THE cure to the religious violence that is the "fundamental
challenge of the 21st century" lies in theology, Rabbi Lord Sacks
argues in a new book that offers scriptural exegesis instead of
In Not in God's Name, published this week, Lord Sacks,
the former Chief Rabbi, argues that the West's contemptous and
ill-informed approach to religion has deprived it of religion's
capacity to heal.
"If we do not do the theological work, we will face a
continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far;
for it has no other natural end," he writes. "The very texts that
lie at the root of the problem, if properly interpreted, can
provide a solution." All three faiths must ask "the most
The book traces religious violence to social and psychological
processes, and argues that monotheism has frequently failed to
immunise against them. "Historically, the great monotheisms have
not been in the vanguard of tolerance," Lord Sacks says. Believers
have been taught that "you must share our faith to be fully human."
Religions make it "almost impossible" to put yourself in the place
of those you believe to be in error.
He goes on to offer a rereading of Genesis texts which suggests
that woven into them was an antidote to this poison: a lesson in
empathy and the universality of God's justice.
Lord Sacks argues that, when a terrorist or military group
invokes God, "to deny they are acting on religious motives is
"Deep down what is at stake is all political problems", he said
on Tuesday. "But you can only find political solutions if parties
are willing to see this as a political problem. The second that one
defines it in religious terms, then you have to address the
religious issue. . . What in politics is a virtue in religion is
seen as a vice: namely, compromise."
He argues that religion and politics are now so segregated in
the West that "we are losing some of the power of religion to heal
rather than to harm." The West has often had "no serious response"
to religiously motivated violence beyond "ridicule and crude
He spoke of the "brilliant" Alexandria process of dialogue in
Egypt, convened by Lord Carey: "It was a real breakthrough, but in
the end it did not mesh with the political process at any point: it
was not recognised as a track to diplomacy, which it should have
While he is confident that a rereading of the Qur'an could take
place within Islam, given that it was once a "world leader in this
field", he accepts that the current strain of Wahhabism is "not
open" to such an approach.
"This book is not an attempt to find an instant solution, but
saying: if it took 50 years to raise a generation of Wahhabi
activists, it may take 50 years to raise a generation of young
Muslims who will find another way."
In the book, he traces Islamist violence today to "a series of
decisions half a century ago that led to the creation of an entire
educational network of schools and seminaries dedicated to the
proposition that loving God means hating the enemies of God". This
was fuelled by "Western petrodollars".
Today, the Arab and Islamic world is "awash with Judeophobia" he
writes, and, in the West, anti-Semitism is "now usually disguised
as anti-Zionism". He dismisses the argument that Islamist attacks
on Jews are about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,
referring to attacks in Paris and Mumbai, and anti-Semitic content
in sermons and TV broadcasts by Muslims.
But what of Israel's record? "There is a very deep thrust in the
Hebrew Bible of striving to understand the stranger, to love the
stranger," he said on Tuesday.
"I really feel that the time has come to look at that teaching
very deeply. . . Very often, political figures feel there is not a
lot of help we can get from religious leaders. They are not
necessarily preaching that message. I certainly think I have
met Israelis who take that very seriously indeed. . . . I think we
have looked at political solutions for so long. That has failed,
and the time has come to look at what are we teaching our children
and young leaders, and breaking down these barriers.
"It should not be beyond the imagination of the People who
taught us to empathise with the stranger."