On this day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland, I am reminded of the senselessness and bizarre nature of violence in the name of religion. I visited Auschwitz in 1988 and was deeply moved by the spectre of what occurred there so many years ago. The thought of men, women, and children murdered simply because they existed were haunting. At the time of Auschwitz’s liberation, the horrors that came to light seemed to hold the promise of shocking some sense into the world.
However, as time passes and the events of the Holocaust fade further into the past, it seems as if the human race remembers nothing. Have we forgotten the lessons of the past?
The recent events in Iraq and Syria involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Nigeria involving Boko Haram are of great concern to the West and rightfully so. ISIS has singularly proven itself to be one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty organizations the world has ever known. The horrifying images of hostages being brutally beheaded on video in the name of Islam threaten to further fan the flames of sectarian conflict in the Middle East. A secondary, but no less troubling, byproduct of these images has been the hostile reaction of many Christians in the United States toward Islam, believing that Islam is accurately represented by the barbaric acts of ISIS.
As part of a Church symposium on Christian-Jewish relations in 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke of the historical misinterpretation of Christian theology used to demonize Jews. He decried the moral “numbness” this caused in the larger Christian conscience as part and parcel of the lack of Christian resistance to the Holocaust. Similarly, questioning the true nature of Islam in the context of the brutality of ISIS is heating up, especially in the United States against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attacks. There have been examples of politicians, religious leaders, military officials, and celebrities publicly calling into question the integrity of Islam.
Public statements by some who align themselves with conservative Christianity, such as that of Retired General and Vice President of the Family Research Council Jerry Boykin, seem to encourage sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims in the United States. Boykin recently implored Americans to “…have more babies and populate this country with red-blooded Americans” to counter the population growth of Muslims in the United States. Boykin’s statements imply that Muslim Americans are not patriotic which follows a common fear among some conservatives of a massive conspiracy among American Muslims to infiltrate American society in the hopes of establishing Islam as the dominant ideology.
The precursor to Kristallnacht in 1939 Nazi Germany was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath by a young Jew despondent over his family’s forced emigration from Germany to Poland. Hitler used this act by one person as a pretext to increase wholesale persecution of an entire race writing, “for once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger”.
While the publicity that some public figures have received recently is concerning in terms of the impact their generalizations may have on uninformed listeners, I believe there is an opportunity to foster interfaith dialogue in this hostile environment. The brutality of ISIS and Boko Haram is prompting Muslim advocacy groups in the United States to disassociate themselves and their understanding of Islam from the twisted theology these two groups use to justify their actions. There has been a significant increase in such statements from Muslim groups since ISIS began to receive widespread media attention. This has occurred despite the claim among many conservatives that Muslims remain silent in the face of these atrocities and, therefore, are somehow complicit with them. As the acts committed in the name of Islam become more ghastly, the logical question becomes how can a faith produce both terror and beauty? I encourage the reader to realize that true faith, any faith, does not produce brutality and oppression. It is the misuse of religion to force political and social change that results in the acts of hatred we see on our computer screens.
German Christians largely allowed complacency to mute their opposition to the Nazi persecution of Jews. As American Christians, let’s not miss this opportunity to join the Muslim voices in denouncing terror in the name of Islam as an abomination against Islam and, indeed, against anyone of any faith.