Category - Reconciliation

1
Debating Forgiveness: In Warm Appreciation of Colleen Murphy’s Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice
2
The Pope, the Patriarch and the People: recovering common aspirations
3
Atomic Anniversaries and Nuclear Disarmament
4
The battle against Islamic State must include a postwar plan
5
When Christians Kill and Destroy but Also Make Peace, CAR Today
6
Our social commons: two climate challenges
7
Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?
8
Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions
9
Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word
10
Speaker for the Dead

Debating Forgiveness: In Warm Appreciation of Colleen Murphy’s Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice

I delivered the following remarks at a panel launching philosopher Colleen Murphy’s outstanding new book, The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice at the University of Illinois-Urbana on Monday, October 23rd, 2017.

It is such an honor to comment on Colleen Murphy’s new book on transitional justice, which I believe is an outstanding success and deserves to be regarded as one of the leading accounts of transitional justice. Colleen succeeds both in showing that transitional justice is a distinct circumstance, or context, of justice, and how transitional justice can be a compelling substantive concept of justice. It is out of deep sympathy and admiration for the aims and achievements of Colleen’s book that I would like to pay it the tribute of engaged critique, focusing on her second task, the substantive content of transitional justice.

What I would like to argue is that Colleen’s substantive concept of transitional justice is one and the same as the concept widely known as restorative justice. Were Colleen to accept this argument, it would in no way negate her intricate and well-defended claims, but it would serve the cause of unity and conceptual progress in the global conversation about transitional justice and would fortify a widely recognized school of thought.

Restorative justice is a concept of justice that has arisen within stable western democracies to address crime within communities, especially that involving juveniles. Several theorists, though, have sought to expand restorative justice to entire societies addressing past injustices. Restorative justice articulates all of the major core features of Colleen’s concept of transitional justice, indeed the very features that, in my view, make it so compelling: a central stress on relationship; a holistic and interdependent approach to harms and restorative practices; the participation of relevant stakeholders; the retributivist insight that justice must address wrong and guilt; and a conception of crime and its redress that is broadened to the wide web of victims, harms, and perpetrators. Restorative justice, in my view, is virtually synonymous with another concept familiar to political transitions, reconciliation, which is the holistic restoration of right relationship. Reconciliation was the central concept that Colleen defended in her last book, A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation, and on p. 120 of the present book she notes the close link between reconciliation and her rendering of transitional justice. If reconciliation and restorative justice are also one and the same, then Colleen herself points to the resonance of her thinking with restorative justice.

Now, early in the present book, Colleen explicitly considers restorative justice but declines its invitation. Her reason? Restorative justice centers upon forgiveness, which she explains does not properly belong in the justice of societal transitions. In fact, though, the restorative justice literature itself does not center forgiveness as she believes it does. True, some theorists of political restorative justice include forgiveness. I am one of them, as is, far more prominently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, whose book, No Future Without Forgiveness, weaves forgiveness tightly into the fabric of restorative justice. But the broad literature on restorative justice, including some of its most distinguished theorists like John Braithwaite and Howard Zehr, does not integrate forgiveness into restorative justice. So, Colleen could well render her theory restorative justice while maintaining her skepticism of forgiveness.

I wish to argue further, however, that forgiveness ought to be included in restorative justice and reconciliation in collective, political, transitional contexts and to enter a dialogue with Colleen about her reasons for rejecting it, which she spells out on pages 23 and 24, echoing her previous book’s position. She makes clear that she has no objection to forgiveness in interpersonal contexts where basic background conditions like reciprocity and respect are in place. But, she argues, when these background conditions are not in place, as is the case with war and dictatorship, forgiveness is a no-go. It is a passive, submissive response that can serve to maintain conditions of oppression or injustice and fails to recognize the value of anger or resentment, which can be critical to the self-worth and self-respect of victims, she maintains.

