Essay from David Rosen: "Fighting Extremism and Fostering Peace"
If religions stand for peace, how can violence in the name of religions happen? In his essay, David Rosen gives an explanation. What he also thought of: a possible solution.
In his 2002 World Day of Peace message, His Holiness John Paul II called “sincere religious feeling” “the most important antidote to violence and conflict.” Most people of faith would certainly share this view. After all, peace, harmony and the well-being of all people are declared goals of all religions. However, it cannot be overlooked that not only has horrific violence been perpetrated in the name of religion, but that to this day there are many people in various parts of the world who actually believe that conflict and violence against dissenters are what their religion requires of them.
To come to grips with this misuse of faith, we need to address the question of why religions all too often fail to play precisely the role they should – especially in the conflict zones of our world. Why do religious ties so often seem to exacerbate conflicts instead of helping to resolve them and promote peace and reconciliation, which are supposedly their very métier?
Renowned social scientists distinguish three dimensions of religions: Belief, behavior, and affiliation. Different religions may combine or weight these three dimensions differently. Their abuse is often linked to the first two: Time and again, disputes over religious dogmas or even rituals provoke violent confrontations. They repeatedly serve as a pretext for violence against those who do not share the same beliefs and practices.
But violence in the name of religion, especially in our modern world, usually has much more to do with the level of “belonging.” It reflects the sociocultural, territorial, and political contexts in which religion operates.
Because religion aims to give meaning to our lives, it is inextricably linked to all the categories of human identity. These range from relationships in one’s family, to belonging to a community, an ethnic group, a nation, and a people, to concern for humanity and creation as a whole. These components of human identity are the cornerstones of our mental-spiritual well-being, and we deny them at our peril. Thus, researchers pointed out that countercultures, drug abuse, violence, cults, and so on, to a great extent reflect a search for identity by people who have lost their compass in life.
These elements of identity define who we are – and, at the same time, who we are not. Whether deviations and differences are perceived positively or negatively depends predominantly on the context in which we find ourselves – or believe we find ourselves. In conflictual situations, this identity often not only supports a positive sense of belonging, but also feeds feelings of self-righteousness and belittlement of “the other.”
The spiral is what I think is a useful image that explains why certain identities lead to positive or negative behaviors. When people feel safe in the context in which they find themselves, they can engage in many kinds of contexts: at the level of families, communities, or nations. Then religions can contribute to the common good of all and enhance human dignity. However, when people feel uncomfortable in their respective contexts, they cut themselves off from the broader contexts, they isolate themselves, and they encounter others with discomfort. In doing so, however, they deepen their sense of alienation.
Because religion is so closely linked to identity, it plays a crucial role in the development of a threat (even one that is merely felt); in a conflictual environment, it provides a support and succor. But by giving people an awareness of their own value and meaning, especially when they feel vulnerable and insecure, religions too often fall into the self-righteousness mentioned above. They disregard the legitimacy of others, exacerbate conflicts and exclusions, and thus betray their universal values.
Of course, there are situations of self-defense, and many if not most would argue that sometimes there is no moral way out in the short term other than to stop violence with violence. Nonetheless, all of our religions teach that this is not enough. Ancient Jewish wisdom says, “Who is a true hero? Someone who turns his enemy into a friend.” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, 23).
The fight against religious extremism requires maximum effort from us. We must drain the swamp of exclusion in which the mosquito of conflict multiplies. But as already indicated, it is not only material and political factors that trigger this exclusion. The most powerful cause is probably alienation. We will not begin to understand the hostility of fanatics who see their violence as rooted in their religion if we ignore the power of this alienation, this sense of degradation and humiliation.
Thus, it is not only essential that people – especially the young – be able to live a life of material and social dignity. They must also experience a sense of connection and responsibility – as individuals and as recognized members in their respective communities. In this regard, interfaith relations have a crucial role to play. The value of hospitality, after all, has a long tradition in all religions. Reaching out, welcoming the other person – this gives people the feeling of being accepted. Then they can feel part of a higher identity and contribute instead of being alienated. If one does this with due respect for the other’s core spiritual identity, then this effort has even greater impact and meaning.
Interfaith collaboration thus plays an invaluable role in enabling people and communities of different faiths to understand their own religious identities and affiliations. It makes a constructive contribution to enhancing the well-being of society as a whole.