Vol. 3, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
Charitable Choice and the New
Religious Ironies in East Timor
Jesus, Political Philosopher
Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests
What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash
Waiting for the Shoe to Drop
The NCC's Near-Death Experience
On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya
Letters to the Editor
Editor: Wars of Religion
In February, New York Times correspondent Seth Mydans filed a dispatch from
Ambon, Indonesia, describing "what has become an unstoppable surge of religious
warfare" between Christians and Muslims. So direct an invocation of religion in
violent confrontations around the world is the exception in contemporary journalism.
More common is the attitude expressed by the Timess former Balkan bureau
chief, Chris Hedges, writing last year in the journal of the Harvard Divinity
Schools Center for the Study of Values in Public Life: "Ethnic conflicts,
whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsies, are not religious wars."
Whence the tendency to write religion out of the "ethnic conflicts" of our
time? Journalists can hardly be accused of believing that religion is incapable of moving
people to action. They do not dismiss the religious motives of activists who boycott
abortion clinics or members of the Christian right who take over state Republican parties.
They do not question the faith of radicals who claim to want to return their countries to
the true Islamic path.
Religion can, in short, be a motivating cause when the designated enemies are
immorality, modernity, or secularism. But when one community is defining itself against
another, theres an almost pious sense that any religion worthy of the name is too
pure, too universalistic, to be responsible.
Our preference, then, is to see people acting (perhaps "in the name of
religion") for more worldly endspower, loot, personal vendettas, hatred of the
other, self-determination. It is in this spirit that Mydans ends his dispatch from Ambon
with a local priest reflecting on "the despair that seems to have driven so many
people into religious warfare, beyond the reach of any real religion."
Yet in many times and places real religion has served to constitute and marshal
national identity. Years before Slobodan Milosevic played the religion card in his effort
to turn post-communist Yugoslavia into Greater Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox Church was
promoting its own version of Serbian nationalism: "a state in which," as one
Orthodox writer put it in 1984, "Christ is the czar; art in which Christ is the
magic; the school where Christ is the teacher; slavery, which can be endured only with
Christ; while the thread[s] are saints, heroes, and martyrs of Christ."
Serbian Orthodoxy had been pushed to the margins of Yugoslav society during the
communist era, and the practice of the faith declined precipitously among the Serbian
people. The patriarchate looked at the collapse of the Titoist state as its chance to
re-evangelize the populace by re-cementing the bonds between Orthodoxy and Serbian
national aspirations. As a leading member of the hierarchy put it, "The apparent
freedom of the Churchs activities but without its real return to its place in
society [deceives] both the Church and the people. There is hope only in the mutuality
between the Church and the state that is being born."
The aim of restoring Orthodoxy to its "rightful" place at the center of
Serbian self-assertiveness may seem like an abuse of what we think of as Christian ideals,
but that doesnt make it hypocritical or nonreligious. Had NATO policymakers taken
more seriously the religious significance of Kosovo for Serbian national identity, they
would not have so badly miscalculated what it would take to persuade Milosevic to withdraw
his troops. It is not irrelevant that Serbian religious practice now seems to be
undergoing a revival.
Nor is the shoe of religious nationalism always on the aggressors foot. As Robert
Hefner points out in his article on East Timor in this issue, only 40 percent of East
Timorese were Roman Catholic prior to the 1975 Indonesian invasion, with the balance
adhering to one or another indigenous religion. Today the number is over 90 percent. In
their 25-year struggle for independence, the East Timorese seized on Roman Catholicism as
an expression of their national identity as distinct from largely Muslim Indonesia.
Similarly, many southern Sudanese are embracing Christianity in the face of what they
perceive as Muslim assaults from the north. Such religious affiliations make a
differenceto individuals and to communities.
This is not to say that every "ethnic conflict" is a religious war. Or that
where there is a significant religious factor, it is the only factor in the field. The
historical conflicts we do not hesitate to call religiousthe Crusades, for example,
or the Islamic wars of conquesthad their admixtures of this-worldly motivation.
Religion is a moving target, even within a given country. As circumstances change, it
can come to the fore or retreat into the shadows as a political actor. Whether the
conflict is taking place in Ireland, Chechnya, Nigeria, Burundi, Iran, Afghanistan,
Kashmir, or Sri Lanka, we cannot afford to be dogmatic about the role religion plays. Its
measure must be taken case by case.