As Obama Knows, Religious Conflict Is Rarely About Religion

By Robert WrightSenior fellow, New America Foundation President Obama seems determined to resolve what may be the most momentous issue … Continued

By Robert Wright
Senior fellow, New America Foundation

President Obama seems determined to resolve what may be the most momentous issue of our time–the tension between the “Muslim world” and the Judeo-Christian west. It will be an uphill battle, but at least he is armed with a key insight into religious conflicts: they’re not about religion.

It would be easy to think they are–that, say, radical Muslims are inspired ultimately by scripturally mandated intolerance. Indeed, they often quote ferocious Koranic passages to justify their violence, notably the “sword verse,” which, as loosely translated, says to “kill the infidels wherever you find them.” And you’d think–as some observers on the right do–that there’s no point in addressing the concrete grievances of people who feel divinely inspired to wage eternal jihad.

But Obama thinks concrete grievances matter. So, for example, he’s insisting that the still-expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank be frozen. He seems to think that by rearranging the facts on the ground you can change the tenor of a religious movement.

In researching my new book “The Evolution of God,” I discovered how deeply valid his approach is.

First of all, this particular “religious” conflict, between Israelis and Palestinian, wasn’t originally religious. It began as a basically secular dispute over land and then increasingly fueled religious fervor on both sides. (The initial resistance to the settlements, and to the establishment of Israel, wasn’t essentially religious, and neither was the original establishment of the settlements, or even of Israel.)

What’s more, I discovered that the Israel-Palestine conflict is just one example of a fairly general rule: However far back you go–even back to the time when the Abrahamic scriptures were authored–phases of belligerence in religions can be traced to the facts on the ground.

There’s no better illustration of this than the man who first uttered the “sword verse,” the Prophet Muhammad. Far from being what right-wing websites would have you believe about Muhammad–that he was a zealous and brutal missionary who issued eternal injunctions to kill Jews and Christians–he was a master strategist whose doctrines were pragmatically flexible.

The sword verse is a case in point. Read in context, it means nothing like what it seems to mean.

For starters, the word sometimes translated as “infidels” doesn’t mean “anyone who isn’t a Muslim”. The original Arabic means “those who join other gods with God”–which is to say, polytheists. So “the sword verse” is hardly the strongest imaginable basis for attacking Christians and Jews.

More to the point, the verse doesn’t even include all polytheists. It’s preceded by a preamble that says, “But this concerneth not those Polytheists with whom ye are in league, and who shall have afterwards in no way failed you, nor aided anyone against you.”

In other words, Muhammad’s beef in the sword verse doesn’t seem to be with polytheists in particular, but with those polytheistic tribes he was fighting in a particular war. The polytheists who were on his side he found quite tolerable.

This fine-grained link between scripture and mundane circumstance is something I found again and again. Why does the god of Israel sometimes tell Israelites to annihilate neighboring peoples who worship other gods and sometimes tell Israelites to live in peace with such people? Because of changing facts on the ground.

Why does the New Testament sometimes say “love your enemy” and sometimes envision Jesus returning to earth to “destroy every ruler” and “put all his enemies under his feet”? (Or, in another rendering, wearing a “robe dipped in blood” and bearing a “sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”) Because of changing facts on the ground.

I won’t here elaborate on the specific pattern that accounts for these changes in a religion’s mood. For now the main point is that when President Obama says, implicitly, that religious conflicts aren’t about religion, he doesn’t just have recent Middle Eastern history on his side. He has all of Abrahamic history on his side.

