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The quest for religious reform goes global

James M. Dorsey



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For more than two decades, jihadists took pride in place as symbols of extremism and illustrations of the need for religious reform. They made Islam the focus of post-9/11 calls for religious change and moderation.


Today, Islam no longer stands alone. One of the world’s foremost faiths, Islam has been joined by most major religions that have long flown under the radar.


Numerous recent examples and incidents in an increasingly polarised world that allows religion to become a clarion call for supremacy, racism, bigotry, and prejudice highlight the urgency of expanding the post-9/11 clamour for ‘moderate’ Islam to other major faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism.


Extremist rabbis, ultranationalist and ultraconservative Israeli politicians, far-right Evangelicals, Russian Orthodox Church leaders, and Hindu nationalists have emerged as equally troublesome militant, supremacist, and racist expressions of faith.


Together, they demonstrate that problematic tenets and practices of religion pose a universal threat that transcends Islam.


Failure to reform religious jurisprudence and norms allows religious militants, irrespective of faith, to justify their militancy, supremacy, and violence in theology and religious law.


Countering those expressions in an increasingly polarised, us-or-them world, in which religious militants’ impact or control the levers of power in countries like Israel, Iran, and India or wield significant behind-the-scenes influence as in Russia, is no mean fete.


“Stop calling other people infidels. The fact that someone is not Muslim doesn’t make them an infidel.” Meme created by NU followers. Source: Bayt ar-Rahmah


For much of the past decade, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate Muslim civil society movement, has led the clarion call for religious reform, albeit with mixed results.


Even so, Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative center-right movement, deserves credit for leading by example, persistence, determination, and willingness to go where others have not dared to tread or did not have the clout to do so.


A mass movement with 90 million followers, a five-million-strong militia, thousands of religious seminaries, hundreds of universities, and a religious authority of its own, Nahdlatul Ulama is in a class of its own.


Islamic history boasts numerous forward-looking reformists. However, in contrast to Nahdlatul Ulama, they were primarily intellectuals and clerics, some with significant followings, yet none with the infrastructural and organizational backbone needed to boost their quest.


In recent years, Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious scholars acted on the movement’s call for reform of “obsolete” or “outdated” provisions of Islamic jurisprudence with fatwas or religious opinions that replaced the notion of a kafir or infidel with that of a citizen and called for the elimination of the concept of a caliphate in favour of the nation-state.


The problem is that fatwas are not binding. While most Nahdlatul Ulama followers may abide by the opinions, other Indonesian Muslims may not.


Similarly, Nahdlatul Ulama has set an example for the Muslim world. However, the fatwas have yet to be emulated elsewhere.


If anything, major status quo Muslim institutions, including Al Azhar, the more than 1,000-year-old, Cairo-based citadel of Islamic learning, Saudi Arabia’s government-controlled Muslim World League, and United Arab Emirates-sponsored religious groups have sought to co-opt the Indonesian movement.


To its credit, Nahdlatul Ulama has stood its ground, insisting on religious reform that includes religious and political pluralism.



Credit: DW


Arab rulers have used their concept of 'moderate' Islam to legitimize their iron fist rule and crack down on dissent religiously. Saudi Arabia has gone as far as defining atheism as terrorism and has yet to allow non-Muslim houses of worship to operate legally.


Autocrats have exploited their definition of ‘moderation’ to project an image of forward-looking societies that attract needed foreign investment and reap the economic, social, and political benefits of religious and social tolerance.


“Harnessing the benefits of religion – including the considerable economic gains available – requires taming of the tendency for followers of one religion to exclude and work against non-followers,’ said Bahraini analyst Omar Al-Ubaydli.


Religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue constitute a step forward.


Even so, the Gaza war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Evangelical support for Israel, rising anti-Semitism, Russia’s Orthodox Church-backed invasion of Ukraine, and anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist agitation suggest that religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue do not suffice.


To structurally address a problem that feeds discrimination, racism, and polarisation, religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue need to be embedded in reforms that counter bigoted, supremacist, and prejudiced expressions of faith and promote religious, social, and political pluralism and diversity.


The consequences of failure to do so are omnipresent. They dominate newscasts and online and social media with reporting from flashpoints like Ukraine and Gaza and on the rise of the far right in Europe and the United States, as well as the curbing of freedom of expression in the West when it comes to supporting the Palestinians.


As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform is not just valid for Islam and Muslim autocracies. It applies equally to illiberal democracies that cloak themselves in religious nationalism like Hungary and India, authoritarian regimes like Russia, and partial democracies like Israel that uphold democratic principles for Jews but limit Palestinian rights.


Binyamin Netanyahu addresses Christians United For Israel. Source Arab Center Washington DC


The urgency of religious reform is spotlighted by leaders like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who heads the most ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist government in Israel’s history and projects himself as the protector and spokesperson of world Jewry but has no compunction about aligning himself with Jewish supremacists who view their Jewish critics as traitors and non-Jewish figures who flaunt their association with anti-Semitism.


