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Religious studies professor Norman Cornett has done what none of the leaders involved in the Iraq war had been able to accomplish. He invited seven religious clerics and scholars of different faiths to talk in an open dialogue for his April 10 seminar class on Religion and War.
The participants were Thupten Jinpa, a Geshe (highest rank of monk in Tibetan Buddhism) and principal translator for the Dalai Lama; Dr. Yasser Ad-Dab'bagh, psychiatrist and neuroscientist whose work on Islam and psychology had been read in Cornett's class; Archbishop Hounan Derderian, Primate of the Armenian Church in Canada; Anglican Archbishop Andrew Hutchinson, also Bishop Ordinate in the Canadian Forces; Rabbi Howard Joseph, of the oldest synagogue in Canada; Reverend Thomas H. Paul, Vietnam vet and retired Lieutenant Colonel of the US Army's 141st Airborne and army reserve chaplain; and Imam Salam El-Menyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal.
Cornett called it a "close fellowship" as the seven leaders huddled on chairs in front of the classroom. Cornett started the discussion by reading the class's anonymous student journals of the Iraq War.
Students expressed dismay over the war, astonishment at its scale, disgust at double standards for a life's worth, and imagined what it would be like to lose home and family. They also expressed a fear of terrorism, admiration for Donald Rumsfeld, and a secret wish to believe in something enough to be willing to die for it, as do suicide bombers.
One wrote it'll take more than prayer to end the fighting. Cornett read, "Bush and his cronies can't hear prayers, only God can, and it isn't clear that God is listening."
Cornett then opened the floor to those assembled to discuss the war and religion's views. One student asked how is it possible to respond to the horrors of a war that's so far away?
Rev. Paul said that war is distanced when viewed via television, nonetheless an appropriate response is a deep grieving: for the loss of innocence, for the people and children. He added that although Christianity is not militant, Christian theologian Saint Augustine talked of "just war" and the Bible allows for war under certain conditions.
Archbishop Hutchinson, however, believes that for the Iraq war, "most of the principles of the Augustinian just war were not met." For instance, there was no evidence of imminent threat for the U.S. to respond to.
Ad-Dab'bagh raised that a central moral value in Islam is that no matter what the objective is, the means and the end have to undergo separate evaluations and separate judgements. "Regardless of how this present war ends, even if it does end in a noble gesture, it will never retrospectively justify the action. Ad-Dab'bagh then reflected on personal responses to the war, saying that there are "distances that are unique for each one of us. One is geographic distance. Far more importantly is an ideological distance, the less well-understood is the psychological distance." This depends on the strength of one's identification with what's going on, if there are personal memories that resonate with the war, or one's own personal tragedy and development.
Another student wondered how we can help?
Although we may not be able to do anything for this war, Rabbi Joseph said, the question remains for the next. Theological humility recognizes that since God is infinite, there's not possibly room for the total truth within one community or within finite individuals. Today, members of different faiths meet and confront each other as never before, and religion's biggest challenge is "having to learn how to deal with others who are from a different faith tradition."
Yet increased exposure to others has a positive side. Jinpa pointed out that compared to a century earlier there is a greater sense of global community, resulting in a greater humanitarian concern. "The phenomenon of large-scale protest is a common sight," he said, adding that the U.S. is an anomaly in terms of people's religiosity and their support for war.
"As a Buddhist, it's very difficult to accept the concept of a morally justified war." By bringing religion into war, he added, "you are invoking concepts of infinite, but it's really brought down to the human level of interpretation. Whose interpretation of a justified war?"
Another student queried about the concept of jihad and suicide bombing. Was it a perversion of Islam or acceptable? El-Menyawi said that committing suicide is unacceptable in Islam, as is killing civilians. There is a common misunderstanding that jihad means a war of religion. Yes, jihad can include fighting, but only in defense of family, honour and wealth; or for freedom of expression. "Jihad means a struggle, exerting effort. The highest level of jihad is the word of truth in front of a tyrant."
Ad-Dab'bagh responded to a student's journal entry -- "every act of war or terror I have seen in my life involves Muslims" -- by saying the 20th century has seen the dissolution of the Muslim empire, which has been colonized by invaders who have often abused the rights of Muslims. He reminded the class that the 20th century is but one-twentieth of AD history.
Despite the prohibitions, some Islamic clerics have explained a suicide bomber's intentions as pure because the bombers believed they were preserving their five essential rights (faith, life, property, private honour, wealth) and that they were attacking combatants. However, the definition of a combatant is strict -- if the combatant lowers his gun, he's no longer seen as such.
The archbishop Hutchinson entreated the class to not be victims of our leaders' decisions. He's said it's unprecedented for religious leaders of all stripes to be so opposed to the war, and sees a glimmer of hope in the number of protests. "When you talk to your children, and they say 'in 2003 when all hell broke loose in Iraq, where were you and what did you do?' [You] must be able to say to your own conscience and own progeny, I did something."
Rabbi Joseph observed that part of the students' frustration stems from being in university, where dialogue and discussion are encouraged and seen as a way to solve problems and resolve differences. Not everyone's like that, he cautioned. Some people only understand power.
Derderian grew up in Lebanon during the civil war. "After 27 years, I am reliving the nightmare." Above all else, he believes in dialogue. "If we are silent, we are responsible."