Lord, Save Me From Your Followers

Have you seen the bumper sticker “Lord, save us from your followers”?

I wish God, Jesus Christ, Allah, Yahweh, Brahma, or every other deity, for that matter, actually read bumper stickers. Because their followers are killing us.

We’ve got mobs of Muslims who, in the guise of protesting an insult to Mohammed, are rioting, burning, ransacking – and killing, with dozens dead so far. And don’t forget the twisted extremist groups who’ve taken advantage of these protests to launch suicide attacks. Yes, I understand: your prophet has been insulted so, by all means, protest. But when your protests spill over into hate-filled violence and people die, what are you proving? That you’re not ready to take your place in the community of civilized nations? That you’re living in the Stone Age?

Then we’ve got lunatic “Christians” like the Rev. Terry Jones threatening to burn Korans, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (aka Sam Bacile) pumping out the anti-Muslim video that triggered the protests, or the deranged Westboro Baptist Church group holding up offensive signs at funerals. Where does this hate fit into the teachings of Jesus Christ, I wonder?

Even presumably secular Westerners are getting in on the act, publishing cartoons they know to be offensive to Muslims simply to make a point about free speech. Yes, free speech is a fundamental right. But just because you’re allowed to say something doesn’t mean you should. With rights come responsibilities. Knowing that certain Muslims are going to react as they do – and that people will likely die as a result – why shove it in their faces? It’s provocative and irresponsible.

Christian conservatives like to point out that Christians (at least in the Western world – Christians continue to be involved in communal riots in Nigeria, Indonesia and other places, sometimes as aggressor and sometimes as victim) aren’t rioting, burning people in effigy, or killing each other. But Christians shouldn’t feel too smug: when Christianity was the same age as Islam, Europe was being torn apart by decades of religious war, and “heretics” were being tortured and executed in hideous ways. And in much more recent history, we’ve had wars in northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia in which people of essentially the same ethnic background and language tore each other apart – and the only the major difference was religion.

And that brings me to the crucial question: is it just that Islam is a younger religion, is it the economic, social and political situations in the countries in which so many Muslims live, or is there something specific in the nature of Islam that produces this overreaction and leads a small number of people to the extreme step of terrorism? I don’t know the answer, knowing very little about Islam, but I can’t help but think that the problem is extremism in any religion. Taking any extreme viewpoint – even in the name of Islam (one definition of which is “peace”) or Christianity (Did Jesus not tell us to turn the other cheek? To forgive our enemies? Did he not reach out to the lowliest in society?) – seems to allow people to demonize anyone who doesn’t agree with them. And you can’t argue against these beliefs because they are beliefs, the very definition of which is accepting something as a fact without proof. (The cartoon above captures perfectly the ridiculous notion that one religion gets it right and the others are all wrong.)

In his excellent, extremely well researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker makes the case that ideology and religion (I don’t distinguish much between the two) are the great multipliers of violence, raising both the level of cruelty and the body count. Believers feel that their way is the only way, and any other path is not just wrong, but evil. Add to this the human capacity for “essentializing” other groups (particularly with negative traits, such as “vermin” or “scum”), deference to authority and a pack mentality, and you’ve got a recipe that’s been followed too many times throughout history.

Religion provides many people with comfort, a community, and strength in difficult times. That’s certainly been the case for many of my family members and friends over the years. When it moves from personal faith to the group adoption of a set of fundamental, extreme beliefs that’s impervious to reason – and includes the tenet that anyone who doesn’t share your beliefs is on the road to hell – it ceases to be a force for good and becomes a tool of the very evil it claims to fight.

I doubt fundamentalism will disappear anytime soon, but in the meantime, we all need to speak out against it – Christian, Muslim and Jew, religious and secular. Conservative Christians need to drop the idea that Christianity is somehow superior: its history shows otherwise. And secular Westerners (many, like me, of a more liberal mindset) need to drop their squirminess about criticizing any other religion or culture and take a clear stand: a perceived insult to a religious figure is no excuse for acting like animals.

To steal/paraphrase a line from PJ O’Rourke (written about the Arab world more than 20 years ago but equally applicable to fundamentalist groups of any religious persuasion), people can be “… the salt of the earth – generous, hospitable, brave, wise, and so forth. But get you in a pack and shove a Koran down your pants and you act like a footlocker full of glue-sniffing civet cats.”


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