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The Question of Religion

Throughout time, religion has been a source of grace and consolation and also of violence and divisiveness. Since Sept. 11, many are asking with urgency, and anger, how such things can be done in the name of God.

Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with the Rev. David Benke, a Lutheran minister; Terry McGovern, an attorney in Manhattan whose mother died in the World Trade Center; Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a Catholic priest and professor of theology; Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield; Kanan Makiya, a professor of Middle Eastern studies; Khaled Abou el-Fadl, an Islamic scholar; and Conservative Rabbi Irwin Kula.

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Rev. David Benke
Lutheran minister

The Yankee Stadium day was a pivotal day in my entire life. It was a day when everything that I had stood for as a human being, as well as a person of faith, was going to be on the line. ... When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy. The very next day, I began to get messages filled with hate. They were messages not from people outside of my tradition, but from within my tradition. And they were messages that nailed me to the floor, frankly, emotionally. They just said, "You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith." One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, planes crash and people die, nothing big about that. Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer. I just want to say that I have not gotten over that and I can't get through that. Because I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings. And I've talked to people whose loved ones were murdered. And for me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me. I can't take it. I can't bear up under it. It doesn't make any sense to me. Within two months, a number of those people put together a petition and filed charges of heresy, saying that I am not part of the Christian Church because of what I did on that day and should not be part of my denomination anymore, should not be allowed to preach, should have my collar removed. People who brought the charges against me are clergymen from my denomination. And their belief is that the doctrine of the church does not allow a Christian to stand at the same podium with someone of another faith or everybody is going to get the same idea that all religions are equal, and we have made absolute claims, exclusive claims about our faith. If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worse moment in American history, then what's underneath religion? Is religion really part of a lust for power and control in people's lives? Is it a desire for absolute security so strong that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that's true, then I've got a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.

I was raised Irish Catholic, but over the years I really grew disillusioned with the church -- until the horror of Sept. 11. I just couldn't stop thinking about my mother. I obsessed about all these horrible things. Was she burned? I obsessed about our last conversations. I obsessed about if I didn't appreciate her enough. I obsessed about everything, everything. I went and sat in the local church. It calls up kind of deep, ancient rituals. It has great resonance. It feels like it's connected to something much greater and larger. Though I think I went there to feel the solitude and to lay at the feet of the alter. Why? And then my mother's memorial Mass, which I had no expectations for, turned out to be extremely comforting. The priest talked in his sermon about that this was not God's will. That we can't find anything good in this. That all we can do in response to this is cry. That this cannot be God's will. So I guess it made me reexamine all of my feelings and wonder if I didn't need to re-enter the church community, and if that world couldn't give me some answers that I desperately was looking for. How could this happen? Is this really it? Is that it? Is that it for my mother? I mean, she dies like that? You know? I think on some very deep level, I want the church's teachings on the spiritual life after death to be true. I need them to be true. And frankly, the church since Sept. 11 has comforted me.

Terry McGovern
Attorney

. . . .

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete
A Catholic priest and professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York.

a photo of albacete

From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it's my vocation, it's my existence. I'd give my life for it; I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it. And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion -- because religion can be a passion -- the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.

I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don't hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different -- these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.

... Funny, suddenly every government official became a religious leader, reassuring us that all religions are for peace. I understand. It was embarrassing. And now I think we have a religious duty to face this ambivalence about religion, and to do something about it. To promote that which makes it a constructive force and to protect us from that which makes it a destructive force. ...

If I thought what we saw on Sept. 11, the dreadful and horrible possibilities of religion, were the only face of religion, I assure you I'd take off this collar. There is another face -- maybe harder to see after Sept. 11 and what has followed it, but it's there. I see it every Sunday. The parish where I work is not far from the World Trade Center. The Lower East Side, 90 percent Hispanic. Poor people, many affected by death in the World Trade Center. And yet they weren't asking the great difficult questions about why, or the nature of evil. They don't have time for that. They have to struggle to live every day. And in that struggle, which somehow embraced even that terrible day, their religion, their church, their parish stands for life, stands for hope, stands for home. It sustains them. It helps them. It's not their opium, as Marx would say. On the contrary, it encourages them to struggle, not to give up, not to surrender. They are poor, but they know, they experience, they feel that each one of them has a link with an infinite mystery. No need to worship any other source of power, economic power, political power -- that they have a dignity that cannot be taken away from them. ...

