Theology has long been used to justify war. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it’s happening again in the Middle East.
The defining difference between the warring parties in the Middle East is religion. Indeed, in many ways this is a depressingly old-fashioned conflict. So are its grizzly dynamics and rationales. Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly appealing to the highest of biblical authorities when he suggested that there is a time for war and a time for peace.
As potential sources of vindication and legitimation go, they don’t get much weightier. For non-believers like me, however, and many sceptical Israelis for that matter, it’s a bit difficult to take Netanyahu’s rhetoric seriously. While he seems entirely comfortable exercising his own god-like power to inflict death and destruction, his rhetoric looks suspiciously like the last resort of an unpopular leader exploiting the defining feature and fears of the nation he leads.
Unfortunately, appalling violence is something that ‘the other team’, as Joe Biden described Hamas, also justifies by footnoting the Almighty. From its inception as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has claimed to be doing Allah’s work, with the consequence that there is ‘no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.’ The prospects of a negotiated peace or even a ceasefire look depressingly dismal with such entrenched hatred on both sides.
Religiously inspired wars are not something that are confined to the Middle East, of course. On the contrary, Europe provided an historical masterclass in religious pogroms and conflict that has yet to be surpassed. Not only did Europeans have endless conflicts amongst themselves over theological doctrine in earlier times, but they tried to export their beliefs through crusades designed to bring the infidels to see the merits of the one true religion.
This is another idea that hasn’t entirely disappeared. George W. Bush’s unfortunate depiction of American policy after September 11 as a crusade is just the latest iteration of the most vainglorious of assumptions. From its inception, the United States has seen itself as having a God-given manifest destiny, an idea that helps to explain why so many American policymakers still seem to think that they are fulfilling a special historical role.
They are not alone in this delusion either. Vladimir Putin may be cynically exploiting a convenient set of historical beliefs to justify his invasion of Ukraine, but he is receiving enthusiastic support from Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who seems to think slaughtering the neighbours is one way of unifying the church across national borders. Perhaps the bit in the Bible about ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ got lost in translation.
One of the consequences of the collapse of the notionally atheistic Soviet Union and its empire was to allow formerly suppressed ethnic and religious tensions to remerge in places like the former Yugoslavia and most recently in Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia. While religion may not be the only reason for this conflict, it is striking that Russia has an alliance with Armenia and Turkey supports Azerbaijan. Would be great powers have great regional and religious responsibilities, it seems.
India’s Narendra Modi is another leader who has managed to use religious tensions and differences to further decidedly secular political ambitions. While Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi failed to stop communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, a decision that led to the deaths of more than 2,000 of the latter. Since then, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has ‘strategically’ used violence to ‘polarise communities in areas where the BJP faced the most electoral competition.’
To be fair, it’s not only the Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews that are prone using violence to fulfil transcendental purposes and settle religious and—more importantly, perhaps—territorial or political differences. One of the drivers of Myanmar’s seemingly endless civil strife has been differing belief systems. Whether Buddhism is actually a religion is moot, but what is less questionable has been the role played by Buddhist nationalist groups—a startling oxymoron if ever there was one—in the persecution and expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya.
One of the problems with large bodies of religious literature and doctrine is that it is possible to find a rationale for just about anything, including despatching those who subscribe to a different theological epistemology. Selectively invoking convenient passages out of context to justify religious persecution and bigotry is a tradition as old as organised religion itself, and one that is clearly not going out of fashion; like religion itself, for that matter.
While people may derive many benefits from belonging to a religious community, inclusivity and the acceptance of others is not necessarily one of them. Say what you like about agnostics, but what you don’t know not only can’t hurt you, but it doesn’t provide a basis for disliking, much less persecuting others either. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss after all.