I want to argue for a different way of thinking about forgiveness, though, and to show, if briefly, how it can help construct right relationships in transitional political orders. I draw not only upon arguments about what forgiveness is but also upon an empirical investigation of forgiveness in the wake of armed conflict that I conducted in Uganda, a country whose experience Colleen reflects upon towards the end of her book. Through a nationwide survey of 640 inhabitants of five regions where armed violence took place, ten focus groups, and twenty-seven in-depth interviews, I investigated the frequency and character of forgiveness in fraught political contexts.

Forgiveness is not foreign to countries facing gargantuan violent pasts. A discourse of forgiveness could be found in South Africa, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Guatemala, Chile, Northern Ireland, Germany, Timor Leste, and numerous other transitional countries of the past generation. Global leaders, most notably Tutu and Pope John Paul II, advocated it as well. Discourse does not mean just practice, of course, but it does establish that forgiveness is not merely the brainchild of scholars sitting in offices in western universities.

Defense begins with definition. Colleen says that forgiveness is a matter of overcoming anger and resentment, which it is in part, but I hold that forgiveness involves another dimension, a will to construct right relationship. The forgiver wills to construe a perpetrator as one against whom he no longer holds an offense and to treat the perpetrator accordingly. This critical component of forgiveness helps to reframe forgiveness as something other than a passive acquiescence to injustice, which it might be were it merely a matter of relinquishment. Now, the forgiver is an active, constructive agent who seeks to build peace, both with respect to the perpetrator but also, in contexts of political injustice, in the society that badly needs to address its past injustices. In becoming an active constructor, the forgiver arguably regains agency rather than reinforces her passive position.

Importantly, forgiveness does not condone, but rather presupposes, a full identification and condemnation of injustices. It shares this construal with resentment and, like resentment, seeks to overcome or defeat this injustice, albeit in a different manner. Indeed, in contributing to restoring relationship, forgivers arguably enact the transitional justice of restored relationships.

Consider Angelina Atyam, a Ugandan mother of a girl whom the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted from a girls school along with 130 other girls in 1996. Meeting with other parents of abducted daughters in a local church, Atyam sensed a call to forgive, which she followed. She even sought out the mother of the LRA soldier who held her daughter in captivity and, through her, forgave the soldier along with his entire clan. When the soldier later died in the conflict, Atyam sought her out and wept with her. Atyam became a public advocate for forgiveness, which she believed could contribute greatly to peace.

Other prominent cases of forgivers who actively constructed better social worlds might be mentioned, too –Nelson Mandela, for instance. Both Mandela and Atyam also illustrate that forgiveness is compatible with other kinds of efforts to build justice. Mandela actively sought the demise of apartheid and spent 26 years in prison for it. Atyam and the other parents formed an association to advocate for the girls’ release. When Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, felt threatened by the international exposure that these efforts elicited, he approached Atyam and offered to release her daughter if she and the other parents would cease their efforts. Atyam refused: She would only cease if all the girls were released. No passive acquiescence to injustice can be found here.

I have argued in my book, Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, that there are theoretical reasons why forgiveness is compatible with judicial punishment, reparations, the telling of truth, and public apologies on the part of perpetrators, all of which provide compensation or vindication to victims. Ugandans agree. The survey showed victims being widely sympathetic towards all of these measures but also, interestingly, willing to practice forgiveness even when these measures were absent, as they by and large were in Uganda.

Are Atyam and Mandela rare saints? Here is where the survey is telling. It revealed that 68% of Ugandans who suffered violence in contexts of war exercised forgiveness. 86% agreed with the statement that it is good to forgive in the aftermath of armed violence. These startlingly high numbers were corroborated in the focus groups, where participants offered thoughtful reflections on forgiveness, including some of its liabilities, but in no case argued that forgiveness was beyond the pale or the preserve of the rare saint. Broadly, Ugandans living in the aftermath of violence agree that forgiveness is in principle an appropriate action and have undertaken it frequently.

One of the standard charges against forgiveness, reflecting the worry about victims becoming more victimized, is that it is, but should not be, pressured upon victims. The criticism is right. Forgiveness, which depends uniquely upon the inward will of victims, ought not to be pressured. The problem, though, is the pressure, and not the forgiveness. 94% of the Ugandans who forgave reported that they were not pressured to forgive, showing that pressure is not endemic to the practice of forgiveness in political settings.

