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A Simple Solution to Religious Conflict

Some semesters back, the Honors Program at the George Washington University in Washington, DC held a symposium on religion and conflict in the 21st century. In this symposium, we heard from several speakers, then broke into case study groups in which we attempted to resolve various religious conflict scenarios.

Below is a solution to religious conflict that my particular case study group formulated during this symposium. Sure, it's simplistic, but sometimes catchy alliteration can really pack a punch!

Honors students work through the issues at one university symposium

Honors students work through the issues at one university symposium

Breaking into case teams, we sought means by which we could reduce religious conflict

Breaking into case teams, we sought means by which we could reduce religious conflict

The Four D's

Philip Jenkins warns readers that “the international politics of the coming decades are likely to revolve around interfaith conflict” (159). This need not be the case. Interfaith dialogue can and must be used to ameliorate religious tensions and prevent sectarian violence and war. Without it, future conflict, division, and violence are, as Jenkins suggests, inevitable. While lowering barriers and obliterating long-lived rivalries will be challenging, success can be achieved with a mixture of communication, political action, creation of new resources and paradigms, and maintenance. What we need to do, simply put, is disavow, discuss, develop, and delegate.

My case study group formulated this plan when presented with the dilemma of two ethnoreligious communities living in close contact with each other who are struggling for political or territorial control. While our plan was created with this particular scenario in mind, it crosses over well for almost all scenarios involving religious conflict. The plan is simple but nonetheless synthesizes the readings and speakers we were introduced to leading up to and during this year’s University Honors Program Symposium.

Stage 1: Disavowal of Violence

Our first stage involves the disavowal of violence. This stage would require political and religious leaders alike to disassociate their countries and religions with radical violent sects. My group did acknowledge that disavowing violence on its own will not end it, but making a clear statement that a religious or political philosophy does not support violence does, to a certain extent, lessen the impact of those seeking to commit violent acts in the name of a certain country or religion. I, personally, would be less willing to sacrifice my life in a suicide bombing if I knew my country or church would spurn me for my actions; I think it is safe to say most others would be of the same mind.

In Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer points out that religious terrorism is “done not to achieve a strategic goal but to make a symbolic statement” (125). He writes that the perpetrators “probably also hoped that their actions would make a difference- if not in a direct, strategic sense, then in an indirect way as a dramatic show so powerful as to change peoples’ perceptions of the world” (126). The extent to which peoples’ perceptions of the world are negatively changed by religious terrorism is directly linked to the way in which the media, politicians, and religious leaders interpret these acts of terror. If leaders and other influential personas frame violent acts as part of a religious struggle or war, people will view them as such. This allows these acts of terror to evolve from isolated incidents to widespread conceptions of clashing ideologies.

If leaders in politics, religion, and media disassociate themselves and the people they represent from violence, perilous parallels won’t be drawn in the first place, and the symbolic statements that terrorists wish to make with their actions will hold no clout. As these messages lose their validity (and thus their effectiveness), their popularity will lessen and hopefully be extinguished completely. Though acts of terror in the future are probably inevitable, with disavowal, they can at least be viewed as isolated acts of violence and not blown out into something more damaging.

Stage 2: Open Discussion

The second stage of my group’s plan involves open discussion between different faiths, cultures, and socioeconomic strata. This stage is essentially where inter-faith dialogue steps in to solve the problem of sectarian violence. “[D]ialogue expresses an essential aspect of the human spirit, when we listen we respond to one another with an authenticity that forges a bond between us” (Burber qtd. in Embree 56). Thus, while disavowing violence will help prevent different peoples from constructing walls that separate them, initiating interfaith and intercultural discussion will build the bridges that draw people closer together.

Some may argue that there already has been a great deal of interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue that has not made any significant impact. This may be a valid argument, but dialogue only fails to aid reconciliation when it is not addressed correctly. In the United States, for example, “religious discussions in the public domain most often focus on single issues: abortion, evolution, stem cell research, marriage. The issues become black and white, for and against, and there is little room for actual discussion” (Mates-Muchin). If one does not discuss with an open mind, or if one does not view others as equals, or if one refuses to discuss particularly fragile points, it is indeed impossible to make progress.

Mr. Embree argues that successful interfaith dialogue must be characterized by three features. “First, all parties must commit to treating one another as equals and abstaining from all forms of coercion…. The second requirement… is the ability of participants to respond with empathy… The third requirement… is that it “must be concerned with bringing forth people’s most deep-rooted assumptions”” (57). If parties adhere to these guidelines, they are less likely to fall into the same unfortunate ruts in which previous interfaith discussions have met their doom. All we need to do is focus on commonality, open-mindedness, and willingness to truly discuss and not point fingers. As Jacqueline Mates-Muchin puts it, “if we're to focus instead on the broader issues of justice and compassion, religious terminology might be more welcoming and more inclusive.”

Just as important as interfaith discussion between leaders is the interfaith discussion that takes place on a grassroots level. In both his keynote speech and during the question and answer period, Dr. Wee spoke at length about the importance of interfaith initiatives amongst those of all walks of life, such as the World Conference for Religion and Peace. He cited not only the great deal of reconciliation they bring but also the sheer impact such gatherings had on his own life and perception of the world.

From a practical standpoint, grassroots interfaith discussions are essential to real progress. As was pointed out in the Symposium panel discussion, talks don’t always extend to the streets, and this disconnect has allowed many conflicts to continue even when leaders have reconciled. While the actions of leaders will help popularize interfaith dialogue to a certain extent, more must be done to ensure that discussion takes place at all levels of society.

