Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Confronting religious violence

by Maureen Fiedler

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I first heard the name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, from a Muslim: the noted Islamic scholar, Dr. Akbar Ahmed of American University. They were two of three partners in interfaith dialog in Great Britain for years. The third was the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Last Friday, only hours before the ISIS attack on Paris, I interviewed Rabbi Sacks as he was visiting Washington, D.C. He is the author of a new book which could not be more timely. It is called Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

I interview many, many religious people of all traditions for Interfaith Voices. But when I have a guest in the studio, it is sometimes possible to take the measure of the person. Rabbi Sacks impressed me as a deeply religious man who studies, prays and knows God. He’s the "real thing."

And I recommend his book, Not in God’s Name. It provides enlightening new insights into scripture and into "religious" violence -- if any violence can be called "religious."

We talked at length about the rise of ISIS and its violent role in the contemporary Middle East. "Why the rise of ISIS?" I asked him. His answer: It comes from the failure of secular liberal democratic movements in the Islamic world. ISIS adherents feel betrayed by secular governments that took over the Middle East after World War I and have placed their hope in re-establishing the ancient caliphate established originally by the Prophet Mohammed. They are, he said, searching for an identity larger than themselves.

So, I asked: "Is ISIS religious, or is their version of Islam a 'cover' for secular, political goals?"

He said: It is religious in a fundamentalist Islamic sense. It appeals to religion -- fundamentalist Islam -- and uses religion to recruit new followers.

In his book, Sacks finds a message of peace in the "sibling rivalries" of the Hebrew Scriptures: Cain and Abel, Ismael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. But he looks at the pattern over time, from the violence of Cain toward Abel, to the ever more peaceful resolutions of later rivalries. For Sacks, herein lies a message: Peace and reconciliation are the will of God, not conflict and murder. And that is the message of Genesis as it moves along.

When it comes to confronting violence, he says each side in a conflict must put himself or herself into the shoes of the other and try to see the world as he/she sees it. When I asked him how that applied to Israel and Palestine, his answer was the same, with descriptions of what each needs to do to stand in the other's shoes.

It was an extraordinary interview -- even in my world, where I do at least two or three a week.

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