A New Role for Religion in the Middle East
by: Marc Gopin
Washington DC - Organized religion in recent years has become a repository for the most extreme political ideologies of the modern age and we shudder at the confluence of religious zeal, racist ideologies and an actual thirst for blood. But impressions can be deceiving in the modern world. It cannot be overstated how much power various forms of mass communication have over what we think dominates our lives and our cultures. But reality may be different. The vast majority of people still see their religions as basically peaceful and most people subscribe, when asked, to rather sane compromises on the most difficult political problems facing the Middle East. But technology has showered extremists with incredible power to intimidate most human beings with the power of explosives.
In such an atmosphere of fear and distrust there is one thing that makes a huge difference in developing relationships between enemies. That is the power of gestures that are made across civilizations. What we do is what defines us most and everyone waits for the space of uncertainty between enemies to be filled by deeds. Most of that space is filled by extremists while the rest of us cower and remain silently baffled. It need not be the case.
When last year I faced 300 educated but tough Damascenes with hard questions about America and Israel at their major cultural centre, the Assad Library, with the cameras of their national television rolling, and the major Ba’athist reporters present, I knew that every word I said in that speech and in the 90 minutes of questions and answers could be easily distorted. I chose to make repeated gestures of honour, to emphasize the resilient aspects of Syrian ancient culture, its enormous potential to rise again as a cultural centre of the world, if and when it could move toward a democratic and open society. The more positively I spoke of their culture, the more honest I was about the failings of all governments and militaries, including my own, the more that the demonisations of my country that some in the audience proffered became hollow and out of step with the spirit of the evening I spent with them. It was my gesture of going to their civilization and standing alone before them, at some personal risk, that moved those people and turned them into very good friends.
They are just as powerless as most of us to rapidly change the politics of their country. If those of us in democracies often feel powerless to fight extremism one can only imagine what this feels like in non-democracies. But powerful gestures conquer the divide and empower people across enemy lines to plant the seeds of future compromises.
The keys to success here included endlessly patient listening, even in the face of outrageous claims, a stubborn determination to honour the best in an enemy’s civilization and the cultivation of a culture of debate that could replace a culture of demonisation. This is what Israel and Palestine need now in a way that can include a vast number of people on both sides, not just the privileged and the educated. It is what the whole Middle East needs.
We need many gestures across enemy lines, enough to start to create a tipping point of human relations, to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell, such as was reached in Ireland, and which laid the groundwork of political negotiations over vital interests.
Most of us are terrified of religious suicide bombings and zealous decapitations that have been unleashed globally in the name of Islam. We know from studies in social psychology that it is astonishingly easy to take educated, privileged people and turn them into torturers with the use of authority figures. We also know that most of the bombers are educated and not poor. Radical clerics have seized power over the minds of many alienated people, but we can counter this trend by creating a new strategic alliance. Non-religious people and religious people must find the courage to reach out to each other to create a new alliance between tolerant, moderate religion and the major state institutions of democracy and the rule of law. The state must be seen as a place that welcomes and respects religion while at the same time not surrendering to religious political aggression. This can be done with hard work and it is essential to the future of Palestine and Israel, as well as to much of the world today.
The danger from Islam has tended to come in the form of anti-statist extreme violence, but the danger from Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism has come in the form of manipulative uses of state structures for extreme goals. In all cases there is only one way to the future and that is an alliance of religious and non-religious people who hammer out together the democratic and nonviolent values that they share. This, together with bold ways to reach out to adversaries across enemy lines, is a winning formula that will strengthen peaceful, democratic relations between nations and within nations.
* Marc Gopin is the James Laue Professor of World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. This article is published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service, December 22, 2005.
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