Creedal vs. Crazy
Religion, to be blunt, is messy. And being part of a religion is even messier. It’s not like joining up with something as straightforward as a baseball team, nor is it like belonging to a social club, or working for a monolithic corporation. All of the world’s main faiths—Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam—include numerous divisions, sects, factions, sub-groups, off-shoots, cults, and pseudo-branches containing liberals, conservatives, moderates, and extremists. In other words, religion is a very complicated business. Islam is no exception. But before looking at Islam, let’s consider another popular: Christianity.
Like Islam, Christianity is segmented into various groups. Some are arguably a bit bizarre. Others are downright dangerous/criminal. It has been this way for centuries. Every world religion, in fact, has had to deal with the teachings and/or behaviors of certain troublemakers (groups and individuals)—some of them violent. As Dean Obeidallah of The Daily Beast recently noted, “There are people who commit acts of terrorism in the name of every faith, whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Islam. . . .” (see “Yes, There Are Christian Terrorists,” “Are All Terrorists Muslims? It’s Not Even Close,” and “If Islam Is A Religion of Violence, So Is Christianity“).
Christianity began with the historical person of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again from the dead (according to Christians) in Palestine (previously known as Judea). He was born in Bethlehem, lived/preached throughout Galilee, and was crucified just outside of Jerusalem. Christianity, in other words, is a religion of the Middle East (just like Islam). It’s first followers were Jews, who believed that Jesus had come to Israel as the prophesied Messiah. At that time (i.e., 2000 years ago) all Christians were united under one banner. But today things are different.
Today there are more than 41,000 Christian denominations, which are split into some 300 major ecclesiastical traditions scattered throughout 238 countries. Many of these churches/denominations disagree on several important issues that include, among many other issues: the proper mode of baptism; future events (eschatology); the purpose of prayer; the mystery of communion; the power of faith; homosexuality; abortion; pre-marital sex; proper church government; the priesthood of a few vs. the priesthood of all; the mode/nature of salvation; the place of good works in relation to faith; the role of women in the church; which books should be included in the Bible (Catholic version vs. Protestant version), rules for dating, divorce/re-marriage, and whether or not God’s “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” still exist in our modern era.
There also exists a variety of non-traditional churches/groups that, although they might identify with the “Christian” title, actually stand at odds with traditional/historic Christian beliefs (e.g., the Trinity, Deity of Christ, Virgin Birth, Christ’s physical resurrection, etc.). Such other non-traditional churches/groups, according to the traditional biblical standards used by mainstream churches to measure truth/error, are actually considered doctrinal “cults” (e.g., Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science, to name but a few).
And then there are those other groups that, while claiming to be Christian, embrace beliefs and participate in activities that are widely rejected as acceptable—not just by mainstream Christian churches, but also by society in general. These groups, although they may use the Bible to justify their behavior/views, do not at all adhere to the Christian faith. They are most often viewed as extremist, fringe, dangerous, and sometimes even criminal. These groups/churches, too, are usually considered “cults,” not only from a doctrinal perspective, but also from a sociological/psychological perspective. Some of the most famous (or infamous) of these groups include:
• The People’s Temple (Jim Jones — USA/Guyana):
909 murdered (men, women, and children)
• The Family/Children of God (David Berg — USA/International):
pedophilia, prostitution (“Flirty Fishing”), physical abuse, rape, incest
• The Branch Davidians (David Koresh — Waco, Texas):
82 members dead, 4 BATF agents dead, child abuse, illegal weapon stockpiling
• Christian Identity (KKK, racists, White Supremacist — USA/international):
murders, shootings, beatings, hate crimes, threats to minorities, terrorism
• The Army of God (anti-abortion, formed in 1982 — USA):
kidnapping, murder, bomb-making, bomb-planting, arson, bombings, terrorism
• Lord’s Resistance Army (Uganda):
rape, murder (men, women, children), torture, kidnapping, sex enslavement, sex trafficking,
• Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (Uganda):
approx. 500 dead, mass suicide, false prophecies, murder, self-immolation
More benign groups that have also raised concern among Christians and have been labeled as either cults, or cult-like, would include:
• Westboro Baptist Church
hate-speech, fear-mongering, angry protests
• “Christian” snake-handlers of America’s Appalachian region;
doctrinal aberrations, dangerous practices, fatalities, animal abuse
• the health-wealth “Word of Faith” Movement (Prosperity Gospel)
false prophecies, fake healings, doctrinal aberrations, fatalities, financial improprieties, ethical misconduct, tax evasion, fraud
This list goes on and on. . . . and on . . . . and on. . . .
