The Religious Roots of Conflict in the Middle East

(November 11, 2002)


Until recently, the idea that religion might cause many of the world's future conflicts was not taken all that seriously. After all, had not the sophistication of modern civilization rendered religion more or less obsolete? Religion might be consoling, or beneficial in some, mostly sentimental, ways, but that it could be a real motivation for war or violence was very much doubted. Indeed, this opinion is still very much alive, especially when it is obvious that religious identity is often being used as an excuse or even as a scapegoat to avoid the more obvious causes of conflict, causes like social and economic injustice, the political suppression of minorities, or outright racism.

However, in the present circumstances, especially after the catastrophe of the Sept. 11, 2001 and continued attacks by Muslim terrorists since then, is it any longer possible to write off the real causes of such violence as being simply a Middle‑Eastern reaction to Western expansionism, or even the wounded pride of what had once been among the world's greatest and most advanced civilizations?

Many have begun to ask again what had long been a taboo question: Is there not something inherently violent in the religion founded by Mohammed? Was not Islam (a word that literally means "submission") founded on the concept of the forced conversion of whole peoples or societies in the name of Allah/God?

However, before we attempt to answer a question like that, I think we need to focus on three elements which are to some extent shared by all three of the faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that trace their origin back Abraham.

First, there is monotheism or belief in one, not many gods. This is certainly Judaism's major contribution to the history of religion. But is it (or need it be) also the major cause, as it has all too often been, of intolerance of others' beliefs? Is it possible to have a monotheism that does not judge other beliefs to be automatically wrong and a cause for discrimination against them?

Second is what is sometimes called "supersessionism", the belief that in the divine plan that one religion is destined to replace another. Historically this has been Christianity's own understanding of itself in respect to Judaism, but one that in turn that seems to have been inherited by Islam and which has come back to haunt Christianity with vengeance.

Finally, there is scriptural literalism (sometimes called "fundamentalism"), the belief that the Bible, or as especially in the case of Islam, the Qur'an, is the direct word‑for‑word message of God and thus to be followed exactly with as little reinterpretation or adjustment as possible on our part.

Each one of these traits needs to be examined carefully, and critically, especially to see if they really mean what people have tended to think they mean. Otherwise, if history is any indication, religions, especially those which trace their origin to Abraham, may well deserve to be sidelined as a major hazard to the future peace and well‑being of the human race.