On Nov. 4, 1979, post-revolution Iranian forces raided the U.S. Embassy and took hostage 52 Americans, holding them for 444 days. Among the diplomatic negotiators on the U.S. side was religion scholar, Middle East expert and diplomat Charles Kimball.
Years later, James Sawers, an ordained Methodist minister, and Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, became friends thanks to their membership in the Society of Biblical Literature. It turned out the two men shared something in common: Iran.
Sawers once worked for DuPont and helped design a patented welding process used in the manufacture of scalpels. The scalpels were adopted by Welfare for the Blind, a nondenominational Christian charity offering eye-care services to populations in Eastern Africa and elsewhere. But Muslims tended to avoid buildings that displayed the cross, Sawers said.
So Sawers and some influential friends in Washington, D.C., asked the Shah of Iran, still in power at the time, to mass produce a special compass “with a removable top and three needles, pointing north, south and to Mecca.” The compass served two purposes: It helped Muslims orient their prayer rugs, and it lured them to the eye clinic.
Fast forward to 2011. Sawers then is a member of the Christian-Jewish Council of Greater Charleston, and Kimball is hoping to visit Charleston to promote his newly published “When Religion Becomes Lethal,” a sequel to “When Religion Becomes Evil.”
Sawers hatched an idea. And he sent his friend one of the shah's leftover compasses as a token of their friendship.
April 15-17, the scholar will be in town at the invitation of the Christian-Jewish Council to talk about religious fundamentalism and its influence.
In anticipation of his visit, The Post and Courier asked him some questions about faith, extremism, politics and Islam.
Q: In your 2002 book, “When Religion Becomes Evil,” you offered five warning signs of extremism and corruption: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the “ideal” time, justifying the end by any means and declaring Holy War. For religion to be evil, are all five practices required, or will one or two suffice?
A: The warning signs indicate the potential for corruption and violence is present. The most egregious problems usually involve several of the warning signs. For example, Asahara Shoko, the Buddhist leader whose group released deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system some 15 years ago, exhibited four of the warning signs.
Q: Some perfectly nice religious people insist that theirs is the one true faith. What's so dangerous about that?
A: Nothing is automatically wrong or dangerous about someone affirming the one true faith. The problem we see repeatedly throughout history (and today) occurs when that absolute certainty is used as the justification for violence or the mistreatment of others.
No matter how deep one's conviction, all human beings should have a measure of humility when it comes to absolute truth claims. As the Apostle Paul put it eloquently to the Corinthian Christians, “We see through a glass darkly, not yet face-to-face.” Beware of anyone who speaks in terms of absolute truth and links his/her views to violent behavior.
Q: Are their certain religions that are especially prone to forms of extremism?
A: No religions have cornered the market on extremism. Many are surprised to learn that there have been more suicide bombers in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka than anywhere else in the last three decades.
Over the course of many centuries, however, I believe Christians and Muslims have had more manifestations of violence and extremism in the name of religion than others. This is not too surprising since these are the world's two largest and most geographically dispersed religious communities. Both are also monotheistic and missionary in orientation. These factors increase the potential for exclusivism and extremism.
Q: You have lots of direct experience with Islam. Share one or two things most Americans don't know about the religion.
A: There are many things most Americans don't know and incorrect things they think they know about the world's second largest religion, Islam.
Many Americans are surprised to discover that Islam inspired a great civilizational system that led the world for many centuries. Western Civilization as we know and experience it was shaped and influenced profoundly not only by the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also by Islamic civilization.
Another prominent area of misunderstanding relates to Islamic law (sharia). My home state of Oklahoma passed a referendum banning “sharia law and all international laws” by a 70 percent majority in 2010.
At last count, some 23 states now have legislation pending to ban sharia law. Despite the “fear” of sharia law, very few Oklahomans and, I suspect, very few Americans can even define what it is or how it works as a multifaceted code of conduct for Muslims.
Q: It seems like the mix of politics and religion has become especially incendiary in recent years. What do you make of the “religious freedom” argument? Are secular laws limiting individual rights to free expression of religion? Should they?
A: While there is no magic wand or single approach that will work everywhere, virtually all countries must find ways to maximize religious freedom for their citizens. While far from perfect, I believe the U.S. has been working at issues of freedom of religion and freedom from government-imposed religion. The rest of the world can learn from the U.S.
Q: Noted atheist Sam Harris has argued that moderation and tolerance sound like good ideas, but are in fact dangerous since they tend to pave the way for extremism.
For him, religion seems to be an either/or equation: Either we have it and suffer the consequences of inevitable fanaticism, or we get rid of it and rely on reason instead. Is there a middle ground?
A: I strongly disagree with Harris' premise on several levels. While religion has been the excuse or justification for some of the worst things people have done to others through the centuries, it is also where we find the inspiration and hope fueling some of humankind's highest and noblest behavior.
The vast majority of people who perceive themselves to be religious are not fanatics or extremists. They are normal human beings living normal lives.
Virtually all of Indonesia's 200 million Muslims are doing what virtually all Christians in America are doing today: trying to get their children to school on time, working to put food on the table, preparing for grandmother's birthday celebration tonight, etc.
At a practical level, the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived and who are alive today perceive themselves to be religious. Religious worldviews will be a central factor in whatever ways we find to move forward toward a more hopeful and healthy future.
Q: As an ordained Baptist minister, what do you like best about religion?
A: My faith and religious experience provide a compelling orientation and framework for living a productive, meaningful life — both as an individual and in community with others.
At the heart of Christianity is Jesus' summary of the greatest commandment: To love God and to love your neighbor. A variation of this central teaching is found in all the major religions that have stood the test of time. The more we are able to live out the meaning of this religious imperative, the more hopeful we can be about our future in an increasingly religiously diverse society and interconnected world community.