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Politics and Interfaith 1 - from the archives (2015)

This blog strand will explore the relationship between interfaith conflict resolution and global politics. Today, I will advance a few assumptions that govern understanding of the topic. How does the faith realm impact the political space? What are the roots of conflict? What does it mean to be a globalist, embracing an emergent global order?

Following trending news is but an entree into a deeper exploration of thousands of years of longstanding conflicts. I believe that we can arrive at an educated appreciation of the present by understanding the conflicts of the past and the foreshadowed resolutions of the future. In that sense an optimistic opinion is offered.

Is religion the cause of all wars? You must have heard the claim, often spoken with resentment by the anti-religious, that religion is the cause of all war (and misery) on the planet. Others say the roots of war have to do with money, oil or land - the possession of stuff, the control of property in some shape or form. I say that it boils down to disagreements about what things are for. To know what everything in my life and on the planet is for, references my purpose, explicit or implicit. My ultimate sense of purpose and meaning is held in my faith or belief system. Where this collides with a competing ideology, I experience conflict.

One could say the face-off between China and the US in the South China Sea is about a show of power - and politics is certainly about power. But power for what? Power to control shipping lanes, through which a third of the world’s oil passes? Why would a great power want to control that? To fuel their economy. To feed the desires and the life values of its citizens pursuing the goals and agenda that their ideology or worldview values. In other words, it comes back to fundamental beliefs, whether those beliefs are couched in materialistic terms, or make reference to a deity who confers liberties and mission on the faithful etc.

One could say that the refugee crisis in Europe is about pressure building up on land and resources, like the “living space” issue of WW2. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some want to defend borders against an influx of people from different faith and ethnic backgrounds on the basis that it could alter the fundamental national or European (Christian) identity - a no-brainer interfaith conflict issue. The feared Islamification in certain quarters is reminiscent of the feared spread of Jewry in previous centuries. Others are concerned with further stresses placed upon an economy suffering deflation and unemployment. This hooks into the great EU experiment designed to put an end to warring ideologies which continue to rear their disguised heads here and there.

The refugee crisis, obviously, must be understood as a consequence of wars in other regions, Syria being particularly prominent at present. People are no longer surprised that, if their nation gets involved in an overseas war, refugees from that place can turn up on their doorstep. There are voices calling to bring military might to bear in Syria to stop the exodus, and then compound the alienation of the embattled by further stopping the boats.

But a conflict builds on a conflict. The great powers cannot agree on whom military might should be brought to bear, except perhaps that Islamic State should be targeted. Russia, the US and its allies, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China have conflicting strategic alliances with the combatants that are making Syria a hell-hole to be fled from. Again, oil, resources and territory are but means to an end. Who will get to project power in support of a belief system : the Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Yazidis, Jihadists, Zionists, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Chaldeans, atheists or Confucianists? The same players have skin in the game over the related Palestinian crisis around Temple Mount, Jerusalem. If these are not interfaith conflicts in need of resolution, what is?

The more self-reflective and educated people are, the better they can articulate the beliefs that motivate them. Then they can lift the conflicts to a civil, rational level. Hence the desperation of the destruction of schooling for a whole generation. Presuming rationality and trusting in others allows one to dialogue and negotiate towards a resolution of conflict. And, yes, that conflict in origin has to do with our ultimate beliefs. If human beings were merely instinctual automata, one need look no further than the amorality of survival of the fittest. Because we choose goals and values to direct our actions, the conflict is properly at the level of the mind; at the level of ultimate worldview. It is only at this level that we exercise control and can project a peaceful resolution.

Should religion enter into politics? Yes and no. Because they are one but also two. The global order has a religious, political and economic aspect. An aspect is a way of viewing that does not change the integrity of what’s viewed. You can view a house from the front, back, side, or above, but it remains one and the same house. The global order can be thought about and discussed in a religious or political idiom. And, by the way, there is no insistence here on global order as against global disorder and chaos. The dark side too can be analysed in either idiom. So while every stirring in our spiritual life will flow into and show up in the political sphere, we need to become adept at translating the insights of one into the expressions of the other.

Not all would agree. This results in a tension between those regimes that insist on being more overtly theocratic and those whose face to the world are secular, although religion goes on in private. A theocracy, like Iran or the Vatican or the IS caliphate or what Tibet might have been without the Dalai Lama’s exile, is energised by the impetus of religion with all its fervour pushing into the public space. States with one official religion, like Israel, also have some of this quality about them. The spread around the globe, over a few centuries now, of modern, liberal, pluralistic democracies is a huge secularisation project, which owes a lot to the European Enlightenment. The secular milieu promotes a political idiom distinct from a religious one. It also tends to foster multifaith, multicultural societies. It can establish a fertile environment for interfaith conflict resolution for the very reason that faith per se is not the main political focus.

At this point in history we finally inhabit a globalised world.

Globalisation means we all live together at close quarters. It is testy and can provoke resentments, which can be difficult to handle, to say the least.

But it has also brought great benefits. It’s like we’ve grown a giant global mind with digital synapses; and the movement of people, goods and services links every point on earth. As we experience ourselves as citizens of one world, the encounter between people of different faiths, beliefs, ideologies and ways of life becomes profounder, and so must our self-awareness around the encounter.

Our awareness grows through the principles and practices of interfaith conflict resolution. The aim is not to blur cultural and religious differences nor manipulate an artificial synthesis. The well-known phrase unity in diversity is closer to the mark. There is a paradox involved; a balancing of opposing forces. Diversity is a given; it is historical reality. Accepting this, we can and should seek unity : the practical unity of common cause - to relieve suffering; but also the intellectual unity that can understand the other’s perspective.

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