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 Bloggingheads.tv.