I mean, in Latin America, which is my ethnic background, the religion has been the force that has sustained the drive for justice and liberty of millions. I mean, their statues, Our Lady and so forth, it's because no matter how poor, no matter how weak, they have come to believe and experience it. Each one of them has a link with the infinite, with that very same mystery in the name of which people kill and hate. They experience that link, that mystery, as the source of their dignity and of the dignity of others. ... And when people disappear, their loved ones, when death occurs, they imagine them resting in the arms of that mystery of absolute love. That's my daily fare. I see that every day. I saw it within hours of the World Trade Center. ...

This is the other face of religion. It's the same religious passion. The same desire for infinity. How can this be? How can it be these two opposed things? I don't know, but then maybe human passion I guess is like that. But this one, this is the most powerful one. And so after Sept. 11, and much of what followed, it is very difficult to see this, the face of love in the face of religion. We cannot forget it. It alone, I believe, has the strength to face the other face of religion. ...

. . . .

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
An Orthodox rabbi, he is the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

a photo of hirschfield

Religion drove those planes into those buildings. That's upsetting, but that's what happened. This idea that somehow that's not Islam, so we shouldn't worry, is not only naïve; it's stupid. It's wrong. There's a very rich tradition which they delved into to justify what they did. By the way, hating doing it and fighting against it ever happening again is also Islam, just like with the Jewish tradition. The guy who went into the mosque in the city of Hebron and murdered 29 human beings didn't do that out of the air. He had a deep connection to a tradition, a religious tradition in Judaism that pushed him there. Keeping him from doing it is also a serious religious tradition.

You don't sterilize these traditions and say, "No, no, no, they don't do anything wrong." Because what's really going on when we do that is that ... if Islam is clean, and that's not real Islam, then I don't have to ask where is it real Jewish, and Christians don't have to ask where is it real Christian. The worst thing we can do is make some kind of compact where none of us admit the blood on our hands. What we really have to do is admit the blood on all of our hands -- not because it's equal blood, but because we've all been bloodied by these traditions, and wishing that it weren't so isn't going to change anything. ...

Actually, keeping this clean will divide the world between the religious who do this kind of stuff, and people who give up on religion. ... I actually believe there's a third alternative, which is, "Let's argue back into existence religious experience that keeps this stuff from happening." But we can't do that without owning that sometimes religion makes this stuff happen. ...

You can get so drunk on God that you don't see anything else. ... It's so easy to get wrapped up in a messianic vision of how the world could be. And I know it's easy, because I did it. ... I spent a part of my life, between the ages of 17 and 21, living off and on in the city of Hebron. ... Hebron is traditionally understood by rabbinic tradition of one of the four holiest cities in the land of Israel. It's the burial place of the matriarchs and the patriarchs -- of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Sarah and Rebecca and Leah. The site where they're buried has traded between being a mosque and a church many times in the last 1,800 years. For Jews to be able to go back to that place where the founding fathers and mothers are buried is unbelievable. To be able to go back to a place where, in 1929, Jews were run out of town in a pogrom is unbelievable. To be able to say, at the age of 18 or 19, "This is where I belong," is intoxicating after thousands of years of exile. ... You believe anything is possible, because you have all the answers. Until it got so out of control that people I knew committed murder ... I don't think that I thought for a minute about the impact of my beliefs on other human beings who didn't share them. I don't think I thought about the implications. That was it. It was a self-justifying system. ... Other people were just wrong. ...

It's amazing how good religion is at mobilizing people to do awful, murderous things. There is this dark side to it, and anyone who loves religious experience, including me, better begin to own that there is a serious shadow side to this thing. ...

I don't know the solution to it. I just know that if you can't own that downside, if you can't own that shadow, if you can't own that the same things that motivate you to do great stuff can motivate you to do horrible stuff, then better not to be motivated at all. That's the question I come away with. I have to keep asking myself: Does religion serve any purpose at all anymore? Do we really need this thing that I love very much? Have we really proved that it can do more good than harm? ...

I think since Sept. 11, people are feeling the gap between what they want to believe, because it will make them more comfortable, and what they can believe, given the horror they've seen. ...

So where do you go to thrash that out, which, for me, is what I want religion to be? Where do you go to have the experiences that make you feel safe enough so you can embrace that kind of insecurity? Where do you find communities that are supportive enough to know that we're all feeling insecure about these big questions? And not to put in fake security and shallow answers, and not to walk away from the questions, but to create the safety to feel the insecurity.

