Muslim-Jewish-Christian Dialogue (or Abrahamic Trialogue) and the Geopolitical Mess

(Please note that this post is not yet properly referenced throughout, but as I currently lack reliable internet I’m posting it as is and will amend with full referencing in the next few weeks).
From the news these days (and, indeed, for at least a decade or more), one would be forgiven for thinking that most of the world’s troubled hotspots and conflicts are part of an age old violent struggle between three of the world’s most influential religious traditions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (often termed the ‘Abrahamic’ traditions because of their common assertion that they all go back to the biblical prophet Abraham).
Alongside such assertions, or in part inspired by them, there is the claim that religion in general – and often more particularly Islam and Christianity – are the sources of violence, terror, and general misery in our world, a view much associated with the so-called New Atheists (those most commonly tagged this way include: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.)
Against such claims there are of course those who will assert that all religions teach peace, and that each of these religions is inherently peaceful and tolerant, preaching love and compassion for all. They will claim that it is only a distorted vision of each that is the cause of terror, and that indeed those who commit atrocities are not real Muslims, Jews, or Christians.
Into this scenario I’d like to make a few basic claims, or arguments, which will suggest that these two extremes, as we may suspect, distort the situation.
First, as the scholar of peacebuilding and conflict resolution Scott Appleby has suggested religion is marked by a certain “ambivalence”, by which he means that it can be both a cause of conflict and a source of peace. As should be fairly clear if you search the scriptures of every religious tradition you will find passages which justify war and also those which extol peace, forgiveness, and mercy. As such, as the German theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel has claimed religion has both an “oil” and a “water” element – i.e. when we come to the fires of conflict adding religion can either intensify the conflict or help solve it.
A few brief examples will suffice, and here I will go beyond the three Abrahamic religions. Of religion’s capacity for peace, we can look to a Gandhi whose Hindu tradition inspired him to seek a non-violent (ahimsa) approach to oppose British colonial rule in India at a time when many nationalists wanted to fight. Following the apartheid regime in South Africa, Christian convictions underlay the work of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in seeking a non-violent approach to reconciliation. In contemporary Israel-Palestine, both Jewish and Muslim activists for peace call upon their respective traditions as a source of healing and reconciliation (an aspect of the conflict you won’t find in the conventional media). Buddhist leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama have found resources in their tradition to call for peaceful opposition to the controlling regimes in, respectively, Burma and Tibet.
On the violent side we can again find examples from all traditions. The civil war that raged in Sri Lanka in recent decades was in part fuelled by Buddhist claims that the land was truly only meant for them (the popular perception of Buddhism and Hinduism as religions of peace which don’t encourage violence, as against the Abrahamic traditions which do relies on a very problematic interpretation). The Israel-Palestine conflict, and the crusades and previous wars, calls upon religious discourse from all Abrahamic religions that calls upon a divine right to the land, or to its claims as a sacred place. The Hindu text which inspired Gandhi’s non-violence, the Bhagavad Gita, can be read to explicitly justify the fact that warriors may kill as a religious duty (dharma).
Second, despite this ambivalence, or “oil” and “water” aspect of religion, it may be contended that very few religions have ever been about strictly religious issues or primarily inspired or caused by religion – although religion may become a primary justification or a factor which complicates it. Turning back to our central focus on current Muslim-Jewish-Christian relation, the Israel-Palestine conflict is obviously central. At heart this is about land, as, arguably, most wars throughout history have been. I’ll go into more detail on some aspects of this below, however, its central focus is about where the Israelis and Palestinians should live and who rules where, and who has a homeland. For those who want to paint it as a Jewish-Muslim religious war there are various problems. For one thing, historically it is quite clear that through most of history Jews and Muslims have co-existed quite comfortably side-by-side. Indeed, when the early Islamic empire started to spread around the eighth century CE and following, many Jewish people welcomed their new Muslim rulers as being, in effect, liberators as they had been treated much more harshly under their Christian rulers. Thus, for centuries, Jews and Muslims lived (with some exceptions) peacefully alongside one another, and many Jews even held positions of great prestige in Muslim courts. The idea that the two traditions are somehow enemies or bitterly opposed is thus quite simply false. For another, even today while to some extent there is a dynamic of a Jewish-Israeli state being opposed by Muslim-Arab states this is not the whole picture, and many of these countries while once in conflict now live peacefully and recognise Israel’s right to exist. As a final point, while the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and the land we now call Israel in the first century CE, there have always been Jews living there, and they started to return in larger numbers from around the late nineteenth century (many fleeing Russian pogroms) and largely lived in peace with their Arab (Muslim, Christian, and other) neighbours. Indeed, the primary violence in the period before Israel became a state was in the mid-twentieth century and leading up to the creation of the state of Israel when Zionist (we’ll come on to this problematic term in due course) Jews fought the British who occupied the area under a mandate and eventually handed it over after World War Two. This is when we see the problem between Israel and the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states (or in simplistic and not accurate terms: between Jews and Muslims): when Israel becomes a state and therefore claims and takes the land. I would argue this supports my contention that it is a war about land not religion, especially as the new state of Israel dispossesses many of the existing inhabitants to make way for new citizens of this state.
