Extremist Violence Has Roots in Monotheism: Naive to Ignore Aspects of Islam That Breed Militant Fundamentalism. (Column)

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

Extremist Violence Has Roots in Monotheism: Naive to Ignore Aspects of Islam That Breed Militant Fundamentalism. (Column)


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


As the nation and the world at large attempted to sort out the meaning and consequences of the terrorist raids on New York City and Washington on Sept. 11, one topic remained always at the center of the mix, namely, the role of religion as a motivating factor.

Some have tried valiantly to forestall the temptation to blame Islam itself for these horrific events. We were regularly assured, by Christian and Muslim commentators alike, that the fundamentalist terrorists totally misread and misused the Quran and that their murderous actions were in no sense approved, much less encouraged, by Islam itself.

A leading expert on fundamentalism, Martin Marty, emeritus professor of church history at the University of Chicago, made that very point in The New York Times Magazine Oct. 30: "I cannot say it emphatically enough: This is not Islam. This takes Islamic texts -- it takes elements in its tradition -- and skews them."

In an op-ed piece published elsewhere in the same paper, a respected Islamic scholar at Harvard suggested that there is no more of a connection between the religious fanaticism of the terrorists with Islam than there was between Irish Republican Army extremists and Roman Catholicism.

Almost exactly one month after the attacks, however, another, more critical interpretation began to emerge in the press.

Mark Lilla, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, argued in an op-ed piece for The New York Times on Oct. 7 that fundamentalisms of this sort do not spring up through a process of spontaneous generation. However extreme they might be in relation to the parent religion's mainstream, the two are on the same continuum.

Thus, the Catholic church cannot be considered completely blameless for the often-violent anti-Semitic behavior that many church members inflicted on European Jews in the Middle Ages and at the time of the Holocaust. Indeed, popes themselves were sometimes directly involved.

"It is all very well for Catholics today to insist that their faith, properly interpreted, does not condone anti-Semitism," Lilla wrote. "But that does not get us closer to understanding how millions of Catholics over a millennium could have thought that it did."

Judaism, too, must bear some responsibility for the attitudes and behavior of the more radical branches of the Israeli settlers movement, "which is fired by the eschatological belief that reclaiming the land will hasten the coming of the Messiah. …

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