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Rabbi Sacks on The Andrew Marr Show, BBC One

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On 14th June 2015, Rabbi Sacks was a guest on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One to talk about his new book ‘Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence’.

TRANSCRIPT

Andrew Marr:

Now then, the rise of militant Islam has been accompanied by an upturn in reports of antisemitic incidents across Europe. The murder of four Jews in a Paris supermarket on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks was the grimmest example of this, perhaps. The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, believes, however, that the return to religious values is needed if we are to counter the attraction of terrorism for disillusioned young Muslims. It’s one of his main arguments in a new book on confronting religious violence. Lord Sacks is with me. Welcome and thank you very much, indeed, for this.

Rabbi Sacks:

Good to be with you.

Andrew Marr:

Now, you were the former Chief Rabbi, but some of the most devastating things you said in the early part of the book concerned the condition of Christians in the Middle East. Can you just take us through how serious and how dramatic what’s happened to Christians in the Middle East and in North Africa?

Rabbi Sacks:

It has actually been devastating. There were one and a half million Christians in Iraq 15 years ago; today, less than 400,000. In Afghanistan, the last church was burned to the ground in 2010. The beginning of the 19th century, Christians were 20% of the population of the Middle East. Today, less than 4% and declining rapidly. I call this the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

Andrew Marr:

It is an astonishing series of figures that you give in the book about this. One of the other very, very remarkable points, which will surprise perhaps a lot of people watching, is that you believe that we are on the edge of an age of new increased religiosity, and that that is kind of unstoppable. Can you explain why?

Rabbi Sacks:

Even if no-one is persuaded to become religious, if you just look at birth rates throughout the world, the more religious you are, the more children you have. So just by demographics alone, the 21st century is going to get increasingly religious. But we are seeing, to some extent, some of the failure of the great secular ideologies and more and more young people turning to religion. The trouble is, quite often the religion they’re turning to is not a religion of coexistence and conciliation but a religion of extremism, radicalism, and violence.

Andrew Marr:

And anger. Yes, absolutely. You compare what’s happening now to the reformation when we had Luther and we had a challenge to the Catholic Church and crucially, you argue, we had a new technology, the combination.

Rabbi Sacks:

Luther was not the first person to put forward his ideas. John Wycliffe did that in Oxford two centuries earlier. What made Luther the “herald of change” was this revolution in information technology called printing. The result is, he could get his message out far more effectively than the existing structures of power. What printing is to Martin Luther, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have become for Al-Qaeda; Boko Haram; and above all, ISIS.

Andrew Marr:

And this is changing the terms of trade. You argue in the book, in effect, the West is almost powerless before this new challenge.

Rabbi Sacks:

I don’t think it’s powerless, but I don’t think it has fully realised how significant this is. This new information technology allows hitherto marginal groups to become global phenomena. I actually went to Palo Alto to talk to the people who’ve developed this new technology and asked them about it. They say the radicals are the world’s best users of this technology, and we are lagging behind.

Andrew Marr:

Rather like Luther and the printing press.

Rabbi Sacks:

Exactly.

Andrew Marr:

And in case people think that’s a kind of cosy comparison, let’s remember that the 30 Years War in Europe was one of the most devastating events in European history before the Second World War, massive slaughter….

Rabbi Sacks:

The Thirty Years’ War killed one in three of the population of central Europe. Those wars set in motion by the Reformation lasted a century. So we’re dealing here with a phenomenon that we’ve almost forgotten because the West has become quite secularised, and we forget just how long-lasting and how potentially violent it can be.

Andrew Marr:

So we are facing some kind of apocalypse if we don’t take the right actions. But you argue in this book that religion is the answer, but then people say: No, no, hold on a second. Surely religion is the problem.”

Rabbi Sacks:

Well, I show in the book that religion is not the prime cause of violence and war. The most encyclopaedic book on wars relates religion to only 10% of them. But what I am saying is, wars are won by weapons but peace is won by ideas. So this battle against radical political Islam has to be a war of ideas, not just of weapons, and I’m trying to put a new idea on the table.

Andrew Marr:

Why do you think that this literalism, which is really what fundamentalism is, a literal belief in the word of God and in various forms, has become so incredibly powerful right now at the end of this long period of secularisation and material development?

Rabbi Sacks:

What happens to people who are familiar with the traditional culture is that the 21st century is totally bewildering. You have this “Babel” of voices, you have change that is almost too rapid to bear, and people want to reduce complexity to simplicity. That’s when they go back to sacred texts, and do that without that whole history of interpretation.

Andrew Marr:

And so that gives them a sense of who they are in the world and a community they can rely on.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah.

Andrew Marr:

You use the phrase in the book, “Religion both binds and blinds.” So how do we stop it blinding?

Rabbi Sacks:

We stop it blinding, I think … I mean, there are all sorts of ways of doing it, but I say, if we’ve got a religious problem, then we ought to have a religious answer. It’s not the whole of the answer, but it’s part of it. What I’m trying to show is, go back to those texts. They’re actually right at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible and they are shared in one way or another by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, texts about sibling rivalry, and say, let us read them from the perspective of the 21st century. If you do that, you can see that those narratives are an attempt to get us to see the humanity of the other, of the one not like me.

Andrew Marr:

So it’s all about interpretation. Now, one of the other things you discuss in the book is the appalling rise of antisemitism, particularly across Europe. Now a lot of that is driven by radical Islamists, of course, as we know. What source of hope do you find when you talk to Muslim colleagues and young Muslims?

Rabbi Sacks:

I find among young Muslims, and among young Christians and Jews, a need for some strong religious voice that speaks to the spirit, not just to the physical kind of material culture that we’re in, but that brings us together instead of splitting us apart. I really have done a lot of teaching now with young Muslims, young Christians, and they really resonate to this message, a religious message, but one that brings us together.

Andrew Marr:

Finally, what do you say to those people who say: well, that’s all very well, but for all of those people living in Palestine and so forth who have been farming land for a very, very long time, generation after generation, they are being told by religious Jews, ‘You have to go because the Bible has given this land to us, not to you’? That has been a huge source of unhappiness and violence in the Middle East.

Rabbi Sacks:

This book very candid about Judaism as well as Christianity and Islam, and I’m really saying to my fellow Jews: we were brought up with the text that gets us to see the humanity of the other. Love the stranger because you yourself were once strangers. I think if Israelis try and see the world from Palestinian eyes, Palestinians see the world from Jewish eyes, we would begin to understand one another’s fears. And once you get rid of the politics of fear, you can build a politics of hope.

Andrew Marr:

Rabbi Sacks, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us this morning.

Rabbi Sacks:

Thank you.