The Taliban claimed the attack was revenge for U.S. troops burning copies of the Koran.
In America, every network news show I watched called the burnings “accidental” - and perhaps they were.
But what if the religious fanaticism stoked by Santorum et al., together with the anger and hatred any American would feel by being shot at halfway around the world, led to some military personnel deciding to burn the “enemy’s” holy book? Could fundamentalist rhetoric against, in Santorum’s words, a “phony theology” have greased the skids by stoking contempt for Islam, this in turn stoking anti-American rage in Afghanistan and the Arab world?
If America is to have a chance to overcome the religious and cultural barriers so vividly on display in Afghanistan, we need to answer this question. And to do this, we need to step back from religious labels, which reinforce rather than solve our problem.
Instead, the real split we need to address is between fundamentalists - those who believe that anyone outside their sect or religion is going to hell - and moderates or secularists who not only tolerate, but appreciate different cultures and religions. The true divide, then, is not between Islam and Christianity or Judaism; it is about religious fanaticism vs. tolerance for others.
Unfortunately, despite bombings by “Christian” fanatics (Timothy McVeigh and the 168 people he murdered at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, anyone?) as well as by suicidal “Muslims,” we Americans have been slow to shift our thinking on this. And yet, the evidence of what works – and what doesn’t – is all around us.
New York City and Los Angeles are arguably America’s leading cities. They are also America’s most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious cities where the races, religions, and nationalities are constantly mixing – on the sidewalks, in the subways, in the parks and restaurants. Per the fundamentalist mindset, these disparate “phony theologies” and neighborhoods inhabited by the “other” should weaken our public square. Yet New York continues to draw people from all over the world. With 50 million tourists in 2011, it drew more than any other American city. Los Angeles scored nearly 27 million. Among its other benefits, tourism was a major source of jobs, growth and taxes in both cities.
Now, look at the Arab world, which once led civilization, but where cultural and religious diversity have since been crushed. In my birth place of Baghdad, Jews once made up one quarter of the city, heightening that city’s commerce and prosperity. The Jews, however, were driven out mid-twentieth century, as Christians are now being driven out. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites kill one another over what exactly? And how is this progress?
The thing about religious fundamentalism is that there is no end to it. The “right” theological tribes becomes ever smaller as they expose more and more “deviations” from a rigid orthodoxy. The result in Baghdad and other parts of the Arab world where fundamentalism dominates: tourism and economic growth are virtually non-existent.
Enter America’s fundamentalists, who are seeking to impose “Christian” values on the world. To accomplish this, Texas governor and former Republican candidate Rick Perry even seemed to suggest at a debate that America re-invade Iraq. “Perry wants to establish a strategic presence in Iraq like we have in hot spots around the world,” an aide later tried to explain, unconvincingly. “That’s not an invasion, that’s common sense.”
Muslim fundamentalists, in turn, feed off of Christian fundamentalist rhetoric to justify killing Westerners – especially Americans. Each fundamentalist group builds on the other. And now, we have an American fundamentalist with an international megaphone, running for the most powerful office on earth. How can this possibly help?
As is the case with all things, religion can be a positive force – in moderation. But like too much food or wine, too much religion can also turn destructive, both to those who engage in it, and the rest of us left to deal with the consequences.
Rick Santorum, like former rival Rick Perry, is a fundamentalist intent on imposing his narrow religious vision on our more secular international world. The problem lies not with his religion. The problem lies with his extremism. (And yes, I have met fundamentalists who do not try to dominate others, but rather use the power of their God to rectify their own lives. I fully respect them. Unfortunately, they are a small minority).
Once the rest of us see fundamentalists for who they truly are - whether or not they outwardly profess to be of our faith - we are halfway to solving the real problem. The dividing line is not Christian vs. Muslim vs. Jewish. It is fundamentalist vs. moderate – in any religion. And, as Republican leaders are beginning to discover, once let out of the bottle, religious fundamentalism is hard to control - and will rarely get us where we want to go. Too often, fundamentalism is an inadvertent act of self-sabotage, enacted in the name of God, which soon enough turns on its creators, destroying that which it was meant to build.
For the Republican party, which sought to energize its electoral prospects through fundamentalist appeals, the more Santorum speaks, the more the 2012 elections move beyond its grasp. Want to see the power of fundamentalism? Then tune in this November.
You can also view Aslan Media founder, Reza Aslan’s, latest column at Foreign Policy — a “Who Said It?” that compares the fundamentalist language of The Grand Ayatollah (Ali Khameini) and the Grand Old Party (Rick Santorum).By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist