The Open Mind series on PBS

Interviewed by Alexander Hefner

In November 2015, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed for PBS' new series of The Open Mind, hosted by Alexander Heffner. The programme focused on Rabbi Sacks' book Not in God's Name and the challenge posed by religious extremism. 

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In the aftermath of what’s been called France’s 9/11, a horrific terrorist attack on the City of Lights, innocent civilians perished anew at the hands of radical Islamists.

In a voice uniting people of faith and non-believers, our guest today has authored a timely new volume, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Jonathan Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 through 2013 and is Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and Yeshiva University.

If they are truly honouring their heritage as Abrahamic faiths, Sacks writes, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity would bless the stigmatised other. So let me ask directly the Rabbi, when modern-day crusaders politicise their religious zealotry into something vilely unholy, dehumanising, murderous, obscene, how are we to believe that religion can undo the damage that it seems to be perpetrating? Welcome, Rabbi.

RABBI SACKS: Good to be with you. Well you know, the trouble is, God created us as humans. [LAUGHS] And we have a good side and a very bad side. And when the good side functions, we remember that we, and the people not like us are created in God’s image. I think that’s the point of Genesis I, when God said, “Let us create man in our image,” he meant that even someone who wasn’t in my image, whose religion and class and colour and culture are different from mine, is still in his image. That’s what happens when we listen to religion. But we have a dark side, which allows us to create God in our image, to sanctify things that are human, all-too human, one of which is the will to power. And when religion is confused with the pursuit of power or used as a cloak of sanctity to disguise the will to power, terribly bad things happen and are happening right now.

HEFFNER: So what would you say in pursuit of this message? Not in God’s Name? What would you say to the would-be martyr?

SACKS: Mm-hmm. Well I, I, the would-be martyr here is probably beyond being reached by rational argument. What interests me is how do we catch that person before he or she becomes a would-be martyr?

I mean, read the stories about the uh, childhoods of some of these uh, Paris murderers. Uh, they, you know, they grew up and were educated in France, they were regarded by friends as very pleasant human beings, you know, that not pathological in any sense. And somehow a radical voice got to them.

Very often uh, when they became drop-outs, they became petty criminals and so on. And I want to get to them before somebody else gets to them. Because clearly what they’re doing is looking for an identity, looking for a cause, looking for something that will redeem their life, which is going nowhere. And I want to give them the positive message before they receive the negative message because right now, it is the angriest and most murderous voices that are sounding the loudest. And the voices that say no, this is not what God wants of us, are almost silent. They seem like um, vapid and half-hearted.

HEFFNER: This is a climate though in which those would-be martyrs live in circumstance or condition where they don’t necessarily have the opposite indoctrination… That’s not viable when they see in Syria brothers and sisters of theirs being murdered, and it is a lot of Muslims who have been the victims of the decapitations as well as Christians. So I wonder, if you want to wage the opposite argument, in effect, how do you take the political circumstances and use them to your benefit, to the benefit of not in God’s name?

SACKS: Yeah. You know, Richard Weaver once said the trouble with humanity is we forget to read the minutes of the last meeting. We forget to read history. So we have been here before. Judaism has been here before, Christianity has been here before. Judaism was there in the First Century, in the last years of the Second Temple. When within the besieged Jerusalem, Jews were busier murdering Jews than the Romans outside. And that was the moment of transformation for Judaism. Christianity was in this situation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century after the Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics were murdering each other across Europe, and in the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648, as many as one third of central European population was, died, was killed during that confrontation.

So what we know historically is that when you’re murdering your enemies, you’re not going to change. Whether you win or you lose, you’re not going to change. But when you’re murdering members of your own family, that is when thoughtful people step back from the conflict and say this cannot be what God wants. That’s what happened to Judaism in the First Century, that’s what happened in Europe in the Seventeenth century. What happened was serious human beings, some of them religious, some of them not, but all of them studying religious texts, I, thinking of John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Benedict Spinoza. They sat down and said this cannot be what God means in the Bible, they were all basing their philosophies on the Bible and they came up with the five great ideas that shape the modern world.

