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Mideast Conflict: Would Moderates Please Step Forward?

Conflict in the Middle East has shifted though it is not immediately apparent.
While an uneasy ceasefire has been at last reached in Israel and Gaza, civil war rages on in Syria and Iraq.

Western suspicion of Iran lingers while political instability in North Africa resists quick solution.

The region seems beset by long-term instability—much of it traceable, in Western minds, to religious radicalism.

The emergence of a new terrorist threat in the form of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) instinctively is seen in this way.

But ISIS represents a new phase of an old challenge, with profound implications for the Middle East’s religious minorities.

From the Western perspective, Christians are especially affected. However, other groups, notably now the Yazidis, as well as Islamic minorities, suffer the threats of extremism.

This is more than an extension of al-Qaida or Boko Haram in Nigeria or al-Shabab in the horn of Africa.

ISIS, proclaiming a vision of a puritanical Islamic state, has swept over portions of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and is now threatening the Kurdish region.

It has challenged the ideal of a unified, democratic Iraqi nation and revealed the flawed politics of the recent Maliki regime and its exclusion of Sunnis.

Like violent predecessors, ISIS uses religion as legitimation while feeding on political and cultural discontent, especially in the provinces out from Baghdad.

While ISIS claims to be restoring a pure vision of Islam, its actions contradict central teachings of the Quran and the example of Muhammad and the early caliphs.

As numerous Muslim scholars and leaders have pointed out, ISIS’ interpretation of Islam is blasphemously wrong.

For instance, its persecution of Christian and other religious minorities in Iraq violates the Quranic text: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

ISIS intimidation of Christians is also in direct violation of the Prophet Muhammad’s treaties and the famous pact of Umar in which the Jews and Christians were offered forms of religious freedom and safety for places of worship.

The actions of ISIS and similar groups violate Islamic theology and legal traditions.

Though seemingly focused thousands of miles away, the outbreak of extremism in the Middle East and in Africa has sobering implications for interfaith relations in the Western world.

The advance of extremism signals a reframing of older conflicts.

The dividing line now is not between particular religious identities, such as Muslim and Jewish and Christian.

The dividing line now is between those whose religious commitments encourage cooperation across confessional lines and those who reject it.

The rise of ISIS and its counterparts reveals that extremism and religious exclusivity arise in both hostility to cultural difference and triumphalism in challenging it. The response is not always violent, but it is consistently prejudicial.

Thus the reality of the new divide between moderates and extremists raises a familiar and nagging question: What can the moderate majority in every religion do to combat extremism? When and how will the moderates stand up?

In central Virginia we have had the good fortune of warm friendships among many Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders.

We have built a legacy of public events and personal friendships. If issues arise, we know whom we should call, and we have a basis for speaking and working together.

We join our voices with those from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the International Union of Muslim Scholars and the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches in opposing ISIS ideology and condemning its actions.

They are abhorrent to genuine religious values and do not represent any denomination within Islam.

Religion cannot be used to condone the murder of civilians, the beheading of religious scholars or the desecration of houses of worship.

We condemn the forced expulsion of our Christian brothers and sisters of Iraq from their homes, cities and provinces.

The Christian community has lived in the Mosul area for nearly 1,900 years. Iraqi Christians are one of the oldest continuous surviving Christian communities in the world and have prospered alongside Muslims in Iraq for centuries.

During the medieval period, there was a tradition of Christian-Muslim-Jewish debate over philosophy, religion and ethics. We must extend this legacy, not destroy it.

One answer to extremism is a shared focus on the common good. There must be special care to exclude no one who is open to cooperation. Clearly, ISIS in Iraq has fed on perceptions of bias and exclusion.

We must take care here in Virginia to deepen the respect among us. We must encourage friendship and conversation within our increasingly diverse communities.

While we pray for a long-term solution that will allow Christians and other religious minorities to stay in Iraq, we also call for local initiative in offering asylum and refugee status to those people forced from their homes in Iraq and Syria.

Our faiths emphasize love of God, love of neighbor and care for the exile. On that basis, put into practical expression, we who are moderates can stifle the intentions of those who preach hatred and exclusivity.

William L. Sachs is the executive director St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church’s Center for Interfaith Reconciliation, Imad Damaj is president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition, and Joshua Ralston is an instructor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary. A version of this article first appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: Imad Damaj was an interviewee in “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and taxation. You can learn more about the film here.