It Is Impossible to Address Terrorism Without the Role-Playing of Religion

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Neal Coates
By Kourosh Ziabari

The horrific actions being committed under the banner of religion, as manifested in the atrocities of the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have made people across the world, especially youths, doubtful about the peaceful nature of divine religions and raised many questions on the relationship between Islam and terror, and the growth of what some have come to call Islamic fundamentalism.

There are hardline commentators and pundits who capitalize on the mass killings and executions of civilians by the ISIS to propagate this belief that Islam is a religion of violence that preaches the killing of innocent people, and that Islam and peace are irreconcilable. They ignore the calls by Muslim scholars and leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, who have denounced ISIS and its actions, stressing that this extremist cult has nothing to do with the Islamic philosophy and Islamic lifestyle.

However, even while people such as Bill Maher continue disparaging the Muslims on their widely-watched TV shows in the United States, there are Western academicians and intellectuals who deplore the terrorist acts of ISIS and other extremist groups as irreligious and firmly maintain that neither Islam nor any other divine faith would endorse violence and the killing of ordinary people.

One of these academicians is Prof. Neal Coates who is a professor of political science at the Abilene Christian University. Prof. Coates holds a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut and specializes in Middle East politics, international relations and comparative politics. He has served as the Staff Attorney for the Texas Department of Insurance in Austin, in the Financial Division and the Legal Compliance Section, and as Assistant City Attorney for the City of College Station, Texas. Given the religious nature of the university where he is the Chair of the Department of Political Science, Prof. Coates also comments on the interrelationship between religion and politics.

Coates says that there would be no prosperity and welfare in the world without religion. He believes that it’s impossible to tackle the concern of extremism without the role-playing of religion. Coates cites historical examples to substantiate his point that people who seem or pretend to be representing divine religions while committing acts of violence and mass murder or violating the principles of ethics and morality are in essence irreligious and separated from the teachings of God.

Iran Review talked to Prof. Neal Coates of the Abilene Christian University about violence, extremism, the role of religion in playing down the threat of terrorists and the significance of the international WAVE conference in Tehran. The following is the full transcript of the interview.

Q: Sorrowfully, we have seen that a terrorist group called ISIS is practicing extreme sorts of violence in the name of religion and under the banner of Islam. Have there ever been instances of practicing extremism and violence under the name of religion in Christianity, or in other faiths? What’s your take on the fact that ISIS is distorting the image of Islam through its horrific atrocities?

A: I think there are several answers and number one – in English we sometimes say “stock answer” and that means that common regular, off-the-book-shelves, open- the-book answer, is that those people are not really Muslims; they’re not really Christians; they’re not really religious because they are not acting religiously. And I think that is a way that we maybe rationalize or try to understand how they are acting because on the face of their actions, they really do not look like they’re acting religiously at all because whether we believe in Quran or the Bible, we know that innocent life should not be taken. So, that’s kind of a “stock answer” that they are simply not true Muslims or true Christians or true Hindus.

But at the end we also see some people who might even be quoting some religious work or might be religiously devout, but then they carry out an act of terror and they try to get incorporated into what they command others. When we get to an organization like ISIS, they are at the far end of the spectrum per se, because they are not associated with any country; they’re a non-state terrorist organization similar to Al-Qaeda but they really are related to Al-Qaeda, because you are probably aware that Al-Qaeda in the Mesopotamia has some of the same people. And so they have some of the same ideology, whether it’s their goal to establish a caliphate and their own religious state, and of course, as we all know, they’re using some brutal tactics to intimidate, to conquer and then also to attract those who prefer to use those tactics. And some of those people, who are attracted to them, believe that their religion, including Islam allows those tactics.

Q: Do you think that religion can play a role in lessening and eliminating the threat of violence and extremism? All religions – when we read the Scriptures, when we read Quran, when we read the Bible, when we read the Torah – we see that all of them call for peace, coexistence, brotherhood, fraternity, interaction and tolerance, while we see that some countries that are representing these faiths, are not really behaving in a responsible and religious manner.

A: Well, let me start this answer with an unconventional response. There is a movie that just came out in the United States some months ago, that is a one-word title; it’s called “America”. This movie is not about the history of America. There have been many movies about different parts of the history of my country or other countries. This movie asks an interesting question: what if there had never been an America? Now, I’m answering this way not to say that other countries should bow to America and say that America is just the most wonderful place and that the United States government has never made mistakes. That is not why I start my answer this way. I start my answer this way to say two things; number one: there is a difference between religion and the state, and the second point I’ll get to is that in the world, we have come to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, organize ourselves with nation-states because we have found that is a fairly efficient and fairly equitable way to organize human life. And so, even though the borders are not always drawn in the way we want them to be drawn, we have as people given authority to a small group to run the bureaucracies, to run the military, etc. on behalf of all of us to keep some semblance of peace and order. And so when we have to face terrorism, it’s not just the question of “can religion solve terrorism?” We have no option other than to say well, “what will our state do?” because our religious bodies do not usually carry weapons, our religious bodies usually do not have detectives and our religious bodies do not have people to protect us and to watch the borders and other things. And so we have to start with this assumption of “what is our country like?”, whether it’s here in Iran or it’s like the United Sates. And so, this movie begins with this premise of “what would the world be like without America” and then proceeds to talk about over the years, how things would be different without this country, what are the options to consider in that country or that country or that country. But the movie does make a strong argument that America has stood for some very good things.

Now, the other thing I would say to more directly answer your question is that it is impossible to face terrorism without religion. And the reason I say that is because there is really nothing good in human history that has been accomplished without religion, whether it be the scientific advances during the time – hundreds of years ago – with Isaac Newton and others before that, with the advances made by Al-Khwarizmi in developing Algebra in the Middle East. These are people who are driven by their interests in the Almighty to explore the world around them and then also to better themselves. And so, they look at the stars and they look at the human body and say “how is it that we are made this way?” and “why did God form the world as he has?” Now, that moves on to the modern day to say that whether it’s either the organization of the nation-state, because there were many issues about religion involved with the Peace of Westphalia including that the specific principalities could decide for their people what religion they would be. Now, that also means if you didn’t like that religion, you have to move to the next principality, but before that time, the Catholic Church was telling everyone that there could only be one religion. So, there was not any freedom of religion. So, even though it was imperfect, it was still in advance in human history and freedom of religion.

We have now moved on so that we see the addressing of slavery, the fighting of wars and what causes people to strive for peace, the opposition to human trafficking, etc. There are other things that are now being pursued because good people who believe in a Supreme Being want there to be justice; they want there to be holiness; they want fairness. Another way of saying it is, but for religion, there would not be many good things in this world. And so, that’s my kind of a long answer to say that the only real thing that will allow us to have the motivation for a better world is our religious beliefs, and that means we have to fight the act of terrorism because, you know, by its definition, we’re taking innocent life for a political purpose; and these people are not soldiers; they are not government officials; they are just fishermen and they are just grandmothers and it’s a terrible thing! And so religious people say, we are spared on to make the world a better place and we see the need to depose terror.

Q: Israel is promoting itself as a representative of the global Jewry and as Jewish state. It says that we have a right to defend ourselves and that’s why we kill Palestinians, we unleash a siege on the Gaza Strip for seven years and we exterminate the Palestinians, we destroy their lives and so on. They also say that we have the right to exist and a right to defend ourselves, and that’s why we practice violence. Is Israel the real representative of the Jews? And if so, why doesn’t it behave in a rational and peaceful manner? Why doesn’t it come to the negotiation table with the Palestinians and why doesn’t it try to realize the stolen rights of the Palestinians? And if not, why Israel is behaving so illegally an irrationally?

A: I hope that you can see personally that I’m not afraid to ask you some kind of probing questions too because it helps me to answer and helps you to understand where I’m coming from, whether my next words are printed or not. And I guess the first question I have is this; and you don’t have to answer this because you’re a journalist. And that is: why do we talk about Israel first, because there are a number of countries that we can talk about historically who have also claimed to be religious and the question you have can be applied to each one of those countries? And I’ll be happy to answer about Israel. But take for example Italy, the home of the Pope. And what has happened to Italy? Very few people go to “altar call” anymore in Italy. And Italy has a foreign policy; Italy fights wars and Italy invaded East Africa before the World War I and the League of Nations fall apart; they did atrocities. And so, I think the question you’re asking about Israel can be asked about any country that has claimed some amount of religiosity as a part of its nature or as a part of its national image.

Now, to your question regarding the religiosity of the Jewish state of Israel, the current situation as I understand it in Israel is that, by Constitution or by Law, it is a Jewish state and a democracy. Recently, their foreign minister proposed that they’ve simply become a Jewish state. And I would discourage that because I think that they have come so far, as a country from a small, weak spot on the earth to now an economic and technological powerhouse that is also the most striking example of democracy in the Middle East; that they should embrace where they’ve come from and not alter it too much because they have Muslims living there, and they have Christians living there and they have Jews living there; and they give some amount of political freedom to those groups. And so, I would hope that they would not move too much toward a theocracy, and I don’t think they will. I think that’s maybe more of the bluster of the person who currently is the foreign minister.

Your question was also, if they claim to be a religious state, how can they then take these kinds of acts? I think it’s a complex situation that is based upon, first of all, that we live in a world where there are sovereign nation-states, whether they are religious or not, who want to defend themselves and who want to better their people. And so, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, has felt threatened since its creation and they have taken steps, sometimes controversial, in order to protect themselves.

Q: So, you are of the opinion that what Israel is doing is an act of self-defense? Well, what about the principle of proportionality? When Israel drops bombs filled with white phosphorus, when it kills about 2,000 people in a matter of two weeks, can it be defended?

A: My country is right now faced, just a day ago, with the Senate report about the CIA tortures. Torture is not acceptable in my country for many reasons, not the least of which because it’s banned by law but also because of our religious beliefs: love your neighbor, do to others what you would want to be done to you; that’s from Mathew and from Luke. And Christianity is very much woven into the identity of our country even though it’s a country where all faiths are welcomed and practiced. And so, every country is sometimes faced with people who, whether for self-preservation, self-defense, poor decision-making, are sometimes faced with making a decision that maybe they should not have made, coming to a decision. And the CIA report is making that very clear about the United States. Now, to the United States’ credit, I do need to say that we are approaching this to say it should not have happened and we would not want to do it again because there are several countries in the world where they would not admit that torture has happened nor will they try to fix it.

And so, that is a good thing. The United States has made mistakes also where at the time they thought perhaps they were the right things to do. Like the Agent Orange in Vietnam. Agent Orange was a cancer-causing substance but they thought when you declare the jungle, so we can see who we are fighting. White phosphorus seems to be beyond the need at that moment and so it’s very difficult to justify cluster bombs and other kinds of techniques. If a country uses those against civilians, it is troubling.

Q: I don’t want to take a debate with you, because we agree on most of the issues. I don’t want it to be a political debate, either. But, I have seen several instances of university professors in the United States being threatened or even fired from their work like Steven Salaita, if you have heard about him, an American-Palestinian professor who was expelled from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign after twitting a message in support of the people of Gaza. And it seems that there is an atmosphere in the United States that restricts any criticism of Israel or increases its price, and it prevents the American intellectuals to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an independent manner or at least to express their real, genuine beliefs about that. Is that so?

A: It is important to look at each instance of what you hear in the news; and I know that as a journalist, you undoubtedly try to find the truth looking at different sources because in America, we will have, say CNN which is a little bit to the Left and Fox which is a little bit more to the Right. And we have the New York Times which is definitely Left. So as you look at different sources and you talk to persons, you can sometimes find out more about what actually happened. And in that one particular instance about that person, not getting tenure, there is more of that story. And sometimes 10,000 miles away, we may not give the full story.

And so I would encourage you to dig a little bit deeper on that because it’s not just simply – as I understand it – whether he supported Israel or not, it is how he went about it; and the fact that he did not have tenure! And regarding professors, there was one at the University of Colorado – he’s also featuring in that movie “America” – and his name was Ward Churchill. If you do a search for the fired University of Colorado professor, you will find more about him. He has talked about Israel; he was definitely against Israel but that’s not why he was fired. He would say things like this that “America caused the World Trade Center attacks; because of our policy, we invited these attacks, we did it through ourselves.”

Q: To put it another way, do you feel any pressure on yourself to express your ideas if you have any criticism against Israel?

