My friends, the past two weeks have seen a spate of successive and horrendous hits by terrorist groups operating in the name of Allah- I don’t need to go into details. Now, the horror has hit home, this time, in San Bernardino, only an hour’s drive from where we sit. The son of one of our dear friends had worked in that same building up to a few years ago; he was spared simply because he had switched careers.
I need to repeat my opening thought that I stated three weeks ago, that “ Don’t kill people- Ideas kill people.”
I found myself looking back at files of my pasts sermons and I see that it is “ déjà vu all over again”.
I found, from over 25 years ago, this scenario for a horror movie
A radical religious fanatic, a blind man, sets out to overthrow the ruling government of his country. He is arrested, tried, cleared, but he leaves to find asylum elsewhere.
He enters US on visitor’s visa and then a green card; who would deny a visa to a blind man, after all? From the US, he issues directives to his followers to massacre tourists in his home country, so that the one good source of income would collapse. He hopes that the ensuing economic catastrophe would force the downfall of his regime, and he would return as the great leader.
In the meantime, he sets up a religious center, masterminds an assassination, and then proceeds with his great ambition--to destroy the American Satan by crippling its financial center.
His followers obtain explosives and a van, and drive it into the basement parking lot of the World Trade Centers, the twin towers, the tallest in the US, which headquarter the major financial offices of this nation.
Do you think any movie producer at that time would have bought the script? Would I have been laughed out of Hollywood for this Grade B horror movie?
But it was no horror movie. What could have been just another grade B thriller had become a reality, when the foundations of the World Trade Center were rocked, 6 people were killed and 1000 injured, and major financial institutions had to move their operations out of New York.
A radical Islamic clergyman on the lamb from his native Egypt, who had been accused of masterminding the assassination of Anwar Sadat, had been here for several years, sitting in New Jersey, sending out his decrees for attacking cruise ships on the Nile,blowing up tourists drinking coffee on the sidewalk cafes of Cairo, and killing a thousand of his fellow Egyptians. It this same clergyman, Omar Adel Rahman, who had inspired the explosion at the World Trade Center.
Keep in mind that we are always told that the cause of our current terror is the reaction to America’s invasion of Iraq. But this happened long before that war.
Since then, we had the far more horrendous and successful destruction of those same Twin Towers on 9/11. That did not follow an American attack on a Moslem country. That came but a few years after the United States successfully saved Moslems from Christians in Bosnia.
The more things change, the more they seem the same.
We can no longer delude ourselves that the two great oceans keep us immune from the insanity pervading the Middle East. We cannot look at France, with its 10% poor and alienated Moslem population, and say that it is their problem.
We are now on edge.
During the seventies and eighties, we could sit in relative safety. The mass terrorism of a Baader Meinhoff gang or The Red Army Faction or the IRA was something for the Europeans to worry about;we were protected by the great Atlantic ocean, and our borders were watched by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Now, we have been reminded that troubles in one part of the world have an echo in our part of the world.
With the Soviet Union no longer the pied piper and mastermind of these terrorist groups, we had believed that the conflicts of ideology would have been laid to rest.
It is not First World versus Second World.
It is a new ideological conflict, the conflict of modern technological and secular society on the one hand and the resurgent world of religious reaction to modernity, most pronounced in its Islamic form, perhaps better termed as “ Islamism”..
ISIS or the Wahabi of Saudi Arabia are not the voice of Islam. Islam does not have a Pope to speak for it, but that can be both for good and for bad.
For this reason, it is possible to find Moslem voices that speak of reason and tolerance. However, no single Moslem figure, or even school, can define the faith for the rest, and no institution in the world of Islam is in a position to ban or expel any other movement that speaks in the name of Islam. That is the great danger that we face. The great fight will be within the world of Islam as it faces the liberal West ( and Orient).
However, we, whether as citizens of the world in general, as Americans, or as Jews, will also be the collateral damage of this war.
It is a horrid tragedy unfolding.
As far as Islam itself goes, we, as Jews, share very much in common with it, both historically and in terms of certain common beliefs and practices.
When Mohammed was born, Saudi Arabia had a heavy Jewish population, as well as Christian, and when he fled his native Mecca, he made his way to Yathrib, a city founded and populated by Jews. It was to them that he first preached.
Islam reflects its Jewish connection.
