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Religion At the Extremes

Mar 22, 2010
by Brian Thompson, '95

Flagler Assistant Professor’s Book Tries to Make Sense of Religion Being Used to Justify Violence

Osama bin Laden and Mohandas Gandhi are two names you wouldn’t expect to share the same cover of a book.

While the first is an international pariah whose acts of terrorism have brought fear, suffering, hatred and war, the second chose a path of absolute nonviolence as he waged his own “battles” to free India from British Imperial rule.

Both turned to religion to justify their actions, yet ended up on opposite ends of the spectrum. That is what troubles Flagler Assistant Professor of Religion James Rowell, and why he tried to make sense of it in his first book, “Gandhi and bin Laden: Religion at the Extremes.”

“On the one hand we have a person who believes that religion is nonviolence and must be nonviolence,” Rowell said. “That we must embrace the religious other whether he be Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu. On the other hand we have bin Laden saying we emphatically reject nonviolence and that we think that only violence will result in a solution for our problems.

We have two completely contrasting worlds out there. … These are two individuals both claiming to be religious. How can we assert that this phenomenon that we call ‘religion’ encompasses both of them? Can we say that?”

Rowell came to the idea for the book while at the University of Pittsburgh working on his doctoral dissertation, which was primarily about Gandhi and his nonviolent movement.

“I have a great love of Gandhi, nonviolence and his ideas, especially of inclusive tolerant religions — that there is a universal kind of calling to all faiths,” he said. “But right after I finished my dissertation, about 2002, we were of course dealing with 9/11 and the opposite extreme.”

He said it became harder to look at the idea of nonviolence, which also includes Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement, without taking into account bin Laden’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This prompted him to try and understand how two so-called religious figures could be so different.

“I was completely faced with this opposite figure,” Rowell said. “So not only as an American moved by this event, but also an academic feeling responsible to understand religion in the moment, I started studying bin Laden.”

Rowell later took his research and developed it into a class at Flagler before turning it into the book that was released in 2009 from University Press of America.

To him it’s a way to expose people to the significance of nonviolent movements led by the likes of Gandhi, King and even Islamic figures like Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

“Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a Muslim who believed passionately that the heart of Islam was nonviolence — that jihad is nonviolence,” he said. “That’s really a remarkable thing because he actually comes from the Pashtun tribal clan, which is the same clan that contributes to the Taliban.”

Sadly, Rowell said Ghaffar Khan’s memory has been eclipsed by a more violent alternative spouted by bin Laden, the Taliban and other religious extremists. But he felt it was important to include a chapter on Ghaffar Khan to show that throughout history there have been Muslims who were more closely aligned to the teachings of Gandhi and King.

And he hopes that more people will look to these leaders for inspiration, and that followers of bin Laden and Al Qaeda will begin to realize very little can be accomplished through violence.

“There’s no real coherent declaration to what bin Laden wants to do,” he said. “I think what’s substituted is a dark rage and a zealous religious hope that if we just create massive confusion as much as possible we will come to power.”

King and Gandhi, he said, both knew that once a movement took a violent path, it was almost impossible to bring it back. Rowell writes “Rebellion by nonviolence was more permanent, more lasting in Gandhi’s view. What was gained by the sword could easily be taken back by the sword, but what was established on principles of truth and justice might be held and prized forever.”

Which is why he is hopeful that some day a new Islamic champion of nonviolence will emerge as a “kind of counterbalance to the current extremism.”

“It’s very important that we try to recapture nonviolence,” he said, noting that today Gandhi and King are more relevant than ever. In fact, when President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 2009, he said that the two leaders must remain guiding forces in the world, even while countries like the United States find themselves dealing with extremists like bin Laden through force.

Rowell, who said his class on bin Laden and Gandhi is well-received by students, would like to see more classes on world religion taught — not to preach a certain value or belief, but to help students better understand how religion continues to play such a critical role in world history, politics and even economics.

Rowell, who came to Flagler in 2006, also teaches “Religions of the World,” “Religion from Tibet to India,” and a class he calls “God, Ape and Man.”

Those classes touch on topics often touchy and controversial. “God, Ape and Man,” for instance, focuses on the debate between evolution and religion — primarily whether they are compatible. “I like to think of them as compatible,” he said.

On the whole, Rowell said it is a thrill to be able to teach to students about his passions.

Excerpts from “Gandhi and Bin Laden: Religion at the Extremes”

What made Gandhi a “Great Soul”? At the time of his life there were approximately 300 million Indians under British Imperial rule. Why did he stand out from the rest? Why do we remember Mohandas Gandhi as the Mahatma? It is a title he was reluctant to accept, to be sure, as he always spoke freely and openly about his own faults, yet he was the “Great Soul,” or “Mahatma,” the pioneer of the non-violent technique in politics during a very violent century. … How was it that this lone, frail Hindu, scarcely five and a half feet tall and not much over a hundred pounds, could bring such a monumental and heart-felt impact upon a heartless world?

The comparison of Gandhi with bin Laden is a striking mix of similarity and stark contrasts, a myriad of puzzling questions about our human nature, our politics, and our concept and use of religion. Why is it some have been captivated by the forces of
religious civil disobedience, while others are prepossessed by a dark religious rage? The answer cannot be as simple as that we are dealing with a different religion. In short, we cannot posit that Christianity and Hinduism are conducive to non-violence, and that Islam is not, because counterexamples are easily furnished to disprove this.

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