Interpretations for Peace in the Religions of the Near East

INTERFAITH AS AN IDEAL and as an activity now abounds. Very few in the world will admit they do not affirm peaceful
and collaborative relations among religions and believers from different traditions. This current expanse of interfaith consciousness has been evolving and maturing for approximately 40 years since the 1970s. The elder statesmen of the interfaith pantheon coincided with the spirit of peace that gave rise to the United Nations. These include the Temple of Understanding, World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Congress of Faiths. Also quite old and established is the International Council of Christians and Jews, a bilateral interfaith group. These early organizations paved the way for contemporary interfaith. from the 1950s onwards. They were in a way parallel to the United Nations dream only from a religious instead of a political framework.

In the 1970s UN limitations began to harden in the diminished hopes of the global community, as did any radical hope for evident
change that might have been harbored for the work of these early interfaith groups. In both cases all recognized the positive value of ongoing work in both areas, but hope for real change transformed itself into recognizing peace work as something worthwhile in its own right. Sort of a “the poor you will always have with you” approach to doing good.

These organizations continued to represent what would become “the establishment” in the interfaith panoply, and many of its seasoned leaders served as mentors for the new turns and developments of interfaith work in later years. In the late 1970s another major surge of interfaith arose that persisted in an unbroken line of developmentfrom that time until the present day.

This period of interreligious relations from the late 1970s until the present has traversed a number of different phases based on global and international developments and contexts for their relations. During the cold war, interfaith was beneath the surface and did not concern the average person on the street, or the average religious believer. The world at the time was distracted by communist aggression and the proxy wars sponsored by the East and West blocs. Though the problem of communism should have been recognized as a religious problem, people tended to see matters as economic, or based in political theory. In all of life in this period, religion took a backseat. The same was the case and perhaps more so with interreligious activity. People presumed that such conversations were simply for the few who happened to take interest in that sort of thing, much in the same way one
was a movie goer, or a classical music afficionado.

Good interfaith progress occurred during the cold war, but it was not recognized as pressing in world affairs. It was beneath the surface or in the background, so far as most people were concerned. But among religious professionals and people naturally insightful about the central importance of religion in human affairs, important strides were realized in the hard and challenging work required to advance positive interreligious relations. Greater knowledge, wisdom, and facitlity in positive interreligious relations were developed, as was greater complexity and breadth. These developments and progress during this phase of obscurity remain the treasure and legacy of interfaithopportunity as seen at present.

In 1989 when communist states (particularly the Soviet Union) imploded, instead of the appearance of the era of peace expected by some, there erupted onto the horrified surface of human and international relations full blown, old fashioned, medeival,  kill-the-infidel style religious war! The tinderbox of course was the Balkans (former Yugoslavia), which by the way erupts now once more, with the declaration of Kosovo independence. This war (and subsequent global instability) all revealed a persistent reality of religion taken with deadly seriousness in human affairs. 

The path to secular enlightenment that finally realized itself in full blown State-enforced atheism proved to have made nary a dent in religious devotion and religious passions. The only thing that happened post-enlightenment was the rise of a new religiously-held passion, namely religious-ignorantism in the forms of post-enlightenment rationalism and secularism. These emerged to bcome one of the smaller “religious” communities in the scheme of things.

With the surprise evidence that old fashioned religious hatred had gone nowhere at all, the major secularist and materialist powers found themselves asleep at the wheel of world affairs. Even to this very moment, North Atlantic power centers (especially media, as well as the “management theory movement”) stubbornly resist the wisdom of recognizing the enormous influence of religion (for good and for bad) in the unfolding of contemporary world affairs.

Though the interfaith movement struggles to be effective in the face of massive outbreaks of conflict that involve and include religious dimensions, it should be noted that the interfaith movement did not suddenly arise with the post-Soviet-era “discovery” that religious passions still inform human life. As noted above, these already attempted to instill themselves alongside UN dreaminess, and then arose againdue to other factors in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

The cold war distracted many from the truth about religion and the importance of interfaith for most of the twentieth century, but despite the immediate eruption of Balkan-type interreligious hatreds in the wake of communist decline, the elite still imagined a non-religiously influenced world throughout the 1990s. This “second slumber” was characterized by the dog dream that at last everyone in the world would want to be just like the United States. The rude awakening from this modernist delusion was perhaps even more stark than the religiopolitical clashes that shredded the Balkans. The infamous 9/11 attacks once again labored hard to remind the secular elite that religion seemsto matter to some, and matter quite a lot!

