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By Sheldon Drobny
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
When this John Lennon song was released, the lyrics created a great deal of controversy, but its wisdom was confirmed by the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001 and America’s reaction to them. Fundamentalist religion, specifically Islamic fundamentalism, has been perceived as the root cause of the attacks. And America reacted with a strong sense of nationalism. It is this action and reaction that show why the lyrics of Imagine may have more meaning today than ever before.
The point Lennon was making is that many unnecessary deaths have been caused by uncompromising religious, cultural, and nationalistic views. History is replete with this kind of violence over the years. We can only evaluate today’s situation objectively by revisiting the past.
Fundamentalism is not unique to Islam. In the past two thousand years, there have been religious wars involving most major religions. In each case, a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture was used as the basis for violence. Whether examining the Koran, the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, one can extract language to justify violence by the seeming superiority of one religious belief over another.
For example, the New Testament clearly attributes the death of Jesus to the conspiracy of the Jewish priests of that time. The Jewish people committed deicide, from the point of view of many Christians. As Christianity evolved, this belief was the cause of many pogroms against Jews, culminating in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. In fact, Hitler quoted Martin Luther as his excuse for the destruction and burning of synagogues in November of 1938. This event, known as Kristalnacht, was foretold by Luther in his later writings. He suggested that Jews could not be saved, and that their houses of worship should be destroyed. This kind of fundamentalist Christian belief led to the murder of 2/3 of European Jews in what was at the time considered a civilized country.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, there have been examples of violence to Muslims caused by those who have fundamentalist Judaic beliefs. As an American Jew, I am concerned that the policies of Israel, although generally democratic, are significantly affected by the extreme orthodox element of the Israeli population. It is a complicated matter, about which there must be more open and objective discussion. One can be pro Israel, or even pro America, without agreeing with the government on all issues.
I am one who believes that the Palestinian issue is a diversion used by oppressive Arab states to distract the suffering population from the extreme poverty and suppression of liberty caused by their own dictatorial policies. These Arab states have not lifted a finger to help the Palestinians in the past, and even consider them a nuisance. The United States needs Israel to be strong, and therefore has been the main supplier of its armaments. Many Jews believe that the United States is supporting Israel out of pure generosity, but I disagree. The United States supports Israel primarily because of its need to control the oil rich Arab states whose governments cannot be trusted. In effect, the United States has a powerful surrogate army in Israel. Without Israel, the United States would have no power to influence Arab states. Israel must understand that it is being used in these ways, and must especially stop allowing the Palestinian issue to be used as an excuse for Arab countries to deflect attention from their own corrupt behavior.
There has been much more discussion lately concerning Muslim fundamentalists in many oppressed countries throughout the Middle East and other parts of Asia. Some profess belief that Muslims and their culture are intrinsically violent and backward. In fact, for hundreds of years the Muslims had a powerful empire. In many cases they have exhibited great tolerance to other religions. Muslims had much more sophisticated studies of science and philosophy during the Dark Ages than Europe. The weakening of Muslim power and the rise of European colonialism left the Middle East in turmoil. The United States, which replaced Europe as the major influence around the world after World War II, has effectively ignored the needs of Muslim populations, other than supporting U.S. interests in the oil rich countries. This neglect led to poverty and governments’ consequent use of religious fundamentalism to deflect attention from their failures, very similar to Hitler’s scapegoating of European Jews.
The United States has not experienced the kind poverty seen in the Middle East, and has only recently known the violence exhibited there almost every day. Until September 11, 2001, we focused on our own problems. The Bush Administration supported a policy of isolationism. Our isolationism in the years before World War II was disastrous, and it will not be effective today. But does our involvement in global policies mean only military interventions? The solution will not come from exertion of power in poorly developed and oppressed countries. Americans are not intrinsically better than the people of other countries. Our sense of entitlement because we are more developed and richer is false. If anything makes sense in the world, it is that we are one humanity responsible for the needs of others. This humanistic policy is the only way the human race will survive. We are not just one country, self-absorbed in our own needs. Limiting human concerns to national boundaries will be no more effective than it has been in the past and the stakes are much higher now, given the state of weapons of mass destruction.
The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides lived in the 12th century, under Muslim rule. He was allowed to practice his faith under a very tolerant ruler, but was exiled in his later years by an oppressive new leader. Most of his writings were recorded in Arabic. Maimonides’ commentaries and philosophic beliefs had a dramatic affect on Judaism and its sister religions. In his most famous book, The Guide for the Perplexed, he tried to explain our search for the meaning of life and the pursuit of understanding scripture. He said that it was difficult for humans to explain the meaning of scripture, and that one must be in a constant search for God's plan for the universe. The difficulty, according to Maimonides, is that human perception and language cannot easily translate into meaningful understanding and must constantly be revised.
His most meaningful discussion about the nature of God is that one can only define God by what he is not, not by what he is. This observation leads us to the understanding that those who define God in positive terms, who he is, or who has the pathway to God, is practicing religious beliefs that cause a sense of righteousness. The belief that one is right and everyone else is wrong is very dangerous to all who have an abiding faith that there is a just God and that humanity has a noble destiny.
John Lennon was not asking us to lack faith. Nor did he suggest that we not be patriotic at all. He was telling us that nationalism and fundamentalist religion may create an artificial sense of righteousness, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. In defining human destiny and the nature of God, Maimonides would only say that God could not love any humans less because of religious beliefs and national interests.
I believe that defining God as to what he is not, as recommended by Maimonides, is the beginning of true tolerance in our complicated world.
Sheldon Drobny is co-founder of Air America Radio, providing talk radio for the majority of Americans.