As leaders open discussions with those of different backgrounds, they must also encourage their followers to do so. Different interfaith initiatives and programs should be launched, and a framework facilitating open relationships between different peoples should be created. The construction of this framework is addressed in the next stage of my group’s proposed solution.

Stage 3: Develop Means for Future Understanding

Once media, political, and religious leaders have disavowed violence and opened up discussion, they must develop means by which open discussion and greater interfaith understanding can exist in the future. This involves designing national cultures, norms, values, and infrastructures that do not fragment, but rather unite people.

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One of the biggest causes of today’s worsening sectarian violence and religious war is that different religious groups are retreating into isolation. Instead of educating themselves on the beliefs, backgrounds, and values of other cultures and religions, people are becoming complacent and accepting an “us versus them” mentality. Dr. Webster exemplified this when he worded current conflicts in such terms as: “it’s us versus China,” “There’s a conflict of Islam versus everyone else.”

In Dr. Webster’s opinion, different forces in the world are working in more or less direct opposition. Much of this opinion may be influenced by his “us versus them” understanding of international events, which was most likely fostered by a culture condoning that kind of separation. “Modern Western media generally do an awful job of reporting on religious realities, even with their own societies. Despite its immense popularity in North America, evangelical and fundamentalist religion often tends to be dismissed as merely a kind of reactionary ignorance” (Jenkins 162). With this sort of coverage- a sort that even depicts domestic sects as radical, ignorant others, it is no wonder that many individuals, including Dr. Webster, view the world in such a divisive light.

What we need to create is a new culture that doesn’t encourage that view. We need global citizens who recognize that all humans are moving toward common goals; people are open to communication and don’t see people of different cultures or religions to be “others.” We also need schools, hospitals, markets, theatres, and parks that are commonly used by people of all sorts of backgrounds- not just certain socioeconomic, political, racial, ethnic, or religious groups. A paradigm shift of this sort takes much time but is already taking place, as can be seen by our new President Elect, a man who characterizes himself as not just an American, but “a fellow citizen of the world” (“Vote 2008”).

While it is important to develop new cities, cultures, and infrastructures that do not divide people, it is important that there is no attempt to lessen individuals’ national, religious, or political identities. As Dr. Merve Kavakci pointed out, it is very easy for a country to go too far in attempting to prevent people from distinguishing themselves on the basis of culture or religion.

The new world paradigm that we should create must celebrate people’s differences, not marginalize them. First off, it is not only foolish but impossible to rob people of their beliefs and backgrounds, even if they are used to justify conflict. Ghandi, for example, “deplored Hindu-Muslim antagonism but he was convinced that it was utterly wrong to suppose one could or should extract religion from the context of Indian public life, for it was inextricably intertwined with every aspect of Indian culture” (Embree 40).

If one can not remove religion, what can one do to lessen conflict? In this case, an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy ought to be employed. Instead of belittling peoples’ distinct cultural and religious beliefs, we must use them to assist the construction of a more open, equitable world. There are many reasons why celebrating people’s unique religious identities will help to bring them closer together. Continuing with the Kashmir scenario, Ainslie Embree explains in one case study that utilizing religious communities to develop remedies helped lessen some of the conflict in Kashmir.

The inclusion permitted religious influential religious leaders to change opinions of their antagonized followers, allowed the opposing sides to find common values, reminded everyone that peace and harmony is an ultimate goal, and inspired all sides to operate with humility and compassion (37). Unique religious and cultural identities are not the source of present conflict and should not be eliminated. All that must be controlled is the use of people’s unique identities as a means of erecting barriers.

Stage 4: Delegate and Enjoy Peace

Once we have developed a global society and infrastructure that encourages nonviolent, open communication and cross-cultural understanding, we can retire to the delegation stage and enjoy peace (or at least fewer wars and senseless violence) for all posterity. In the delegation stage, world leaders delegate the task of maintaining the system put in place so that we don’t revert to any unhealthy, sectarian, “us versus them” mentalities. All this entails is putting controls in place to make sure that communication channels are left open. Furthermore, there must be continual emphasis on the commonality of our goals and ambitions. So long as people are raised to believe that we are all more or less on this planet to do the same things and seek an ultimate good, there should be little justification for worrisome sectarianism.

“Just as setting a controlled fire is often an effective counter to an out-of-control fire, so too can religious reconciliation be an effective instrument for dampening the flames of religious fanaticism” (Armstrong 6). As Karen Armstrong points out, it is indeed possible to use interfaith dialogue to neutralize the threat of sectarian war and violence. As my Symposium case study group pointed out, we must simply go about it in a systematic way.

Thus we created the four D's: disavowal, discussion, development, and delegation. So long as we can disavow violence, effectively communicate, develop a culture of international understanding, and maintain this culture, we should be able to live with much less misunderstanding and unfounded hatred for those of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Peace is possible—all it takes is a little effort!

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God : A History of Fundamentalism. 1st ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Embree, Ainslie. Kashmir: Has Religion a Role in Making Peace? Case Studies. 33-70.

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom : The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 2007.

Johnston, Douglas. Faith- Based Diplomacy Trumping Realpolitik. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 2008.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God : The Global Rise of Religious Violence. New York: University of California P, 2003.

Mates-Muchin, Jacqueline. "Public Debate and The Quietly Religious." San Francisco Chrocnicle 26 Oct. 2008: 2.

"Vote 2008." Obama in Berlin: 'The Burdens of Global Citizenship Continue to Bind Us Together' ABC News. 24 Jan. 2008.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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