Keep the faith – and let others keep theirs

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on April 29, 2019.

In the Middle Ages there was in Europe the concept of cuius regio eius religio – Latin for the concept of “the religion of the ruler dictates the religion of the ruled”. In other words, if the king was Catholic, so were all his subjects. It made deciding which church to go to on Sunday easier I guess.

Europe of course was plagued by religious wars for centuries. Somewhat hypocritically, those who followed one Christian faith had no problems killing those who followed another, despite the founder’s frowning on such action. The continent is thankfully over most of that, but religious hatred has alas not disappeared. Whether we are talking about Islamist extremism, Hindu terrorism, Buddhist violence or Christian hate, there is still far too much extremism justified and carried out in the name of whatever god you believe in (NB I treat this theme in my forthcoming book ‘God Made Me Do It‘). The attacks on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are just the most recent manifestation of this horror. One group of believers – likely Islamist extremist – killed another group of believers – Catholics at Mass – possibly in retaliation for what one believer did to a bunch of other believers in mosques in New Zealand a month ago.

Closer to home we have had our own cases of religious violence: any number of Islamist extremist plots, both successful and foiled, an attack on a mosque in Quebec City, the Air India attack, the list goes on and on. To this we have to add a recent series of minor events at a Buddhist monastery in the southern part of Ottawa. Over the past few years this community has seen a Buddha statue ‘decapitated’ and just the other week the same statue was hit with a stick. The vandal who wielded the instrument had written “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, the first of the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments.

Now I am not equating hitting a statue with a stick with terrorism. This incident strikes me as nothing more than petty vandalism. Similarly, I have pushed back against those who say that we have seen a huge spike in right wing extremism in Canada in recent years. Yes, right wing terrorism is a worry but painting swastikas on gravestones or synagogue walls is vandalism, not terrorism.

At the same time, what drives someone to seek out a statue of the Buddha for this kind of treatment? What did the statue ever do to him/her? For that matter what wrong did the community ever commit to warrant this kind of action? By the inscription on the ‘weapon’ one assumes the wielder is Christian/Jewish – do those faiths ok, condone or call for vandalism? I do not think so.

I do not want to make this incident more than it was, if for no other reason than not to give the perpetrator more attention than s/he deserves. The whole thing seems to be just a stupid act of property damage by a very stupid person. At the same time however, we do see ramped up rhetoric by groups on all sides claiming to be carrying out ‘god’s will’ – who gave them that authority by the way?

What we need instead is more dialogue: interfaith, inter-community, whatever. We need to be able to celebrate our own belief systems as we want and to allow others to do likewise. Canada is a big country and the Earth is a big planet. There is more than enough room for us all.

And for those contemplating violence in the name of their creed, do us all a favour and ask yourself: “What would ______ (Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, whoever) do”? The answer may surprise you and convince you to drop your sticks.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. His forthcoming book When Religions Kill’ will be published by Lynne Rienner this fall.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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