“I’m optimistic when I speak to young Muslims. They have incredible idealism”
To mark the launch of his new book, Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by Peter Stanford. This interview was first published in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday 7th June 2015.
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – whose new book argues for a return to mainstream religious virtues – tells Peter Stanford how he thinks Isil can be beaten
Jonathan Sacks begins our conversation by issuing a stark warning. The former Chief Rabbi says that Isil and other current manifestations of extremist religion around the globe now pose the “greatest challenge facing us in the 21st century”.
It is a bleak, dark assessment from the man hailed by Prince Charles as “a light unto this nation”, now a member of the House of Lords, and a global campaigner for greater religious understanding between all the faiths. And Lord Sacks is using the term “us” in its broadest sense.
So he means not just his own community, or the countries of the Middle East, or even Western governments and armies. Unless both what he calls the “symptom” of Isil, and the factors that have caused its rise, are tackled and tackled effectively, he says, the murderous chaos seen from afar in Syria and Iraq will become an issue that impinges ever more on all our lives.
“Right now,” he urges, “Europe needs to join together to fight these extremists, not to talk of Jews and Christians, us and them. The challenge we all face is how to defend our hard-won freedoms and liberties. That is what’s at risk and why I am trying to widen the argument.”
To that end, next week he is publishing Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, his first book since standing down in 2013 as Chief Rabbi after 22 years in office. It is no use, he says, hoping the problem will go away, or relying on our political leaders in the West to sort it out.
“Their maximum length of concentration is until the next election, so there is a culture gap with these religious extremists. They are in a time system where the minimum unit of currency is a decade, and they are comfortable looking at things in centuries. Right now, a long-term problem is meeting short attention spans in the West.”
Jihadi John: Western Islamists are radicalised because of the secularisation of society, says Lord Sacks
The 67-year-old father of three, and grandfather of seven, is speaking from Jerusalem, where is giving a lecture at Israel’s National Library and receiving a medal from former President Shimon Peres – as well as attending a family wedding. His work now sees him travelling between America, Israel and his base in Britain, with Elaine, his wife of 45 years.
Lord Sacks describes his meetings with young British Muslims the same age as those lured by internet and social media grooming to head off to fight alongside Isil in Iraq and Syria. Why, he has asked himself, do they do it? The conventional socio-economic explanations don’t work for him.
“These are not the reasons European jihadist are going there to fight. They are not living in poverty. They can go to university and enter the professions, but that isn’t enough for some. They are in search of identity, and in Europe we have gone down the road of abolishing identity.”
It is the secularisation of Western society, he argues, and the resulting moral vacuum, that leaves idealistic youngsters without anything in which to believe and susceptible to radical voices. “Young people like ideals but we are very short of ideals right now, and that means they can be drawn to causes that are also very dangerous.”
In the book, he coins the phrase “altruistic evil” to describe the appeal to such youngsters of Isil propaganda. It blends talk of high ideals and the sacred to justify what would otherwise be seen as murderous acts. “They are being offered an identity as part of the global nation of Islam which is presented in these social media outlets as being attacked and humiliated.”
The lack among these youngsters of a strong sense of British identity causes him to reflect on words he has often seen engraved on Jewish gravestones here. “They read ‘a proud Englishman and a proud Jew’. Do we understand any more what it means any more to be ‘a proud Englishman’? Many of the young people I meet don’t. There is no strong local identity, and so they seek it out where it is offered – on You Tube and social media.”
His argument is that a return to mainstream religion values is needed if we are to rediscover an identity that can counter the attraction of Isil for disillusioned young people. But can we have a British identity without religion?
“No,” he replies bluntly, “I don’t think you can. Religion gives us a real sense of the common good as members of a society rather than the self-centred ideas that are promoted elsewhere.”
And what of his own Jewish community? The rise of militant Islam has been accompanied by an upturn in reports of anti-Semitic incidents all across Europe, including, earlier this year, the murder of a synagogue guard in Copenhagen and the killing of four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris in the wake of the assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Only this week, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has been appointed to a European body charged with combatting rising anti-Semitism.
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Photo: Warren Allott/Telegraph)
“It’s valuable,” he says of the Blair appointment, though without any great enthusiasm, “and it has my full support, but I am trying to focus on a bigger phenomenon. The anti-Semitism we are seeing is a symptom of something else altogether. I intend to fight with all my passion those who want only to see this as anti-Semitism.”
Including members of the Jewish community who feel increasingly unsafe in Western Europe? A poll in the wake of the supermarket and Charlie Hebdo attacks found 40 per cent of French Jews had considered leaving the country.
“Some people definitely feel like this,” Lord Sacks concedes, “but I am fighting hard against that feeling. This is not about Jews. It is about all our freedoms, about the sanctity of life. If Jews are not safe in Europe, then no one is. If Jews leave Europe, then we have all lost our freedoms, lost our soul.”
His book is one front in that battle. It is the distillation of a concern that has been growing inside him since 2001. “I have been feeling since 9/11 that we are not addressing the theological dimension of all of this, wrestling with the religious issues. It is sometimes said that weapons win wars, but ideas win the peace.”
Yet Lord Sacks’ solution to the problem – a reinforcing of “good” religious ideas of respect, tolerance and love of neighbour, better education, plus a coming together of all the faiths with the secular authorities to fight extremism – surely overlooks one crucial factor. Many people, especially in the West, take as read that all religion itself begets violence, not just the extremist forms.
“Religion is not the sole cause of violence in the world,” he says, with just a hint of the weariness in his voice that comes with having to defend his corner so often. “In the 20th century, it has been nation states, issues of race and political ideology that have nothing to do with religion, that have caused two world wars, the Holocaust and the gulags. Those who argue that if you get rid of religion, you will get rid of violence, have short memories.
“But, equally, the idea that religion is pacific is negated by history. All the major faiths have their violent episodes and their difficult texts. We have to be honest and candid about that.”
Former peace envoy Tony Blair is to take on a new role combating anti-Semitism (Photo: PA)
So why does he believe Islam is apparently in such turmoil now? One suggestion is to link everything back to the “humiliation” – to use his own word – that young Muslims feel is being visited on their Palestinian co-believers by the Israelis.
His reply is firm and short. “I simply think that Israel has nothing to do with the crisis in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, in Somalia. It is a distraction to suggest otherwise. The situation between Israel and the Palestinians right now has no bearing on any of the major conflicts in the Middle East.”
The causes of Islam’s troubles, he suggests, lie elsewhere. He sees a general “turning inwards” among Muslims – found in other faiths, too, he adds – “that emphasises difference not common ground, and that is anti-modern”. He is concerned, too, by its tendency to combine religious with political power: “I can’t think of a single instance in history when that has been a blessing.”
His third culprit is what he calls “the destablising effect of the revolution in information technology. In the past, radical groups would be marginalised and largely unknown, but now they can instantly reach a global audience with their ideas.” Put these three factors together, he concludes, “and they represent a perfect storm”.
It sounds a gloomy assessment of heavy weather ahead. Lord Sacks, though, is unmistakably a man on a mission, and he is sure that there is plenty we can do, if we find the will. “I’m optimistic, in the sense that when I speak to young Muslims, they are hungry for rising to the challenge of religion bringing reconciliation not violence among people. They have incredible idealism.”
And, he adds, as a final thought, befitting of one whose voice is so familiar on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, “I happen to believe in Divine Providence. God sends problems and God sends solutions.”