We could give many more examples, but I’ll briefly mention just one. Part of the controlling narrative behind the New Atheist claims that religion is violent and a cause of conflict, and indeed in much Western thinking on this comes from the period following the Reformation and ending with the Enlightenment (i.e. roughly the mid to late sixteenth till around the early eighteenth centuries – historians date it differently) which has traditionally been termed the Wars of Religion. The traditional narrative on this goes something like this: following the rise of Protestantism, Europe became divided between (Roman) Catholics and Protestants and each religion fought for supremacy, and this was only ended when peace was arranged which meant that the ruler of each territory would be the arbiter of which religion was followed (Cuius regio, eius religio – “whose realm, whose religion”), but more importantly it meant that religion was removed from the public sphere and became a matter of private concern with the state being neutral (a principle enshrined constitutionally in countries like France and America whose concepts evolved in this period). However, as historians today have demonstrated time and again it is very much a misrepresentation. This period saw political and social change across Europe with the breakup of older political systems and the emergence of what is basically the modern nation state as we know it, and the wars were primarily about this – once again, primarily, about land. Moreover, as a study of the period will show it was not Catholics fighting Protestants but Catholics fighting Catholics and Protestants fighting Protestants, and various Catholics and Protestants in league fighting other Catholics and Protestants. In short, nobody went to war because they didn’t like somebody else’s religion, rather political alliances were made that favoured the nation-building and territorial ambitions of the rules and countries concerned. They were not fighting a “war of religion”.
Third, given that most, if not all, wars are not about religion, and that religion has ample resources for peace and compassion, why does it so often appear as part of the narrative of violence? There is no simple or single answer, but nevertheless there are a whole host of readily identifiable contributing factors, many of which are related to identity. For instance, many conflicts cross boundaries of countries or ethnic identities, and for various historical reasons different countries or ethnicities often have different religious identities too, and especially for those in control harnessing this can help justify a war. For many people their religious identity is one of the most central to who they are, and so if that can be presented as threatened or opposed it is easier to persuade people they should fight. Again, identity is not so much about making claims about who “I”, or more often “we” are in a positive sense, than it is about showing what “I” or “we” are not. As such, all forms of identity creation tend to also be about identifying others and outsiders as different – there is nothing special in this regard about religion and sociologists and psychologists have conducted many experiments that show that even giving people arbitrary identities means they favour their own perceived group against others. We should also not suppose that religions are monolithic or unitary, and that in every religion different aspects exist, alongside different traditions of interpretation, etc. As such, for every tradition claiming that it supports peace you can find another that claims it supports war – each of which as we have mentioned can seek support in scriptures, traditions, or charismatic leaders to justify this. Of course, nobody, or every few, support “peace” or “war” in all situations, and so it becomes embroiled in the questions of identity and politics – if I as a religious person want peace I must fight those who threaten the peace of my land. This brings us to another, which is (again building on general identity theory) that we don’t have isolated or monolithic identities but always much more complicated ones, and very often religion is therefore part of a whole set of other identities, i.e. a Thai Buddhist one – and most people in Thailand will tell you that’s it a Buddhist country and to some extent for many there being Thai is synonymous with being Buddhist. Hence a Thai territorial war is also a Buddhist war. Naturally, the same applies everywhere and in pretty much every case – we tend to see whatever we identities we hold as making some kind of sense together (although we can hold conflicting identities, or call upon them in different situations, i.e. the peaceful religious person who believes in war). Without seeking to be exhaustive, I’ll mention one last component which the scholar of religion and violence Mark Jugensmeyer has called “cosmic war”. Because religion tends to hold concepts of “ultimacy” in some form if it gets invoked in a war situation it can make a battle one of “good” against “evil” or part of an eternal battle of deities or spirits, etc. This is obviously dangerous, and is one reason why religion becoming embroiled in conflict can make things seem even more intractable – if it is a battle about ultimate values then you cannot surrender or compromise, and even no matter what you do may be justified for the end result. Having said this it shouldn’t be overstated: the notion of peace can also have a sense of “ultimacy”, while many religions have codified systems for a “just war” so the ends do not justify the means which protect non-combatants, speak about proportionality, etc., while it is also possible for religious voices to be able to speak out against violence and war from a “higher” position. Appleby’s ambivalence cuts both ways, and certainly as we have seen through the twentieth century nationalisms and other ideologies can be just as totalising narratives enjoining slaughter on a mass scale as any religious tradition.