ROBERT WRIGHT is the author of The Evolution of God, The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and Three Scientists and Their Gods. The New York Times selected The Moral Animal as one of the ten best books of the year and the other two as notable books of the year. Wright is a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A contributing editor at The New Republic, he has also written for Time, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. Wright has taught in the philosophy department at Princeton and the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania, and is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of

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  • InterfaithNation

    “Becarefull for what Ye Wish for”Earthly HOPE is cometh from Past (History). Hence; “History is OUR Jury”.But as human witness’s our innate HOLYi H-O-P-E Belongs to All, Every & Any MAN/WOMB & any Religion affiliation (not needed); Hope w/out COSMiC/FEELING, is an overlooked Faith/Belief/Religion. H-O-P-E is Universal. HOPE is like Math a international & Hope is a Universal Omnipresent FEELING, a State of Being & felt from Heart to Mind & back again. We art wraped in Hope.Hope (feeling) is the Petro that the SOUL, Spirit, HEURiSTICa/O prays To (Talks) & Meditates from (Listens)! Hope is what makes US whole & allows Us to be Born again, so to speaketh.HOPE is for the aTheist & aGnostic, The ABRAHAMICS,VEDICS, PAGANS, WICAAN, Aliens et al!NO HOPE NO LIFE, NO LOVE No Living No FREEDOM! Zero Happyness! So, Let’s HOPE together for the best. The ultimate S-Y-N-E-R-G-E-T-i-C’s!Note: To Make some Hope(s) a Reality, one must never procrastinate, aka the Thief of Time & of Opportunity! so Patience is something else!

  • InterfaithNation

    ^ .^. ^ AND: Don’t Worry KEEP BUSY:IMPORTANT: Rich, Middle-class or Poor, If YE hath All these “4-Tetra-Needs“ then Ye hath No Worry’s on this Blesseth Holy Cosmic Miraculous, & zero biblical Sin, S.pace-S.hip Planet EARTH, aka S.S. GAiA, S.S. GEOiD, S.S. TELLUSng something!

  • InterfaithNation


  • InterfaithNation


  • abhab

    Wright says:Maybe not the Jews, but Christians are polytheists, according to Muslim understanding. The Muslims interpret the concept of Trinity to mean three Gods. If the so-called “sword “verse does not specifically apply to Jews and Christians, as you maintain, there are plenty others that do. As an example

  • walter-in-fallschurch


  • zebra4

    The word ‘infidel’ is a biblical word. Islam makes a distinction between believers and non-believers.Atheiests could never explain how the ‘matter’ was created. Science could only prolong life but could not eliminate it.The answers to those two issues are found in religion in the following ways:(1) The CREATOR (G-D) is the answer to the first issue. No one created Him. The “buck stops there.” When there was nothing He was there. When there will be nothing, He will still be there.(2) “All living things will taste death”–believers and non-belivers included. ALL LIFE FORMS.

  • zebra4

    CORRECTION:Science could prolong life, but could not eliminate DEATH.

  • kaestnerlotar

    If we would transfer this conflict to South America it would be called: ‘Banana republic conflicts’. Intermarriage would help a lot the conflict, because love would be in between and Israel & Palestina would be one country. This is a dream…but for those who are already married it’s reality. What is a big obstacle is ‘the chosen people by God’. They can not touch gentiles: Christians, Muslims but need them to live. Why do we have chosen people and not chosen people, but who have the same necessities of land, water, money?

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4, you (meant to) said,indeed. that’s why man made god – to provide a mechanism to cheat death. that’s what heaven said,that’s just faulty logic. what does “no one created him” mean? how do you know that? because you books says so? if “no one created him” then why couldn’t “no one” have created the universe? i mean, why have that extra step of “not creating” god, then having god create the universe?

  • zebra4

    Any introductory text book in anthropology explains the difference between science and religion. Both are parts of the human experience.Science is based on empirical verification of phenomena. Science has failed to explain emprically how the matter came about. It is a mystery that remains unresolved.Religion is based on faith. The latter is not subject to emprical verification. Yes, it is from religious text that the concept of CREATOR comes from. It can neither be proven nor can it be disproven. FAITH IS FAITH.Religion performs important functions in human societies. (1) It provides a map of code of conduct and gives us moral values, (2)It provides us “the we feeling” and requires humans to conform to the social norms of society. Of course, those norms vary from one society to the next. and (3)All religions have sacred and ritual.The sacred gives humans reasons to that code of conduct.A Ritual is the prescribed way of performing a religious act.Rituals perform important functions. They are repetitive in nature and are passed on from one generation to the next and reinforce discipline of the ethos.So, Science and religion are two seperate aspects of the human experience.I believe both in evolution and G-D.I see evolution as a mechanism or a system given by G-D. The world is not random. There are mechanisms that give us “day’ and “night” seasons etc.

