The National Catholic Review
Image

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as the ensuing war between a global coalition led by the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan have made many wonder about the relationship between religion and terrorism. The United States and its allies have been at pains to point out that the war against terrorists is not a war against Islam. Terrorists are simply terrorists, not Muslims or, in the cases of Ireland and Serbia, Christians. There may be a clash of civilizations, but not of religions. Further, one cannot identify a government with a religion: the Taliban does not represent Islam any more than the United States represents Christianity. Moreover, conflicts like this have deep-rooted economic and political causes. The way the United States has recently conceived and protected its self-interest in the Middle East is certainly one of the causes. Even Osama bin Laden does not accuse the United States of being anti-Islam, but instead focuses his accusations on the American role in Palestine and in Saudi Arabia.

This does not mean that religions can claim innocence in the ongoing and present conflict among peoples. Religions do promote a we-they feeling. People who belong to a particular religion feel that they are the chosen ones, with a special revelation or relationship to the divine. From this point of view, the others are not merely different, but inferior. When persons from other religions are not seen as enemies, they are regarded as potential converts. Such a view of the others may lead to proselytism rather than violence. But when the others are seen not merely as different but as opponents or competitors in the economic, social, political or religious spheres, the religious difference can be used as a tool for demonization. We are God’s chosen ones, while the others are the children of the devil. Such demonization makes it easy for us to attack others with both fervor and peace of mind, especially when we feel that we are defending our religious identity against the onslaught of infidels.

There may not be any war today that can be explained solely in terms of religious antagonism. But the destruction of places or peoples in the name of religious faith (often mixed with other motives) is today common in many places. Abortion clinics have been attacked in the United States; Hindu mobs have killed Christians and Muslims and destroyed churches and mosques in India; Muslims have shot down Hindu families in Kashmir; Christians and Muslims have killed each other in Indonesia; and Buddhist monks have been the most ardent supporters of the Sri Lankan government in its war against the Tamil Hindu separatists.

We know the fervor against atheistic Communism that animated not only the United States and western Europe, but also the church during the cold war. Violence was avoided more by a balance of armed terror than by considerations of peace. Islamic-based revolutionary movements in Iran and the Middle East were inspired by a self-defensive move both against the materialistic secularism of the West, represented by the United States, and the atheistic Communism of the North, represented by the Soviet Union. A similar twofold defensive move enabled Bhikku Buddhadasa of Thailand to promote a peaceful revolution through his doctrine of dharmic socialism (dharma means moral order) based on a modern interpretation of Buddhism. Even today there are Christian theologians who defend armed revolution in defense of social justice in the name of Christianity. The jihad in Islam began as a struggle against one’s own evil tendencies, and was then used to justify defensive wars, somewhat like Christian just war theories. And if one is defending oneself and one’s values, what is more sacred than religious values? And if a group can offer a religious motivation for its struggle, it succeeds in providing an absolute ground for its cause. It also provokes a deeper commitment: people who die in such a conflict are not merely heroes, but martyrs.

We now have some idea why religion is used as a motive for war. On the one hand, we wage war to defend not only our lives, but also our properties and our economic and political interests. But a secularized consciousness may not grasp that people also wage war to defend their way of life and values. And for a believer, the values of religion are the most sacred. In a secular society in which religion is completely privatized, however, this may not be seen as something worth defending. This very attitude may be enough to provoke the antagonism of the true believer.

But if religion is such an ambiguous phenomenon, can it be a factor in peacemaking? I think that the answer is yes, there cannot be any lasting peace without religion(s).

Religion-free economic and political orders are the discovery of the Enlightenment, which posited that human reason is the ultimate mentor of everything. In this worldview every sector of society is seen as autonomous. Economic structures are driven by the pursuit of profit in the context of free trade. Political order is a balancing of interests of various groups in society. But free trade has led to a world that is polarized between the rich and the poor, both internationally and locally. Moreover, the free movement of global capital has only made the gap worse. And the balancing of political interests is not a realistic goal in a world that is dominated by one superpower. At most, it is a balancing act between a few powerful nations that ignores the interests of the other nations in the globe: freedom and prosperity for us, the rest be damned.

