By Paul Hedges
29 June, 2018
Leaving aside the almost unimaginable
spectacle of parents taking, even training, their children to die for their
ideology, the recent attacks in Surabaya raise the issue of conflict between religious
While few Muslims identify with these
terrorists, it may nevertheless leave the impression that it is simply the
exacerbation of an essential enmity between Christians and Muslims.
Such a thesis would accord with Samuel
Huntington’s well-known “Clash of Civilisations” argument, which posited that
civilisational boundaries, often marked by religious identities, would define
the coming world order.
To exemplify this type of thesis,
especially that conflict between religions is prevalent, one may look beyond
events in Indonesia, which play into a wider militant neo-jihadi assault on
Christianity, to clashes between: Jews and Muslims in Israel-Palestine;
Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka; Hindus and
Christians and Muslims in India; or, many other examples including
intra-religious violence, for instance between Catholics and Protestants in
The list of events where we see violence
across inter-religious lines in both contemporary and global history seems
However, history suggests that this may not
be the whole story, indeed peaceful and positive inter-religious relations may
be the norm rather than the exception.
The well-known Constitution of Medina
alongside the agreement from Prophet Muhammad with the monks of St Catherine’s
Monastery are signs that peaceful and harmonious inter-religious relations were
endorsed by the founder of Islam.
His battles were not fought against other
religions, but against those who had attacked and oppressed the young Islamic
We could equally show other examples from
history, which would include the Buddha going on missions to prevent war during
his life, or Francis of Assisi setting out on a peace-building mission during
the height of the crusades to speak with the Muslim leader Salahuddin Ayubi,
better known in the West as Saladin.
Critics may object, though, that despite
high profile or even foundational initiatives for peace that the real history
of religion is one of conflict and intolerance. The facts, they may say, speak
more loudly than the ideals of peace and non-violence.
Yet here, I suggest, we see in the lived
experience of communities at the grassroots, the real evidence that
inter-religious relations need not be one of conflict but can be about
If one looks to places today where we see
fault lines between the religions, we can also see evidence of a history of
For centuries, Christians and Muslims in
parts of Indonesia have shared common shrines and pilgrimage sites, some of
which still exist. While little known today, this is not an exception.
If one traverses South Eastern Europe, in
places such as Macedonia, one will find shrines, mosques, and churches that
form sacred loci again for both Christians and Muslims.
In Northern India, meanwhile, there are
also shrines and sites of pilgrimage as well as holy men who have been revered
by Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims.
Again, in Sri Lanka, shrines that honour
both Hindu deities and have Buddhist significance are not unknown.
Indeed, across the globe where we find
inter-religious communities which have lived together across the centuries we
find similar things: A sharing and accommodation of religious sites in local
Outside of this we also find patterns of
reciprocation and lived cooperation.
In traditional Indonesian society,
Christians and Muslims would have exchanged gifts and also partaken in work
alongside the other community: Christians would have helped build mosques, and
Muslims would have helped build churches.
In places such as Morocco, Muslims have
been the traditional keepers of Jewish graves, while at the end of Ramadan Jews
used to prepare the food for Eid-al-Fitr.
Such reciprocity and inter-religious
harmony has been patterned in similar ways in many places. Indeed, we may even
see it as typical.
For the ordinary followers of religions
living alongside those of other religions has, in most parts of the world, for
most of history, simply been the norm.
Samuel Huntington suggested that “Islam has
bloody borders”, while European Christians fought what are called the “wars of
religion” and brought their religious traditions with colonial invasion and
often at gunpoint to the rest of the world.
However, what we speak of here are the
expansion of empires and the machinations of rulers.
It is not surprising that the edges of
imperial territories show the signs of war and conflict of religion as part of
cultural, ethnic, economic, and expansionist policies.
However, religion also spread at times
through trade, books, and gentler flows of peoples across the globe.
Here, perhaps we see the real history of
inter-religious relations. A history that is not conflictual and violent, but
one marked by sharing, cooperation, reciprocity, and accommodation as people
live out their religious identities in relation to people with other religious
In such a context, finding areas of common
space and agreement is more normal than conflict.
Indeed, as noted, this has precedent in the
foundational ideas and key leaders of many religious traditions who stressed
cooperation and peace over war and conflict.
Certainly, this is not to say that left to
themselves religions will live in peace. They contain traditions and trends to
both conflict and coexistence.
We have no reason, though, to see the
former as more normal or defining than the latter.
Indeed, this ambivalent nature of the
sacred, as American historian Professor Scott Appleby has termed it, means that
religious leaders, devotees, and others concerned with social harmony and
positive inter-religious relations have a duty to ensure that the elements
favouring coexistence and harmony are promoted and extolled.
Peaceful coexistence is not a denial of
one’s religion, nor downplaying its importance, but learning from its vital
sources for life in the twenty-first century.