An interfaith panel hosted May 25 by the Neighbourhood Interfaith Group veered, at times, into political discussion.
Titled “The Language of War and Peace in our Religious Traditions,” the event was held at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto’s Forest Hill, and featured talks by Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation, Rev. Peter Holmes, minister of Yorkminister Park Baptist Church in Toronto, and Azeezah Kanji, a legal scholar affiliated with the Noor Cultural Centre, which is dedicated to Islamic learning and celebration of Islamic culture.
The panel marked the 30th annual event for the Neighbourhood Interfaith Group, whose members include five churches, five synagogues, one Muslim organization and one school, and has a mandate to counter bias, bigotry and racism in Toronto by encouraging interfaith dialogue, respect and understanding.
The speakers talked for about 15 minutes each, citing references to violence in their sacred texts and addressing their religion’s philosophy on war and peace.
The presentations were followed by a Q&A and a reception.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, Rev. Holmes and Kanji all acknowledged that violence has been part of their tradition and that, at different times in history, violence has been carried out in the name of their religion.
They all stressed, however, that their faith heavily values peace and emphasizes the need to understand and befriend the other, which must be the goals to strive for.
Kanji made connected the topic to contemporary politics, pointing to attitudes toward Muslims in the post-9/11 age in the West and the hypocrisy of the so-called “war on terror.”
She argued that in our current context, Islam is “thought to have a special relationship with violence, one that other religious traditions aren’t necessarily burdened with.”
While Islam is in no way monolithic, she said, the common misconception is that “Islam emanates from a hostile, Arab Middle East.”
Most European and North American media today propagate the notion that the West’s enemy is “the militant, unyielding, violent face of Arab Islam,” she said.
While there have been, and are, episodes where Muslims commit violence, Kanji said, this remains the aberration, not the norm – violence is no more intrinsic to Islam than to other religions.
The Prophet Muhammad did engage in warfare during his tenure as prophet and leader of a Muslim community, she said, but, in his adherence to Islam, war was not valued, it was only permitted under very limited circumstances, and methods of warfare were bound by ethical constraints, including a ban on killing non-combatants.
She said that a group of more than 100 eminent scholars of Islam recently wrote an open letter to an Islamic State (ISIS) leader outlining the myriad ways that the group’s practices violate Islam’s fundamental ethical and legal traditions, including offences like targeting civilians, killing the elderly, torture and desecrating dead bodies.
“But it’s not only Daesh [ISIS] who violates these laws of war, all modern warfare executes indiscriminate violence,” Kanji argued.
The modern machinery of war, specifically drones, while heralded as being “morally superior” for their ability to execute pinpointed attacks, have been revealed as “extremely indiscriminate and have produced far more casualties than are acknowledged by the governments that use them,” she continued.
She cited a report published by the publication the Intercept that revealed that 90 per cent of the people killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan over a five-month period were not the intended targets.
She also cited a report released by the group Physicians for Social Responsibility, which said two million people have been killed by the so-called war on terror waged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan alone.
Later, during the Q&A, Kanji reiterated that the West perpetrates a great deal of violence, and not just “the overt violence of war.
“There’s the violence of tremendous economic inequality, where a handful of people have as much wealth as the vast majority of the world’s population; there’s the violence of environmental degradation, where millions from the global south become climate change refugees as the environmental practices of the global north make their homes uninhabitable,” she said.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl responded to this, arguing that listing every element of violence in society “sets the agenda too large… and creates an overwhelming task to respond to all of them.”
Kanji’s counterpoint was, “When people say we need to reduce the agenda… the things that are always left out are the forms of violence that predominantly affect those most marginalized, like those from the global south, whose pain and suffering are invisible [in the West].”