this year Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to his country's
parliament, posed two questions: “Who are our enemies?” and “Why do they hate
us?” He described an axis of evil, with Iran's enemies being “all the wicked
men of the world, whether abroad or at home”. The root cause of their hatred
was religious—a loathing of “whomsoever should serve the glory of God”. Having
described George Bush's atrocities, he told the cheering MPs, “Truly, your
great enemy is the American—through that enmity that is in him against all that
is of God in you.” Fortunately, Iran would not fight alone: it had the support
of Muslims around the world. Be bold, he advised, and “you will find that you
act for a very great many people that are God's own.”
Bridgeman Art Library
Ahmadinejad, read Oliver Cromwell; for Iran, England; and for America, Catholic
Spain. The quotes above come from a speech made by Cromwell to the English
Parliament in 1656. Parliament then passed an oath of loyalty in which English
Catholics were asked to disown the pope and most of the canons of Catholic
belief, or face losing two-thirds of their worldly goods. Shortly afterwards
Cromwell invaded Ireland.
“Faith is a
source of conflict,” reads a sign at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation
and Peace in the City of London—adding that it can also be “a resource to
transform conflict”. Appropriately, the centre was built in a church blown up
in 1993 by Irish terrorists, brought up, no doubt, with tales of Cromwell's
of course, does not necessarily equate to war. But there are some depressing
echoes of Cromwell's time.
once again prolonging conflict. Religion is seldom the casus belli: indeed, in
many struggles, notably the Middle East in modern times, it is amazing how long
it took for religion to become a big part of the argument. But once there, it
makes conflicts harder to resolve. A squabble over land (which can be divided)
or power (which can be shared) or rules (that can be fudged) becomes a dispute
over non-negotiable absolutes. If you believe that God granted you the West
Bank, or that any form of abortion is murder, compromise is not really
again, politicians are stirring up religious passion. Mr Ahmadinejad may not
have told Muslims that the Israeli “has an interest in your bowels” (as
Cromwell did of Spaniards), but he has called for Israel's removal and denied
the Holocaust. Osama bin Laden rages that Islam is under sustained attack: any
Muslim who “collaborates” with the West is an apostate.
leaders have been more careful, but many use religious imagery. In his new book,
“God and Gold”, Walter Russell Mead compares Ronald Reagan's denunciation of
the Godless Soviet Union (the “Evil Empire”) to Cromwell's speech. Franklin
Graham spoke for many on the religious right when he denounced Islam as a “very
evil and wicked religion”. American conservatives seem undecided on whether the
battle against “Islamofascism” is the third world war (Newt Gingrich) or the
fourth (Norman Podhoretz).
again, outsiders are rushing to defend their religions: religious scraps
attract money and soldiers. Just as Guy Fawkes, Britain's most famous religious
terrorist, hardened his radical beliefs when fighting for Catholicism in the
Netherlands, European Muslims have gone to defend their faith in Kashmir,
Chechnya and Iraq. Some of the most fervent supporters of India's Hindutva
movement come from the diaspora. Many migrants define themselves by their
faith, not their new home.
•One of the
world's great religions, Christianity, split into Catholic and Protestant in
the 16th century. Now Islam is having to contend with a sharpening split between
Sunni and Shia. Once again nation states are weak: most Middle Eastern
countries are recent creations. And there is a ring of instability on Islam's
southern frontier, which runs roughly along the 10th parallel from West Africa
to the Philippines.
outrages are once again presumed to have religious connections, as they would
have done in Cromwell's time. In the 1970s terrorism seemed to be the preserve
of Maoist guerrillas, middle-class Germans and Italians or the then very
secular (and partly Christian-led) Palestine Liberation Organisation. Now three
out of the four most likely flashpoints for nuclear conflict—Pakistan-India,
Iran and Israel—have a strong religious element. The only exception is North
Be Godless Too
It is possible
that these similarities could escalate into something horrifying. A
confrontation between nuclear Iran on one side and Israel and America on the
other would reverberate around the globe. But the idea that the world is
reverting to a former age is too simplistic.
obviously, humanity can find plenty of reasons for genocide and suffering
without troubling God. “The 20th century was the most secular and the most
bloody in human history,” argues George Weigel, a leading American
conservative. What he calls “the Godless religions of Nazism and communism”
killed tens of millions of people. Each had its theory of salvation, its rites,
its prophets, its sacred places and its distinctive idea of morality; but
communists and Nazis did not use God to stir up passions. The Cambodian
genocide was similarly secular.
