Aug 12, 2014

Religion Guides Conflict in the Middle East. Solutions are Better Achieved when Religion is Put Aside!

Why people take important actions or why they choose to believe certain myths is fascinating to me. Often it's not about evidence and reason, but it's about culture, purpose, and wishful thinking. If it were about reason and ascertainable facts, there would be lots more consensus on reality!

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague about the role of religion in the many conflicts in the Middle East. I argue that religious beliefs dictate to a great extent what's been happening there. This is not to say that there aren't other causes and factors, but if the participants were not religious, I bet they'd behave much differently. There wouldn't be a Jewish state or dreams of a caliphate or that God clearly has taken sides in the conflict and rewards his believers. 

More traditional societies are more affected by religion. Modern states, especially the ones that have adopted liberalism, have been increasingly separating church-state; not so the regimes in the Middle East, though Israel is the only state that has strong elements of a secular democracy. Unfortunately, the Israeli government caters too much to the conservative Orthodox, who are motivated by strong religious dogmas. But, the vast majority of Jews don't take their Bible too literally. Like most Xtians have already done so. It would be reprehensible, and immoral--according to our modern sensibilities--to act as the Bible prescribes, especially in the Old Testament. Apparently many Muslims are still very fundamentalists and are in favor of theocracy.

As to the latest conflict, there's no easy or agreeable timeline of responsibility. Several peoples live in small contested land for thousands of years. The Balkans used to be like this, but it was easier to form countries with fixed borders. There were wars, exchange of populations, genocides, and religious conflict. But also there was more room to move and adjust the borders. Palestinians, Jews, and Christians all lay claim to this relatively small parcel of land in the Middle East.  Hamas began to fire rockets into Israeli civilian territory a few weeks ago. We have to ask, why did Hamas do so and what did they hope to achieve?

Those rockets couldn't seriously hurt Israel but certainly did provoke a violent reaction. Hamas knew that lots of innocent Palestinians would die if Israel retaliated--which it did. Are we closer to a solution today? I wonder. I am not excusing Israel's heavy hand, before and during the war. Let's say, however, that Hamas was in charge--with a big military force--and there was a Jewish minority. I don't think it'd take much guessing as to how Hamas would deal with the problem. 

I took the trouble to pour through Hamas' Chapter (Covenant). There isn't one paragraph that doesn't mention religion. The whole point of it is to eradicate the Jewish population from Palestine and establish a strict theocracy! A few days ago, NPR had a story about a young Hamas fighter who was killed. His mother kept saying “praise God” and that her son asked her to “pray for him” (before any mission). He had saved a few thousands of dollars “to get a bride” and if he was killed before that he asked his mother to spend the money on a hadj to Mecca! Praise God. This is a motivating factor for so many people. If they’re convinced that God is on their side and they’re going to heaven, especially as martyrs, even if it means killing infidels or fellow Muslims who don't have the correct version of God….

ISIS--the fanatics from Syria who have spread in Iraq is a prime example of religious lunacy. ISIS' public executions, the practice of a barbaric understanding of religion, and the fanaticism of its fighters is so extreme that even Al Qaeda rejected them. ISIS rose because those crazies are well armed, and financed, so such people tend to do well against corrupt, inefficient states, armies, etc.  If ISIS were smarter, they should copy Hezbollah, go into territories and instead of absolute terror they would improve the lives of citizens by providing needed services the Syrian or Iraqi state hadn’t. Now the US is using air strikes to push them back.

There are stark differences between those who recognize no limits to their armed struggle--anything goes at any price--and those who have the power but recognize restraints. For me at least this is important. Furthermore, I do not like theocracies of any kind. Humanity deserves better. Like I. Kant said sometime ago, this can be an age of enlightenment.... but only if we want it, because we choose to leave our immaturity behind.