Men like Mr. Netanyahu’s Diaspora Affairs and Struggle Against Anti-Semitism minister, Amichai Chikli, find common ground with often anti-Semitic ultra-conservatives and far-right politicians in their opposition to ‘radical Islam’ which translates into support for Israel’s effort to destroy Hamas.


Earlier this month, Mr. Chikli spoke at a gathering of European far-right activists hosted by Vox, Spain's ultra-right political party that Israel once shunned for welcoming neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers into its ranks, including Pedro Varela, an infamous Barcelona Nazi bookseller, who spent time in jail for disseminating hate speech and nominated Holocaust denier Fernando Paz as a congressional candidate in Spain’s 2019 election.


Several other Netanyahu associates, including parliamentarians Amit Halevi and Simcha Rothman, the architect of the prime minister’s controversial judicial reform, and Science and Technology Minister Gila Gamliel, spoke earlier this year at influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meetings in Maryland and Hungary alongside Holocaust deniers, self-identified Nazis, and Christian nationalists.


Speaking in Maryland, far-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec greeted participants on the first day of the gathering, saying, “Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely…and replace it with this because all glory is not to government, all glory to God” as he held up what appeared to be a cross on a chain.


Congresswoman Elise Stefanik visits Israel at the invitation of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana. Source: Stefanik.house.gov


Earlier this month, Knesset speaker Amir Ohana, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, invited reformed New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanic on a blitz visit to Israel.

Ms. Stefanik profiled herself as a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism in the recent Congressional grilling of university presidents and a supporter of Israel.


Mr. Ohana overlooked Ms. Stefanic’s failure to account for her history of anti-Semitism, including her propagation as recently as two years ago of the white supremacist Great Replacement Theory. The theory asserts that America’s elite, at times manipulated by Jews, aims to replace and disempower white Americans. The theory sparked mass shootings in the United States.


A white man with a history of antisemitic internet posts in 2018 gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.


A year later, another white man, angry over what he called “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” opened fire on shoppers at an El Paso Walmart, leaving 23 people dead.


And in yet another deadly mass shooting in 2022 in Buffalo, New York, a heavily armed white man killed ten people in a supermarket on the city’s predominantly Black east side.


“The State of Israel and the Zionist movement has actually sought the support of well-known anti-Semites as long as they are politically in their corner… People who are bigoted, anti-Semitic, who hate Jews but are willing to support the State of Israel, are welcomed by Netanyahu and his ilk,” said Jonathan Kuttab, an international human rights lawyer, board member of the Bethlehem Bible College, and president of the Holy Land Trust.


Jonathan Kuttab. Credit: jonathankuttab.org


When Mr. Kuttab recently asked the pastor of an Evangelical megachurch to pray for the children of Gaza, the cleric refused.


“I don’t want to create trouble because I believe in the Prophecy. All these Jews are going to gather (in Israel),” Mr. Kuttab quoted the cleric as saying, adding that “then, with a big smirk on his face, he said, ‘they’re all going to die because (of) Armageddon, they’re all going to be destroyed except those who accept Jesus Christ as the Saviour.’”


Mr. Netanyahu, who has denounced pro-Palestinian protesters as “anti-Semitic mobs.” shrouded himself in silence earlier this month as Christian prayer leader and singer Sean Feucht led his far-right followers in a pro-Israel march against pro-Palestinian demonstrators at a University of South California (USC) campus to portray the Gaza war as a harbinger of the ‘End Times’ predicted in the Bible.


Mr Feucht was joined at the campus by Ché Ahn, the leader of Pasadena’s Harvest Rock Church, who defines being pro-Israel as converting Jews to his brand of Evangelical Christianity.


Sean Feucht leads a pro-Israel demonstration at the University of South California. Source: Sean Feucht Facebook’s page


Dressed in a Jesus rocker-style black jean jacket, Mr. Feucht told Fox News, “We want Americans to see that we are fed up with this rot of anti-Semitism on the college campuses.”

Fox News passed on the opportunity to question Mr. Feucht on his association with the far-right Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracy theorists, the ReAwaken America Tour, a conspiracy-laden road show, and Elijah Schaffer, a podcaster, all notorious for their anti-Semitic tendencies.


“I do interfaith dialogue for a living. These people are not doing interfaith dialogue. They’re doing Christian supremacy, but they’re cloaking it in the garb of interfaith solidarity,” said Matthew D. Taylor, a religious studies scholar and expert in Christian nationalism.