does exist, religious conflict is now far less of a top-down affair. No
government officially approves of killing people solely because of their
religion, and no significant religious leader sanctifies that killing by
blessing armadas or preaching crusades. Last year the pope took issue with
Islam in a speech at Regensburg, but he also opposed the Iraq war. Most Islamic
authorities preach non-violence. Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered Shia on
the planet, has often urged restraint in Iraq.
this does not prevent individual clerics from committing appalling acts of
brutality: Catholic priests helped torture people in Argentina, Buddhist monks
have led murderous attacks in Sri Lanka and imams have encouraged
suicide-bombing in Israel. But every zealot interviewed for this special
report, including those with blood near their hands, insisted that his religion
the power of governments to control religious politics has declined. The wars
of religion took place in an age of “cuius regio, eius religio”, where the
monarch dictated the religion. England once turned to Protestantism because
Henry VIII found the Catholic Church’s rules on matrimony irksome. Nowadays,
nobody is trying to improve America's relations with the Middle East by
marrying off the Bush twins to Arab princes.
national armies no longer marching under religious banners, grievances have reappeared
in several guises. None of them is easy for the West to deal with.
that gets most attention is terrorism—especially Islamic terrorism. States are
certainly actors in this: Iran may not openly wage religious war, but it has
been happy to back Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. But then
neither Hamas nor Hizbullah is a purely sectarian organisation. Like the IRA in
Ireland, they both have political-territorial objectives.
Most of the
main jihadist terrorist organisations are bottom-up affairs. Mr bin Laden would
no doubt like to control another state (as he once did from Afghanistan). But
his organisation has been able to mount attacks and recruit volunteers without
help from a government.
way in which religion thrusts itself into politics is inter-communal violence.
Once again, other forces are often at work, such as tribalism in Nigeria or
nationalism in India. But religion supplies the underlying viciousness.
Sectarian violence has been responsible for most of the killing in Iraq in the
aftermath of the war. Some 68,000 Sri Lankans have died since 1983. Other,
lower-level conflicts, such as Catholics and Protestants attacking each other
in Mexico's Chiapas, occasionally flare up. Outside parties can play a role in
stoking up such struggles (and supplying arms), as Iran has done in Iraq and
Syria has done in Lebanon. But most of these fights have a local, tit-for-tat
feel. The violence is often set off by events such as marches, feast days or
there is state-based repression, where religion is either the target or the
motivation. In the Muslim world the repression is sometimes by theocracies
(like Iran or Saudi Arabia), against irreligious sorts, such as adulterers,
heretics and homosexuals. But it also goes the other way, with secular states
(Syria, Egypt, much of North Africa) discriminating against religious
dissidents. In the most bizarre example, China recently banned Buddhist monks
in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. The religious-affairs
agency explained that this was “an important move to institutionalise
management of reincarnation”. The real purpose is to prevent the Dalai Lama,
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, from being succeeded by someone from outside
foremost way in which religion has expressed itself around the world has been
more peaceful: the ballot box. Religious people have either formed religious
parties (such as India's BJP) or converted secular ones into more faith-driven
outfits (such as America's Republican Party). In places where religion was
frowned upon by the state, such as Mexico or Turkey, greater freedom has
allowed the pious to form parties, such as the Catholic-oriented PAN party or
the Islamic AK Party.
And it has
not just been a case of democracy helping religion. Timothy Shah of the Council
on Foreign Relations argues that it can go the other way too. By his
calculation, more than 30 of the 80 or so countries that became freer in
1972-2000 owed some of the improvement to religion. Sometimes established
churches helped to push for democracy (eg, the Catholic church in Poland), but
more often it was pressure from the grassroots: religious people usually look
for a degree of freedom (if only to pursue their faith).
means that the modern wars of religion are mercifully less violent and
all-consuming than their predecessors; but also that tackling the politics of
religion is more awkward than it used to be. Culture wars are now global (a
subject to which this special report will return).
complicates foreign policy enormously. Should America focus on the tiny number
of angry Muslims with guns, or the millions who have voted for Islamic parties
in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Algeria and Palestine? If most religious fanatics
were bent on conquest and terror rather than democracy, their causes would be
easier to discredit. And if religion were the sole cause of the conflicts, it
would be easier to work out “why they hate us”.
Headline: The new wars of religion
Source: The Economist