As the storm clouds of hatred expand between the Christian and Muslim worlds (and others, but mainly those two) certain things seem important enough to write down. In a coffee shop, where I sit amongst a noisy crowd that probably contains some Christians and Muslims, and having just come from a visit to a Muslim dentist, there is a feeling here of what I call the commonplace surreal.
To see the hatred you would not look at this particular coffee shop. This is not one that has been sprayed with gunfire in the name of the Almighty. The quickest place I know to spot it, anytime, is on internet message boards. The “Comments” of news stories will be the most reliable. This is the United States, so most of the comments will be Christian. But not just any Christian. The Christian who fixed my car today is probably not writing any of these posts. I won’t say absolutely, but probably not. Most people are not obsessed with hatred. The majority want only to get on with their lives, and have a wide range of positive experiences before they come to what Raymond Chandler called The Big Sleep.
Whoever is behind the screen names, the Comments sections of news stories are awash in vituperative hate for Muslims. All Muslims. The thinking is that jihadi terrorists are not a subset of the Muslim population, the way we recognize certain extremist Christian sects to be only a fringe pocket of Christianity. To the message board campers, all of the world’s one and a half billion Muslims are jihadis, or at least jihadis-in-waiting. You would think we would be seeing more attacks if that were anywhere near the reality, like hundreds of thousands of times more attacks. As it is, Muslim governments have brought in some of the most prominent victories against terrorism, and American generals go on TV and say we won’t ultimately prevail against the terrorists without allies in the Muslim world. We will certainly have such allies, though we can all imagine what the message boards of Muslims look like.
Most religions, and all the Abrahamic ones, have teachings in their early writings that are at the level of barbarism. It’s in both the original texts and in the writings of the early patriarchs. Laws to stone people to death for blaspheming, or working on the Sabbath. Laws that condone slavery. Outrageous repression of women. The average modern believer only consumes select, cherry-picked passages, and never thinks about this other stuff. But it’s there, part of religion’s psychological roots. Christianity has gone through all kinds of reformations during the millenniums it has spent waiting on its deity to come back. The average Christian would not recognize life in the early days of the faith. But those earlier days were the closest to the source of it all. How can modern people be more authentically Christian today than they were back in the Bronze Age?
Islam, by contrast, has had very little reform. The Sunni/Shia split was their biggest change since Muhammad died, or rather was carried off to Heaven on a winged horse. Most westerners don’t know that particular teaching of Islam. Muhammad was flown away to paradise on back of a winged horse. We don’t know much about this animal. Were the wings feathered, or bat-like? Muslims just say it was a miracle and move on. Muhammad also split the moon in two, just by pointing at it and commanding it to break in half. Fortunately for the tidal systems of the Earth he then put it back like it was. Some Muslims offer up photos from NASA of ridges on the Moon as evidence of a scar from the big lunar split.
Christianity and Islam are supremacist mentalities, built on magical thinking. The main, driving concept of both theologies is that they are Number One. Jesus was the Alpha and Omega. Muhammad had the Final Prophecy. Both claim to be the one true religion, and if you aren’t a member in good standing you are going to be tortured forever upon your death. It should also be remembered that both are apocalyptic religions, fixated on a fiery end of the world. While modern science is on the brink of offering radical life extension and space colonies, we run a very real risk of losing absolutely everything to medieval mentalities who would blow up half the world over poetic phrases in books so old the original copies have long ago rotted away.
Reading the hateful message board posts, it is striking to think that before the 1968 Munich Olympic terror attacks there was not much of a Christian/Muslim clash of civilizations at all. It really started there. Some would argue that the assassination of Robert Kennedy counts as Muslim terrorism. The assassin was a Muslim outraged that Kennedy wanted to sell military jets to Israel. Of course, India had its religious upheavals after becoming independent. In earlier eras you had the Barbary pirates, and then finally the Crusades before that. But this is going back a very long time. Prior to the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, most Americans never thought much about Islamist terrorism at all.
It seems clear that the Christian/Muslim clash all comes down to tribalism. “Us against Them.” We have had tribalism as long as we have had humans, and probably even before, in the primate societies that preceded humans. What we have not had in the past is the population numbers of today, and the kinds of weaponry we have now. The way out of the maze begins with recognizing the true gravity of the situation without lapsing into fatalism or cynicism. Then, reject tribalism in your own mind, and encourage those around you to follow suit. Reject it like a vaccinated body rejects polio. Retain the right to speak critically of religion, if you can fairly and sensibly do so, no matter how many people are horrified at the very thought. Anything less is the more truly horrifying – the self-fulfilled prophecy of apocalypse.