Religions against Religions

Islamic State  is provoking more and more resistance from Muslim leaders

19 November, 2014

‘United against violence in the name of religion – Supporting religious and cultural diversity in Iraq and Syria’ – that was the slogan of a huge meeting of religious leaders in Vienna last week. Present was a never-seen-before mix of representatives of Muslim and  Christian institutions, universities and nongovernmental organizations. Together in one place were the muftis of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, religious scholars from Al-Azhar, Saudi Arabia, Iran (Ata’ollah Mohajerani) and Morocco and also from the Association of Iraqi Muslim Scholars such as sheikh Mahmoud Abdulaziz Al-Anni, dr. Hussein Ghazi Abdulrahman Al-Samerrai of the Iraqi Fiqh Council, and Sayyid Jawad Al-Khoei of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue. The Vatican and virtually all Christian churches in the Middle East and Iraq’s Yezidis were represented, next to very few people representing Syrian organizations, Palestinian and Israeli religious movements. Conspicuously absent were Muslim leaders from Turkey and the smaller Gulf States and Yemen, as well as well-known leaders of associations of the Muslim Brothers, although these also play a role in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Not invited or did they refuse the invitation?

The conference was organized and financed by the KAICIID * foundation, based in Vienna and established a few years ago on initiative of the Saudi King Abdullah. As the wahabi version of Islam, as practised in Saudi Arabia and promoted for decades by this country in Europe, Asia and Africa,  is seen by many as the most influential ideological source of the violence by Al-Qaeda and Daash in Iraq and Syria, it took many participants some effort to believe in the good intentions of the organizers. It was akward to hear the Saudi secretary-general of the foundation, Faisal bin Abdulrahman, speak about the ‘very strange beliefs’ of movements like Daash, as if these beliefs are not quite familiar to him. Wasn’t this conference just a ploy to lessen the international isolation of Saudi Arabia? What about respect for religious and cultural diversity, respect for minorities, in the Saudi kingdom itself and in its international organizations? When do wahabis and similar believers show respect for human rights, promote peaceful solutions (think of Libya and Syria)? How to match the Saudi practice with remarks in the conference by for example sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, member of the Saudi Supreme Religious Council, that ‘people should be free to believe or not, as Allah says’, that ‘every individual has human rights based on his human dignity’, that ‘you cannot force others to believe’, that ‘prophet Mohamed set an example allowing religious freedom in Medina’?

These were of course the standard, almost rethorical  questions of western journalists, most of whom (thanks to fragmentary reporting by their own media) hardly know a thing about the real Saudi Arabia and who haven’t witnessed how the Saudi government is struggling, although in a zigzag way, with terrorist threats by groups who reject the legitimacy of the House of Saud as rulers of the country or as rulers of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. There have been Saudi fatwas and laws against joining or financing Al-Qaeda- and Daash-like groups, imams have been fired, returning jihadists have been imprisoned. Universities are allowed to employ critical thinkers that could attract dissenters instead of the charming kalashnikov. And to prevent whatever kind of dangerous humans (Sunni, Shi’ite, muslim barbarians) to cross the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, a triple fence of hundreds of kilometers in length has been installed.

The world not being perfect and whatever the shortterm and longterm results of this conference, bringing together Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and various Christian denominations for two days in one room, with a lonely rabbi and an even lonelier hindu leader (the famous activist Swami Agnivesh), might have produced a real exercise for all these men (there were hardly any women leaders) in tolerance, respect, politeness and moderation. But of course, once home, they will not decide alone on the course of their institutions and there will be a long wait-and-see period.

But they might experience a feeling of urgency. One clear fact emerged in this conference: all religious leaders were blaming politicians for the violence in the name of religion and saying that their religions were ‘messengers of peace’ and defenders of human dignity, that ‘religion is not the problem’. Iraq and Lebanon were mentioned again and again as places where ‘for over a thousand years’ the ordinary people had lived together, ‘with up and downs’, in peaceful coexistence – which is not true, although ordinary people have proven to be historically an obviously much greater force for living peacefully together – as neighbors and married couples, workers and merchants – than political and religious leaders. Let us not forget that to develop or maintain any (new) religion or ideology (from christianity and islam to communism and capitalism) the first principle to attract followers is: give them a job. And this is true not only for poor societies where scarcity of everything is the rule, but also for wealthy ones, especially wealthy societies.

So, after hearing ‘religion is not the problem’ several times, the conclusion seems that many religious frontmen are feeling the heat, being confronted with people who start to reject their religion, blaming their religion for the violence and cruelty they have to witness on their television screens every day. Because, if it is correct that politicians are often abusing and colonizing the realm of religion, it is also correct to say that even more often religious leaders are trying to colonize the political realm – which is supposed to be a place (democratic or not) where different interest groups meet and in ideal circumstances do their best to serve the common good of an entire nation, not only their own followers or constituencies. Politics is about give and take, not ruling alone, about compromise, reconciliating.

The entire conference was devoted to the subject of shortterm practical help to the refugees in Iraq and Syria and the longterm initiatives needed to let them safely return home and rebuild their villages and cities, in a – future – safe country where schools and universities, mosques and churches will teach respect and tolerance for other religions than one’s own, for non-believers and other ethnic groups – and put an end to the general ignorance about one’s own religion and those of others.

A dream only for later? Most of the methods advocated by the participants in this conference are actually directed at the prevention of recruitment of young people by jihadist armed struggle groups. In the actual context of  war and ongoing attempts to genocide in Iraq and Syria, this might seem too little too late, but all the people who once advocated violence and who are now sick of it, have to start somewhere.

The focus on young people might explain why the internet’s social media were seen as the main way for religious institutions to reach out to them, to provide them with knowledge and arguments against the kind of unchecked, self-serving violence to kill, massacre, rape and steal as practised by Daash. The fact that the sharia contains valuable humanitarian laws on how to conduct a war, as a kind of premodern Geneva Convention, could be a good starting point…

Because it was considered too ‘political’ there was much less attention for the idea to put laws in place to prohibit and close violent-sectarian television stations and websites, to send home imams and priests who excel in hate speech, and to support independent media that practise a coexistence of voices. The emphasis was on initiatives that reach small groups of children and students in schools, not on the channels that can reach millions. Nevertheless, ‘such small street projects keep the hope alive’, said father Amir Jaji of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue. In the meantime,  Iraqi state television has been broadcasting a comedy series ridiculising Daash and its leader Al-Baghdadi. I am not sure this show, called State of Myths (Dawlat al-Khurafa),  is in good taste and not mere state propaganda. But it points to a more intelligent way of using mass media.

Although managers of several United Nations organizations were present (even the World Bank), such as Adama Dieng of the commission for the Prevention of Genocide, there was pretty little attention for the utter failure of the UN to help to end the wars and civil strife in Arab countries. Already for decades the UN has real trouble integrating religious factors into any of its policies, as if the entire world considers religion as something private to be exercised alone, at home, let alone as something that should leave people indifferent, at least indifferent to what others believe. Almost nothing is done on an international level to cut the financial ressources that enable jihadist groups  to prolong their wars for years, although this has proven the most effective way to bring war criminals to a negotiation table. Apart from states, the most important actors and enablers  in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are wealthy individuals,  private companies, rich  religious organizations and various opportunistic mafias.

How could the victims start a dialogue with them?


* KAICIID, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.



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