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

I observe that these “holy war” movements are part of a vicious cycle of polarization and a dire lack of social cohesion in most societies, coexisting with a growing recognition among several decision-making bodies (governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental) of how important religion has been and will continue to be.

Religious institutions, religious leaders, and religious (or faith-based) organizations are indeed the natural social service providers, community intermediaries, upholders of social norms, change agents, and indeed, historically, the natural defenders of human rights.

I emphasize that its harmful mixture (is this a tautology?) with narrow political interests has meant “holy war” in the minds of those in decision-making positions, those who control access to weapons, the law and its implementation, those who influence beliefs, behaviors and attitudes through their unparalleled pulpits (or all of the above). Justified.

In times of “holy war,” we are called to understand that social fragmentation, leading in part to a polarized and significantly weakened civil society, may be exacerbated by the current heightened focus on religion.

I have argued elsewhere that acknowledging the “good” power of religious institutions and religious leaders, and the incredible influence of religious community services and positive change agents, is necessary but not sufficient.

Indeed, highlighting, endorsing, and identifying the religious as a panacea is just as damaging as dismissing the religious as evil, anti-human rights, unwholesome, misogynistic, unnecessary, intolerant, etc. has been and remains harmful to the very fabric of civil society that we all support.

It is not just about good or bad religion, but rather about how we create, nurture, protect and respect civil society.

Our governments (including elected governments), religious institutions (including those that have existed for centuries), and corporations (including those that rank highest on CSR and ESG) cannot, on their own, change the dramatic trajectory of reality for all of humanity and the planet.

The late Wangari Matai, the Kenyan environmental activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, showed remarkable prescientity when she highlighted the interconnectedness of the challenges we face: “In a few decades’ time, the connections between environment, resources and conflict may seem as clear as the connections we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.”

We need to begin to investigate what it takes to identify, understand, and activate a poetics of solidarity.The Oxford Reference explains that “Poetics is the general principles of poetry or literature in general, or the theoretical study of these principles. As a theoretical body, poetics is concerned with the characteristics, language, form, genre, and style of composition of poetry (or literature as a whole).”

If we use the term “poetics” to refer to solidarity as a lived reality and not just as an aspect of literature or theory, what “language, form, genre, mode of being” does it mean? In the following paragraphs, I do not intend to offer a definitive answer. I simply share some thoughts to inspire, provoke, and engage each of us.

A poetics of solidarity must have as its existence an understanding that it is not enough to work “alone” to solve problems that affect everyone, whether that be a single multifaceted organization, the United Nations, a corporation, a religious or multi-religious organization, a secular NGO or an umbrella organization of NGOs, a judicial official or institution, a cultural agent or organization, a financial or military giant, etc.

Even though so many people have been trying for so long in almost every sphere of human existence, and even after so many solidarity movements have succeeded in overcoming, correcting and fighting the good fight, we have arrived here in this very difficult space and time. And yet, here we are.

The poetics of solidarity requires us to take responsibility for all the ways we have thought and acted thus far. I am by no means saying that we have all failed. Rather, we stand on the shoulders of so many people who have given their lives to make this world better for all. We must acknowledge this and take responsibility for what so many people are doing and have done in contributing to our common existence.

This alone makes us different from many leaders who come into office and insist on undermining or, worse, undoing everything they or their predecessors have accomplished, or who come into office and spend much of their time blaming, complaining, arguing and berating those who try to work with them, or who claim to be part of a team but are unable and unwilling to support each other when challenges arise.

The poetics of solidarity demands that we not only speak the talk, but also commit money and other resources, including revitalizing so-called values. It is not enough to speak of human rights, the glory of each faith, or “interreligious peacebuilding” and to build such edifices of “coexistence” without contributing to the efforts of those who fight for these rights.

It is hard to justify killing, maiming, criminalizing, imprisoning, and otherwise silencing people who demand their rights and fight for the rights of others, and it is also hard to justify people who pretend to fight for the rights of others when things are good, and then become silent or conspicuously disappear when things are tough.

When we see a fellow human being giving, instead of undermining, constantly criticizing, systematically opposing, complaining, or just staying silent (and hiding behind the assertion that that particular problem is not their job or effort), what if we praised, thanked, reached out to share a kind word, and even better, asked how we could help…? What if we gave what “little” we have? Don’t all our religions say that? Do you think this sounds too simple?

Didn’t Einstein say at one point that the only difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has limits, and that everything should be as simple as possible, but not too simple? To give kindness, praise, and the things we value to people we would never normally want to meet or feel like thanking, to people who speak, work, and live differently from us, but who are committed to the collective good, is not a simple thing. It is genius. It is also genius to cooperate with people who fly the flags of different organizations, rather than flying and strengthening their own flags.

A poetics of solidarity might require us to acknowledge that solidarity is fundamentally about how we relate to one another, in word and deed, with kindness, empathy, and the will to serve. But it also means humbly recognizing that even though some of us do our best to relate, to “support,” “empower,” “create,” and “enable,” we may end up hurting one another or damaging parts of the environment that some of us, including future generations, need to survive.

Regarding the poetics of solidarity in times of “holy war,” we can no longer afford to see the “religious” as our savior or the only source of interrelated salvation. Nor can we completely ignore or shun the religious sphere, thinking that we know best. Rather, we need to take responsibility for the fact that our faith (including faith in human rights) demands that we be accountable to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet.

What we need is a poetics of harmless solidarity. But that may mean sacrificing something important to us. We have lived, and still live, in times when we think we can have it all. Perhaps we each and all of us must accept the fact that we need to let go of something valuable to us and give instead in service.

All of our organizations, groups, communities, and each of us individually, have a responsibility. Our long-established religious organizations, our burgeoning faith-based organizations, and our interreligious efforts must be accountable for giving what we value most to those with no religion, to those who belong to different religions and religious organizations, and especially to those who always uphold all human rights for all people.

Secular rights and duty bearers also need to take responsibility for how we alienate while we “protect,” how we harm while we seek to “protect,” how we silence while we shout for “like-minded people.” We talk of alliances and partnerships, but we walk and work in isolation, pursuing our own interests.

Maybe the poetics of solidarity is about nurturing those we hate, intentionally working together, and doing the best we can with what we have and who we are.

Professor Azza Kalam He is President and CEO of Lead Integrity, an affiliate of the Ansari Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and a member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Council on Effective Multilateralism.

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