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The Myth of Conflict of Religions

By: Ahmet Alibašić

August 23, 2022

Religions and Encounter as a Global Challenge

Before construction work on a culture of encounter can start, some work is needed on the ground because it is not ready. On the contrary, many people today are skeptical and hold the view that religious differences are behind most if not all conflicts. A few years ago, I gave a lecture to a Muslim audience about the place for “the other” in Islam, arguing that the Quran makes aggression and not the difference of religion the basis of enmity in Muslims towards others. As most non-Muslims are not aggressors, Muslims have the obligation to be just and even do good to them. A person from the audience disagreed, saying that when he watched the news all he saw were anti-Muslim wars that left little space for the distinction. The usual list of complaints followed, from the Crusades to the genocide in Bosnia and the invasion of Iraq.

I opted to be brutal in my response and confront the gentleman with the realities of the day–the different intra-Muslim conflicts that were raging at the time or recently. The reports of Yemeni children dying of hunger in an intra-Muslim civil war had by then reached the cover pages and headlines; so had the reports about the use of chemical weapons around Damascus and heavy fighting among Libyans. Conflict in the western Sudan also came to mind, as did civil war in Somalia, the Iraq-Iran eight-year war, war atrocities in the process of separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and many others. 

Since then, I have found intrafaith conflicts to be a useful method in busting the myth of eternal and ever-present religious conflicts and/or clash of cultures. That particular type of conflict is often missing from the narratives about both historical and current conflicts. It is not that there are few victims of intrafaith conflicts; it is simply that they are rarely talked about, as if wounds inflicted by co-religionists hurt less—while actually they hurt more.

Similarly, interfaith coalitions complexify the usual stereotype of the conflictual nature of Christian-Muslim (and other) relations in the same manner. About ten years ago, Ian Almond published an intriguing book entitled Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe’s Battlegrounds (2009) reminding us of many battles in which Muslims and Christians were comrades in arms. The map of those battles has proven to be very useful in arguing the case against clash of civilizations. Such coalitions are also not specific to an era. Early Muslims celebrated victories of Byzantine Christian armies. During World War I, Bosnian Muslims fought for the Austro-Hungarian empire while other Muslims died for Russian, French, and English empires. 

Little has changed since. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is another reminder that conflicts do not happen only along religious and cultural fault lines. Therefore, efforts to build and promote a culture of encounter are neither fantasies nor exercises in futility. They address a real need of our time and carry a promise to deconstruct false claims about the nature of our relationships, both in the past and today. The omnipresence of religious conflict is one of those claims, and intrareligious conflicts and interreligious coalitions can be useful in demolishing them.