HEFFNER: But let’s be frank, the Sunnis and the Shias have not reached that compromise, far from it. They are murdering each other at a rate that is unprecedented.

SACKS: That’s exactly what I’m saying, what will happen at some point is somebody is going to step back and say when Muslim murders Muslim, something has gone wrong. Some thoughtful individuals. And what you do is you prepare the ground for that moment. That’s what I’ve done in this book.

HEFFNER: Is the reason that it’s not happening, and I think you point this out, the cult-like groupishness that you say defines this impulse to kill thy stranger rather than love thy stranger…

SACKS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is that because theocracies govern the Middle East?

SACKS: It is because a certain mindset is governing the Middle East. I think work out the word mindset. Because theocracy is not the issue here. And mind—

HEFFNER: In illiberal…

SACKS: No no, let me explain.

HEFFNER: Please.

SACKS: Let me explain. What I’ve spoken about in the book and what’s happening in the Middle East is something called dualism. And dualism happens when a people feel humiliated beyond any kind of comprehension. Now there are two ways of reacting to bad things happening to you and your friends. You can say, what are we doing wrong or you can say who did this to us? And dualism always asks the question who did this to us? There’s some, we’ve been following God, so therefore somebody who did this to us is the enemy of God, the greater or lesser Satan.

Now once you get into a dualistic situation as civilisation is on the road to self-destruction, there’s no sane way out of this. And so it becomes terribly important to diagnose this and to say guys, I think you better stop before you finally, because what is right now in the gunsights of ISIS is not just random citizens in Paris, it’s 200 million Shia Muslims, and the Shia know this. So we’re in a very dark scenario and it’s a scenario that has no happy ending unless somebody pulls out of it because dualism is one of those totalising belief systems that you can never actually break free of once it’s got hold of you.

HEFFNER: So I guess that leaves us to ask each other: How these Abrahamic faiths in their origin can find harmony but really we’re talking about harmony within a single Abrahamic faith? You’ve said to me off-camera that it is the Muslims who’ve read this book that have responded so adamantly.


HEFFNER: What are they saying to you?

SACKS: Don’t forget, until relatively recently, the kind of uh, Islam that we’re seeing today, Wahhabi, Salafis, the Deobandi, and so on were very marginal strands in large parts of the Muslim world. You had a huge hinterland of moderate Islam. And for various reasons the um, the radicals have taken over educational systems in a number of countries and produced a generation of radicals, it’s, it’s, so we’re not dealing here with business as usual within Islam. And um, what the moderate Muslims who are living in Britain or the States who see there’s another way, who say a—who see actually the only way of resolving conflict is in a certain sense to secularise power and see religion as a matter of influence rather than power, they’re saying thank heaven somebody is saying this because within Islam, the moderate voices are being intimidated right now. And they’ve been very enthusiastic.

HEFFNER: In the context of the most recent case of terrorism, Europe specifically, the impression that we get from Muslims, some of whom may be refugees now, is that there is the current of the equivalent of antisemitism that has embroiled a number of European nations. In, in that, in that climate, how can you use religion towards finding commonality as opposed to finding an enemy?

SACKS: Um, in um, France, you find this dualistic mindset, you know, they hate us, they’re victimising us and so on which is really a bad mindset. So for instance, a hundred years ago when Jews came to France, they said okay, right, let’s integrate. I don’t think Islamophobia is like anti-semitism, I think it’s a different kind of phenomenon. And uh, they’re different, two different tragedies and they have different logics.

What the Jews in Europe found, tragically, is that they integrated and assimilated to the ultimate, they became more French than the French, more German than the German, they became the leading figures in Parisian and Viennese culture. And uh, they found, found themselves hated nonetheless so anti-semitism is one kind of problem, of integration and assimilation. And the situation of Muslims in France and elsewhere is the opposite phenomenon of Muslims who are segregating and not assimilating and that, that’s a different sort of history, it’s got a different trajectory.

HEFFNER: But am I right in understanding that you believe that faith of uh, a different character can inform the way these refugees operate in western society?