Can the free pursuit of profit and the balancing of interests lead to lasting peace? I doubt it. For true peace we need a sense of human, moral and spiritual values; recognition, respect and acceptance of the dignity of persons-in-community and their cultural and religious identities; and an appreciation and quest for the common good, local and universal, leading to justice and equality. I do not think that a mere nonreligious, secular order can deliver this. The failure of contemporary efforts at imposing a certain ecological discipline on the nations of the world is but one example. The manipulation of various international agencies, especially by the more powerful countries, is another. Religion is the sole prophetic force that continues to challenge our imperfect efforts at community building in the course of history. No religion actually preaches violence, and religions alone speak of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Religions have tended to justify existing sociopolitical orders. But every religion has had prophets who speak in the name of the Absolute, condemning the sort of idolatry that seeks to divinize or absolutize human structures in every field. Every religion has therefore an inbuilt prophetic structure, which must be encouraged. Prophecy, however, may not emerge from the official heads of religions. After Sept. 11, religious leaders on the whole have not been prophetic, apart from showing sympathy and urging restraint in retaliation.

All religions accept the common destiny of all peoples and are well disposed to the pluralism of religions. They do not encourage interreligious conflict. Buddhism has not set store on any particular rituals, but rather has proposed a way of meditation for every person. Hinduism has always seen different religions as various ways to spiritual liberation, just as all rivers lead to the sea. Christianity has come to recognize the salvific presence and action of the Spirit of God in all religions in ways unknown to us (Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World No. 22 [1965]; The Mission of the Redeemer No. 28-29 [1991]). Muslims refer to the injunctions of the Koran that advise them to respect diversity in religion. There must be no coercion in matters of faith, says the Koran (2:256). Since God has not made everyone a Muslim, God’s will must be accepted (10:99; 11:118). People of different religions must be allowed to go their own way: Unto you your moral law, and unto me, mine (109:6). What such openness presupposes is respect for every person and group as sharing in a common destiny, even if we think that our own way is better. We will exclude no one from God’s love and mercy, because all are children of one God.

Religions must also be helped to purify themselves. Interreligious dialogue that enables every religion to look at itself in the light of an other can help a process of internal reform. But beyond interreligious amity, religions can and should agree on the defense and promotion of common human and spiritual values, even if each religion justifies them in terms of its own principles. Justice and peace are the teaching and goal of all religions. In the post-Second World War years all religions have produced theologies of liberation seeking to promote justice and community. In the end, all religions wish peace: Shalom, Salaam, Shanthi!

It is not that we need to establish theocratic states. Economics and politics should retain their autonomy. But their autonomy will not be absolute. Both will have to be responsive to moral values and principles and dialogue with religions.

All religions recognize that people are imperfect and sinful and that occasional conflicts are inevitable. Hence there is need for forgiveness and reconciliation. Positively this is spelled out as love and compassion for the other. Only religions can promote this. Mere human reason and the balancing of self-interests will not lead us this far.

Every crisis, as the saying goes, is an opportunity. The crisis we are living these days and months is a challenge to think of a new world order based on principles of freedom, justice and community inspired by the different religions in dialogue. The flushing out and bringing to justice of a network of terrorists is not going to bring peace. It is not even the first step. It is simply the removal of an irritant. If the situation is not changed radically, new terrorists will replace old. The real task is to start building up a society of justice and equality.

In short, we need a conversion. A time like this brings out the best and the worst in usour courage and generosity, but also all our prejudices: our individual and collective egoism, our narrow nationalism, our double standards, our sense of hurt pride. We need a new vision of human and world community. We have to find new ways of empowering people to shape it. This is the only way to true peace in the world.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J., is a professor of theology at Vidyajyoti College in Delhi and director of the Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions in Chennai. Among his books and articles is Life in Freedom: Liberation Theol