many others) apparently regard women as vehicles for satisfaction of sexual urges of their men, with bearing many children as an outcome.
  • Saudi Arabia, in its Wahhabi tradition, uses the Koran as its constitution and has been successful in using its enormous oil wealth to advance Fundamentalism, founding schools (good) that include teaching violent hatred of the West (bad). (The terrorist bin Laden is son of a Saudi family of several wives and more than twenty children.)
  • Much of the military unrest in Africa pits Sunni Muslims against the prevailing civil order.

    (For a brief historical discussion of Islam, click here.

    Religious Extremists:

    Let us be charitable about the motives of the founders of the various religions. I am not certain we can even identify the true founders although we can identify some of the early proponents responsible for acceptance and spread of each religion and every sect within the religion. Let us not spend time on the benign side of religion beyond mention of the pursuit of charitable enterprises to heal sick minds and bodies, to feed the hungry, to clothe and house the impoverished.

    The vast majority of adherents are content to live their own lives and allow others a similar pursuit. But no religion is without its missionary role of expanding its influence, else it would not have persisted and grown in the face of competition from other religions. And, while most of us are content to pursue each his own private agenda, there are among the practitioners of each religion those who feel very strongly a personal zeal to advance their religion, to present its obvious advantages to the unenlightened world.

    Every religion has extremists. Since I speak from a Christian background I attempt to display first Christian extremists. "Go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." A few -- the preachers and missionaries (enthusiasts, sometimes fanatics or zealots) -- carry the burden of promoting their religion. And history records that guns, swords and other means of exerting force have been used in pursuit of that goal. In fact, the U. S. government has in the past undertaken to guarantee the safety of its citizens in foreign lands as they pursue either profit or satisfaction of conscience: government guarantee of their safety as they pursue their business interests, their charities or spreading their faith.

    No religion has a monopoly on ignominy in its past. For instance, in the efforts of religious leaders to retain their power, the Roman Catholic heirarchy suppressed scientific advance on the grounds of conflict with a literal interpretation of scripture. We may debate the degree of personal ambition, or the resultant extending of the Dark Ages, but we cannot debate its effect on retarding progress. And Islam, in its spread throughout the Middle East and across northern Africa, produced riches that allowed a "golden age" of literary and scientific progress along with accumulations of wealth in direct contravention of the teachings of the Prophet to succor the poor.

    Christian extremists:

    The missionaries of Christianity have fanned out across the globe to do charitable works in the name of their religion -- and convert the heathen in the process. It appears they have not considered the practical consequences of increasing population and the resultant increases in poverty. Or increased unhappiness resulting from education in comparing tribe with the larger community with its education and medical miracles. Among peoples who were formerly content and self sufficient to the point of perpetuation of their closed societies. Bringing the evil of recognition of increased poverty along with the good of their charitable efforts.

    So it is the few who carry the burden of thus spreading their religious faith. The zealots, if you will. And every faith has them: the few who aggressively wish to confer the peculiar advantages of their faith upon the larger community. But it should be noted
    1) that the modern Christians pursue their missionary objectives by peaceful means using example, persuasion and charity rather than guns and terror and
    2) various Christian sects or groupings, while competing for converts, live peacefully among neighbors of various sects.

    Islamic extremists:

    And the world of Islam has its extremists. Dedicated to a goal similar to that of the Christian's "Great Commission." Just as various denominations of Christians differ in their efforts to recruit and support missionaries -- the extremists -- to spread their religious faith, Islam has its sects and extremists. Unfortunately there is great friction between various sects of Islam as adherents of one sect regard all others as infidels. Within my knowledge adherents of the Wahhabi sect (of Saudi Arabia) are the most fundamentalist and have been successful in using their enormous oil wealth in advancing their version of Islam. The result is a matter of Realpolitik.