. . . .

Kanan Makiya
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, he is the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq.

a photo of Kanan Makiya

At this point in time, in this place, at this juncture in our history, religion did drive those planes into those towers. In some deep way, religion is responsible. In this case not any religion, but Islam in particular. I have always thought there were dark ... corners in religion. I took that for granted. That's not the surprising thing for me. ... The frightening thing is rather that, in the Arab world, we have let the darkness of religion flourish. The forces that are dampening it at this moment in our history are weak, and that is frightening. ...

Perhaps the most dangerous element that was picked out of the Muslim tradition and changed and transformed in the hands of these young men who perpetrated Sept. 11 is this idea of committing suicide. They call it martyrdom, of course. Suicide is firmly rejected in Islam as an act of worship. In the tradition, generally, to die in battle for a larger purpose -- that is, for the sake of the community at large -- is a noble thing to do. Self-sacrifice yourself as you defend the community -- that is a traditional thing, and that has a traditional meaning of "jihad." But what is non-traditional, what is new is this idea that jihad is almost like an act of private worship. You become closer to God by blowing yourself up in such a way. You, privately, irrespective of what effect it has on everyone else. ... For these young men, that is the new idea of jihad. This idea of jihad allows you to lose all the old distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, between just and unjust wars, between the rules of engagement of different types. All of that is gone, because now the act of martyrdom is an act of worship ... It's like going on the pilgrimage. It's like paying your alms, which every Muslim has to do. It's like praying in the direction of Mecca, and so on and so forth. It is an individual act of worship. That's terrifying, and that's new. ...

These young men touched a chord among considerable numbers of Muslims in the Arab world and in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is what is so dangerous about Islam at this moment. ... These young men have captured the moral high ground. Not the whole of Islam yet, but they are in danger of capturing the moral high ground of a great religious tradition. The great, great challenge that faces Muslims today is to repudiate that. ...

The battle to rid Islam of that notion of jihad ... is a terribly, terribly important one, which it does not seem to me we are up to yet -- moderate, that is, Muslim thinkers from within the tradition themselves, have not yet met the challenge. ... There is an intellectual failure. There is a lack of courage at the moment in the Middle East. And I should say it's very important to single out the Middle East here from the whole of Islam. ... The origin of all of this unfortunately is in the Arab part of the Muslim world, which is less than 20 percent of the whole.

. . . .

Khaled Abu el-Fadl
A professor of Islamic law, he teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles.

a photo of elfadl

... I was completely frozen for the first hour or so. It's as if I refused to believe it. I didn't know how to believe it. ... One day before, I was there [in New York]. In fact, I was in the Borders that was destroyed, and I stayed in a hotel right across the street from the World Trade Center. ... That thought went through my head: "We were just there."

The second thought was a prayer, a wish, a plea: "Please, God, not Muslims. [Do not let it be] Muslims who have done this, or anyone who is calling themselves a Muslim." ...

Something in my heart just told me that I know it's going to turn out to be someone who believes himself a Muslim to have done this. I wept for a good hour. It was so much suffering. As a professor who teaches in this field, and as a Muslim who is committed to this religion, for it to all to come to this. It wasn't just that I was crying about the planes or the fear or the anxiety. ... I was crying over what has happened to Muslim civilization. Where are we now? I was crying over the fate of something that I love dearly, and that is Islam. ...

I was very angry, [but] not at God. I must confess I was very angry at our behavior -- meaning my fellow brethren and sisters, Muslims. Well before this, there was the destroying of the Buddha statues; there [was] the oppression of women in Afghanistan; there [was] the decision to have Christians and Jews wear distinctive marks in Afghanistan. It's ugliness after ugliness after ugliness. ...

In many ways, 9/11 made me care far less about what my fellow human beings [thought] of me, and care much more about my accountability before God ultimately. ... I think after 9/11, I felt that I really don't care what those quote-unquote "politically savvy" people think of me anymore. This is something that is going to go in history. My son is going to ask me, "How could this have happened in the name of the religion you follow?" How can I justify, not just to neighbors and friends, but how can I justify to my son that this happened in the name of the faith that [I am] committed to? ... I really don't think you can hold your head high and have a sense of dignity about yourself if you can't clearly confront the fact that this remarkable amount of ugliness was committed in the name of the faith that you believe in. ... The fact that we have an element in our religion, in the religion that I believe in, that would rejoice at my death and the death of other human beings and their suffering and their pain and think that there is some good, is something you have to take account of at an individual level. ...

