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2011 began with some bleak news for Muslim-Christian relations around the world.
Recent attacks against churches in Iraq, Nigeria and Egypt have killed dozens of Christian worshippers. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is standing by the country’s controversial blasphemy law which critics say threatens religious minorities.
How should political and religious leaders deal with these challenges to interfaith relations?
An aide to Winston Churchill once remarked that the German advance after Dunkirk was “a blessing in disguise.” Churchill replied, “I must say it is well disguised.” This series of attacks on Christians by Muslims in various parts of the world is politics disguised as religion, and it is, per Churchill, well disguised. Nonetheless, it is critical that political and religious leaders in America and abroad see through this strategy and call it out for what it is: a violent strategy designed to sow sectarian religious hatreds to gain power.
This is the assessment made by John Campbell, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. He wrote, “There is anecdotal evidence that rival candidates are appealing for support on the basis of shared ethnic and religious identities that is likely to foment tension.” He is correct, as usual.
As my colleague at the Center for American Progress, Brian Katulis, and I wrote recently , today “global religious identities are substituting for national identities, especially in weak or failing states.” In these kinds of states such as Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and unfortunately, too many other places around the world, “religious identity more and more substitutes for national identity as the government loses the people’s trust…” and more traditional political identities erode.
Religion’s role in forming and fomenting global power networks is rarely recognized, but it is crucial that we begin to do so. As Scott Thomas argues in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, “A Globalized God: Religion’s Growing Influence in International Politics,” “If the United States recognizes and utilizes the worldwide religious resurgence, it can harness its power to improve international security and better the lives of millions.” He also warns of the dangers of failing to do so.
Religion as a tool of global power networks: follow this thread through the collection of articles referenced for this question and you will begin to see the power calculations in the religious violence. In Egypt, for example, the horrific church attack “comes at a time of rising sectarian tension in Egypt and the broader region.” The Pakistani strike supporting the blasphemy law is similarly characterized, and helpfully analyzed. “I call it a natural result of religious extremism that is on the rise in Pakistani society,” said Mehdi Hasan, the chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights group, while commenting on the strike.
Dr. Hasan offers this trenchant analysis: “The liberal and democratic forces in the country have retreated so much that it has created an ideological vacuum that is now being filled by religious extremists.”
American and international religious and political leaders need to recognize that this new networked, globalized use of religious identities is a major source of political power manipulation in the world today. Our best response is first to not be distracted and conclude this is a problem of “interfaith relations.” It is not. It is a problem of national and international political conflict in a world where religious identity is being manipulated especially by sowing violence in the hope of reaping hatred.
This is not a blessing, and while it is disguised, it is not well disguised. It is the work of violent people trying to gain political power in the name of religion and it must be roundly rejected.
The faith challenge here is to recognize that this is an emerging pattern of brutal, violent political manipulation of religion, and reject it.