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Monday, July 2, 2012

"Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict"

TITLE: Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict
AUTHOR: Kelly James Clark (editor)
PUBLISHER: Yale University Press, 2012, (312 pages).

This book is a bold defense of religion as a force for good and tolerance rather than a source for violence and intolerance. Triggered by the persistant rants of the New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, the author goes back to the origins of the monotheistic religions, that owe their beginnings to the Patriarch Abraham. Fifteen contributors are invited to contribute to the main thesis of the book, that it is possible to retain the religious identity, beliefs, and practices, and at the same time, affirm tolerance and respect for other faiths. The five Jewish advocates are Einat Ramon, Dov Berkovits, Leah Shakdiel, Arik Ascherman, and Nurit Peled-Elhanan. The five Christian representatives are Jimmy Carter, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ziya Meral, Hanna Siniora, and Miroslav Volf. The five Islamic respondents are Abdurrahman Wahid, Hedieh Mirahmadi, M. Fethullah Gulen, Rana Husseini, and Abdolkarim Soroush.

The editor first highlights the three major caricatures that the New Atheists and many people point their fingers at. Firstly, the Jews have been accused of their religion as violent, based on their historical destruction of the Canaanites, saying that the Jews are intolerant because of an intolerant God. Secondly, many have accused Christians of violence, using the Crusades as an example. Thirdly, many accuse Muslims of terrorist behaviour because of their Islamic links. The purpose of the book is thus to debunk all of these three caricatures, by letting these fifteen contributors argue two ways. Firstly, that their religion has been misunderstood. Secondly, true practice of the Abrahamic faith by all three religions actually promote tolerance and goodwill toward all people. There are three common underlying beliefs by all these three faiths.

  1. The religion teaches mercy.
  2. That the human race is created in the image of God, and are to be respected and cherished.
  3. Humility is a mark of the true religious practitioner.
These three common distinctiveness do not spread violence or intolerance. Instead, it will create space for all faiths to co-exist freely. The rest of the book shows how that is so.

A) The Jewish Perspective

Dr Einat Ramon, the first woman rabbi, argues in her essay that the Jews remember their humiliation and persecution in the past, but do not "dwell" in them. Their firm belief that they are the ones to bring hope to the world, undergirds their desire to bring goodwill to all. The biblical basis of respecting humanity, pluralism, and human solidarity remains consistent to this day.Using her family's example of moving from persecution to independence, she says that Jews respect freedom even more because they themselves have experienced freedom from slavery.  As for the Palestinian-Jewish conflict, the issues are more complicated than mere religious differences. Rabbi Don Berkovits say that Judaism has more to do with the love of life, and the Torah gives shape to this. He too sees Jews as victims of many persecutions, mainly due to the practice of idolatry in the history of Israel. He says that only "mutual trust" can help turn one another into a "mutual other." He argues that violence, if any, is never the problem of one group, namely the Jews. It is far more complex.

Leah Shakdiel argues similarly that the Jews have been victimized more than being the oppressors. They are the "ultimate victims." In fact, he argues that both Israel and the Palestinians have a common concern: Identity. He admits that there are some radical sects who operate in the name of Zionism who are giving Judaism a bad name. They need to be "corrected."  The important exercise is to read the religious texts carefully and "challenge dangerous readings" and "leaders." Arik Ascherman argues that Judaism promotes "universal human rights and social justices." The truly mighty is the one who is able to turn an enemy into a friend. Nurit Peled-Elhanan's essay laments the problem of some "Israeli Education" that has become intolerant. The key problem lies in the definition of "others" or those outside the Jewish people. Judaism teaches welcoming the "other." Textbooks that teach otherwise must be corrected to reflect the true teachings of Judaism. Again, religions texts need to be read and interpreted from the Torah, and not from the eyes of sinister people.

