Virtual Talmud

I thank the various people, including Rabbi Stern, who have taken the time to comment on my article. However, Rabbi Stern and the others who accuse me of separating politics and religion have not read the article in its entirety.

To begin with, the whole first part of the article explains precisely how the two are related for the two movements. but as I clearly state, the problem is when people “reduce” the two movements “to their religious dimension,” which is what commentators do when they reduce them to purely terrorist movements who have an irrational hatred of israel that can only be stopped by, as we’re seeing, bombing Beirut and Gaza into the Stone Age.

This is not only utterly disproportionate to the original attacks, which were kidnappings of soldiers in order to negotiate for release of their own captives (something Israel has a very long history of itself doing, but I don’t see anyone on this page reducing that to Judaism), it is also terribly immoral and completely against anything I learned about Judaism, from Hebrew school to graduate school. It will also increase hatred for more generations, creating new recruits for both movements.

As for the territorial issue, yes, Hezbollah didn’t kidnap the Israeli soldiers for territorial issues, but it certainly did for national issues, which you forget to include when you criticize my argument. Nasrallah declared when Israel refused to release several high-level prisoners in the last exchange (done by Ariel Sharon in 2004, which is probably why Nasrallah figured his successor wouldn’t have a problem doing the same thing) that he “reserved the right” to kidnap more Israeli soldiers to use to negotiate for the release of the remaining prisoners. so everyone who wanted to know knew this would happen sooner or later. And it’s a national issue because, as I explain in this piece and a much longer explanation in my blog (, Hezbollah clearly was feeling stress about losing its dominant position in Lebanese politics as the country became successfully (at least for the upper and middle classes north of the Shii suburbs) integrated into the world economy.

Another reason for the attack could be an attempt–and a horrendously immoral one at that given the cost the Hezbollah leadership had to know the country would pay–to change the social fabric more toward a war footing, where Hezbollah rules uncontested in the national imagination.

In this vein, the rabbi’s comment that “most Muslims” do not distinguish between the spheres of religion and politics reflects exactly the kind of reductionist thinking that my article is asking people to move beyond. From where does the rabbi claim the authority to generalize for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims? Most of the Muslims I know, even religious ones, from Morocco to Iran, would be very happy to separate politics and religion precisely because they have seen how the mixture of the two has been an abysmal failure from Sudan to Iran to Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia.

Of course, hundreds of millions of Muslims do think that politics and religion should mix, just as many Jews and Christians do. But a huge number do not, certainly not in the sense that Hezbollah or Hamas officially state they should be–that is, in the form of a state that is dominated by religion and religious law, with no room anything outside their own narrow (and contested, it should be remembered) vision of the Sharia.

In that sense, I have certainly not gotten my definition of religion confused with 19th-century Christianity. In fact, in other articles for Beliefnet, I have specifically argued for a much more expansive understanding of what religion is, based on the 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s notion that religion is ‘whatever is of ultimate concern’ to a person.

But because religion is suffused through all aspects of life and is part of peoples’ ‘lifeworlds’ doesn’t mean that we can reduce the latest events to religious belief, unless we want to say that Zionism is only about religion in the end as well, which it clearly is not. If it were, then Muslims would be right in saying that Israel’s horrendous human-rights record, occupation of Palestine, large-scale attacks on civilians over the years, etc. are rooted in a specifically Jewish worldview and agenda, which is precisely how the Qur’an treats Jews in the verse I quote by generalizing from the actions of a few clans in Arabia, who clearly had quite logical, if from a Muslim point of view, invalid, reasons for opposing Muhammad’s rise to uncontested power and the clear diminishment of their religious authority and position within Arabic society it was going to entail.

To return to the rabbi’s comment, he aruges that “at this point the militant message dominates islam.” Again, from where does he claim this? How many of the likely millions of mosques has he visited and how many of the tens of thousands of debates between Muslims on just this issue has he witnessed, or read about in dozens of languages?

To make this claim is to commit the fallacy of assuming that just because militant Islam has become “the public face” of the religion (in large part because this is the part of Islam our media like to focus on, rather than the nuances and debates that challenge such simplistic assumptions) it represents the views of the majority of Muslims, which very detailed polling, as I have shown in my last book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us,’ has sown to be a completely invalid assertion by the world values surveys and the research of Pippa Norris and RonaldIinglehart, among others. That religion has been ‘hijacked’ by militants may or may not be true (they’re certainly trying their best to do so, that’s for sure), but that doesn’t mean that most of the passengers share their views.

Finally, the rabbi claims that I “disregard every public statement made by Hamas and Hezbollah claiming the opposite” of my argument that their motivations can’t be reduced to religion (let’s leave aside his misuse of the term “yellow journalism,” which is is journalism that sensationalizes or distorts the news merely to attract readers, which is clearly not the point of the article). First of all, has the rabbi read every public statement by the two groups? I certainly haven’t, but I’ve read enough and interviewed anough members of them to know that they are full of contraditions, depending on the person, the time, the political circumstances, the larger political agenda of the leadership at the moment, etc.

It is exactly this kind of utterly self-assured argumentation, so strongly based on an essentialized and reductionist view of Islam and the world around us, that got America into its present mess in Iraq, as Ron Suskind’s new book “The One Percent Doctrine” so well documents. And it is precisely this view that leads Israeli leaders to think it’s okay to send 500,000 civilians into the hills and destroy an entire country’s infrastructure because a resistance movement Israel is partly responsible for creating engages in an activity that Israel has done repeatedly (including, by the way, only a day or two before Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier). It’s also the same reason that Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership have no qualms about starting a fight they know will cost their country so dearly. let’s hope we can all move beyond such thinking soon.

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is author, most recently, of “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld Publications, 2005), and his forthcoming book, “Heavy Metal Islam,” will be published by Random House/Verso in 2007.

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