Hopefully this ostrich-like attitude of the secular elite is changing, as might be indicated in phenomena such as we find in this uncharacteristic New York Times quote of February 25, 2008: Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University, echoed that view. ‘Religion is the single most important factor that drives American belief attitudes and behaviors,’ said Mr. Lindsay, who had read the Pew report. ‘It is a powerful indicator of where America will end up on politics, culture, family life.  If you want to understand America, you have to understandreligion in America.’

Events since 9/11 that evoke religion (however bastardized) are so persistent and relentless, that even those who find belief bothersome in its tenacity, seem to recognize (if reluctantly) that efforts and experts on how religions might better get along are now seen not only as not“quaint” but perhaps even welcome.

Once again we should be thankful that interfaith activists did not spring to life on September 12, 2001, green, and clueless. Rather, as I have posited in these few words, current interfaith reflection, scholarship, and activity represent an unbroken period of approximately 40 years of development, sophistication, and increasing experience andcomplexity.

There remain key and vital elements missing in the repertoire of interfaith professionals that still leave the industry insufficient to
influence radical change and success in the face of severe, worldthreatening conflict. Addressing these inadequacies is one of the
responsibilities of journals such as this. In the meantime steady education and information from scholars in the field of religion and peace, and interfaith relations are vital to our current situation. We are proud of the content of this issue of Dialogue and Alliance as we seek to contribute in our small way to this pressing need of our time.

This issue consists of six important articles from what are often thought of as the religions of the “Middle East,” or the “Near East,” and finally are sometimes called “The Abrahamic Faiths.” In short, we refer to Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Two outstanding articles come from Christian and Jewish traditons respectively, and the remainingarticles are from and on Islam.

Two of the Muslim-oriented articles are interpretive in ways similar to the Jewish and Christian counterparts in this issue, and two of the Muslim-oriented articles are analyses of the particular Muslim groups, pehnomena, and the landscape Muslim movements in our currentmoment.

Rabbi Dr. Allen Maller, in his finely written and innovative hermeneutic on several passages from Isaiah 41 through 44, does a splendid and important work with the concept of the “suffering servant.” This concept and these texts traditionally divide Christian and Jewish commentators, though each community is committed to these as sacred texts. For this reason Maller’s work is a valuable contribution to the pressing conversation between and among Jews and Christians. This is a rich and engaging work that includes reflection on key and challenging theological categories such as messiah, holocaust and others.

Father Dr. Leonoardo Mercado’s interpretive work for the sake of greater interreligious harmony is not textual per se, but rather interprets a core element of Christian piety, namely Christian spirituality. The good thing about Mercado (whose work appears occasionally with us at Dialogue and Alliance) is that it comes out of a rigorous tradition. Interreligious advocacy is easier in many traditions than it is out of strictly orthodox Roman Catholicism. In other words, Mercado is in real dialogue with what many recognize as an exclusivistic tradition. Thus the challenge to render Roman Catholic understanding as fully interreligious with full integrity requires creative and exacting effort. Here Mercado examines the term and concept “spirituality” through two interpretive lenses, dualism and holism. This is a valuable and edifying study.

The Muslim essay from this family of essays, seeking to open avenues for greater interreligious collaboration is that of Imam Dr.
Abduljalil Sajid. Sajid does the valuable service of providing for Dialogue and Alliance readers interpretation of what might be called “the difficult passages” in the Qur’an. Sajid goes through a great many Qur’anic passages that are often called upon to justify violence, and in place of such harmful readings presents how these passages are better understood when contextualized in the larger vision of Islam.

In the essay “Tabligh Jama’at and Hizbul Tahrir” by Ameer Ali we learn of two important, contemporary “Muslim movements.” Ali
makes available knowledge of the historical and theological roots and the present form and influence of these closely related, but clearly distinct, major movements in contemporary Islam. 

Finally, Dr. M. O. Adeniyi’s paper “Towards Political Stability in Nigeria: Guide from Islam” puts forth an argument that the Qur’an
has sufficient guidance for proper temporal governance and that if it were responsibly applied it would help Nigeria overcome the many challenges faced by the current government of Nigeria. This essay does not incorporate into its understanding and advocacy the multireligious make up Nigeria, especially the hugely important presence of Christianity and the special difficulties Nigeria has faced due to the historical clash between Islam and Christianity. Its value rather lies in the effort to distill guidance from the Qur’an. Through this our readers can increase our knowledge about world relgions and hear their voices on specific responsibilties for life in the world. 

As always, we wish to thank you for your constant support for the efforts, vision, ideal, and mission of Dialogue and Alliance. Please be sure to recommend us to friends and colleagues, and especially to institutions devoted to our shared ideals. Also, please submit your work in the field to be considered for publication, and recommendyour friends in the academy do the same.

Frank Kaufmann