    When the British abandoned their protectorate in the Near East they anointed the family of Saud as the political power in that geographical division now known as Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi sect of Islam, with its extreme form of fundamentalism, was strong there and in fact supported by many members of the Saud family. The immense wealth resulting from exploitation of their petroleum resources was available and was used to support and advance their sect, not only in Arabia but in Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, . . . Now everyone recognizes the value of education, and the Wahhabi organized schools where there were none. And their schools taught elements of the faith just as Christian schools do -- the Wahhabi sect, of course. While northeastern India has probably the greatest concentration of Wahhabi adherents outside Saudi Arabia, I am unaware of a harvest of extremists from India, likely a result of state supported secular education.

    Unfortunately the extremists of some Islamic sects are militant in their missionary enterprises. And in the name of their religion have fanned the flames of resentment in order to advance their religious cause. More unfortunate is that many members of other sects of Islam are, to all appearances as viewed by non-Muslims, emotionally more closely allied with the Islamic militant extremists than with peace-oriented members of other sects or religions.

    I note reports that efforts to impose Sharia law are rare, not because effort is rare, but because reporters are forbidden or sensored.

    Extremists and fundamentalists represent the fringe of the faith

    Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists are incompatible since the growth of Christianity has been under secular governments while Islamic fundamentalists insist their government must be subordinated to their faith. Wherever one prospers and advances, the other is headed for extinction. Throughout history the religions that have survived have adapted to then-current needs of their members. It is becoming increasingly necessary for followers of the Prophet Mohammad to repudiate his practice of uniting and converting through threat of force and instead rely on the benign teachings of the faith to win converts. And Christians and Muslims alike must become active proponents of improved infrastructure to support their members and converts.

    Motivations of bin Laden and his fellow travelers and apologists:

    While I have not seen public mention, I assume the terrorist bin Laden, from Saudi Arabia, is of the Wahhabi sect of Islam. I am myself convinced that his initial objective was to unseat the Saud family, but the petroleum interests prevented that. Thus his hatred was directed toward the petroleum interests, notably those supported by the United States government, and by extension to the United States. And the enormous wealth controlled by bin Laden and his immediate family was used to support schools and to assemble a quasi-governmental organization that allied itself with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    Pundits and scholars are quick to point out the poisonous regard many nations hold for the U.S. Explanations offered generally reflect the exercise of personal greed as protected by the U.S. government, and no doubt many foreign policy decisions have been ordained by the politically powerful in pursuit of wealth and power. And many of these policies have given good reason for resentments, despite our public posture of peace and enlightnment. But, in honesty, we ought to admit that the exercise of greed is universal and opportunistic and that individual behavior is more often guided by stealth (as the voice expresses religious platitudes while the hand takes). It understandably fosters resentments and becomes fodder for the extremists.

    I am unsure if the seemingly unending wars in Africa have their foundation in population growth (compliments of Christian missionary zeal) and competition for space by the various alliances of tribes, or in political aspirations of tribal leaders, or in strident Islamic militants. Pehaps there is a little of each. I have seen no mention of Wahhabi involvement even though Arab (Islamic) extremists are involved in military actions.

    And today:

    The tribal organization of Muslims still reigns. While it is grossly unfair to single out one sect, my interpretation is that divisions within the Saud family make it difficult for the ruling members to take action against the more militant members of their society, in particular in rewriting textbooks, reforming their schools, advancing the cause of minorities and women, and overseeing the uses of their extreme wealth in their charitable enterprises. Our government must offer political support to the more moderate members of the family and give what assistance it can in organizing tribes into a nation, in reforming education, and in producing a secular political structure

    And our religious leaders need to take another look at their aggressiveness in spreading their religion without at the same time developing the economic infrastructure to support their converts.

    If, as I suspect, secular education is the key to producing citizens with mutual respect for each other, then our government and our religions need to adopt policies to encourage education universally. I rank education as the most important need of emerging nations, second perhaps to public sanitation and potable drinking water, but certainly before medical facilities. Solar distilleries -- small family size or community size -- could readily provide potable water at vanishingly small cost. Schools require trained teachers and an infrastructure including universities, but local efforts need to be concentrated on local needs so that universities are the goal of the developed countries.

