Response to terrorism can be taken from holy books

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • December 22, 2006
Fr. Bob Holmes and Shabir AllyTORONTO - Muslim cleric and scholar Shabir Ally's message to high school students with questions about terrorism is that theology matters.

Ally took about 200 high school students from across the Greater Toronto Area through a quick tour of the history of Muslim thought about war and peace. The students were at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, for the annual Brebeuf Social Justice Symposium on Dec. 15. Students from half a dozen Catholic schools converged downtown to question a variety of speakers gathered to address the topic  "When faith meets terror."

Ally blamed the association of terrorism with Islam on the willingness of a few young Muslims to adopt medieval Islamic theology without taking the time to think critically about how that theology arose, or how the Koran relates to the 21st century.

"Muslim scholars need to study Islam very carefully and rewrite the texts, taking into account our present circumstances," said the University of Toronto PhD candidate in Islamic studies. "It is high time we engage in scholarship of this kind."

Theologies used to justify suicide bombings, or the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, are rooted in a time when Islam was the largest and most powerful political force from Eastern Europe through North Africa, the Middle East and into India. The most effective way to counteract the lure of terrorism for young Muslims is to present them with a theology which allows them to engage modern, pluralistic culture in a genuinely Muslim way, said Ally.

It's a message the students also need to hear about their own Catholic tradition, said Basilian Father Bob Holmes. When just war theology was formulated by St. Augustine and St. Ambrose in the fifth century it was a theology rooted in a very different world. It's not a question of throwing out the tradition, but rather of recognizing how Catholic theological tradition relates to modern times in a different way, he said.

"It's absolutely impossible to fulfill the requirements of a just war these days," he argued.

Holmes presented the students with the antiwar thinking of political philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky — an appeal to the rule of law and social justice — but then told students that the Christian response to terrorism goes "one step further, to the Gospel."

"All of us want justice and peace, but until we're willing to put our feet on the road and begin to live peace we're not living the beatitudes," said the chaplain for Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical peace group headquartered in Toronto and Chicago.

Brebeuf Social Justice Symposium president and Grade 12 student Kevin Ku said his group at Brebeuf College School chose to look at terrorism at this year's symposium after the July 12 arrest of 18 young Muslims in Toronto who are alleged to have amassed material for two truck bombs and made plans to storm the CBC and Parliament Hill.

"It struck too close to home to be anything that didn't affect me," Ku said.

The students were particularly anxious to hear from Ally, said Grade 12 Brebeuf student Eric Cheng.

"We really wanted to get the side of the Muslims," he said. "(After Sept. 11) everybody was blaming it on them."

"I hope a lot of kids will walk away with a certain understanding of this issue," said conference organizer Khalid Gonzales. "We follow the teachings of the church and social justice is very important to us in a Catholic school. It's about putting Catholic faith in action."

Students gave a standing ovation to a brief presentation from 10-year-old UNICEF spokesman Bilal Rajan — a Muslim from Toronto who has raised millions of dollars for disaster relief and AIDS orphans in Malawi. Rajan urged the teenaged crowd to be engaged in the lives of people all around the world.

Talking about  theology to high school students is important, said Ally.

"These are the shapers of the world of tomorrow," he told The Catholic Register.

For Holmes the chance to talk to high school students was an opportunity to recruit a new generation of peace activists.

"If we're going to have peacemakers in the future we have to start right now," he said.

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