B) The Christian Perspective

Jimmy Carter begins by saying that Christians can embrace all other religions in the pursuit of peace and alleviating human suffering. Christians are in the forefront of peace and women's rights. A key observation Carter makes is that fundamentalistic behaviour is not a religious behaviour but a human tendency. The very well respected Nicholas Wolterstoff is a strong advocate for justice and peace. He argues that to be intolerant to others is to wrong God.  He then defines the nature of tolerance and how it can be practised. Intolerance is unjust. Intolerance violate the dignity of the other. Intolerance wrong God. He goes back to Augustine to highlight a state of weeping for others, and that love is the way to derive true happiness. He also takes the Calvin's position that "to inflict injury" another is to "wound God." Love, justice, and the practice of the image of God are key tenets of the Christian faith. The third contributor, Ziya Meral, goes on the offensive, that instead of religions being the source of violence and intolerance, it is the reverse. In fact, the denial of religious freedom is the "most widespread" problem. Several reasons point to this sad state. Firstly, media, and human rights organization may fight for freedom, but "shun religious freedom." Secondly, many leaders are plain ignorant about what religions mean. This create blind spots regarding religions, which further aggravates the ignorance. He argues that there is a need to speak up for practitioners of ALL religions, from a pragmatic, ethical, and a theological perspective. Like Christ, one needs to share the pain and suffering not only with fellow believers, but with all people suffering or in pain. The fourth contributor, Hanna Siniora is a Palestinian Christian who speaks as a "minority within a minority." He accepted a call to participate in the peace talks, giving readers insights into the various complexities between the various groups. His life is a testimony of advocating peace at the risk of personal safety. Miroslav Volf preaches universal respect, reconciliation and peace. Growing up as a victim of a land of intolerance, he criticizes those who accuse Christianity of advocating violence when the truth is, the world is a system of interconnected groups, rather than a single religion. Of all the contributors, Volf comes most direct in defending the religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The true mark of the Church is tolerance, freedom, love, and honouring one another. In fact, honour is a better emphasis than mere tolerance. After asking who wins the prize for "intolerance," Volf admits he is unwilling to judge who.

C) The Islamic Perspective

Abdurrahman Wahid believes that God does not need to be defended because "nothing can threaten God." This straightaway dispels anyone who fights for God in order to defend God. He says that religious understanding is a process, and that the true Muslim is one who is "content to live in peace with others, whose paths and views may differ." Hedieh Mirahmadi says that Islam is moderate, and promotes the "middle way." It advocates a universal principle of accepting one another. He blames extremists for the negativity surrounding religions. If God accepts us, why can't we accept one another? He urges patience from others to let the Islamic world struggle to "reclaim the image of Islam as a religion that is equitable, just, and socially responsible." M. Fethullah Gulen says that Islam embodies  divine mercy and tolerance. It is because God is inclusive, Muslims need to be inclusive. Islam means submission to God. He says that the dichotomy of the world into Islamic world and non-Islamic is wrong. War is not an essential. Peace is. Rana Husseini decides to focus on the subject of "honor," or violence against women. He blames the Western media for erroneous coverage of "honor crimes and women." Many of these killings are not religious but cultural. The essay is complex and needs careful reading in order not to misunderstand the content and the intent. The key response is to speak out against violence in a consistent way of "uniformed denunciation." Finally, Abdolkarim Soroush talks about the Islamic perspective of tolerance, and that it is POSSIBLE for Muslims to keep their Muslim values as well as live in a democratic society. Tolerance to him is "an extra-religious virtue," worthy of practice.

My Thoughts

All of the fifteen contributors put up outstanding defenses of their religions. I find their arguments a lot more reasonable and convincing than the rhetorics of the naysayers, especially the New Atheists. Clark has given us a compelling look at the inner workings, thinking, and theological background of three major religions. Granted that there is no way to totally eradicate religions, or secularism for that matter, why not make the best of it? More importantly, readers are encouraged to be open to let the religious practitioners, theologians, scholars, and experts shine the way forward to peace, goodwill, true tolerance, mercy, and to show humility to one another in dialogue. This book does a great job in dispelling the three major erroneous caricatures of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It is a book that needs to be written. It is a book that needs to be read. It is a book that bridges the gaps between different faiths. 

What I find lacking is the intensity of engaging the accusations that religions are the source of violence and intolerance. Most of the contributors adopt a conservative stance of sharing personal stories and their understanding of what their religions mean and not mean. In general, they are more positive in their religious outlook than their secular counterparts. They may have argued their points well, I am not sure how well others will receive it. Although the book has only scratched the surface of a very complex topic, nonetheless, it has scratched the right itch in the right direction. 

Kudos to Clark for a good job.


This book is provided to me free by Yale University Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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