    We can work toward the time when the more bellicose adherents of all faiths recognize the merit of good will toward all -- Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Bantu, Muslims, Shintoists, Confucians, . . ., as well as the other sects of their faith. Progress toward real peace requires, not secularism, but good will and mutual respect among practitioners of all faiths. In the quest for balance and muting the spirit of competition, we should ask no more of Islam than Christianity is willing to offer in its own house.

    We must seek to recognize aggrieved peoples seeking redress from an unsympathetic government and distinguish them from those who wish to live by robbery, murder, plunder, mayhem, . . . Willful and organized terror cannot be tolerated in this country or anywhere else in the world regardless of justification -- religious, trade, power, adventure, lust, . . .

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    The Prophet Muhammad (Mohammed), Islam -- which is translated "surrender" -- and Allah (the only true deity).

    To understand the religion you must examine the social structure from which it arose. First loyalty was to your clan and then to your tribe. In each tribe there arose a leader, not by blood succession but as a man could attract a following, so that each tribe was led by the more capable among them. Individual loyalty was pledged to the tribal leader; he was the law as well as protector of his followers. One must suppose that through the personal relationships of various tribal leaders one tribe would come to the defense of another so that what peace there was reigned through personal alliances. And any one individual, if he valued his own life, pledged his allegiance to his leader in return for the protection of that leader and therefore the tribe. (Much as we see today in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

    Arabia was a turbulent land; with agriculture limited and the food supply chronically short, it became the practice to raid other communities for life's necessities (and to make slaves of the defeated). And, if one man killed another, then his clan had a duty to avenge the death; a man without a chief or protector was fair game since there was no one to avenge his death. Moreover, in raids for plunder care was taken not to kill since that must lead to revenge. Life became a series of vendettas and counter-vendettas. It was these aspects of Arabian life -- loyalty to your leader in return for his protection, avenging the death of someone under that leader's protection, raid and be raided -- that dominated the early development of Islam.

    The child who became the Prophet was born in the sixth century A.D., about 567, to the (large and wealthy) tribe of Quraysh in the community of Mecca, a then-ancient trading and religious center near the west coast of what is now Saudi Arabia. His parents died while he was an infant and he lived with a grandfather, a man of wealth, and, after his death, with a poorer uncle. Muhammed apparently became a camel driver and took part in, perhaps led, caravans of traders before he married the wealthy widow Kahdija, 15 years his senior, at about the age of 25. The Koran records he could neither read nor write.

    Arabia at the time was polytheistic and Mecca (with its shrine Kaaba), as a center of worship to a pantheon of some 360 deities, attracted throngs of pilgrims. Mecca's wealth derived from both its position as host on trade (caravan) routes and as host to pilgrims worshipping at Kaaba. (Then, as now, one should never decry the influence of wealth.)

    Muhammad frequently retired to a cave in the mountains near Mecca and it was there that he received the first of his revelations. At first he remained silent, but after a year or two he began to recite verse (Quran -- or Koran -- means "recitation.") in the pagan temple, Kaaba, that was the center of worship, and he gradually built a personal following. (We have little information on the initial growth of the nucleus of his following, but it was first his wife and then a cousin, then likely individuals and through their influence families and then clans. Neither have we information on how and by whom the prophet's recitations found their way into print; since he could neither read nor write he could not edit.)

    Since his teaching was monotheistic his presence ran counter to Kaaba's appeal and interfered with this source of wealth; this led to his clan, the Quraysh, being boycotted, which led to great hardship since they could not even buy food. On the death of his uncle he was without a protector and could be killed with impunity, so he was ready to listen to a delegation of chiefs from Medina who sought a leader to end the chronic feuds there. They arrived at a pact and some 70 families (some 200 souls) moved there in 622. We must suppose that, as part of this migration, those families and their members pledged themselves to the Prophet -- now middle-aged -- so that he became, in effect, their tribal leader.

    The Prophet taught monotheism (surrender to Allah), peace, and egalitarianism (including succor to the poor, so there was no extreme wealth). We must speculate on the terms of his pact with the delegation from Medina, which consisted of chiefs who spoke for their families and clans in keeping with the social structure of the time. But they did convert to Islam, apparently as a condition for the Prophet's involvement, and this (effectively) elevated him to the position of their tribal leader with the (accustomed) pledge of mutual assistance to all under the protective umbrella of his "ummah" or family.

