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Religion in an Unstable World

Scholars Pay More Attention to Role of Belief

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 26, 2005 (Zenit) - Spurred by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, new books continue to come out examining the links between religion and international security. One such work, "Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations," is a selection of contributions edited by Robert Seiple and Dennis Hoover (published by Rowman & Littlefield).

The essays are based on a 2003 conference, which, according to Hoover's introduction, had as its premise: "Nations that do not foster respect for religion will be vulnerable to a number of significant threats to stability and security." He added, though, that "religion is not only part of the problem; it is part of the solution."

Pauletta Otis, professor of strategic studies at the Joint Military Intelligence College, pointed out that, in addition to terrorism, religion has been a factor in many recent conflicts, from Somalia, to the Balkans, to Afghanistan.

Until recently, within the United States, many factors combined to exclude religion from considerations on international politics, Otis noted. Among these factors were the wall of separation between church and state; the realpolitik reasoning of military analysts; and the fear of offending sensibilities.

But analysts would do well to take into account religion in their examinations, Otis contended. When religion is involved, she argued, conflicts tend to be longer and more intense. And in recent times the failure of other ideologies, plus the breakdown of state authority in some countries, has allowed religion to play a more important role.

Otis warned, however, that leaders must be careful when they address the matter of religion. It would be "misleading and alarmist" to posit a type of warfare between mainstream religions, she said. As well, undue hyperbole will only exacerbate tensions, she added.

In his contribution, Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, emphasized the need to pay more attention to persecuted religious minorities. By forcing minorities underground through persecution, states create a problem for the future. Persecution can sometimes succeed, but it also creates the risk of strengthening clandestine networks, as well as reinforcing the more militant tendencies within the persecuted group, even to the point of fomenting martyrdom.

Moreover, if the persecuted minority is part of a religion that is present in other countries, it can become a type of fifth column in times of international conflict. And, within a nation, religious persecution often produces a long-lasting vicious cycle of conflict.

Exclude or embrace?

Manfred Brauch, professor of biblical theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, asked if religion, following God's example toward humanity, will lead people to embrace one another, or if it can reinforce tendencies to exclude others, often violently.

The three major Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- share some common theological elements, but have often been in conflict over the centuries. The challenge for religious leaders of each of these faiths, according to Brauch, is to cultivate the theological elements that their beliefs have in common, and not to concentrate on the points of division, as so often occurred in the past.

He argued that the leaders and theological thinkers of these faiths have, in the past, often ignored, or even distorted, the elements in their beliefs that would give spiritual dignity to the members of other creeds. Thus, the scriptural messages of exclusion have been favored over those that promote the embrace of others.

Brauch cites numerous texts from each of the Abrahamic faiths to demonstrate the existence of elements that favor a more conciliatory attitude. These theological resources, he explains, provide the basis for a peaceful coexistence that is neither "naive universalism [nor] vacuous ecumenism," but rather a "robust pluralism" that would work in the real world.

Following in the same line of argument, Christopher Hall, dean of the Templeton Honors College, asked if the members of the Abrahamic family are doomed to continued conflict, or if they can find a path that will lead to peace and security. He insisted on the need for a "religious diplomacy" that enables the advocates of religious traditions to speak about their understanding of the truth in a way that is acceptable to adherents of other traditions.

This diplomacy involves the advocacy of religious truth in global public life, but in a way that will lead to mutual respect. It involves the commitment to tell the truth, and a willingness to acknowledge the sins of the past and the present. In this context, he noted the pronouncements made by Pope John Paul II asking forgiveness.

In addition, believers need to cultivate listening skills and a willingness to engage in dialogue with others, Hall said. At the same time this effort has to avoid the temptation "to water things down to a vapid commonality." Humility is another essential element needed to bring about peaceful interfaith relations, he noted.

Culture and conflict

Another book, published earlier this year by Rowman & Littlefield, is "Religion, Culture, and International Conflict." Edited by Michael Cromartie, it brings together the contents of six conferences, held since 1999, and organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Samuel Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, addressed the question of religion, culture and international conflicts.

He noted that in the past decade a number of changes have transformed global politics. To wit: Culture has replaced ideology as a source of identity, and conflicts; many societies have seen a resurgence in religion; a more complicated power structure, dominated by one superpower and a number of major regional powers, has supplanted the bipolar U.S.-Soviet conflict; there are fewer interstate wars now, and more internal conflicts, in which religion is often a major factor.

Huntington argued that conflicts become less amenable to resolution as their religious dimension becomes more intense. Religion also seems to provide a justification for more extreme levels of violence.

Bruce Hoffman, director of RAND Corporation's Washington, D.C., office, further explored the relation between terrorism and religion. Terrorism, particularly the forms originating in the Mideast and Asia, has become more religious as well as more random and lethal, he observed.

Hoffman distinguished between terrorism where religion plays a part in providing a theological justification for the use of violence, as in the World Trade Center attacks, and conflicts where religion is involved, but there is no use of religion to justify the aggression. This second type of conflict is typical of Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka.

In 1980, he explained, there were 64 identifiable terrorist groups, of which just two were religious. By 1992 the number of groups had declined to 48, of which 11 were now religious. By 1995 no fewer than 26 out of 56 terror groups were religious-inspired.

The change to a religious-based terrorism brings with it a number of consequences, Hoffman noted. For a start, these groups seem to be able to make converts more rapidly. Many of the Islamic Jihad suicide bombers, for instance, are recruited just weeks, or even days, before carrying out their attacks.

Religious terrorism also favors mass indiscriminate violence, in part because the fanatics dismiss those outside their group as not worthy of respect. "In some cases, religious terrorists have convinced themselves that they're doing their victims a favor," he commented. Such a prospect bespeaks a problem that won't go away easily.

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