  • zebra4

    By the way, the concept of heaven and hell are the concepts of basically monotheistic religions, although Hindus have adopted it too.Religions use both carrots and sticks. In Buddhism and Jainism the concept of reincarnation is a mechanism by which the believers try to conform to the social standards. There is a continuous cycle of birth and rebirth. By conforming to certain standards a path is given for ‘nirvana’ and ‘moksha’. One can end this continous cycls of birth and rebirth by achieving ‘nirvana’To me, Islam is appealing for various reasons. One must read the history and the belief system and practices to understand that.Unfortunately, most people are inundated with a disinformations camapaign against Islam which leads people to faulty perceptions.If someone is happy to be an athiest, that is none of my business but don’t make my business to be yours.

  • walter-in-fallschurch


  • walter-in-fallschurch

    “If someone is happy to be an athiest, that is none of my business…”well, it’s not that i WANT to be an atheist or am particularly “happy” with that, it’s just that i’ve never seen evidence to make me think god is other than wishful thinking.

  • zebra4

    what percentage of muslims would you say are not literalists?I am not aware of any survey on this. Whatever the percentage liberal arts education and not bombs are the answer.In my view, literalist is a deceptive term. My experience (and probably every human being’s )is that once you open your mouth, somebody will criticize you. In other words, the problem in communication is interpretation.In all religions, some take a narrow and often misguided interpretation others take an enlightened interpretation.”THERE IS NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION”. Millions of Muslims believe that religion should be a matter of free will and not force.Anyone believing otherwise is giving a misguided interpretation.As for as your other post: Good for you whatever you found or did not find.

  • lennieart

    Morality is doing what is rightAll answers to all questions are found in all things in all existence. Reason.

  • edbyronadams

    Word from “God” is the closest thing we will find to an absolute categorical imperative on this earth. That is the genesis of the fighting. My absolute against your absolute. It took the disease, famine and destruction of the Thirty Years War to disabuse European priests and princes of the notion that the word of God, as they saw it, was justifiably enforceable at the point of a sword begin the separation of church and state in the West. I remain uncertain that the Muslims can manage it without the blood payment for the lesson.

  • InterfaithNation

    Hope (feeling) is the Petro that the SOUL, Spirit, HEURiSTICa/O rely’s on and thus prays To (Talks) & Meditates from (Listens)! Hope is what makes US whole & allows Us to be Born again, so to speaketh.

  • ThomasBaum

    Robert WrightYou wrote, “Why does the New Testament sometimes say “love your enemy” and sometimes envision Jesus returning to earth to “destroy every ruler” and “put all his enemies under his feet”? (Or, in another rendering, wearing a “robe dipped in blood” and bearing a “sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”) Because of changing facts on the ground.”Have you ever “pondered the idea” that the “sword” that Jesus spoke of was the “sword of truth” just like He said.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ThomasBaum

    kaestnerlotar You wrote, ” Why do we have chosen people and not chosen people, but who have the same necessities of land, water, money?”We have chosen people because God chose and formed a people as part of His Plan.There seem to be quite a few, both Jew and Gentile, that totally misinterprete what “Chosen” means and does not mean.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • clearthinking1

    One of the dumbest article on WaPo in a long time. It is embarrassing. An actual quote:So not only is he selectively quoting passages from the Koran when its convenient, but also selectively creating “context” for quotes when its inconvenient. Let’s not forget that, regardless of the context, the “Sword Verse” recapitulates quite well the violent actions of Muslims for over a thousand years. What is the appropriate context for a thousand year history of violence?