    But not all clans welcomed them in Medina. There was not enough land for agriculture for all so continuing the practice of raiding provided income for the ummah. A large caravan headed for Mecca was unsuccessfully defended by the Meccans in 624; this led to an army from Mecca in 625 overpowering the Medinese, which led in turn to expulsion of two Medina families for collaboration with Mecca. But in 627 the Meccans again brought an army against Medina and this time were soundly defeated; the men of one family in Medina were massacred and their wives and children sold into slavery for supporting Mecca. Thus Muhammad became a primary military, political and religious leader, and since he taught charity and peace within the ummah, the practice of raiding each other was prohibited (while others outside the ummah were still fair game).

    One must ask the source of Muhammad's army and I offer this suggestion: The Prophet continued his recitations and won converts to his teachings. As a parallel development families (and then clans) joined in order to come under his protection (acceptance of Islam being a requirement). The pledge of mutual assistance by various family, clan and tribal leaders, coupled with the authority wielded by those leaders, made it possible for Muhammad to assemble an army when needed. And he trained his army under his unified command (as opposed to the tradition that each tribal leader would command his own faithful).

    The practice of raiding continued. Since members of the ummah could not raid each other, they turned to other targets (which had led to the wars with Mecca). And various tribal leaders throughout Arabia, considering Muhammad's growing military might and successes, found it wise to convert, join the ummah, and thus be protected from raiding. Thus, in 632, when Muhammad died, Arabia was essentially unified and at peace.

    Soon after Muhammad's death, various tribal leaders sought to abrogate their treaties of unity since their treaties were with the ummah leader, Muhammad. Old habits die hard and the Arabs turned to the lands beyond. Conquest followed conquest. With empire, slow communication and personal ambitions, leadership split, both political and religious. The accumulation of wealth in the central court(s) was in contrast to the egalitarian teaching of the Prophet and various leaders at various times attempted to return to the simplicity of the Prophet's teachings. As with Christianity, Islam became rife with schisms, each with its distinctive dogma. Thus the turbulence of the Arabian past was projected onto the world stage.

    7-13-07 The influence of the tribal structure of Arabian society should not be overlooked when reflecting on the expansion of Islam under the Prophet. Conversion to the faith was not a matter of personal conscience or conviction, but the practicality of pledging yourself to your tribal leader in return for his protection, which in turn hinged on the wisdom of the tribal leader in forming political alliances for the protection of his tribe. Thus, when a tribal leader allied his tribe with the Prophet, with the requirement the leader accept the Prophet's teachings, members of the tribe were required to follow the Prophet's teachings and practices regardless of personal preference of prior religious leanings.

    Neither should one overlook the influence of a tribal structure of society when reflecting on the political realities of today. The political strength of the United States derives in part from forging a larger political unity that mostly ignores tribal identity but honors family (and sometimes clan). Many areas of Earth retain tribal identity, which has been the source of internecine warfare.

    I am not historian enough to recite how Islam became fractured into a variety of sects. I am aware that succession became a major issue. After his death, Mohammad's cousin became head of the Muslim empire. Upon the cousin's death many thought succession shoud be inheritable while others turned to other leaders. Thus the Muslim world was divided. I am curious, and doubt history records, how control of the wealth from conquered lands -- results of the head tax on non-believers -- produced loyalties to various leaders, thus producing the fracture of Islam.

    Islam, like all other religions, has developed and expanded and splintered. There are today in the house of Islam many sects, each with its interpretations of the Prophet and how modern society should respond to the imperatives of the faith.

    Four aspects of Islam stand out today on the international stage.
    (1) The Prophet was both political and religious leader and those who would emulate the Prophet must of necessity combine church and state;
    (2) The Prophet taught religious tolerance, but if you did not convert to Islam you must pay a head tax; so it became the practice in lands falling under Islamic control for the governed to either convert or pay a head tax (enforced by the sword), and
    (3) With the splintering of Islam into sects it became common for a member of one sect to regard members of all other sects as infidels and therefore in need of conversion.
    (4) Birth rates determine world population, and the forecast, that Muslims will predominate in one or two generations, requires they heal the breach between sects, else they will (having atomic weaponry) destroy civilization.

