Religion is Not to Blame
By Bill Miller
Is there a conflict between the Koran, the Torah and the Bible? Not according to a recent UN report and former Secretary General (SG) of the UN Kofi Annan, who believes that religion is not the main culprit in promoting hatred and mistrust between the Western and Muslim worlds.
Shortly before retiring after a 10-year stint as SG, Annan commented on how it is not “faith… but the faithful” that interpret the sacred books and react to one another, often with devastating consequences that create many of the problems.
One of the conventional beliefs underlying the notion that there is a “conflict of civilizations” (often embodied in an intrinsic, unyielding religious conflict) between the West and the Muslim societies is based upon theories promulgated by authors such as Samuel P. Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order.
A recent UN report issued by the Alliance of Civilizations Project, which had 20 outstanding members such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Frederico Mayor (former UNESCO Director-General), squarely refutes this notion.
The Alliance of Civilizations Report suggests that many of the problems confronting the Western and Muslim societies can be localized in several areas. For example: Globalization can create challenges to traditional lifestyles. The introduction of something culturally diverse (such as movies, cartoons or paintings) may be perceived as decadent or damaging to a more traditional, religious society. A person living in abject poverty may feel tremendous resentment against others and be resigned to a very low standard of living and quality of life. Consistent discrimination by one group against another can exacerbate misunderstandings and hatred.
A large number of suicide bombers who survived indicated that the main reason they participated was due to a feeling of helplessness and a belief that there was no other way to have their grievances addressed. Desperation trumped religious fervor.
Shamil Idriss, Acting Director of the Alliance of Civilizations Project, stresses that there are several Western policies affecting Muslim countries that increase the tension. Two of the most prominent policies are the constantly festering Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio and the military operations in Muslim countries, especially in Iraq.
On the Muslim side of the coin, there are negative influences such as a bitter debate between progressive and regressive leaders on a myriad of social, political and religious issues, especially the interpretation of the Koran and Islamic law. Many of these key players have thwarted reforms and adopted repressive political, cultural and legal policies against their opponents and the general public.
Another report issued by the UN Development Program (UNDP) vividly described how the social and economic progress in the Arab world is considerably slower than in the West, and is actually stagnant or atrophying in some areas.
The Alliance of Civilizations Report proffered several common-sensical and specific recommendations to overcome this challenge to social and economic progress and promote a dialogue between Western and Muslim countries. Note the following:
-- A re-affirmation by the international community would seek to find a permanent and equitable solution to the Middle East crisis and the development of a White Paper that objectively analyzes the Israeli-Palestinian situation. By providing a narrative of each group’s position, reviewing the successes and failures of other peace initiatives and delineating specific conditions that must be adhered to by all parties, it is hoped that the two sides will develop their own strategy for a peaceful coexistence with two separate states living in peace.
-- Establish an international conference that brings together all parties that have a legitimate role to play in the peace process and developed a Forum for the Alliance of Civilizations. Both would be under the auspices of the UN. In particular, the Forum would provide a formal mechanism that would encourage representatives of governments, the private sector, international organizations and civil society to engage in partnerships and to commit them to action in overcoming this gulf between the two societies.
-- Training would be implemented in intercultural understanding for journalists to better understand the religious and political forces at play. Also, journalists, as well as religious and political leaders, are encouraged to write objective articles that would provide background information, an analysis of complex issues and develop a bridge for better understanding.
This will be a major challenge since many journalists often parachute in and write an article on something they know little or nothing about, look for the most sensational and negative angle on a story, and tend to report a story as “us versus them.”
Other recommendations include promoting youth exchange programs and reviewing educational materials to guarantee accuracy, fairness and balance when discussing other cultures, especially religion (not to be confused with censorship).
Some UN reports are rather lengthy and jargon-ladened. This is not one of them. The recommendations are practical, comprehensible and possibly achievable. The Alliance of Civilizations Report, which is a very important blueprint for understanding the basic causes of much of the conflict between the West and Muslim societies, should be acted upon immediately by the UN and should be a must-read for anyone interested in isolating and remedying the basic causes of conflict. More information can be found at www.UNAoC.org
Winston Churchill once said, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Perhaps the “clash of civilizations” believers will read this report, change their minds and change the subject. A just and lasting peace in the 21st Century may depend upon it.
Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN.