When I was in college, I had an opportunity to attend a talk by the the famous Israeli author and peacenik, Amos Oz. Something he said has stuck with me. “I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor.”
The wisdom captured by this insight was on display in France this week. Islamic terrorists, upset about cartoons that insulted Muhammad attacked the offices of the French weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve people.
Ironically, it is the fanatic who is the funniest of all, and who most needs to be satirized. It is the fanatic who most urgently needs to understand the joke, but on whom the punchline is lost.
Charlie Hebdo is a rude, satirical magazine that is an equal-opportunity insulter. As Jews, we might get offended at how it depicts our coreligionists, but then again, when we consider that Christians and Muslims receive the same treatment, perhaps there is something going on here other than antisemitism.
As we gather together this morning to pray, to celebrate Shabbat, to be together, and in a little while, to eat, we cannot help but also reflect on the terrible events of this week in France. First, the murder of twelve souls at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Then the shooting of a police officer. And right before Shabbat, the taking hostage and murder of Jewish shoppers in a kosher grocery store.
The sad thing is that we knew this was coming. The Editor of Charlie Hebdo even had a bodyguard, who was among the victims. The Muslim terrorists who committed these terrible acts received training by Al-Qaeda in Yemen and were heavily armed. It seems that there was really no stopping this tragedy from happening.
Consider other recent events around the world, including the beheading of Western journalists in Syria and Iraq, the killing of 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan, the murder of a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, the taking hostage of diners in a cafe in Australia – all were committed by Islamic terrorists in the name of their religion.
ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, Taliban, Boko Haram, and the list goes on. It is impossible to deny that we are facing a global epidemic of Islamic fundamentalists whose interpretation of religion compels them to fight anything to do with the West: democracy, women’s rights, freedom of the press, religious pluralism, the list goes on.
How is it possible that religious people could have such a perverse interpretation of what God wants from humanity? It is mind-boggling. Comical even. ISIS would make a fantastic comic book villain if it was not real.
How does religion become totalitarian? This phenomenon is so antithetical to how our Jewish tradition would have us see the world.
This morning, we begin reading the Book of Exodus. Parashat Shemot introduces us to the major characters in this drama: the Israelites, Pharaoh, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and of course, God.
The English title of the book captures what we usually think of as its major theme: Exodus. In Hebrew, we refer to this event as Yetziat Mitzrayim, the leaving of Egypt. This is our formative story as a people. It is a story which is embedded into our consciousness individually and collectively. We were once slaves. God saved us with an outstretched arm. Now we are free, and we are in a covenantal relationship with God that, among other things, requires us to care for the downtrodden. We know this story well. We tell it in our daily prayers. We reexperience it every year during Passover.
It is not only our story. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the story of the Exodus as a biblical paradigm in the Civil Rights movement. Abraham Lincoln turned to the Exodus for inspiration in the fight to end slavery. Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Israelites safely on the far side of the Sea of Reeds while the Egyptian army drowns in its depths. The motto surrounding the seal would have read: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
That is the other message of the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh is a tyrant. He is a fanatic. He has no sense of humor. Just as God brings the Israelites into freedom to convey a universal concern for human freedom, God also set out to overthrow Pharaoh as a sign to the world that despotism is never to be tolerated.
God’s problem with Pharaoh is not that he is an idolater. In fact, the Torah is ambivalent with regard to other nations’ religious beliefs and practices. The Jewish people are never commanded to rid the world of idolatry or to force the rest of humanity to worship God.
Pharaoh’s sin is that he, a human, claims to be divine. And further, he allows for no possibility of anything else.
At the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh looks at his kingdom, sees the Israelites, and notices that they are different. He cultivates a sense of fear among the Egyptian people, convincing them that the Israelites pose a threat to Egypt. The regime of slavery begins, but Pharaoh’s paranoia only gets worse. Still fearful of a rebellion, he orders the execution of all male Israelite children.
The Torah, in its wisdom, is articulating the steps of how a totalitarian dictator consolidates power by demonizing foreign elements. It is setting the stage for God’s overthrow of a tyrant.
When Moses first comes to Pharaoh as God’s Prophet, he does not ask for freedom from slavery. He asks only for a three day break so that the Israelites can go out into the wilderness and worship God. Three days. Pharaoh cannot tolerate even that.
What is he so worried about – three days of lost work? No. Pharaoh cannot accept that these lowly people refuse to acknowledge him as divine. The worship of God is a threat to Pharaoh. How does he respond – by increasing the workload.
This guy takes himself way too seriously. Pharaoh has no sense of humor, no capacity to see things from another’s perspective. He is so stubbornly fanatic that he brings his entire nation down to hell rather than give up an inch.
God has two objectives in Exodus. One is to free the Israelites. The other is to demonstrate to Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the other nations of the world, that Pharaoh is Pharaoh and God is God. God clearly is on the side against totalitarianism.
The Book of Exodus is about the preciousness of freedom and the evils of arrogance.
This is a message that is sorely needed today.
What we are facing today is not a war between Islam and the West. What we are facing is a totalitarian fundamentalism rooted in the Islamic religion that seeks nothing less than total domination.
To be clear, Islam is not inherently violent. There are plenty of peaceful, tolerant Muslims. But let’s not be naive and pretend that the numerous terrorist attacks all over the world committed by Muslims in the name of their faith are not part of a broader trend.
Islamic fundamentalist groups are fighting to create societies that are governed by Sharia courts. Infidels must convert, die, or in some cases live as second-class citizens. Moderate Muslims must convert to this extreme brand of Islam. It is why so much of the killing in recent years has targeted other Muslims. If this was really about a war between East and West, why is there so much Muslim on Muslim killing?
There may not be anything that we can do to change the minds of those who have already committed to Islamic fanaticism. Force may indeed be the only way to defend ourselves from people without a sense of humor. In the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh is not capable of teshuvah. The only outcome for this tyrant is total defeat.
But a ray of light emerged last week from a more contemporary Egyptian leader. Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on January 1, which on the Muslim calendar this year coincided with the birthday of Muhammad. In the audience sat leading Egyptian Muslim clerics, as well as the Minister of Religious Appropriations. President Al-Sisi made forceful, honest comments about Islam that are the kind of words that could get him killed. Here is an excerpt from his speech:
It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!
I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.
All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.
I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.
Notice a few things. Al-Sisi specifies that it is not the Islamic religion itself that is so violent, but it is the way that it has been interpreted over the centuries that has caused so much destruction.
I agree. Our Jewish texts have some brutal passages that, if taken literally, would make us fanatics as well. But we have a more than two thousand year old interpretive tradition that has found ways to address those difficult passages. Al-Sisi is calling for Islam to develop similar interpretive traditions.
Also, he does not claim that “Islam is a religion of peace,” nor does he state that the terrorists are not really Muslims. Al-Sisi does not blame the West, or point his finger at colonialism. He takes responsibility as a Muslim.
He calls for a change in the way that Islam is understood and practiced, and he acknowledges that it will not be easy. Islam has been interpreted in fundamentalist, triumphalist ways for so long that those modes of thinking have become fully embedded.
But it does not have to continue that way. Islam, he argues, is “in need of a religious revolution” that comes from within. Who has to lead it? Al-Sisi places responsibility where it belongs – on the Imams seated before him. It is they who must take the lead on changing Islamic thinking about its role in the world.
Until that happens on a widespread and sustained global level, I fear, the clash between tyranny and freedom that our world is experiencing will continue, and this week’s events will be repeated somewhere else, sometime soon.
On this Shabbat, our prayers extend to the families and communities who lost loved ones this week. We pray that more people in the world will embrace the core lessons of Exodus: that freedom is precious, and that tyranny is intolerable. We pray for all those around the world who risk their lives to protect innocent people from terror. And we pray for strength and offer solidarity to our Muslim brothers and sisters who are courageously raising their voices and calling for change from within.