SACKS: Of course. I really believe this…

HEFFNER: So what’s the path to that?

SACKS: I really believe this and here is the situation. For most of history, Jews lived and read their sacred texts among Jews. Christians did so within a Christian society, Muslims within a Muslim society. So the three Abrahamic faiths have not really developed a powerful theology of the other. That is the one who’s not like me and not going to become like me. Uh, Christianity and Islam can certainly deal with a person I haven’t yet converted or conquered, but not with the person who’s not going to be converted and not going to be conquered. The Abrahamic theologies lack a theology of the other. And what I’ve just done, very simply, it wasn’t complicated but nobody seemed to have felt the need for it before, is to do an Abrahamic theology for the 21st Century. It’s quite easy, let me put it this way. Read Genesis I, God creates us in his image, turns out that we don’t really reciprocate by worshiping God, uh, the Earth is full of violence, God brings a flood, then he makes a covenant with Noah and through him all humankind. Then in Genesis XII, God says to Abraham you want to be different, show a living example of what it is to live closely and continuously with God, and with Abraham, God makes a specific covenant. Now the second you say that, you’ve actually technically solved the problem of Abrahamic theology in the 21st Century because you’ve said our common humanity precedes our religious differences. So even if we can’t get along as children of Abraham, we’re still the descendants of Noah. And I, I’m surprised that nobody did this. But I do know that once a religion sat and reconsidered its theology, almost miraculous transformations took place. Let me give you the key example. After the Holocaust, the Vatican engaged in a process of reflection and repentance and came up 50 years ago with the doctrine called Nostra Aetate. That made relatively minor change in Catholic doctrine and liturgy and turned 17 centuries of estrangement and hostility into friendship and mutual respect. So anyone who thinks that the Abrahamic theologies can’t change and can’t live peaceably together is quite wrong.

HEFFNER: You mention and expound in a chapter on a definition of something called altruistic evil.


HEFFNER: Can you explain to our viewers, in the context of what you’re discussing, altruistic evil as it’s enforced by a radical Jihadi interpretation of the Koran and, and what is the, the selling point, what is the argument to the would-be martyr to go back or the disenchanted refugee Muslim? Or, in the case of the France attacks, the natural-born French Muslim who believes that on the other side of the house…It is Israel and the State of Israel and putting the state of Israel before our common civilisation, that itself is an example of altruistic evil.

SACKS: Yes. The real issue that forced me to use this phrase, altruistic evil, is the fact that the more we know about neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, the more we realise that we have something called the moral sense. A lot of neuroscientists talk about mirror neurons, which means that when we see somebody else in pain, we wince. And this creates a bond of empathy and sometimes sympathy between us and other human beings, so it’s very, very hard for non-pathological individuals to murder other people in cold blood, it’s very, very hard. Now what we saw in Paris was a set of people standing in a concert hall cold-bloodedly killing innocent individuals one after the other, after the other. Methodically and without emotion. Now in order for that to happen, something has had to neutralise those mirror neurons. Something has had to kill, stone dead, our capacity for empathy. And it’s very hard to do that and you can only do that if you say I am the victim, that is the perpetrator, that is the source of evil, that is the representative of the dark force, Satan, the antichrist, the devil, you name it, and that is no longer human and when that happens, evil is perpetrated by people, justified by the highest ideals, that’s altruistic evil because only that highest ideal could allow you to become dehumanised. That’s what’s happened to the Jihadis, it’s what happened to the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was difficult to murder six million Jews. And what I’m saying is we have a dualistic mindset at work here which is very similar to what was operative in Germany and we have to catch people before they’re infected by it. We have to set a generational program of training leaders, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who don’t ask who did this to us but who ask what should we do to make the world a better place for us and our people?

HEFFNER: Do you think the political grievances are in effect operating that neuron as opposed to religious grievances?