The fact that my son rides an airplane ... and he often travels unaccompanied, alone, and God forbid if he was on a plane in which this happened; just the thought of the panic he would be going through and I am not there. To come in and say this is beautiful or acceptable, that God looks upon this and says, "I understand," because [there are] bigger political causes or higher political objectives. ... When I deal with it at that level, that's what motivated me since 9/11 to speak more, to lecture more, to sleep less, to be as if I am on fire. Because it is that personal element, that personal pain, that personal image is the one that I cannot bear. I cannot bear it happening to a Muslim or a non-Muslim. ...

I am fighting for the soul and the identity of Islam itself. ... Bin Laden represents a puritan extremism within Islam, modern Islam. There is no question that the extremists and puritans want to be the only representatives of Islam, [the only ones] who can tell you what God wants and what Islam is and that's the beginning and the end. ... There are few that are as arrogant or self-righteous as bin Laden within the Muslim world -- but the most dangerous is a type of thinking that would allow a person to think they speak authoritatively and decisively for God. And that type of thinking is more widespread in contemporary Islam than bin Laden. ...

I've studied and memorized the Quran. I've studied and memorized the traditions of the Prophet. I am entirely comfortable with these heuristic traditions of Islam, and what I take from them and what I communicate to people is a very different message. What I communicate to people is a message of tolerance, of a conception of God as beauty, the embodiment of beauty. And the insistence on the autonomy of the individual and the importance of conscience. And the acceptance that the law does not necessarily embody morality, but that morality must always examine the law and shape the law.

. . . .

Rabbi Irwin Kula
A Conservative rabbi, he is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

a photo of Rabbi Irwin Kula

When those planes went in, I had no idea who initially did it, and that didn't even come to mind. Within about 15, 20 minutes, the TV commentator said, "Islam ...We think this is Islamic terrorists," et cetera. I remember turning to a guy I was with, and I said, "You see. This is what religion is really about." It slipped out of my mouth, and this was [to] a person who's contributing to our organization. That's not good that that's sliding out of your mouth. "This is what religion really does."

It recalled for me in the last decade or so how many people I have met on a personal level who have been hurt by Judaism. It went from very, very big to very, very small. People who have been told they're not part of this community because they won't observe in a certain way. People who have been told that they've been traitors to the community because they've intermarried. People who have been told that they're outside, excluded, peripheral, because they're affiliated with some institution. ...

Somehow, religion creates these boundaries. ... The experience of religion, or the experience behind religion -- for me, anyhow, that's why I got into this -- the experience was that there are no boundaries. The experience is that all those boundaries are an illusion. The experience is that even my life is very, very temporal. It's very, very insignificant in the larger drama, the cosmos.

So what is going on? How did religion become this? How did it become this? Even on their side, the Islamic side, OK, it became very violent. But on our side, it was becoming violent in a different way. It was becoming violent in a way that abused individual people. ... It became individual. ... I didn't even know how to go into the organized community after that. I didn't speak in the community for a month. ...

I actually spoke towards the end. ... I was invited. I had a speech that I was previously engaged to do. I went in and I said, "I can't teach what I was going to teach. So here's what I'm going to do."

I chanted the final phone conversations -- The New York Times recorded a lot of final phone conversations, because we have voice mail now, and there were some email conversations. I took a chant from the tradition ... and I said, "Here's the Torah of the day" and I chanted them. They were very simple. "I love you." "I want you to always be happy." "Please say good-bye to our daughter." "Mommy, I want you to know I love you," by a 30-year-old woman.

And I recognized [that] here's where the real Torah is. At that moment of confronting your death, the real Torah, the real wisdom, the real religious tradition, the real experience behind religion, is about love. It is about connection, and it is no more complicated than that. As a rabbi, my community of rabbis, and I think priests, ministers, monks -- we've made it a lot more complicated than it is. When you make it more complicated than it is, you lose the experience. ...

There were about 150 people in the room. ... The weird thing was that ... within 10 seconds of chanting it, we were all, including the cantor, weeping.

So you recognized, you pushed through something. This is what the religious experience is about. Now let's go back and see, from this religion, what actually does that and what doesn't. That's the cleansing that these religions need to have again.

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