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COMMENTARY: Trumping Realpolitik

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of“ Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) Nietzsche, if he were alive today, would be aghast. He had proclaimed the death of God a […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of“ Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) Nietzsche, if he were alive today, would be aghast. He had proclaimed the death of God a century ago yet today God was back _ apparently with a vengeance. People were using _ or misusing _ the name of the divine in a whole range of activity. People were killing and raping in the name of the divine.

In too many cases passions and anger seem to fuel relations between people of different faiths. Little wonder relations are dominated by what politicians call realpolitik, or the cynical use of policy devoid of morality or compassion.

So what can check this trend?

Can it be the rediscovery of the essentially universal compassion and understanding of true faith?

Some of us have been arguing for years for the need to underline what is common between the faiths in the hope of creating dialogue and even harmony. But it has been a difficult battle. Until a decade ago a Marxist interpretation of world affairs and history dominated intellectual discourse. And Marx, like Nietzsche, had also dismissed God.

With his new book, “Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik,” the distinguished scholar-activist Douglas Johnston has brought together well-known experts who provide strong arguments with which to trump realpolitik.

Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington. He has served at senior levels in government and taught at Harvard University. His earlier book, “Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft,” laid the foundations for the argument. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, acted as a spur to reinvigorate his desire to create common grounds for dialogue between different faiths.

“Just as setting a controlled fire is often an effective counter to an out-of-control fire, so too can religious reconciliation be an effective instrument for dampening the flames of religious fanaticism,” Johnston argues. “The divisive influence of religion has long been recognized; its more helpful aspects have not.”

The example of the extraordinary figure of the pope is cited: “One of the more able faith-based diplomats on the world scene today is Pope John Paul II, who has been cited by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev as having been responsible for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. His celebrated trip to Poland, while it was under Soviet rule, clearly set that process in motion and left a mark that will never be forgotten.”

But standing up for dialogue and understanding comes at a cost, he said, citing Mahatma Gandhi, Anwar Sadat and Martin Luther King Jr. “Despite the risks, and as Sept. 11, 2001, so dramatically illustrates, spiritual engagement is a challenge that we ignore at our peril.”

Among the contributors is the well-known scholar Rabbi Marc Gopin, who focuses on the Jewish notion of “teshuva,” a term encompassing the process of repentance and restoration. Gopin points to the centrality of teshuva for a successful peace process in the Middle East.

For the process to work over the long term, he argues, the parties in conflict must begin with the confrontation of a past filled with profound suffering and injustice.

“How could this be done?” Gopin asks. “Every recognized place that Palestinians have died violently at the hands of Jews, for whatever reason and without judgment or blame, could become a place of joint mourning, memorial and commitment. Every recognized place that Jews have died at the hands of Palestinians, for whatever reason and in whatever circumstance, would become a place of joint mourning, memorial and commitment. This would include sites of terrorist attacks, massacres and violent confrontations of any kind.”

In a world so bitterly divided by people who think they, and only they, have the right answers, the ideas in Johnston’s volume are as refreshing as they are bold.

So is his conclusion:

“The terrorist attack against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, triggered a global conflict that seemed, in part, to pit religious extremists against religious peace-builders. In the aftermath, mainstream `realist’ policy-makers developed a deeper understanding of religion’s powerful role in legitimating the kind of violence that characterizes post-Cold War conflicts. Religious actors and religious communities will become ever more prominent in the campaign for a sustainable and just peace in the many troubled regions of the world. Whether religious energies will be channeled toward constructive means of resolving conflict will depend, in no small part, on the intervention, mediation and leadership of people of faith who are dedicated to militant but nonviolent peace-building.”

The 21st century threatens to be a time of great danger, violence and change. In the uncertainties that face us, the assured voices of scholars who are prepared to explore genuine dialogue need to be heard. They assure us of our common humanity, a message that needs to be heard over and over again.

DEA END AHMED