Contributing to the plausibility of forgiveness in Uganda is a dimension that it is critical to its performance: religion. Ugandans are predominantly Christian and rank high in measures of religiosity. 82% of those who forgave reported having done so on account of their religious beliefs. Forgiveness was equally religiously motivated in one region that was predominantly Muslim. This reflects a trend that applies to transitional justice globally, which has taken place predominantly, though not exclusively, among majority Christian populations in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and East Asia. It should not be surprising that religious leaders have been major voices in transitional justice debates and are often advocates of reconciliation and forgiveness. Such was true in Uganda, where 70% of victims who forgave reported that a religious leader encouraged them to do so.

The place of religious warrants in transitional justice, of course is a debate all of its own. A case could be made that religion reframes the concepts of burden, agency, resentment, construction, and right relationship that are at stake in debates about forgiveness. This would require a foray into theology. What is important here is that forgiveness can be understood to be a practice that constructs right relationship and thus arguably has a place in Colleen’s formidable theory of transitional justice.

The Pope, the Patriarch and the People: recovering common aspirations

Observations on the momentous Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill meeting – including Daniel Philpott’s helpful posts here and here on ArcU- have offered us much food for thought this week.
To recap: many commentators have focused on the Kremlin’s apparent interests in securing such a meeting, on Patriarch Kirill’s problematic dependency on Putin, or on the Patriarch’s personal motives for agreeing to meet with Pope Francis at this particular time.
Andrea Gagliarducci, on the other hand, offers a cautiously skeptical account of the Vatican’s emerging “Ostpolitik”, contrasting it to the approach of previous Popes, and questioning whether it will be “successful” in theological terms.
Several commentators have honed in on controversial passages of the joint declaration signed by the two religious leaders, noting in particular paragraphs 25, 26 and 27, which refer to Ukraine. Some suspect that Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church played a leading role in their drafting, leading to claims that his office “exploited” the co-authors – the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, with Cardinal Kurt Koch at its helm.
It seems to me that all of these reflections – while highly relevant – fail to appreciate the essence of this recent encounter. As regards the meeting itself, it was Pope Francis’ insistence that he would go wherever necessary to meet the Patriarch that seems to have created the opening in the first place. And as regards the declaration, judging by my own experience of Russian diplomacy, and my personal encounter with Cardinal Koch, I do believe we have much to be grateful for. While negotiations on the declaration must have been tough – in some ways even disappointing – I believe that Koch’s graciousness and docility – paradoxically perhaps – made him the right man for the job (for more on the Catholic Church’s approach to achieving Christian unity, see 821-822 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Furthermore, while Philpott rightly notes that, for all its apparent imperfections, “there is much in the declaration to appeal to”, there is one point that I believe has not yet resounded strongly enough: the declaration’s potential impact on ordinary members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many of them are suspicious towards Catholics or members of other Churches independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. The meeting and joint declaration may encourage them to follow the example of their leader and seek out possibilities for encounter or dialogue with their brothers and sisters of other Churches or ecclesial communities. It is this kind of dynamic – this kind of renewed solidarity grounded in a reality that is greater than we are – that eventually led to the collapse of Communism following John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. Just as ordinary people in Poland remember the transformative impact of John Paul II’s call on the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the land” in 1979, the Orthodox faithful – particularly the youth – might rediscover in the joint declaration not only a common aspiration for peace and justice, but also a common language and deep common heritage so often betrayed during times of political propaganda, division and conflict. Sub Tuum…

Atomic Anniversaries and Nuclear Disarmament

What kind of peace do we seek? The Roman historian Tacitus, writing near the time of Jesus, described how the Pax Romana was experienced by people, like the Celts and Jews, who had been conquered by the Romans: “They make a desolation and call it peace.”

Seventy years ago, the U.S. made a desolation, and called it peace. The U.S. sought an unconditional peace with Japan, before the Soviets invaded Japan in WWII. Toward this end, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than a quarter million people, mostly civilians.