SACKS: The political grievances are part of it. There’s no doubt that uh, what turns normal people into dualists and altruistic committers of evil is pretty much unbearable humiliation. This is what happened in Germany after the First World War, to lose the First World War, to undergo the unbearable conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. To experience hyper-inflation. It became too difficult for the Germans to say we did this, so they said the Jews did it to us. Jews were two percent of the population of Germany, they were incredibly loyal Germans, it was a crazy, crazy hypothesis. And if God forbid, the Germans had wiped out every Jew on the world, it wouldn’t have changed their situation one iota. It’s exactly the same as Europe blaming failed crops or illnesses on witches. You can kill all the witches, the crops will still fail and you’ll still get ill. What has happened with, within the world of radical Islam was the unbearable humiliation of the final end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed, out of it came a flow of radicals, especially Sayyid Qutb, who became the ideologue of Islam today. And what then happened of course was a series of hopes that secular nationalism would achieve what Islam didn’t achieve. And uh, hence Egypt under Nasser, Syria under Assad, Iraq under Saddam Hussein. And what we’re seeing is a religious counter-revolution against those political grievances, that we were betrayed by the people who secularised Islamic cultures.

HEFFNER: The irony here is that a lot of the perpetrators of this barbaric violence are secularists themselves.


HEFFNER: So I, I wonder when you’re calling for a reinterpretation, a reconstruction of the sanctity of scripture, in this case the Koran, these people aren’t reading the Koran. They’re strapping suicide vests on but how, how do you even get them back to a peaceful practice of faith?

SACKS: Chinese have a saying. [LAUGHS] Plan for a year, plant rice. Plan for a decade, plant a tree. Plan for a century, educate a child. What I’m saying…

HEFFNER: This is a century-long war.

SACKS: This is a century-long war, until we begin with educating our children, we’re going to fail. Now we thought you don’t need it, because religion is not gonna be a force in the 21st Century. People thought in the 18th Century it would be dead by the 19th Century so we have systematically misread this phenomenon and we’ve forgotten that religion remains a force and in parts of the world it’s stronger today than ever. Right now, what brought about this entire revolution was when a small group within uh, Islam, Wahhabi Islam, found itself funded to create an enormous system of madrasas that raised an entire generation in this rather lethal ideology. What I’m saying now is unless we start now training, giving people the vision to create an educational system to teach kids not to hate the people with whom they must one day learn to live, then we are going to see a very, very bad situation. This is a generational struggle. It has been misread from day one to today and only after this current outrage in Paris are people willing to say. Tony Blair for instance, David Cameron, who have studied this more deeply than many politicians, both of them have said this is a struggle which will take more than a generation. And when Milton and, and Hobbes were planning this concept of a free society, they weren’t expecting it to turn up with the speed of, of pressing a button and sending an email or a tweet or doing a YouTube video. They were actually thinking a century ahead and that’s what this book is. And the reason I’ve written it is because unless we think long-term, the long term is not going to look very good. It’s a bit like climate change. Act now, because by then, it’ll be too late.

HEFFNER: Well we have a minute left Rabbi, is the example, Asia?


HEFFNER: People don’t realise that the continent where most peaceful Muslims practice their faith… Is Asia and it’s not the Middle East, it’s not Northern Africa. Have you visited uh, Muslim majority countries in Asia and do you see a reaction that is more consistent with the values you posit in this book?

SACKS: The big, one of the biggest supporters of this book, and I thank him in the introduction, is the previous high commissioner for Pakistan. Akbar Ahmed, now teaching at the American University. He is a major figure in Islam. And he’s been the major supporter in Islam of this book. Equally though in India, which is home to a 150 million Muslims, the second-biggest population of Muslims in the world, you will find an Islam that is much more tolerant and that will be hugely receptive to the ideas in this book, so from both Pakistan and As—uh, in India where they’re very different cultures, I’ve had these enormously warm responses. People know that there is another Islam. But within Islam, those people who would give voice to it are very marginalised and intimidated. And what I’ve done here as a Jew is simply said I’m not going to tell a Muslim how to read Islam or a Christian how to read Christianity, but I can tell you how as a Jew I have wrestled with this history in my own faith. And if my wrestling will help you wrestle with yours, then together we can change the world.

HEFFNER: Rabbi, thank you.

SACKS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @Open MindTV for updates on future programming.