News / Middle East

Islam, Judaism - Tolerance Could Lead to Democracy, Peace

US scholars highlight religion's paradoxes

David Byrd

A Palestinian man looks down on graffiti of the Star of David spray-painted on a wall of a West Bank mosque, September 5, 2011.
A Palestinian man looks down on graffiti of the Star of David spray-painted on a wall of a West Bank mosque, September 5, 2011.

The debate over Palestinian statehood continues with Israel and the Palestinian authority laying claim to parts of what has traditionally been called the Holy Land or the Land of Promise. Religion is one of the centerpieces in that debate, and experts say that both sides will have to find middle ground if there is to be any hope for a peaceful resolution.

The Land of Promise

The Hebrew Bible records the promise in the book of Genesis, where God tells the patriarch Abraham:

“I will give unto you and to your seed after you, the land wherein you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. (Gen. 17:8)

In Islam, the land is called the Holy Land and is mentioned specifically when Moses proclaims to the Children of Israel:

"O my people! Enter the holy land which Allah hath assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin." (Surah 5:21)

Religion and Politics

But what role does faith play in the current political debate? And is there hope that believers of two Abrahamic faiths can reach a compromise?

For insight on those questions, we talked to Georgetown University professor John L. Esposito, the director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He says that though Judaism and Islam share some tenets, the argument over the land, particularly areas like the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is more political and socio-economic, not religious.

Watch our interview with John L. Esposito:

“And that colors – regrettably – the whole scene … not just because you have some people who are religious players even though this is, primarily the majority of the forces are more nationalists, secular nationalists. But it also colors it in terms of the way it plays out in the Muslim world, and also often in the popular mind,” Esposito said.

The Georgetown scholar went on to say that leaders on both sides of the debate have played what he called “the religion card” using faith references to rally support for political causes.

Religion’s role

But what role should religion have in public discourse? In the United States, President Thomas Jefferson put forth the idea of a “wall of separation” between religious and civil authorities, a concept adopted in numerous variations by other countries. But is such a separation the only way?

To explore the issue, VOA turned to Harvard professor Monica Duffy Toft and another Georgetown scholar, Timothy Shah.  Toft and Shah wrote the book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics along with Notre Dame Professor Daniel Philpott.

In the book, the authors argue that contrary to the belief that secularism will help breed democracy, religious faith has helped spur movements calling for more human rights, more freedoms and peace.

However, the authors do not ignore violence and war in the name of religion. Duffy Toft, from Harvard’s Belfer Center Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, says that religious people have had both positive and negative effects on democratization in the past 100 years.

“Religious actors are there, promoting democracy, and mediating peace and healing the wounds of war, but they have also been implicated in violence,” she said.

“And where religion is a source of violence, again it results from the same factors that explain democracy and peace.  You actually have to look at what the actors, the beliefs behind their behavior, what are they doing,” the scholar added.

Paradoxically, Duffy Toft and her colleagues also found violence is more likely when governments are too closely affiliated with a particular religious movement.

But Shah, an associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, says they also found that when there is freedom of religion, democracy flourishes.

“It is hard to resist the conclusion that the most aggressively secularizing and secularist movements, regimes and ideologies were profoundly anti-democratic and pro-authoritarian,” Shah said.

“Meanwhile, some of the most politically active, assertive and mobilizing religious movements have been pro-democratic and anti-authoritarian,” the Georgetown scholar added.

Tolerance v. conflict

In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, John Esposito says that religious believers have to find a way to respect and understand those who do not adhere to their particular tenets.

“I mean, the real challenge that we face in Palestine and Israel is analogous, I think, to the challenge we face in today’s world, and that is one of a modern notion of religious pluralism, and a modern notion of religious tolerance based on mutual understanding and respect,” he said.

“Not tolerance based simply on co-existence,” Esposito explained.

“Because tolerance based on co-existence means that you are out to co-exist, it doesn’t mean that I like you, I may look down on you, and I may despise you. I wouldn’t want to have you live near me. But it’s got to be one that is based on that mutual understanding and respect,” the scholar added.

U.S. position

As far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, Duffy Toft, Shah and Esposito agreed that clinging to a “secular only” philosophy would be short-sighted, because of the role that religious people play in political decision making.

All three scholars said that extremism should not have a place in the future of the Middle East. While acknowledging that some factions might advocate violence as a means to a political end, Duffy Toft, Shah and Esposito agreed that only an environment of freedom and respect – for all faiths – will help bring about the peace that has eluded the region.

هل يمكن أن يؤدي التسامح بين الإسلام واليهودية إلى الديمقراطية والسلام؟ يتواصل الجدل حول عضوية دولة فلسطين في الأمم المتحدة فيما تدعي كل من السلطة الوطنية الفلسطينية وإسرائيل أحقيية كل منهما في أجزاء مما سمي تاريخيا بالأرض المقدسة أو أرض الميعاد. وهكذا يشكل الدين واحدا من أركان الجدل الرئيسية ويرى الخبراء أنه يتعين على الجانبين أن يلتقيا في منتصف الطريق لكي يمكن إبقاء الأمل في التوصل إلى حل سلمي
Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs