USD panel: Tensions between West, Islam part of long-standing history

Tension between Islam and the West dates back centuries, but the current jihad further illustrates the Muslim extremists' willingness to die for their religion, two University of South Dakota panelists said Wednesday, Jan. 27.

 Retired USD history professor Don Pryce and the Rev. Steve Miller spoke on "Dying For God!" during the forum, held at Farber Hall. The forum focused on Islam but recognized that martyrdom has existed in many religions.

Pryce looked at past and modern-day Islam, including terrorism in the name of the faith.

"Islam has a tradition of tolerance for other religions," he said. "But Islam is also a militant religion with a sanction for killing. The concept of jihad is deeply imbedded in Islam."

The willingness to die for Islam figures prominently today among many adherents, Pryce said. "Martyrdom brings its instant rewards (for those people)," he said.

The Muslim mistrust of the West dates back to the Crusades, Pryce said. The balance and location of global power between Muslims and the West have shifted over the centuries, he said.

Christianity eventually took over more of Europe, and even parts of the Middle East fell under European domination during the last century, Pryce said.

"Imperialism was and still is a major humiliation (for Muslims)," he said.

In response, Muslim fundamentalism arose in many nations, Pryce said. The strife intensified with the creation of Israel in 1948, he said.

Wars broke out between Israel and Arabs during the next three decades, he said. "The 1967 war in particular brought a serious humiliation with the annexation of large Arab lands by Israel," he said.

Islamic fundamentalism gained new intensity, he said, with two 1979 events: the Iranian revolution and rise to power by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The United States suffered with the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine base during the Lebanese civil war, resulting in 241 deaths, Pryce said.

A witness said the suicide bomber showed joy as he drove the truck loaded with explosives into the Marine base, Pryce said. "The driver who drove the truck was smiling, on his way to paradise," he said.

Shortly afterwards, the United States and France withdrew from the area, "and terrorism had achieved its goal," Pryce said.

Earlier suicide bombers were mainly cripples or the seriously ill who came from Arab states, Pryce said. In contrast, the more recent "underpants bomber" and "shoe bomber" were radicalized in Great Britain, he said.

"They live in Muslim ghettoes and receive the teaching of anti-West clerics," Pryce said.

Muslim extremists see the West, especially the United States, as enemies of Islam, Pryce said. They also see a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

"The Lions and Rotary are even mentioned as spies in the Hamas charter," he said.

Miller, pastor at the United Church of Christ in Vermillion, teaches a two-week world religion course at USD. He spoke on the need for more knowledge about Islam, both nationally and on the Vermillion campus.

Miller read a Biblical passage that could be interpreted as condoning murder.

"If we don't apply religion carefully, we can expect to see what we are now seeing, continuing into the future," he said.

Miller spoke about what he sees as myths surrounding religion. He noted the tendency to describe a particular religion ¬– such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam – in monolithic terms.

Not all Muslims are alike, much as all Christians are not alike, Miller said.

"In Vermillion, we have 22 communions of Christ," he said. "What is a Christian? We run the gamut."

Miller referred to author Karen Armstrong's observations in the book, "Battle For God."

"The extremists of religious traditions look like other extremists more than the religion that spawned them," he said.

The role of religion in everyday life has also changed, Miller said.

"We assume religion shapes our thinking," he said. "It did once, but now our thinking shapes our religion. … We are using religion to justify what we do."

Religion, including the concept of God, is subject to interpretation by individuals, he said. "The second that an absolute comes into the hands of humans, it's interpreted," he said.

While religion is viewed as an important part of society, it's not always paid much thought in everyday life.

"We stopped thinking about religion very hard," he said. "It's like the crazy uncle – you invite him in, but you don't pay much attention to him."

USD has neither a religion major nor a course in Islam, sending the signal that neither is important enough for dialogue, Miller said. He encouraged USD to implement both, including a scholar on Islam.

Without a knowledge of world religions, USD graduates – and the United States in general – is crippled in the ability to do business or just interact, Miller said.

"If we don't understand the nature (of other religions), how can we talk responsibly about them? It becomes problematic," he said. "We need to bring religion back into the education system."

The world, particularly Americans, needs to begin a dialogue about various faiths, Miller said. Religions – particularly in the West – have to overcome arrogance, he said.

"We need the courage to go into very meaningful conversations and talk about the way that religion impacts and doesn't impact the way we think," he said.

Pryce agreed, noting that there is more religious tolerance in Europe because of the growth of doubts about faith rather than absolute beliefs.

"People need to say, 'This is what I believe, as far as I know'," he said. "You tell us that God is an infinite Being, but you can't grasp that."

The stakes are high for dealing with the Islamic world, Pryce said.

Jihadist groups are small and use terror because of their lack of power, he said. However, Islamic states like Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons, while Iran has apparently developed nuclear weaponry, he said.

Miller sees the current struggles within Islam as part of its role in the modern world.

"This is more for the soul of Islam than (it is about) despising the West," he said.

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