Back when Jay Leno wrote his own jokes, or appeared to, he told one about a chicken that walks out of a McDonald’s examining an order of Chicken McNuggets and says, “I see nothing in here that offends me.” That’s sort of how I felt about TV evangelist Pat Robertson this week when he called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. I saw nothing in it that amounted to religion or Christianity — just typical, empty-headed ideology.

It’s also how I feel about efforts to deal with terror as Islamic, Islamist or religious — what John Pilger calls “the assumption that terrorism emerges from an amorphous, religious-based ideology that transforms its adherents into ruthless butchers.” Despite appearances, I don’t see much religion involved.

Or take the current strife in Israel. Writer Amos Oz has said that Israel faces a choice between religion and secularism, and Palestinians should side with the secularists. Yet the main expansions of Israeli occupation came under secular, Labour regimes: after the 1967 war, and the 1993 Oslo accords. So religion’s role wasn’t crucial, though it has been very visible.

But for those who see reality differently, let me put the argument differently. Even if there is a religious component in a conflict, I’d say it’s a waste of time trying to do anything about it. Take Salman Rushdie’s recent piece headed, “It’s time for a Muslim reformation.” Maybe so, maybe no. But religions do not get reformed due to calls from outsiders, in order to solve someone else’s problems with terror or global politics. They get reformed from within, for their own internal reasons.

The Protestant Reformation was driven by an obsessive, fanatical monk, Martin Luther. He believed the Catholic Church was not zealous enough, by a lot. “Reform” Judaism sprang from the needs of Jews in Western Europe to feel part of the modern world, without losing their faith.

And the reaction to reform is often an even more exaggerated orthodoxy. The Reformation spawned the Counter-Reformation, Reform Judaism led to institutionalizing Orthodox Judaism. You tell religious people they have to reform and modernize, they’ll go more native on you. They don’t like being dictated to in matters of belief.

Mighty regimes have tried to mess with religion, and they all failed. Imperial Rome wound up Christianized. The Soviet police state harassed organized religion for decades but could neither destroy nor co-opt it. In the Mideast, only religion-based institutions such as Hamas and Hezbollah successfully resisted Israeli power. Now France is trying to create an “official” form of Islam. In other contexts, it would be denounced as social engineering. But it won’t work, it hasn’t got a chance.

Besides, the problem isn’t how traditional, orthodox or fundamentalist a believer is. That’s really nobody’s business. It’s how violent or dangerous they are, which the rest of us have a right to worry about. You can find scripture and doctrine in almost any religion to justify or encourage violence, but does anyone think censoring those passages out of the Bible or Koran would diminish the danger of terror?

Fortunately, there are other elements in the terror mix that you can deal with and ameliorate: territorial conflict, social justice, economic inequality, the availability of weapons, the legitimization or glamorization of force. None of those are easy fixes but, based on the historical record, they are less intractable than religion.

Take the matter of “alienated” or “disaffected” Muslim youth in Europe, as part of the terror problem, which David Rieff has written on in The New York Times. Alienated, disaffected masses have been part of European disaster scenarios since the late 19th century. Anti-Semitism, fascism, Nazism, now radical Islam — have all been ways of responding to alienation. So what are you going to do with those youth: Debate fine points of doctrine and how nice it would be to modernize Islam? True, no one yet has had a solution to alienation or disaffection, but I’d rather try chipping away at those than endure the ultimate waste of time: arguing with someone about their religion.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.