The Age of Holy War and the Poetics of Solidarity
  • opinion Aza Karam (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

In a recent opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine, columnist Caroline de Gruyter noted: “Israel and Palestine are now in a state of religious war.”She sought to argue why Middle East conflicts are becoming increasingly brutal and harder to resolve.

The intersection of holiness and war Zvi Barel“The war in Gaza is no longer about revenge for the killing of 1,200 Israelis and hostages,” he said in an editorial in Haaretz.

Even if they all died, along with hundreds more, the cost of Jewish jihad to fight for Gaza resettlement would be justified.’ Hamas’ own name (an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah (Islamic Resistance Movement)) needs no explanation, and neither does Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God).

In India, a report by the Indian Citizens and Lawyers Initiative (April 2023) titled “The Road to Rage: The Weaponization of Religious Processions” states:

Indian history is replete with instances where religious processions have led to sectarian strife, riots, unacceptable violence, arson, destruction of property and tragic deaths of innocent residents of riot-hit areas. Other factors have also led to horrific riots and bloodshed, most notably the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres and the 2002 Gujarat massacres, but no other cause of inter-faith violence has been as frequent and widespread as religious processions. This was true both before India’s independence and in the 75 years since it became a free nation. Since independence, we have faced numerous sectarian riots in different parts of India under different political regimes, most of which were caused by the deliberate choice of sectarian sensitive routes by processions, the police’s weakness in dealing with such demands and even complicity or acquiescence in issuing permissions for such routes.2

Already in August 1988, in an article titled “Holy War Against India”, he made an explicit reference to “Sikh terrorism” in Punjab, noting that “about 1,000 lives were lost in 1987 and more than 1,000 in the first five months of 1988.”

If it continues at its current pace, Sikh terrorism in the Punjab will claim more lives in two years than the IRA’s activities in Northern Ireland did in 20 years.” 3 In Northern Ireland, the marching season remains a contentious issue between Catholics and Protestants.

Politicized religion, or religiousized politics – where religious discourse becomes part of political rhetoric, tactics and alliances of convenience, sometimes used to dictate foreign policy priorities and sometimes to justify conflict – is not a new phenomenon. In fact, they may be among the oldest features of politics, governance and the conduct of war.

The Crusades against the spread of Islam in the 11th century were called “holy wars” or sacrumThis war was described by later writers in the 17th century as “religion and politics.” The early modern war against the Ottoman Empire was seen by contemporaries as an uninterrupted continuation of this conflict. Religion and politics are the oldest alliance known to mankind.

Relatively new is the false perception of the dominance of secular rule in modern times, resulting from the Hundred Years’ War in Europe and the subsequent move towards secularisation, or the so-called separation of church and state (again, in practice only in parts of Europe).

But even in the strongholds of secular Western Europe, the relationship linking church and state has always existed, and religious institutions and associated social structures remain important social service providers and humanitarian actors to this day.This is now understood to be a reality that applies to all parts of the world.

What we are witnessing today, however, is a resurgence of religious politics, and of religious politics, in almost every part of the world.Before the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed its “holy war” narrative, references to religion and politics were almost always centered in Muslim-majority contexts, specifically Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.

Other realities were often overlooked or somehow considered “weird” or one-off phenomena: for example, the fact that the 2016 US elections brought about a Trump administration that was fully and publicly supported by a significant portion of the evangelical movement (many of whom now support his return); or the fact that relevant evangelical colleagues in Brazil supported Bolsenaro’s election to power; or the fact that religious arguments against abortion have been a key feature of US elections for decades; or the fact that in Europe and parts of Latin America, much right-wing anti-immigrant political discourse and blatant white supremacist politics find religious support.

Because these occurred in “white” and Christian-majority polities, were they somehow excluded from being considered as part of a global resurgence of religious politics?

Either way, now is the time to smell the especially strong aroma of coffee, and as we do so, we should also realize that it is no coincidence that this “coffee aroma” is occurring at a time of marked social and political polarization in many societies.

Yes, we speak of multiple, simultaneous crises (climate change, disastrous governance, war, hunger, widespread inequality, soaring human displacement, nuclear terror, systemic racism, increasing compound violence, the war on drugs, the proliferation of weapons and arms, misogyny, etc.) and we recognise the weakening of multilateral influence to confront them. But as we recognise this, we must also recognise that social cohesion is a permanent and tragic casualty.

Several governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations have turned to religion as a panacea. Religious leaders are convening (at great expense) in multiple capitals in almost every region of the world.

They regularly promote the peacefulness and unique superiority of their respective moral values. Religious NGOs are more regularly being called upon, supported and partnered to address multiple crises, particularly in humanitarian, education, public health, sanitation and child-focused efforts.

Interfaith efforts compete with each other and with other secular efforts for grant funding from governments and philanthropists in the United States, Europe, Africa, much of Asia (except China), and the Middle East. Engaging and partnering with religious organizations is the new normal.

But just as the primarily secular endeavors we experienced from the 1960s through the 1990s (and in which some have been engaged for decades) could not bring about a Brave New World, religious endeavors cannot do so alone, especially not while carrying with them the historical baggage and contemporary narratives of holy war that we now carry with us.

Now is the time to rethink, reengage, and reimagine a poetics of solidarity rooted in unwavering adherence to (and re-education about) all human rights for all people at all times. What does that mean?

1https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/88aug/obrien.htm2 Conor O’Brien https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/routes-of-wrath-report-2023-2-465217.pdf3 Conor O’Brien https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/routes-of-wrath-report-2023-2-465217.pdf

Part 2 will follow.

Dr. Aza Kalam President and CEO Lead IntegrityHe is professor and affiliate at the Ansari Institute of Religion and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Council on Effective Multilateralism.

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