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Looking Beyond the Crises

By Paul Chaffee


Living hasn’t been easy this past summertime, if you care about faith and practice. Stories of diminishing religious freedom and accelerating religiously related violence flooded TIO’s interfaith news aggregation file. For the first time ever we’ve included the monthly collection of news stories under the theme-line this month, Religion in Crisis, since most of them provide fodder for the discussion.

A host of stories were left out… Rohinga Muslim refugees, oppressed by the majority Buddhists where they live in Burma (Miyanmar), are no longer able to wed in Bangladesh, where thousands have fled violence and repression. Chinese Christians are living through a season of church demolitions by the government, and “China's far western region of Xinjiang … banned Muslim staff from fasting during the month of Ramadan.”

Churches protecting thousands of civilians are being attacked by armed soldiers in the Central African Republic. New laws in Burundi abolish churches with less than 500 members and a building, or 1,000 for a foreign church, outlawing hundreds of active congregations. Dozens of stories were published about the most recent Israeli-Hamas war. Anti-Semitism is surging on the European internet. And in the U.S., we hear that the government has secretly monitored the e-mail of prominent Muslim Americans, including attorneys, in clear violation of their rights.

Compounding these tragedies are the difficulties people of faith and practice face figuring out how to respond to this flood of bad news, what to do to turn the tide. Two stories by David Gibson of Religion News Service dramatize this problem.

On August 13 Gibson posted “U.S. Must ‘Destroy’ Islamic State, Say Religious Conservatives.”

A coalition of more than 50 religious leaders, led by mostly conservative Catholic, evangelical and Jewish activists, is calling on President Obama to sharply escalate military action against Islamic extremists in Iraq. They say “nothing short of the destruction” of the Islamic State can protect Christians and religious minorities now being subjected to “a campaign of genocide … We represent various religious traditions and shades of belief,” the petition reads

Then two weeks later, on August 28, Gibson’s published “Christian Leaders Call for End to U.S. Strikes in Iraq, Focus on Peaceful Resolution,” which begins:

Even as some prominent Christians are calling on the U.S. to take more forceful military action against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, more than 50 mainly Catholic and Protestant leaders are telling President Obama to halt American airstrikes and pursue solely peaceful means to resolve the conflict … “While the dire plight of Iraqi civilians should compel the international community to respond in some way, U.S. military action is not the answer,” the 53 clergy, theologians and religious sisters and brothers write in the Aug. 27 open letter … “Lethal weapons and airstrikes will not remove the threat to a just peace in Iraq,” they continue.

So in the midst of global travesty, polarization continues to infect the religious community, and the influence of the religious community at large fades away.

America Goes to War Again, and What We Need to Learn

The hawks won this time. President Obama’s reluctant decision last week to escalate American opposition to ISIS’ bestial warfare in Iraq and Syria generated support from nearly 40 countries within 24 hours, including a number of Middle Eastern Muslim countries, England, France, and Germany, as well as a strong majority of U.S. citizens.

This remarkable level of agreement represents a global learning opportunity.

Mugshot of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2004, at the Camp Bucca internment under U.S. Forces-Iraq. – Photo: Wikipedia

Mugshot of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2004, at the Camp Bucca internment under U.S. Forces-Iraq. – Photo: Wikipedia

Like Hitler, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-appointed caliph of what he calls the Islamic State, so believes his own truth that he seeks to conquer and destroy communities and cultures, Muslim and otherwise, which disagree. He promises his followers that they “will conquer Rome and own the world.” A heretic in the eyes of Muslims, he embraces violence as a means to the kingdom of God. One IS leader actually twittered that they would invade Mecca and destroy the sacred Kaaba, since the hajj pilgrimage should be about God, not a rock.

In short, IS represents the absolute antithesis of a healthy interfaith culture. Overcoming it and its imitators in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere is an opportunity to bolster the world’s appreciation of pluralism. (Those who doubt that IS will fail should read Philip Jenkins’ Daily Beast article last month. Titled “Why the Caliphate Will Devour Its Children,” it’s the most informative article I’ve read about IS. His “Revival in the Balkans,” in this issue, tells how peace can eventually prevail despite the worst travesties of war.)

As the IS madness is overcome, the essential religious lesson starts personally: the safest way to keep my own faith from being dangerous and destructive rather than peaceful and constructive is to ‘respect others’ and the faiths and cultures they represent. For God’s sake, we each need to be modest about our own truth-claims as we interact.

A second lesson is strategic: a tipping point has come, with the world’s woes beseeching us to reach out across all our differences and collaborate, to join forces in addressing these ills. The very best organizations, institutions, religions, communities, and even nations are all ‘means to an end that we share,’ which is peace on Earth and good will towards all. Worshipping any of the particular means, however valuable they may be, rather than seeing them as tools for humankind’s shared welfare, is off the mark, parochial, and dangerous.

As an interfaith student, I’m often asked why Muslim leaders and organizations have not proactively denounced the heresies of the new ‘caliphate’ and similarly violent, extremist ‘Muslims.’ In fact, they have been doing so all along, on multiple platforms in various arenas, as this issue observes. A Muslim is the chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Grassroots Muslim leaders around the world are deeply involved with the interfaith movement at every level.

The difference now is that the media and social media are finally covering these stories in some depth, finally beginning to notice the importance of healthy interreligious relationships and collaboration. After 9/11 thirteen years ago, the leader of a large mosque in Chicago, speaking to an interfaith assembly just days after the tragedy, emotionally declared, “I am outraged as an American, and I am outraged as a Muslim for what happened!” He hasn’t been alone, and finally people are hearing about it.

At the end of the Religion in Crisis stories this month, you’ll find a piece by Bill Swing, founder of United Religions Initiative, titled “In a World of Violent Disorder, Carrying the Agony in Hope.” His title glosses this whole issue. Not easy reading, but important and ultimately hopeful reading.

Special kudos go to Angelina Theodorou, a research assistant at the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. She has been the project’s scribe for the extraordinary research Pew has reported this year on religious freedom and religiously related violence, background data which informs so much of this month’s TIO.