Divided by the same Father
In Hebron stands the Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of the most important sites in all of the Holy Land. This is the place that tradition says Abraham, the father of the three great monotheistic faiths and the man that Time Magazine dubbed the “interfaith superstar” a few years back, lies buried.
Yet as much people of faith like to view the great Patriarch as a symbol of everything that binds Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together as one unified faith, the truth is that here, in this holy place, he is often more emblematic of the deep suspicion and mutual mistrust that exists between the those call Abraham, father. Indeed, it was not that long ago that a zealous Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on a group of Muslims who were praying at Abraham’s tomb, killing twenty nine worshippers before being killed himself.
Perhaps no conflict in modern times has so thoroughly taken on the patina of religious war more than the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. For many around the world, this conflict long ago ceased being about land, or resources, or competing national narratives. Rather, it has become “a contest over whether or not the word of God is true,” to quote Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe.
So for example, in the imaginations of a broad coalition of increasingly radicalized Jewish groups in Israel, the confrontation with Palestinians is viewed through the lens of the mythological battles fought by the ancient Israelites against God’s enemies.
The same view exists among a wide swath of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who frame their struggle for resistance against Israeli occupation as a conflict not over land or territory but over identity and dignity, one in which there can be room for compromise.
Of course, not to be outdone, millions of Christians around the world have come to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in purely messianic terms, as though the outcome of a political settlement between these two peoples will somehow decide the timetable for the second coming of Christ.
In some ways, it is only natural that a conflict such as this, which is already so infused with religious significance, would be framed in cosmic terms. After all, when both sides of a struggle are convinced that the very survival of their faith, culture, and way of life is at stake, both sides will inevitably begin to define the battle as being not between soldiers or armies but between the metaphysical forces of good and evil.
The problem with this way of thinking, however, is that it makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both unwinnable and un-losable: unwinnable because the battle between the forces of good and evil is, almost by definition, an eternal one; un-losable because when losing becomes synonymous with loss of faith or identity, there can be no possibility of negotiation, settlement, or surrender.
It has always been extremely easy to inject God into our political conflicts. After all, religion is the language that holds the most currency with the masses. But if we are to find an equitable end to such intractable conflicts as the one between Israel and Palestine, we must learn to actively strip them of their religious connotations. Otherwise, we will never stop fighting them.
It is up to people of faith – Muslims, Jews and Christians – who share the same hopes and the same fears, the same struggles and the same aspirations, the same God, to give voice to the lie that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is either ancient, or inherent, or for that matter, even religious. Perhaps then we can assure that our father, Abraham, will no longer be used to divide us as religions, but bind us together as humans.
Reza Aslan is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Wallerstein Professor at Drew University's Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict. He is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age, as well as editor of two volumes, Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation Religion & Conflict blog series tackles a theme that is contested at a number of levels. Some quickly itemise conflicts as religious and others only when the religious dimension is arguably paramount. What characterises these early years of the 21st century is that conflicts with a religious dimension are growing in prominence and geo-political importance, if not in number. In this series, our goal is to examine some of these conflicts from a variety of perspectives while offering our readers analysis of possible ways forward to a more peaceful world. This and all other blogs in the series represent the views of the individual author and not necessarily the views of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.