Terror Has Nothing to do with Religion

Published 21 September 2004
hostages hands of a prisoner cuffs chains prisoner jail gaol locked trapped freedom

This is a transcript of Rabbi Sacks’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 21st September 2004

Still we await news of the fate of Kenneth Bigley, the British hostage in Iraq, and our thoughts are with him and his family today. But the violence and terror continues. Yesterday we heard of the shocking murder of an American hostage; and hardly a day goes by without some new tragedy.

Too often these days, religious justification is given for terror, which is why we must never forget that there is no excuse for terror. No society was ever built on it. No lasting political advantage was ever gained by it. It’s an evil means to an evil end. In the short run, terror destroys its victims, but in the long run it destroys its perpetrators.

Look at the societies that give rise to terror and you’ll find all too few with human rights, free speech, the rule of law, a democratically elected or accountable government. Often, they’re rich with natural resources, yet they have widespread poverty, illiteracy and disease. What they lack is freedom, and terror can never lead to freedom because it’s built on its denial.

Terror is not the weapon of the weak against the strong. It’s the weapon of the ruthless against the vulnerable. And when terrorists use the language of religion it’s as if they’re trying to hold religion itself hostage, because that is not the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, who speaks of justice and compassion, respect for the vulnerable and the sanctity of life.

Terror has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with contempt for the political process. Terrorists are people who have no time for the long, laborious challenge of making your case, winning support, allowing your opponents a respectful hearing, accepting compromise, and respecting the rights of those with whom you disagree.

Which is why, almost 2000 years ago, the rabbis said: “Pray for the welfare of the government, because without it men would eat one another alive.” Politics doesn’t create perfection but it does allow us to live peaceably together. It doesn’t offer certainty but it does ensure that my freedom is not won at the cost of yours.

And yes, it’s slow, which is why Nelson Mandela called his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom. We tend to forget, in the West, how many centuries it took, and how many battles had to be fought, before a free society could emerge. Today the people being held hostage are the ordinary men and women of Iraq, who want a chance to rule themselves and create a safe future for their children. Right now they need our help, our patience, and our prayers.