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    Where to Islam?

    We all have a natural preference for people like ourselves. That was, after all, the origin of society as our numbers grew from the cave man days through the early hunter-gatherer organization and then settlements in agricultural communities. And, in our modern Western society, we can see the remnant of tribal organization in family groupings and communities with a common language or a common ethnicity and even in national boundaries where a common heritage has bound groups of peoples together. I guess one of the benefits of our multiplicity of religions is that the typical community includes members of a variety of religious practices, all living in harmony with common interests and projects.

    Ultimately the human family must become one because of our increase in economic interdependence. I have suggested plebiscite as an intermediate phase in the organization of the human family, but I suspect that the progression of generations and economic necessities will produce a homogeneous whole. But we are today far short of that goal.

    The Prophet sought to overcome tribal divisions and considered all his followers as ummah (or family -- family of believers). In the Arabia under his control there was unity and peace but, after his death, the lands beyond were conquered and the Muslims tended to remain in closed communities apart from the subjugated, thus retaining a semblance of tribal identity. When one examines peoples in countries under Muslim control, it is apparent, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, . . ., that the tribal structure remains and is in fact the basis for much internecine warfare. One of the Prophet's primary goals has been thus frustrated.

    We have the spectacle of Muslims who are members of another sect regarding each other as infidels and therefore candidates for the sword. Osama bin Laden is an outstanding example of a leader of one sect who would like to claim the brotherhood of Islam but regards all sects outside his own as infidels. Not just the Western world, but also Muslims of other sects. And Saddam Hussein was from Tikrit; so that tribe of Sunni Muslims was favored in his government.

    It is incompatible with the Prophet's teachings to separate church and state. Other religions have adapted to the realities of a multi-cultural society; Islam must also, else it must either gain political ascendancy or perish. It is much too harsh a judgment to refer to Islam as a failed religion because of its lack of political control, but, as a part of modern society, it must adapt.

    I am reminded of the old Arab legend of the camel and the herdsman. On a cold, stormy night the camel came upon the tent of the herdsman and, out of compassion for the camel, the herdsman invited the camel to put his head within the shelter of the tent. For a while the camel was content, but the storm did not abate and the night became colder, so he prevailed on the herdsman's hospitality to allow him to also push his whole neck into the tent. By degrees to camel got his whole body inside the tent. Then, after a bit, he told the herdsman there was not enough room in the tent for both, so the herdsman must leave. The Western world must beware of increasing numbers of Muslims in their midst unless those Muslims renounce their religion's command to combine state and religion; that renunciation must become a condition for each person's qualification for citizenship, much as the Mormons were required to renounce polygamy as a condition for Utah to become a State.

    Comment added 10-7-05
    Two necessities grow from the conflict of Islamic extremists and the other Muslim sects:
    (1) The extremists must renounce force (and terrorism) as a means of advancing their faith, else they must be removed from society (converted, killed or isolated; it matters not to the larger community).
    (2) Muslims of more moderate persuasion must recognize the poison represented by their extremists and join the effort toward secularist government even if it means aligning themselves with Christians, Jews and others.

    11-28-04 Who am I to question the validity of the mystical experience, of the extraordinary communications, or the truth content of the message? I, who claim a visitation from his mother, dead some 50 years at the time? Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Issac, when God provided a ram as a substitute. Moses saw God on Mt. Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was visited by the angel Gabriel to announce the supernatural nature of her pregnancy. Muhammad was visited by an angel (later identified as Gabriel) in the cave north of Mecca. Bab revealed a new Holy Book. Jospeh Smith was visited by the angel Monroni, who showed him the plates of gold inscribed with the words of wisdom and provided special glasses to allow translation. There were no witnesses; there was no physical artifact seen by others; we rely on the veracity and motivation of the claimant. As Jesus of Nazareth said, "By their fruits you shall know them."

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