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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More