Clearly, Christianity has its share of non-Christian, pseudo-Christian, inauthentic, extremist, radical, bizarre, hyper-zealous, dangerous, heretical, and in some cases, criminal/murderous groups. And Christianity, as previously noted, is not the only world religion that has had its reputation tarnished after having had its name/faith co-opted by an embarrassing collection of problematic (even deadly) fanatics.
Buddhism, for example, had to deal with murderous Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult in Japan. This off-shoot of Japanese Buddhism, led by Shoko Asahara, launched a sarin gas attack against innocent commuters on five trains in the Tokyo subway system during morning rush hour. Thirteen died, fifty-four were injured, and about 5,000-6,000 needed medical attention of some kind. When police raided the group’s various compounds, they found explosives, chemical weapons, a Russian military helicopter, and enough chemical supplies to make a quantity of sarin gas to kill four milllion people. Aum Shinriko was a bizarre mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, Yoga, and the writings of Nostradamus. Buddhists have also been troubled by various other groups: the Tantric groups Rigpa Buddhism and Diamond Way Buddhism, the violent Buddhist Power Force of Sri Lanka, and the hate-mongering Burmese Buddhists led by U Wirathu, who Time magazine called “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in 2013.
Hinduism has its own problems in the form of violent Hindu extremists, especially in India, where attacks on non-Hindus averages one per day. In 2016, for instance, by mid-march there had been “36 attacks on Christians . . . ranging from churches being destroyed to priests, nuns, and parishioners being beaten . . . as well as four murders of Muslim men by Hindu mobs over their consumption of beef.” At the forefront of this violence are Hindu groups such as “the Bajrang Dal and the Vishnu Hindu Parishad (VHP-World Hindu Council), which engage in propaganda, virulent hate campaigns, and sometimes violence against religious minorities” (see “Hinduism & Terror” by Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom).
Judaism, too, has experienced a multitude of problems with assorted sects/cults. As recently as 2016, a religious court in Tel Aviv accidentally discovered a polygamous Jewish cult calling itself the Complete Jewish Home. More notable has been the Lev Tahor cult, founded in 1980 by convicted kidnapper, Shlomo Helbrans. Equally controversial has been the Ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic community in general that has been plagued for many years by numerous allegations and convictions relating to: brutality by their auxiliary police force called the Shomrim, fraud, extortion, and rampant sexual abuse of children.
With specific regard to violence used by any religion, religious violence expert Mark Juergensmeyer (professor of global studies, professor of sociology, Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Global and Sikh Studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara) has expressed some fascinating and important insights in his book, Terror in the Mind of God. According to ProfessorJuergensmeyer, it’s not the beliefs of any religion that cause violence. But it is the beliefs that provide a justification for violence. Religion, in other words, empowers people to commit their evil deeds:
[Religion] is crucial for these acts [of vioence], since it gives moral justifications for killing and provides images of cosmic war that allow activists to believe that they are waging spiritual scenarios. This does not mean that religions causes violence—political and social issues are usually at fault—but it does mean that religion can provide the mores and symbols that are associated with the bloiodshed, even catastrophic acts of terrorism. This is what I mean when I use the phrase “religious violence”—not violence cause by religion, but violence associated with it. Violent ideas and images are not the monopoly of any single religion. Virtually every major religious tradition—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist—has served as a resource for violent actors. Perhaps it is not fair to label Osama bin Laden a Muslim terrorist or to characterize Anders Breivik a Christian one—as if they were violent because of their Islamic and Christian beliefs. . . . [A]ll religions are inherently revolutionary. They are capable of providing the ideological resources for an alternative view of public order [see Terror in the Mind of God, pp. xiv-xv, emphasis added].
Do extremist/violent persons, churches, and groups represent mainstream Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Judaism as practiced by the majority of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews? Would their appeals to the various holy texts to justify their behavios truly legitimize what they’ve said/done in the name of Christ, Buddha, Krishna, or Yahweh? Should all Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews of stripe (along with the religions of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism) be judged by the actions of these people/groups/churches? Would that be fair? Would that be honest? Would that be accurate? Obviously, the answer to all of these questions is no. Of course not. And this brings us to Islam/Muslims.