Islam is, like Judaism, and unlike Christianity, an emphatically monotheistic religion.Like Judaism, Islam does not associate God with any son or physical appearance. Even the word for God in Arabic, Allah, is itself a cousin of the Hebrew word, Elohim. Allah is described with as rachman--the same as in Hebrew, for merciful.
A Moslem is bound to pray, not three times, but five times a day, he is obliged to give charity, to have the sons circumcised, to refrain from pork. A Moslem may not eat the meat from our supermarket shelves, but he may eat the meat from our kosher butchers, because it meets his requirements for kashrut, Halal.
The language of Islam, Arabic, is so very close to Hebrew, and it reflects it in key words. Islam from Salaam, peace, our shalom; one follows the law, din, in Islam as in Judaism, and one studies in a madrasah as one studies in a bet midrash.
Even more significant, besides the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, was the close interaction between Jewish and Islamic scholars through the heyday of Islam.
Jewish thinkers and scholars were deeply involved, directly, side by side with the Moslem thinkers and scholars. Our philosophers influenced theirs, and their philosophers influenced our way of thinking.
In general, Moslem society, although not ideal, was more tolerant in its day than was Christian society, all things being relevant. This was more true of the Sunni societies than of the Shiite societies, although today, for Shiite Azerbaijan, Israel is a friend, while for Shiite Iran, it is the Little Satan.
Tolerance is relative; the Ottoman Sultanate built its empire of the backs of conquered Christians that it enslaved and made to serve as cannon fodder in its Janissary.
Tempus mutandis, or, as Bob Dylan used to sing,” The Times They Are a Changing.”
Tables have turned. Christian Europe ceased being Christian; since the Renaissance, it became secular, this worldly in its orientation, interested in empire, power, wealth, in this world, not in heaven. Secular western civilization has taken the lead in the world for the past four centuries. Industry, commerce, rational skepticism, the primacy of the individual, all have become part of the common faith of western society, even among religious Catholics and Protestants. Live and let live.
So while , just 350 years ago, the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna, since then, the Moslem peoples have been simply swamped. The history of the Turks, the Arabs, and the Iranians has been one of coming to grips with a secular world. That has meant the rise of nationalism and the state, with or without socialism, within societies that were still built upon a system of tribes under the umbrella of Empire.
What has happened?
Some Moslem societies made the successful transition to the contemporary technology and industry driven and then technology society.
However, there has been the reaction.
The ideological father of the people who bombed the World Trade Tower, Sayid Qutb, declared: The leadership of western man in the human world is coming to an end... the western order no longer possesses that stock of "values' which gave it its predominance... The turn of Islam has come. " He was executed by Nasser, an Arabist and socialist, in Egypt in 1966, but his preaching lived on.
In Iran, the modernized and westernized regime of the Shah, while authoritarian, was done in by the spell of resurgent Islam, with a radical twist.
The Moslem world is caught between these two extremes--between the push to modernize and secularize, and the push to turn back to the Islamic state, an Islamic Camelot.
The results have been horrendous for the Moslem world. Who has paid attention to the 100,000 murdered in Algeria in the civil war against the Islamicists, to give just one example?
What does all this mean for us? As Jews, it is our umglick to be caught in the midst, for Israel, our Israel, sits in the heart of the Moslem world, and in the heart of the Islamic world. Israel is above all else, the symbol, to the radical reactionaries, of the failures of all the Arab states; it is the symbol of the west and of powerful America; it is the symbol of the ancient rivalry with, of all things, Christianity.
To add to the turmoil, Israel sits on top of the Palestinians, whether it wants to or not. The Palestinians are perhaps the people most failed, most abandoned by all the promises of Arab nationalism, of Arab socialism, of Arab unity.
I know this conflict will not end quickly. The religious wars in Europe took centuries, until entire populations were decimated, until the Christians saw that there was no choice other than tolerance. The same process is happening in our day in the Islamic world, and this is a horrendous thought.
Ultimately, from a Jewish perspective, both Islam and Christianity serve the same purpose, as Maimonides explained in his code of Jewish law; these religions came to prepare the world to worship God with one accord. We can only pray that those who preach peace and understanding on all sides have the final upper hand, when in the words of the Prophet Micah, all the nations shall come to God’s Holy Mountain, each in the name of its God, while we shall go, forever, in the name of The Lord, our God.