Taking stock of this three points will tell us that the wars we see are not inevitable religious clashes, and that religious narratives can be both a source of peace and continuing conflict in the situations we face. Indeed, to some degree at least, once people take the assumption that they’re fighting a religious war a counter-narrative of a religious nature is needed to untangle it. Certainly one of the most effective responses to young people radicalised by extremist “Islamist” terrorism is for education, often from others reformed in the same way, about the teachings of Islam (like many other religions Islam has long had rules for a “just war” which are ignored by today’s terrorist movements which claim to fight in its name, and most of its ideologues from Isama bin-Laden onwards are not trained in Islamic scholarship and draw very one-sided portraits of the tradition from its “oil” elements as Schmidt-Leukel terms them). Obviously the conflicts are deep and complicated and I won’t pretend to offer a solution or easy answers, but I think we need to take the following points on board first about Zionism and a Jewish state/ Israel, then about violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, and finally about religious peacebuilding in the area.
Zionism, which we mentioned in passing above, is often seen as a factor, but is generally misunderstood as a Jewish claim for divine possession of the land of Israel. As an ideology though it has its roots in the nineteenth century amongst secular Jews who wanted a homeland for the Jewish people, understand as an ethnic group, which would be like other “nations”. While Judaism has a religious narrative that the land is promised to them this was not the inspiration behind Zionism, indeed, many deeply religious Jews regard the state of Israel as blasphemous because it is about humans trying to set up a state of affairs that is properly within God’s hands. As founded, the state of Israel was a primarily secular and socialist state which offered a homeland and shelter for Jews after the Holocaust, and it was this that helped legitimise it globally. That said it is seen as a Jewish homeland, and so a religious element inevitable enters the picture, while it has changed over time and there are those who will argue for a divine right to the state of Israel, but this is not really the justification. Indeed, while there are those within Hamas who will see eliminating Israel as a religious duty, the primary form of antagonism relates to the way land has been dispossessed and increasingly upon the terrible state of Palestinians in Gaza. Terrorism and war thrive in situations of poverty and oppression. A religious identity can support peace or war, but the current situation is not conducive to people finding identities and narratives which support the former. I say this not as indictment of Israel and its policies, although it has surely overstepped any legitimate claim to proportionality in self-defence in the current circumstances, and as others have argued is conducting quite counterproductive policies at present; in line with general principles of peacebuilding and conflict resolution I intend to keep as far as possible to a “neutral” or non-judgemental stance which would allow both sides to tell their narratives in the hope of an eventual future reconciliation (South Africa’s peace and reconciliation policies of not pursuing and condemning perpetrators allows a model in which peace may be built by allowing narratives to be told and both parties agreeing to live together in the aftermath).