A retired historian warned in an email, “If the chain of apocalyptic events that the Christian Zionist expounders of bogus ‘Bible prophecy’ have conditioned millions of American Christians to believe that they are preordained by God, including catastrophic war and a second Holocaust with the Palestinians as its victims, is brought about and then Jesus does not return when their ‘prophecy’ predicts – and he will not – Christianity will become abhorrent in the eyes of the world, seen by non-Christians as a genocidal doomsday cult. And it will spark a global firestorm of anti-Semitism against all Jews.”


In the spirit of Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Kuttab, the Palestinian lawyer, advocates engagement with Evangelical Christians and believes that effecting change is possible. Mr. Kuttab’s view implies that Evangelicals, unlike ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative Jews, Hindu nationalists, and militant Islamists, may be low-hanging fruit, at least when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Christian Zionists at a Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem. Credit: The Times of Israel


“The appeal for Christian Zionism is very broad, but it’s very thin… It’s not as fundamental to their identity as issues like abortion, for example, or homosexuality. For them, support for Israel is like a default position that they haven’t thought much about because they were never asked or questioned or challenged on it… They equate the Israel of the Bible with the modern state of Israel… They sort of jump over 2,000 years of history, and they jump over most of the New Testament,” Mr Kuttab said.


“So, when you sit with them and quote the Bible to them, they are very liable to change their positions, but you have to talk to them in Biblical terms. You have to quote scripture to them… You have to talk to them about Christ love, Christ compassion, Christ being the Prince of Peace, Christ being open to everybody, to salvation for God loves the world, not just the Jewish tribe, that he gave his only begotten son. So, whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. When you talk to many Christian Zionists in that language, they say,’ Hmm, we never thought about that. Maybe you are right.’… The problem is that most people who talk to Christian Zionists don’t use that language,” Mr. Kuttab added.


Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church, a mainstream Protestant church with some 5.4 million followers and 30,000 houses of worship in the United States that has lost up to a quarter of its membership because of its increasing tolerance of same-sex marriage, called on its investment managers to divest from Israeli bonds as well as Turkish and Moroccan securities.


The church cited as reasons for the disinvestment Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories conquered during the 1967 Middle East war, the continued presence in Northern Cyprus of Turkish troops since Turkey invaded the Mediterranean island in 1974, and the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara since 1975.


The rise of Israel’s far-right government shines a spotlight on problematic elements of Jewish law reflected in Israel’s Gaza war conduct, its us-or-them approach to Palestinians, and its policies on the West Bank.


Early in the war, Mr. Netanyahu invoked the Biblical command to “attack the Amalekites” and destroy all that belongs to them. “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys,” the command says.


Although challenged by numerous rabbinical scholars over the centuries, Israeli politicians and military personnel fighting in Gaza echoed Mr. Netanyahu’s invocation.

Ultraconservatives view Amalek, the grandson of Esau and his descendants and anyone else who lived in their Canaanite territory, as the archetype of evil symbolic of Israel and the Jews’ nemeses.


Earlier this month, far-right Rabbi Dov Lior, a proponent of killing and ethically cleansing Palestinians, legitimised breaking the Sabbath to prevent humanitarian aid from entering Gaza.


"We should be happy that we have a population that cares about Israel and cares about the Sabbath ... A war that takes place on the Sabbath makes it permissible to violate the Sabbath," Mr. Lior decreed.


Rabbi Eliyahu Mali speaking in a conference at his Shirat Moshe yeshiva. Source: Twitter


In March, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, whose government-subsidised religious seminary in Jaffa aims to dispossess  Palestinians still resident in what is today a southern suburb of Tel Aviv that once was Palestine’s most populous city, issued what can only be called an incitement to genocide. 


A proponent of permanent Israeli re-settlement of Gaza on religious grounds alongside other ultra-conservative rabbis, including Tzvi Elimelekh Shabaf and David Fendel, Mr. Mali received US$800,000 in government support in 2023.


“The basic rule we have when fighting a holy war, in this case, Gaza, is the doctrine of ‘not sparing a soul.’ The logic of this is very clear. If you don’t kill them, they will try to kill you. Today’s saboteurs are the children of the previous war whom we kept alive,” Mr. Mali, citing scripture, said in a conference at his Shirat Moshe Yeshiva.


Like various forms of ultra-conservative Islam such as Wahhabism, jihadism in the shape of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and Hindu and Christian nationalism, militant, supremacist expressions of Judaism represented by religious Zionism in the way it is currently expressed demonstrate the risk of leaving unaltered problematic tenets in religious law.


As the 9/11 attacks did with Islam, Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians shines a spotlight on problematic Jewish religious legal precepts.


Common wisdom says what is needed is pressure on Israel, particularly from the United States and Europe. No doubt, pressure helps, but much like Nahdlatul Ulama has taken the lead in tackling head-on legal, ideological, and religious issues that make Islam part of the problem rather than the solution, Jews will have to do the same for Judaism.


9/11 put Islam’s problems on the front burner. Israel and Jews could face a similar situation as circumstances in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, as a result of Israeli policies spin out of control.



Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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