There is a dictum in the Babylonian heritage about the virtues of compromise that goes like this: “Where there is complete truth, there is no peace. And where there is peace, there is no complete truth.
What the ancient sages were trying to say was that seeking perfect justice for one’s community or cause might be ideologically satisfying, but it is not compatible with peace, because peace is built on compromises painted in shades of gray, not only of black and white. What makes this wisdom more complicated is the relationship between truth and religion. Religion is absolute truth, truth that comes from God and that represents His will. In this case, how is it possible, even for the sake of peace, to make a compromise between communities of different religions – in other words different interpretations of the will of God? When communities identify themselves according to religion, or are identified exclusively by it, situations become more complex and more open to confrontation. Religion speaks to some of the deepest feelings and sensitivities of individuals and communities; it has a leading place in deep historical collective memories, and often appeals to universal loyalties, especially in the case of Christianity and Islam.
And so religion comes to be seen as a cause of conflict and is often, in fact, an intensifier of conflicts whose causes are alien to the spirit of religion. Researchers who study warfare, aggression and the evolutionary roots of conflict have found that war-making is a hard habit to shake. It may take the dropping of another nuclear bomb before everybody gets the message. There have been very few times in the history of civilization when there haven’t been wars going on somewhere. In the 20th century, an estimated 100 million people died in the world’s wars. Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of militarism in perhaps 95 percent of the cultures they have examined. Warriors have often been the most esteemed members of their group.
Geneticists have found evidence that Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongol emperor, fathered so many offspring that 16 million people could be his descendants. Arthur Koestler, the author of “Darkness at Noon, has written that “homicide committed for selfish motives is a statistical rarity in all cultures. Homicide for unselfish motives is the dominant phenomenon of man’s history. His tragedy is not an excess of aggression, but an excess of devotion. It is loyalty and devotion not spirituality which makes the fanatic. As far as Islam is concerned, there are three main factors that are inflaming conflicts and hindering peace-building in the world: the misinterpretation of Islam by extremist individuals and groups; the misunderstanding of Islam by non-Muslims, especially in the West; and the misinterpretation or disfiguring of Islam in the international media. It is not difficult to notice that Islam is involved in many major global conflicts today. There are two different interpretations of this phenomenon: Muslims believe that the problem lies in the negative image of Islam in Western consciousness, and in continuous efforts to destabilize the Muslim world as a means of guaranteeing the security of Israel.
On the other hand, non-Muslims believe that the problem lies within Islam “as a rejectionist religion that refuses democracy and liberalism.
Muslims consider themselves victims trying to safeguard their religion, while non-Muslims consider Islam itself as the problem. Muslims look for a solution in terms of improving the image of Islam; non-Muslims argue there can be no solution except from within Islam, through a change the religion’s fundamental concepts. But the fact is that in Islam killing one innocent human being is considered a crime against all humanity. It is an unjustified crime no matter how the criminals try to manipulate religion to justify their evil acts. The prophet Muhammad says: “A Muslim is the one who does no harm to the people [not only Muslims] either by his hand or his tongue.
But politics is the work of man, while religion is the work of God who created man. That is what makes religious politics so dangerous, in that political decisions can be seen as implementation of God’s will, and opposing such decisions as opposing God’s will. For example, religion has indirectly influenced American policy in the Middle East from early on, though never as much as now with President George W. Bush in office. That is why the counter-reaction in the Islamic world to that policy has been based on religion as well. Both sides are wrong, because a mistake cannot be corrected by another mistake. Such mistakes cannot build peace and involve very little spirituality. Asma Asfaruddin, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, has written: “To address the deteriorating world situation today and the problem of ostensibly religious extremism, we have to make the eradication of global poverty and promotion of the dignity of ordinary human beings a top priority.
We have to reinsert moral and ethical values in the public sphere and in international diplomacy, and hold our leaders accountable to such values. This would be the best way to undermine extremist platforms that feed off the grievances of the poor and powerless. It is on such common ground, constructed on universal ethical principles, which diverse groups of people can come together. Military conflicts do not start because one side fires at the other. Wars start in the mind and it is in the mind that we can make peace. That is why peace-building is not just about ceasefires or even political settlements. It is a culture, an education, a form of spirituality that springs from the minds of believers. Destruction does not produce life, nor does it represent victory.
The belief that destroying the “unrighteous is a Holy mission that can free forces of freedom and democracy is an illusion. And an illusory victory is the worst kind of defeat.
Mohammad Sammak is secretary general of the Christian-Muslim Committee for dialogue and secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Christian-Muslim Arab Group. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.