For Islamist Hamas, Jews are enemies, even more than Israelis. The massacres carried out against civilians were not as much an act of war as an anti-Semitic pogrom, similar to those perpetrated in Russia, Ukraine, and Nazi Germany. Religious fanaticism is returning to the fore, and not just in Israel. As such, it must be reintegrated into analyses of all current and future conflicts.
Examples abound. Three weeks ago, a Sikh religious leader was assassinated in Canada, seemingly on the orders of the Indian government. As India’s ruling party wants the country to be associated with Hinduism, any religious dissent becomes intolerable. Religious harmony was important enough to Vladimir Putin that he secured the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church for his invasion of Ukraine. Another event that may seem anecdotal, but is anything but, is Beijing’s recognition of Taoism. The oldest religion in China has continued to exist despite the Communist regime, albeit underground. The Communist Party has now recognized its importance and is authorizing a public presence for it, in the form of a national association. This will make Taoism easier to control, much like incarcerating Uighur Muslims in labor camps. Or consider the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which intersects with ancient hostility between Christians and Muslims in the Caucasus.
Seeing these religious divisions as an explanation for global events seems strange to Europeans, many of whom no longer practice a faith or have become atheists. In France, once the world’s most Catholic country, practicing Catholics now account for an estimated 5 percent of the population. It’s about the same in Spain and Italy. Our churches stand empty, aside for weddings and funerals. Protestantism in Northern Europe fares no better; churches in Germany and Scandinavia have been transformed from places of worship into cultural centers.
Yet far from home, many conflicts can be explained by religious rather than ideological, nationalistic, or ethnic reasons. The battles playing out in Africa’s Sahel region cannot simply be explained by artificial borders inherited from colonization. The wars in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are being fought between Muslims and animists, many of whom have converted to Christianity. The Sahel has seen clashes between these two religious groups for centuries. Similarly, looking closer at the divisions between North and South Sudan, we find that the conflict is waged between the Muslim, Arab North and the African, Christian South. In the Arab Middle East, Shiites and Sunnis battle across national borders, each claiming to embody the true Islam.
Religion is also essential to understanding conflicts throughout Asia. In Sri Lanka, militarized Buddhists fought Hindu Tamils in a civil war that ended in 2009. In Myanmar, Buddhist militias are driving out the Muslim Rohingya minority. It is impossible to understand China’s past or present without examining the role that religion and ideology have played within it—and this is the context within which to analyze its recent recognition of Taoism. The first president of the Chinese Republic in 1911, Sun Yat-sen, happened to be Christian. Even today, the leaders of the independence movement in Hong Kong and Taiwan are generally Catholic or Protestant. Most dissidents are, too. In China, Christianity represents the ultimate form of revolt against Communist totalitarianism—even more than the promotion of Western-style liberal democracy. In Korea, the South has become essentially Christian and Buddhist, while the North pursues the age-old Korean tradition of rigid Confucianism, but under the guise of a Communist ideology.
In Latin America, the gradual replacement of Catholic domination by evangelical churches largely explains the political shifts that have led, for example, to Jair Bolsonaro becoming president of Brazil. The United States is the only remaining country in the West to practice religion on a massive scale. Some sociologists suggest that attending church or going to temple every Sunday is less about religion than an expression of belonging within a social community. But hasn’t community always been a strong factor in religious observance?
Let us conclude with Europe. The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, which are far from over, are less concerned with nations than with religions. In Bosnia and Kosovo, Muslims clash with Orthodox Christians. The Croats are Catholics, which explains their hostility to the Serbs. Immigration from the South to Northern Europe would almost certainly be better accepted if the new arrivals were Christians instead of Muslims. And not only are these new arrivals Muslims; they also practice their Muslim faith. For the French, this is both incomprehensible and nearly unbearable; these immigrants truly believe in Islam, whereas we no longer believe in anything but materialism.
None of these observations, if accurate, makes achieving peace any easier. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is harder to reconcile religions than it is to reconcile nations. But taking religious factors into account, particularly for those of us with little or no religious background, will help us to see things more clearly.
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