A: No, there’s not much pressure or there is not the fear to express what we believe about anything. Now, there are several reasons for this; whether it be Israel, whether it be about global warming, whether it be about bigfoot! There are several reasons; now, tenure is a minor reason, but professors in the West – after they’ve worked for several years at their university, have proven to bear good fruit, and produced good teaching and had some good research for the university – can have some amount, not full, but have some amount of job protection which then allows them to be even more free in their thoughts and working with their colleagues on projects and things like that. But in the United States, we also have freedom of speech, and just in the academy in general, we also have freedom to explore things. And that is the nature of education is having professors who can explore the world and so, there is really not much pressure or fear on American professors to talk about Israel. And that’s one reason why some of the leading critics in the world about Israel are in the United States. And this is also why some of the big critics of Israel are in Israel. Some of their professors are very outspoken about their country. And if you want even more proof on that, look at the Knesset debates. There are people in the Knesset who will say “what are we doing?” and “we need to give Palestinians more rights”, etc. So, there is a freedom of speech that seems to need to be replicated in the region. And I would certainly say that in the United States, we would hope that other people in other countries would have freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion; all those things that are not only in just our first Amendment to the Constitution but rather in 1948 United Nations Human Rights Declaration, which many countries in this region have signed onto at the outset or afterwards.

Q: Let’s get off this topic. Maybe we can talk about interfaith dialog and the fact that Iran, by holding the conference on World Against Violence and Extremism has brought a large number of religious scholars, university professors, diplomats, and politicians from different countries, especially the Western nations, to gather here and express their viewpoints about violence and extremism and how to tackle it and how to address it. What do you think about the fact that this gathering has been held in Iran and the fact that so many prominent people from across the world have been here?

A: First of all, I want to compliment the Iranian government for holding this conference, because there have been very few conferences like this in other places. And I believe this is the first such conference in Iran and so it is a good thing. I also noticed that there were several hundred persons – maybe six hundred or seven hundred – who listened to President Rouhani in the opening session, but I was struck that because this was the first conference, there were not as many people as could have been or should have been present to talk about this important topic. So perhaps, if there is a second conference, or if there is a little bit of momentum, there will be other persons who will feel free to participate and to listen and to learn. And so, I think it is a good start but it could be even bigger.

I also want to compliment the panelists, whether they are religious leaders or former foreign ministers, etc. in being open and addressing some of the topics regarding terrorism and participating in a venue where people from different countries can come to a region that has been hit hard with terrorism. Instead of discussing this in New York City or in Tokyo, we have come to a place that needs to come face to face with this problem, and to more openly discuss it.

Q: As a religious scholar and university professor who teaches religious and political courses, do you think that religion will prevail? In our personal conversation, I mentioned to you that, for example in some U.S. states and in some U. S. cities, homosexuality is being legalized; secularism is dominating the world, and even in the Middle East we have traces of the growth of secularism and the fact that young people are growing more irreligious. This is a phenomenon that is growing internationally. Do you think that religion can resist these waves of domination by secularism and irreligiosity?

A: The world used to be a dark place where literacy was low, disease was high, countries were not organized and the knowledge of religion was quite inadequate. As time has progressed, and those small numbers of religious people have read to their children their books of faith and have made a generation-by-generation effort, we have seen a change in the world. And that change has been especially seen in the way we organize ourselves so that in the year 2014, we now have progressed so that we have more wealth around the world, and we have less war currently around the world, and we have better health even though there are still improvements to be made; and we have almost a hundred democracies even though those democracies vary in strength and in consolidation. And so I am long-term an optimist in the power of religion to do good.

I know that there can be the dark side of religion for those who might abuse it or twist it, but for those who adhere to the true teachings, they can make the world a better place. And so I remain an optimist even when there are times in human history where relativism or materialism – people not having correct relations with each other – prevail, I am hopeful that religion can prevail. Well, in the West, we have times when there are revivals – revivals of religiosity, and we will have religious meetings in the evenings or on the weekends that last for several days. There is a famous preacher in the United States named Billy Graham; he’s is still alive and he is one of the biggest figures. And these things happened in the United Kingdom also; there were people who in the past 100 or 200 years, would call out people from their jobs and from their homes and would say “we must change; we need a reawakening; we need to read the Bible again; we need to leave our mistakes behind us”. And so, people would admit their mistakes; they would say I have sin; and then they turned back. And so, I am hopeful that despite what we sometimes see around us, at present we will look for the better in the future.

Q: Thank you very much for your time!

A: Thank you, too.

Key Words: Violence, Extremism, Religion, Threat of Terrorists, ISIS, Extremism, Peace, Coexistence, Israel, Gaza Strip, Iran, West, Coates

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