This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
It may seem off topic to write about September 11th what with Israel’s withdrawal from the peace talks yesterday. Though the statement Israel released is nuanced. As I read it, Israel wants to say no – and wait – to see how the Palestinian unity pact works out. Or doesn’t. Meanwhile settlement building and other provocative measures will continue. Of course.
But our interconnected world has other Middle Eastern realities closer to home. Yesterday a flap surfaced over a video to accompany the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City set to open in May. I haven’t seen the video – it hasn’t been released yet. Nonetheless, it is causing quite a stir in the interfaith dialogue community whose primary investment it seems is portraying religion as innocent.
The video in question – “The Rise of Al Qaeda” – is less than seven minutes long and is narrated by NBC new anchor, Brian Williams. The video was recently vetted by several self-appointed and evidently government approved interfaith careerists who find the video wanting. The reason: language that seems to equate the World Trade tragedy with Islam.
Most religious believers are offended when their religion is connected with violence. That spreads the guilt too widely and implicates ordinary believers and their leadership – assimilationist as both usually are – with elements they disavow. It’s the old trope that the violence done in the name of your religion isn’t about your religion at all. Religions are good. Religions are for peace and equality. Don’t allow our religions to be “hijacked” by terrorists.
But terror in the name of religion – and religious and ethnic identity – is widespread historically and today. Since most believers are not involved directly in the violence that some partake in, we shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush. The September 11th museum video may indeed walk this disturbing fine line. But to hold Islam as a religion, in its expression and in some of its core principles, innocent of violence historically or in the present is absurd.
It’s like pretending that violence in the name of Christianity contradicts Christianity and some of Christianity’s core values as they developed. Thus any violence done in the name of Christianity represents the “hijacking” of Christianity. Taking this perspective, then, through much of Christian history, Christianity has been hijacked. Perhaps we should distinguish the Christianity many Christians want today from – shall we call it – Hijacked Christianity?
Rather than pretending to an innocent tradition, call it Innocent Islam and Innocent Christianity, perhaps it is better to think of a desired separation from Hijacked Islam and Hijacked Christianity. But then how does religion support itself, go global and play its part in the affairs of the state in a way that benefits them and their followers without being hijacked?
To preserve the sense of innocence, religion’s collusion with power is unannounced and behind the scenes. To put it bluntly, you don’t get mosques or churches in the town square without being fully corrupted and embedded in the state while pretending to innocence.
Nor do you get Passover Seders in the White House without being a power to be reckoned with.
Which means we can’t leave out Hijacked Judaism.
Like our innocent Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters, Jews want to be assimilated to power and hold onto their innocence, too. So with the state of Israel, when it is good, Jews are there in spirit. When it is bad, Jews are nowhere to be found. If Israel could be bad, that is. Shall we call it Hijacked Israel?
Yes, there is the occasional extremist, like the Jew that assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. Before his assassination, Rabin called Baruch Goldstein, who murdered dozens in Tomb of the Patriarchs, “an errant weed.” Was Rabin’s assassin likewise an errant weed? Moving the timeline backward, was Rabin who, among other things, was an ethnic cleanser during Israel’s birth as a state, an errant weed as well?
Think of the September 11th video when you read Rabin’s words directed at Baruch Goldstein and Israel’s “militant settlers.” They’re relevant to all religions embedded in national enterprises:
Members of Knesset,
The horrible man from Hebron has disgraced all of us, although it is not our fault. It is possible that the degenerate who pulled the murderous trigger was not crazy in the clinical sense, but the terrible act was that of someone mentally ill, and in our heart we have only deep contempt for his villainous act.
This murderer came out of a small and marginal political context. He grew in a swamp whose murderous sources are found here, and across the sea; they are foreign to Judaism, they are not ours.
To him and to those like him we say: You are not part of the community of Israel. You are not part of the national democratic camp to which we in this house all belong, and many of the people despise you. Your are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish Law. You are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.
A single, straight line connects the lunatics and racists of the entire world. A single line of blood and terrorism runs from the Islamic Jihad member who shot Jewish worshippers who stood in prayer in the synagogues of Istanbul, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, to the Jewish Hamas member who shot Ramadan worshippers.
Sounds like the Abrahamic interfaith argument – everything we like is ours, everything we don’t like isn’t ours. And the things we do that look a lot like what we condemn are somehow good. How dare Baruch Goldstein or the Sept 11th terrorists call attention, with their obvious violence, to our own violence we hope to conceal.
The September 11th video no doubt does the same concealing on other matters. Will the retrogressive Islam the Saudi’s promulgate be featured in its full form and how it is tolerated by American foreign policy? After all, they’re our great Middle Eastern oil ally. The Saudi political system and its deep interconnection with ours will likewise remain concealed. Will the fact that the Saudis and Israelis have mutual interests which they’re more than happy to work on together be portrayed?
It would be better if the interfaith folks who viewed the film in advance had voiced these objections. Then it wouldn’t seem like its just the innocence of Islam – and thus their own religions as well – that they want to protect.
If we’re honest, all errant weeds are homegrown. Religiously and otherwise.