Rewriting the narrative of fear
Theologian Hans Küng once wrote: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”
In an effort to bring about those dialogues and investigations, an audience of all ages, races and creeds filed into a lecture hall at St. Joseph’s College for last week’s talk entitled, “Violence and Peace in Islam.”
The hour-long lecture was given by this year’s Khatib Chair, Dr. Mehdi Aminrazavi, an Islamic scholar and professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “Good evening. As-sal?mu ?alaykum, peace be with you,” Aminrazavi said, noting that the topic of peace and violence is “truly vast.”
The lecture marks the ninth year that a religious scholar has visited both the Patchogue and Brooklyn campuses. The Khatib Chair is an endowment created by Dr. Reza Khatib and his wife, Georgianna, a 1952 alumni of St. Joseph’s College, in response to the misunderstandings that exist about world religions, namely Islam. The couple believed it was necessary to foster a greater knowledge of understanding among the religions and established this annual interdisciplinary event.
Before delving into the specific history and context of Islam, Dr. Aminrazavi noted that instances of both violence and peace aren’t just limited to the Quran — they are found in all holy texts.
“All religions preach peace and tranquility and yet throughout history, members have found reasons to get around that. God created man and man created justification,” Aminrazavi said.
To get the full scope of radical Islamic movements that have been sensationalized by mainstream media, Aminrazavi began the lecture discussing the great empires and conflicts that ensued, first with the Crusades. “All wars are about the same thing on the surface: peace, justice, religion, god. But they have been and are and will be about domination, power, money and who controls the resources,” he said.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire saw the spread of Islam and swell of territory, until the tables turned with Western cultures — the British and French — beginning to conquer Eastern lands. Western colonization begged the question: What happened to our empire?
As Muslim intellectuals struggled to figure that out, a small movement of radicals was taking shape. “Around 1850, we begin to see the rise of radical Islam, for lack of a better term,” Aminrazavi said. It didn’t take long for these radicals to realize that in order to be successful, they would need to use theology to validate their views.
“This began the use and abuse of the Quran,” he said, referencing a number of “movers and shakers” who marketed this new “brand” of Islam. Aminrazavi was hesitant to use the word ‘sect,’ but explained that this school of thought was just as new to Muslims as it was to Westerners.
Post-WWII, the United States was reluctantly thrust onto the international scene. The power vacuum was filled, with a new form of colonialism felt as U.S. forces began occupying the Middle East.
New factors, Aminrazavi explained, came into play, such as an insatiable appetite for oil and the creation of the state of Israel by the United Nations in 1947. “That did not go unnoticed,” Aminrazavi said, noting the move showed the “ability, willingness and arrogance” to decide the fate of a nation.
Quietly, these movements grew out of idealism, on the basis of freedom, independence and eradicating poverty. “We thought [Ayatollah Khomeini] would be our Ghandi,” Aminrazavi said of his home nation of Iran. One of Khomeini’s views favored the spread of Islam through the creation of an Islamic state, which he believed would replace capitalism and communism.
“This slogan of his remains catastrophic,” Aminrazavi said, adding that it sounds alluring to some Muslims, but comes up short on the details. And so these radicalized groups — Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the late 1980s and 1990s, and now ISIS — have grown, and the misunderstanding of their origins lead to ignorant fear.
Aminrazavi explained the makeup of these groups, from who they are to how they are funded and what their ultimate goal is. Idealists, paid mercenaries, poor people. “They have nothing to lose,” Aminrazavi said. They act on the idea that an Islamic state will, in turn, bring prosperity, protection and care to these people. “It’s very attractive, especially when you’re in your 20s,” he said, adding that a central part to this is the continued Western presence in the Middle East.
The Quran, he said, is used as propaganda, with ISIS supporters interpreting the text literally. “They look in the Quran and pick out verses that support their agenda,” he said. “Nothing is more dangerous than a man with a mission and a religious justification for it.” He said that no religion should interpret their religious texts literally. Despite inherent good things, like healing the sick and feeding the hungry, reason is still needed to figure out more ambiguous or even violent passages.
Panelist Dr. Hasan Arslan, who teaches a course on global terrorism at Pace University, provided some insight on foreign policy. “Historically, occupation results in reaction,” he said, noting the role of foreign forces in the formation of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Reducing our footprint in the Islamic world is one solution Aminrazavi suggested. “It’s the best recruiting tool for radicalists,” he said of foreign invasions and occupation.
Journalism professor Larry Jaffee wondered if the recent travel ban on several countries will also see its fate as a recruiting tool.
“Do you think the media unfairly characterizes all Muslims, equating Islam with terrorism?” he asked Aminrazavi.
“If they made a movie about 99.9 percent of Muslims, it would be such a boring movie,” Aminrazavi joked. “But sometimes I wish they would make it, to show Americans that this is how most Muslims live. The most tragic aspect of what Trump is doing is making political gains from ‘othering’ people. This is not the first time this has been done. Creating fear is politically beneficial,” he said.
Andrew Sinensky, 26, asked Aminrazavi to address the misconception that without a U.S. military operation in the Middle East, radical ideology would grow rampant and mobilize to attack the U.S.
“Let’s assume that ISIS becomes successful in creating their Islamic state. So what? What do you think they are going to do with their oil, drink it?” Aminrazavi said, noting that they will sell the oil, and have already begun to do so in Iraq. “These are nations that have been there a long time and have shown that they can solve their internal problems in due course,” Aminrazavi said, adding that he does not see an argument for a continued Western presence. “If anything, it agitates them further.”
It’s a view that opposes the Trump administration’s proposed budget, which calls for shifting $54 billion from domestic programs to heightened military and security programs.
Misunderstanding and mischaracterization of an entire religion, Aminrazavi said, is equally dangerous. “Like any other civilization, they are fully capable of producing peace and violence,” he said.
Reflecting on the lecture, Sister Suzanne Franck, Ph.D., was struck by the commonality. “We get so caught up on what the differences are that we don’t allow ourselves to step back and see that we’re all part of a larger whole,” she said.
In his own classrooms, Dr. Thomas Petriano, professor and chair of religious studies, continues to address those misunderstandings and guides students towards realizing connections between ignorance, fear and violence. “Many times we fear what we don’t understand or know. It all goes back to knowledge and understanding,” Petriano said. “And to realize that despite religious differences, there are many common themes that join together different faiths.”
The discussion seemed especially timely for SJC senior vice president Dr. Christopher J. Frost. “In a world rampant with bigotry, misunderstanding and violence, there is nothing more important than a willingness to share varied and even conflicting views and beliefs in our common search for the truth,” he said.
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