Sacred Violence - in Christianity and Islam,” - by Tony Harwood-Jones

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Sacred Violence
in Christianity and Islam

“I have decided to join this war as the humblest soldier... because it is a just war, a war that the Holy Gospels consider good, and which in my conscience as a Christian is good because it is a struggle against a situation that is hateful to the Lord, our Lord.... With rifle in hand, full of faith and full of love for my... people I will fight to my last breath for the coming of the kingdom of justice in our country, this kingdom of justice that the Messiah announced under the star of Bethlehem.” 1
So wrote Father Gaspar Garcia on Christmas Day 1977, as he resigned his congregation to join the Nicaraguan revolution. Pronouncing that the rule of General Anastasio Somoza was “Sin,” he joined the Sandanista Front, and in due course was killed in battle. Some time later, his picture appeared in Sandanista literature over the caption: “I have to give my life for the people as Christ did.” 2

On the other side of the world, First Lieutenant Khaled Islambouli of the Egyptian army was preparing himself for the greatest action of his life.3 Much of his preparation was military -- weapons, movements, and selecting trustworthy and fearless associates -- but he also made several trips to see a teacher and theologian at the University of Asyut. The purpose of these visits was to ensure that every aspect of his plans accorded strictly with Islamic law.4

On October 6, 1981, Islambouli stepped out of his troop carrier, walked up to President Amwar Sadat, and tossed three grenades at him. His associates then waded in with machine guns. At his trial, and knowing that he faced execution, he said “I am guilty of killing Sadat and I admit that. I am proud of it because the cause of religion was at stake.” Islambouli then called out to his wife and his mother, who were in the courtroom, “Do not be sad,” he said, “because I will be joining my God. We are free and you are the prisoners... I am at the peak of joy.” 5

* * *

Father Garcia and First Lieutenant Islambouli are, in one sense, complete opposites: one was a trained soldier and a Muslim, the other was a trained priest and a Christian. And yet similarities between them abound:

  • Both were profoundly devout, and steeped in the scriptures and lore of their religion;
  • Both were members of the conservative, majority sect of their religion: Garcia a Roman Catholic, and Islambouli a Sunni Muslim;
  • Both tried to topple a head of state who was, at least publicly, an active member of their own religion.
  • Both were convinced that their target was a self-serving despot, utterly repugnant to their God;
  • Finally, both were convinced that God permitted, approved, and even directed their use of violence. To them it was Sacred Violence.

1. Establishing the Dialogue

We are about to embark on an exercise of the imagination. Its central feature is a fictional dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim, about Sacred Violence. As the dialogue develops we will carefully examine some of the basic doctrinal, historical and social factors which each religion brings into play. In the process, rather as if our efforts worked like a kind of darkroom chemical, we hope to be able to develop the outlines of a much broader picture: a picture of Inter-Religious Dialogue on a universal scale.

The setting for our imaginary dialogue is an equally imaginary international conference. You are now about to be taken back in time to the United Nations Conference on Terrorism, held in Geneva, in l982.

It was called largely at the instigation of the United States, whose delegation to it was large, and came armed with facts and figures about terror in the Middle East, and about the “terrorist” Sandanistas. This American dominance meant that Communist attendance was patchy, and radical Islam was conspicuously absent. Israel and the PLO both complained about one another’s attendance, refused to send delegations, and sent “observers.”

Egypt, however, was there. Their delegation included a number of prominent officials who had actually been on the reviewing stand when Islambouli had attacked. One of these was Sheikh Muhammad Ibadiyah, a religious scholar and a distant cousin of Amwar Sadat.

The Vatican had sent a small delegation as well, which included Fr. Joseph Scarpatti, an American-born Dominican assigned to the Vatican Secretariat for Church and State Relations.

Although the conference was focussed on issues such as extradition treaties and airport security, the motives and psychology of terrorists was also discussed at length, and the apparent rise of religious extremism around the globe was frequently brought up. As a result, Fr. Scarpatti frequently found himself on his feet trying to explain the distinction between Liberation Theology and official church policy. Correspondingly, Sheikh Ibadiyah found himself explaining some of the distinctions between Sunni orthodoxy and Shi’ite “fundamentalism”. These two people thus came to be known as the “religious authorities” of the conference, and often found themselves immersed in conversation long after the formal meetings had adjourned. And so there evolved a second, informal, after-hours, conference of their own. Spontaneous Inter-Religious Dialogue.

2 First Principles of Dialogue:

Before we begin to explore their conversation, some First Principles of genuine dialogue should be stated quite briefly:
-- the participants must be equal,
-- they must be willing,
-- and they must be able to affirm something about one another.

Scarpatti and Ibadiyah were well matched. They had reached similar levels of immersion in their own doctrines, and their careers in international politics were comparable. Ibadiyah, having been educated in England, probably had more knowledge of Christian culture than Scarpatti had of Islamic, but both of them were able to see in the other someone whose intelligence they could respect. Intuitively, each sensed that he could not blithely dismiss as irrelevant, the considered remarks of the other.