Vol. 5 Num 130 Sun. October 03, 2004  
This is a local copy of article @ The Daily

Religion should unite rather than divide humanity

In the wake of the end of cold war and ideological confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States some western ideologues and politicians are raising the specter of another period of turmoil and conflict based this time on religious differences. They foresee a threat to western values and culture and challenge to its recent ideological "triumph" from a resurgent Islam based on latter's growing numerical economic and military strength. This indeed is an ominous signal at a time when peace and co-operation is most essential.

The world today is passing through a period of rapid change. The unprecedented proliferation of knowledge information and technology is expanding the horizon of the world that we have long known. Globalization made possible by revolutionary developments in information and communications technology has on the one hand brought peoples and nations closer together and on the other made them interdependent as never before.

In the emerging reality of the 'global village' international peace co-operation and understanding is a vital imperative. This alone can sustain and promote common aspirations of the human kind to live a prosperous and purposeful life in peace security and dignity. Experiences of the recent years have amply demonstrated that cooperation and understanding among nations create environment conducive to attaining these common objectives. Equally, conflict and acrimony in any part of the world can vitiate the atmosphere even in faraway lands.

Until recently statesmen, scholars and analysts everywhere were convinced that much of the ills confronting the world and the confrontation and conflict plaguing it could effectively be addressed if the cold war could be brought to an end. For many years this has been their singular focus and preoccupation. But when the cold war and the ideological confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West which sharply and perilously divided the world in two clear-cut camps finally came to an end in the late 90s the desired result did not materialize. The much talked about "peace dividend" in the shape of reduction in defense expenditures and diverting of resources thus saved to developing countries to alleviate the age old problems of poverty illiteracy and malnutrition has failed to accrue. Above all the elimination of conflict and confrontation and attempt at coercion and putting pressure on weaker nations had remained a distant dream.

Ironically the uneasy peace, which existed since the end of the World War II because of near nuclear parity between the two super powers during the cold war prevented large-scale global or regional war and conflict. The rise of deadly and mindless acts of terrorism (9/11 for example), war against Iraq and Afghanistan military action in Kosovo which followed have brought to the fore a new source of conflict replacing as it were earlier confrontation based on political ideology. The concept of "Clash of Civilizations' among religions particularly Islam and Christianity is to-day on the news paper headlines and defining policies of some important states particularly the United States.

All great near eastern religions including Islam Christianity and Judaism have a similar origin background and historical context. Each one of them has played a vital role in inculcating a sprit of mutual accommodation and a sense of compassion and brotherhood among human beings irrespective of their differences in faith, color or creed. It has often been a driving force for social reforms and checking oppression injustice and exploitation. An important contribution of the religion is promotion of moral code and ethical principles and precepts. It has provided a global view of the world to its adherents, which traditionally remained limited to tribal and family matters.

Neo-liberals like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama not only see in the recent developments the final triumph of western civilization and values over other competing cultures but also the need to guard against any threat to it. In his much publicized book 'The end of History' the latter has propounded the idea that "what we are witnessing is not just the end of the cold war or a passing of a particular period of post war history but the end of history as such: that is the end point of mankind's, ideological evolution and universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government". In a somewhat different vein Huntington another post historical proponent foresees emerging threat to western civilization, power and privilege from the militant Islamic forces. He points to his own understanding of history to show how Islam was always a hostile force against Christianity. A European analyst Armand Clesse has in this connection commented that, "In the eyes of the neo-conservative analysts, Islam is the biggest challenge which explains the almost obsessive focus on so called Islamic fundamentalism the attempt to equate Islam with terrorism".

This is in spite of the historical record to the contrary as described for example in the writing of the famous British intellectual Bertrand Russell (History of Western Philosophy) in which he stated that "After the first century the relations of Judaism and Christianity were hostile. Christianity...stimulated anti-Semitism. It was only among the Mohammedans that the Jews were treated humanely. Throughout the middle-ages the Mohammedans were more civilized and more humane than the Christians. Christians persecuted Jews. In Mohammedan countries on the contrary Jews at most times were not in anyway mistreated."

In any case the world has come a long way from the middle ages when religious strife and sectarian conflicts marked relations between and among different communities and disturbed peace and stability in the society. For centuries, people of different faith lived side by side in peace and amity in the near east, south Asia, Europe and elsewhere. No doubt, there were pockets marked by blood shed rivalry and competition but except for the crusades, which had their own peculiar driving force these were essentially localized. The prognosis of confrontation and rivalry to which reference has been made by Huntington and others suggest an organized and pre-meditated plan by Muslims against western civilization and culture would appear far-fetched. The Muslim and the Christian community today constitute about 20% and 25 % of global population respectively. It would be unthinkable for such big communities to live in conflict and confrontation. Apart from the force of interdependence in an era of globalization to which reference has already been made the emergence of what writers like V S Naipaul describe as an "universal civilization and cultural coming together of humanity and increasing acceptance of common values, beliefs orientations and practices" would strongly argue against any such conflict along "fault lines" dividing civilizations. The need of the hour is to launch a concerted effort by public leaders, religious scholars, academics and civil society to highlight the common message of universal brotherhood, friendship and harmony which are the main themes of all religions and to work unitedly towards a prosperous stable and harmonious international community.

Ambassador Abul Ahsan is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently the Vice President of Independent University Bangladesh