While events in Israel-Palestine often lead to an increase in Anti-Semitism and a blaming of Israel and Judaism, despite many Jews condemning the events there, it is still nevertheless the case that in today’s world for many (especially in “Western” nations) the religious tradition most commonly seen as promoting violence and terrorism is Islam. From ISIS, to Hamas, to Al Qaeda, to the Muslim Brotherhood Islam is associated in the eyes of many with undemocratic, oppressive, violent militarist, and terrorist forces. This must also be addressed. So a few key points. First, numerous as such movements may be they represent only a small proportion of those claiming to be Muslims worldwide and most Muslims repudiate what they do. Now in the general social media frenzy around this a common claim made is “Why don’t Muslim leaders or organisations speak out against this if they do condemn it.” Actually most major Muslim groups have spoken out against it, with major groups in the US and UK doing so immediately following the 9/11 attacks (i.e. the plane strikes at the World Trade Centre/ Twin Towers, New York in September 2001), but there was very little or no media coverage of this. It’s not that they haven’t condemned it, it is that the media does not consider it “news” so nobody knows. At the same time, there is another factor, which is that most Muslims don’t see these events as actually being related to or about Islam, at least in any form they recognise, and so the idea they should apologise is a bit bizarre. Let’s take an analogy: when Andres Breivik, the Christian extremist, attacked and killed many people including children at a summer camp in Norway did anyone ask Christians in general or Christian leaders to speak out against it? No? When Christian anti-abortion extremists in America have killed doctors and other people in clinics is there a general demand that Christians must apologise for what their tradition has just done? No? Why not? Is it because we, i.e. people in general from Western/ Christian nations understand that this is not part of what Christianity is, and that it is not Christianity per se that caused this but the attacks of a few extremists? Also, is it because of the way the media reports this, a Muslim kills somebody and the term “Islamic extremist”, “Islamism”, etc. becomes main headline news but if a Christian does it, this is not placed centre stage. Indeed, many people I have spoken to were unaware that Breivik’s Christianity was part of the central motivation for his actions because it wasn’t placed centre stage in the news presentation. Now this is a whole field we don’t have time to discuss, but was first brought to prominence by the public intellectual and scholar Edward Said in his book Covering Islam.
Second, central to the lives and devotion of many Muslims throughout history has been the understanding of Islam as “the Religion of Peace”. In our increasingly multicultural and multifaith societies people living alongside Muslims have experienced that their Muslim neighbours are not blood-thirsty murderers inspired to commit outrages by the Qur’an but rather, well, simply normal everyday kind of people like the rest of the human race. Indeed, many of them are inspired by their religious faith to humanitarian work and good deeds. Historically it can also be seen that areas of Muslim rule have not been hotbeds of violence; yes, it is possible to pick out examples to argue a different case – Islam’s early spread came with the conquering Arab tribes across the Levant, Africa, and into Europe, but as a historian this is explained more rationally by the fact that the disparate Arabs tribes had been united and politically unified than by a new ideology. Indeed, under Arab rule Greek philosophy and science was revived and extended, and it was only the advances in optics, algebra, and other areas coming to Europe that allowed the Renaissance to happen, and the subsequent flowering of scientific advance and development – this was not as old-fashioned stories of science from a Western perspective tell us a sudden advance by clever Europeans but is best understood as a continuation of the Greek heritage under Islamic empires. While to some today the sound of the words “Islam is a Religion of Peace” sound like an oxymoron, they need to ask where their sources come from and how representative they are. Of course, I’m not suggesting Islam has an unblemished history or that Islamic civilisation was uniquely good, it has an atrocious track record in most regards as the rest of the human race, but it has also produced some of the greatest poetry, art, architecture, and scientific developments we have seen, and has and continues in many places to be a voice for reason and tolerance.
Third, a bit of context always helps. Most of the problems we see today associated with Muslim justified or inspired violence comes from around the Middle East, and the problems we see there have deep colonial roots. I don’t intend to do anything like a comprehensive history, so let’s just note a few points. Western countries invaded, and rules, and left leaving behind an area carved up into relatively arbitrary new nation states. Much of the violence there has been related to different ethnic groups seeking to make sense of these inherited national borders. For instance, we are starting to see the emergence of a Kurdish territory around South-Eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq which has long been a hot bed of violence in part because the Kurds have found themselves separated and therefore ruled by other groups uninterested in their needs. Many of the rules have been dictators propped up by Western governments. Iran is a case in point where the Shah ruled unjustly with American and other Western support until overthrown by a popular rebellion. Sadam Hussein was also supported by the West until they decided he was a liability and so removed from power, and the aftermath of lack of plan for what would happen after the Iraq war still plagues us as various factions vie for control in that area. Again, the Taliban in Afghanistan were supported by the Americans until they became enemies. The West has a lot to answer for in creating a territory with unfeasible national borders, and meddling especially in supporting oppressive regimes which have bred the inevitable results. We have of course already touched on Israel-Palestine. If Islamic countries seem a breeding ground for terrorism and violence we need to ask who created the seeds that caused it to grow.
