“I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” – John Locke
In 2003, Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal was put in jail for nine years. The judge recommended that el-Faisal, from Stratford in east London (UK), should serve at least half of the sentence and then be deported. Abdullah el-Faisal had attended Brixton Mosque, in south London, and was jailed for urging his audience to kill Jews, Hindus and Americans.
During his trial, el-Faisal took a somewhat surprising approach. He argued that the words he had used were taken from the Koran – the Muslim holy book. The case was presented as if the Koran itself was on trial. However, the judge – Peter Beaumont – told the court: “It does not afford him a defense in law … any more or less than any similar citations from anyone else’s holy book, including the Bible, would be”.
In fact, the killing of unbelievers does appear in the Koran in one way or another. The Koran has Surahs that explicitly instructs to “cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers”. Resisting Islam is punishable by death or other physical body injuries, and holy war (known as Jihad) is encouraged against those who reject Islam.
Some Muslim scholars explained that the words should not always be interpreted literally, and that the problem lies in the ways old metaphoric text is applied to our modern world.
About half a year later, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his weekly sermon in Israel announced that religious Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva students should not be scorned, and that it is allowed to kill those who scorn them. The announcement was aimed at certain political rivals, but nevertheless took place and was made by a person who spiritually led hundreds of thousands.
Similarly to Mr. el-Faisal, Mr. Yosef was also equipped with some holy texts. The Bible, as well as several later Jewish religious verdicts, explicitly allow and encourage the killing of other Jews who are occupied with heresy. Just a few examples:
“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, that is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying: ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers … thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him; but thou shalt surely kill him; thy hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die …” (Deuteronomy, chapter 13, verses 7-11)
“Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee? And do not I strive with those that rise up against Thee? I hate them with utmost hatred; I count them mine enemies.” (Psalms, chapter 139, verses 21-22)
Thus all the important Jewish authorities during the years have ruled that heretics should be killed. The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) literally encouraged the act in the 12th century. Rabbi Yosef Karo compiled the ‘Shulchan Aruch’ (Hebrew for “A Set Table”) in the 16th century. It is considered the most authoritative compilation of Jewish law since the Talmud, and it also explains the issue of killing heretics. This kind of ruling has been followed by several other famous rabbis, as well as by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
In a previous chapter we already discussed the vague line that’s drawn between literal and metaphoric interpretation of holy texts. Both the Bible and the Koran have many verdicts that Judge Beaumont would consider worthy. However, it’s the ability to stretch the line according to will, which may prove hazardous to your health, as it did for the late Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin. His assassination in 1995 by Yigal Amir was justified by a religious verdict.
Before Mr. Rabin’s murder, a small group of Orthodox rabbis gave the religious sanction of this act. This was based on two old Jewish religious rules: “Din Rodef” (the duty to kill a Jew who puts at risk the life and property of another Jew) and “Din Moser” (the duty to eliminate a Jew who intends to turn another Jew into non-Jewish authorities).
Of-course, most Jews do not seek heretics to kill and do not decide to murder prime ministers due to religious reasons. Most Muslims do not slaughter Jews, Hindus and Americans. Yet, when the appropriate circumstances are formed for certain individuals, it becomes easy to justify extreme personal preferences by quoting the word of God.
The story of Sir Winston Churchill and the city of Coventry in England became famous about a quarter of a century after the Second World War was over. According to it, Mr. Churchill had certain information from secret intelligence sources, implying that the Germans were going to bomb Coventry. He faced a difficult dilemma: Warning the people of Coventry would mean compromising an extremely important source of intelligence, which would perhaps cost many more lives eventually. He chose not to give the warning. Many people were killed in the attack on Coventry that took place in 1940.
Why is this story important here? Mr. Churchill’s decision was probably based on rational considerations. No offense to Mr. Churchill – Yigal Amir’s decision was largely based on religious reasoning. It is safe to assume that both felt very uneasy taking the decisions. It is also safe to assume that after taking the decision, both felt it was justified. Thus, old religious verdicts may help a killer to consider an act of murder as justified and they may encourage him to think that he is actually saving lives in the long run. With this self-justification, one may find some explanation to the tranquility associated with the behavior of the World Trade Center’s terrorists, for instance. It all depends on how you choose to interpret the meaning of the divine command.