I’ve recently been reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, an enormously informative though often irritatingly naive account of the evolution of monotheism in the Abrahamic faiths. One thing that struck me while reading it is how religious grievances dating back centuries or even millennia continue to cause hatred, bloodshed, and violence today with virtually unabated intensity.
For example, Armstrong discusses the roots of the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, a dispute over who would succeed the prophet Mohammed after his death in the seventh century CE. Those who supported Mohammed’s friend Abu Bakr and the line of caliphs that followed him became the Sunnis, while those who preferred Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali became the Shiites. Ali’s son Husayn revolted against the caliphs and was killed in 680 in the Battle of Karbala, an event that Shiites still commemorate today in the holiday of mourning called Ashura.
As I said, I read all this ancient history in a book. Then I turn to the news and read stories like this:
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the central Iraqi city of Hilla, killing 90 Shiite Muslims and injuring 160, in an attack on a procession of pilgrims heading to a shrine in nearby Karbala.
…At least 28 other pilgrims were killed elsewhere in Iraq today as thousands of Shiites defied threats from Sunni Muslim militants and set off on foot for Karbala, a holy city 100 kilometers (70 miles) south of Baghdad, for the religious observance of Arbaeen on March 9, state-run television said.
Arbaeen, meaning “40” in Arabic, is the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura. Ashura is the holiest day in the Shiite year and marks the beheading of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by a Sunni caliph’s forces after the battle of Karbala in 680. Hussein’s shrine is in Karbala.
Race and nationalism also cause bloodshed, of course, but I know of no other cause in the world that still inspires people to slaughter each other over a thirteen-hundred-year-old grudge. The hatred of rival groups that religion can inspire tends to persist in a way that no other type of hatred does. And as religious divisions deepen between the Sunni and the Shia, and Iraq plunges ever deeper into the spiral of intra-Muslim civil war, there seems little reason to hope that the bloodshed will abate. If anything, these ancient enmities are burning even hotter today.
For these reasons, I was glad to hear of the recent Secular Islam Summit held last week in St.Petersburg, Florida. Sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, this summit is a first-of-its-kind international gathering of secular Muslims – nonbelievers of Islamic heritage, along with practicing Muslims who affirm human rights – to discuss reason, freedom of conscience and separation of mosque and state in Islamic societies. Many of the delegates are internationally renowned authorities on Islamic religion and society; others have had firsthand experience of resisting Islamic totalitarianism and terrorism in countries throughout the Middle East. (See also this interview with Austin Dacey of the Center for Inquiry, which lays out the goals of the conference.)
The conference culminated with the reading of a declaration by the delegates affirming the human rights that Islamic extremism seeks to destroy, and a profound call for greater reason and tolerance. These words are like a breeze of cool air in the feverish heat of Muslim fundamentalism, and exactly what we will need if Islam is ever to be reformed.
Though today it is the world’s most violent and repressive faith, there was once an era when Islam was known for its tolerance and rationality, even as Christian Europe languished in the Dark Ages. If we are ever to end the threats of terrorism and theocracy and bring back the peace of the past, Islam will have to be reformed from within. Speakers like these are the only ones who have the knowledge and the credibility to achieve that, and I hope this summit on secularizing Islam is only the first of many to come.