Fourth, an issue that perhaps has to be addressed is the fact that throughout much of history, the peaceful way that Islamic empires have incorporated Christians, Jews and others has been seen to be through a system of domination and submission. In short, traditionally Jews and Christians (and by extension Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and others) were dealt with was as dhimmi – people of the book, which means it was recognised that having a legitimate religious tradition of their own they were free to live and worship and conduct their own affairs as independent groups under Islamic rule as long as they paid a “poll tax”. In effect then they always lived as unequal citizens under Islamic rule. True. But let’s put some context on this. As I mentioned above, Jews were generally glad to live under Islamic rule rather than Christian rule in medieval times because the dhimmi system provided a protection that just didn’t exist elsewhere. For its day it was a very innovative and just system, and beat arbitrary taxes and random pogroms elsewhere. Also, this is not simply a religious issue, when Europeans went colonising around the world the subjugated peoples always lived as second class citizens under Western rule. Many were made into slaves, many had their lands and children taken, they were converted often forcibly – and we are not taking about a system going back to the seventh century here as we do with Islam, but policies conducted under secular government until the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century. (Indeed, we could argue that it continues today). Rather than condemning it based upon twentieth-century Human Rights principles of equality, we could argue that Islam was way ahead of its time and provides a role model for what could be done well in history. (Of course the system was sometimes abused, and could be engineered to oppress, but no system is perfect and contemporary America still has issues in relation to its indigenous inhabitants for instance). Likewise Christian claims about being founded in universal love and equality belie its abysmal track record. Now there is one objection which would be that the Islamic model is unjust today because we have moved on, and many Muslim scholars would agree. While religion’s opponents often condemn it for being stuck in ancient traditions this ignores the fact that a basic course in religious literacy, or undergraduate study on Religious Studies, could tell you is that like all of human culture religions change, develop, evolve and adapt over time. Islam is not stuck with this model any more than Christians are with claims that God created the world in seven days (actually it’s a really bad and ignorant way of reading the biblical text to argue for Creationism but that’s another story).
Finally, I’ll come to address the questions of religious peacebuilding in the area. I have already mentioned above that religious Jews protest against the actions of Israel, that most Muslims condemn the actions of those who claim to do terrorist actions in the name of Islam and will find the claims and actions of ISIS abhorrent, and that there are religious peace and reconciliation groups around Israel-Palestine. Moreover, as we have seen religions have plenty of resources for peace and compassion. Without wanting to be naively optimistic, I’d suggest that we have to be hopeful that such narratives can prevail, and to seek to employ them and make them more widely known. Of course this is not an answer in itself and a political and economic solution that relieves situations of poverty and oppression is equally, if not more so, pressing. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested because religious narratives are built into the conflict through identities claimed by some on each side, it will be necessary to offer new religious narratives. Indeed, a religious narrative must be possible, and it is notable that in this region where violence so often prevails, one country which has created strong interreligious ties and connections has managed to remain stable, which is Jordan. Alongside other actors for religious peace in the region it offers a model for hope and affirmative action to help overcome communal tensions and conflicts, and shows that an alternative may be possible.

Some of the references to be integrated:
Note: My thanks go to Dr Yafiah Randall for comments on an earlier draft and for various references below.
Film footage of Jerusalem 1896 –
Film footage of Jerusalem 1930 –
Interesting post from Naomi Wolf with an interesting discussion below:
Five Israeli Talking Points on Gaza—Debunked
The Zionist Story: 1hour 15minutes
Reuven Firestone’s Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea
See the Visigothic Code
Randall, Yafiah, 2014 (forthcoming), “
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan and ….

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