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In The Name Of God

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source: http://news.guelphmercury.com/article/472386

In the name of God

People of virtually every religion have committed violence but a prominent professor argues separating religion, politics isn't answer

Mirko Petricevic

Mercury news services -

Saturday, April 25, 2009


When Mark Juergensmeyer jetted off to India to investigate the reasons for the spiral of bloody violence between Sikhs and Hindus during the 1980s, he was unexpectedly whisked back to his youth in the American Midwest.

In his research Juergensmeyer, a sociology and religious studies professor at the University of California, watched videos and listened to audio recordings of political speeches.

They were delivered by a prominent activist who was advocating for an independent homeland for the minority Sikh population in India.

In a recent lecture at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Juergensmeyer told the audience of about 60 he was reminded of revival meetings he attended as a teenager near St. Louis, Mo.

In the mind-numbing humidity that blanketed the endless summers of Juergensmeyer's youth, itinerant preachers would set up tents and bowl over believers with the power of their words.

They would lament that Christians were living comfortable lives while a battle of good versus evil was raging all around them.

And with rising voices they would challenge the crowd to take up the sword for Christ.

"To hear that challenge . . . what an exciting clarion call it is," Juergensmeyer said.

People are often uneasy about living comfortable lives, Juergensmeyer opined, so many people long to lead more meaningful lives.

Decades later, while listening to recordings of political speeches in India, Juergensmeyer again heard a powerful preacher calling on people to return to their religious roots.

"He would speak to the great emblems of the Sikh tradition."

He told young men in the crowd that they'd lost their sense of struggle and had given in to the easy secular life.

"Then he would say there's a war going on," Juergensmeyer recalled. "A battle of good and evil, right and wrong, religion and irreligion."

And like the evangelists of Juergensmeyer's youth, the preacher-politician told his fellow Sikhs the time had come to be soldiers for their faith.

The battle between the Sikh independence movement and Indian government exploded in 1984 when the Indian army attacked Sikhism's holiest site -- the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

About 1,000 people were killed.

Five months later Indira Gandhi, India's Prime Minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

Juergensmeyer said during his research into the violence, he didn't find what he expected.

He thought he would find "a wily politician who was using religion for political means."

Instead, he said, he found national politics being adorned with the trappings of religion -- a political contest was elevated into a cosmic battle of good versus evil.

Juergensmeyer said he has found similar examples of religious nationalism -- the rise of religious movements that challenge secular nation states -- among a wide variety of groups adhering to different religions all around the world.

And a common grievance they hold is that secular governments are morally insufficient.

During his lecture Juergensmeyer led his audience on a world tour of faith-based political activism.

In Iran, Shiite Muslims overthrew the Shah's secular government in 1979.

In the United States Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Juergensmeyer said McVeigh was trying to awaken fellow Christians and spark a moral revolution in the secular life of America.

Christian Zionists in America strongly support the State of Israel in hopes of creating the conditions for the return of Jesus, their Messiah.

And although the modern State of Israel was founded largely with the goal of creating a socialist society, some have turned to biblical Judaism in their nationalistic struggle.

Some Jews, who believe their Messiah will come after the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt and Jewish control over all the lands in biblical Israel has been established, have resorted to violence to speed the Messiah's return.

The most fervent among them have unsuccessfully plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest sites, in order to make way to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple.

Juergensmeyer said the activists were working toward something of religious significance -- not just political significance.

Even some Buddhists, despite their pacifist teachings, have engaged in violent political struggle.

In 1959, a Buddhist monk assassinated Sri Lanka's prime minister. And in 2000, Sri Lankan monks formed the country's first all-Buddhist political party.

At times they've taken part in punch-ups at political rallies and peace marches that were designed to promote peaceful coexistence alongside the minority Tamil population.

And in 1995 a Buddhist movement in Japan, called the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), killed 12 people with a nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system.

"So even within the Buddhist tradition there is this extraordinary ability for religion to be identified as a force for violence against what it sees to be the corruption and excesses of the secular state," Juergensmeyer said.

Contrary to popular opinion, Juergensmeyer said many of the religious-political struggles are not ancient rivalries.

For example, take the battle between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was not a religious movement. It wasn't until the early 1990s, after decades of frustration at failing to regain control of the Holy Land, did Palestinian movements turn to Islam, Juergensmeyer said.

In the Middle East, religious aspirations are complicating politics on both sides, Juergensmeyer said.

Again their political struggle has been transformed into a cosmic war -- a war with a very long timeline.

"If you think it's God's war, if you religionize a political conflict in these kinds of grand terms of cosmic war, then the timelines are vast and the possibilities of success are certain and the failures of today are, in your mind, temporary," he said.

"You can endure the most extreme hardship and the most total of collapses knowing that ultimately you will succeed because it is God who will ultimately become the victor."

During the question period after the lecture, the moderator asked Juergensmeyer if religion could be removed, once again, from politics.

Juergensmeyer pondered aloud whether we really would want to return to a time of complete secularization of social and political issues.

Except for those violent examples of religionized politics, Juergensmeyer said he's not sure we want to separate all religion from public life.

"It seems to me that if religion were more naturally a part of public life it wouldn't be so prone to the kind dogmatic and intolerant excesses that we've often seen," he said.

"The demarcation, the division between religion and secularism, tends to lead to extremes on both sides."

One way for governments to respond to challenges from faith-based political activists is to not get drawn into religious rhetoric.

The United States responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by framing the struggle as a "war on terror," he said.

In effect, the government adopted al-Qaida's vision of a global struggle between civilizations.

"We make a huge mistake to capitulate to their own vision of the world," Juergensmeyer said.

More recently, U.S. President Barack Obama has stopped using the phrase "war on terror."

Juergensmeyer, for one, is pleased.

So while religion is problematic, Juergensmeyer said religion itself isn't entirely the problem.

Religion is the product of the human imagination, he said.

And the way people think about religion, about God and moral and spiritual life are crafted within the bounds of human limitations, he said.

"So we damn humans tend to do the most awful things and then legitimate it for the most vaunted and highest of religious motives," Juergensmeyer said. "That's our problem. It's not religion's."

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