As Christians, this is not the sort of peace we seek. Jesus of Nazareth made it clear that he was not in favor of a desolate peace, a negative peace, based on the threat of military destruction. At the time, Catholic and religious leaders were some of the few voices raised in opposition to atomic weapons. The Holy See argued “the new death instruments” were “catastrophic.” Atomic weapons raised a “sinister shadow on the future of humanity.”

Their concerns were sadly prescient. Army Air force leaders argued for more atomic bombings of Japanese cities. The world’s nuclear arsenal rapidly grew from a handful of U.S. atomic weapons in 1945, to over 66,000 nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, primarily in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals. Today, many citizens mistakenly believe the nuclear danger largely receded with the end of the Cold War twenty five years ago. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons present huge dangers today, from threats of accident, to hundreds of thefts of fissile materials and/or weapons, to proliferation and use by terrorists and insurgents such as ISIL. This is a real concern, not merely the stuff of action movies. ISIL stole over 80 pounds of uranium from Mosul University in Iraq this past year. While that material is not weapons-grade, it could be used in a dirty bomb that would spread panic and radiation.

Pointing to the disastrous humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, religious communities have joined with secular advocates for deep reductions of nuclear weapons. Former “Cold Warriors” such as President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, and President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry, today all urge deep reductions in nuclear arms.   Pope Francis concurs.

The Japanese continue to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. As Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui put it in marking the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, “Our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation. We now know about the many incidents and accidents that have taken us to the brink of nuclear war or nuclear explosions. Today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism. To coexist we must abolish the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity that are nuclear weapons. Now is the time to start taking action.”

There are other paths to peace, that I discuss in the cover story of America magazine this week.  The Just Peace tool box gives us many proven methods to build lasting, sustainable peace, approaches that do not “make a desolation and call it peace.” We should use just peace and reconciliation approaches to nuclear disarmament.

The battle against Islamic State must include a postwar plan

In Canada’s Globe and Mail a few weeks ago I made the argument that as the battle for Tikrit raged, the world badly needed to break its track record of invasion followed by inaction. Now, Tikrit is taken and the countdown to Mosul is on.

But this is not the battle for Kobani, a city overwhelmed by nearly 400,000 refugees. Mosul is a major city of the Middle East, a city of 1.8 million at its height. Its humanitarian catastrophe has been compared to the Nazi regime in the Second World War. The postwar reconstruction plan we need should be taken from the same playbook. The Middle East needs a Yalta and a Potsdam: a postwar order before the victory march; a plan for how to bring people home.

A post-IS order, in other words, is not the panacea for the Levant. In fact, in an interview, Gen. David Petraeus outlined what he called worse concerns about the region than IS: “I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by – and some guided by – Iran.”

As IS is rolled back by coalition forces – including in some cases Shiite militias – the danger of kidnappings and reprisal killings, mass evictions, and the corrosive abuses that so often follow on the heels of the politics of past evil is real and present.

The problem of what political scientist Daniel Philpott calls unjust peace, and the cycle of violence after mass atrocity, will persist long after a group calling itself IS is pushed back and defeated.

That problem is as much about how the militaries and militias conduct themselves in the now-and upcoming campaign to retake ISIS-controlled Iraq as when and what comes next. As coalition forces move forward, will the international community prove complicit in the kind of reprisal and revenge killings to come? Or is there a role for countries like Canada, not merely in the form of boots on the ground, but as partners in rebuilding a just peace that, even in the merest act of our presence, may prevent the worst of post-war reprisals?

Any just peace needs a plan of return, one which includes not only security, governance, and economic development, but reconciliation. We need a plan for people to come back to their homes, to their villages, safely, reclaim ownership, and somehow restore a sense of normalcy to life.

Christians, Yezidis, and – it must be remembered – an overwhelming number of Muslims have suffered terrible persecution under IS. The blood of martyrs soaks this region. Sadness saturates the soul. IS can and will be beaten, but we need to know what comes next. We need a practical plan to take us beyond the trauma. And we need that plan taking shape now, as part of, not secondary thought to, counter-invasion.

The counter-invasion may come as a rescue, but the larger part is a restoration. The harder part is the return. The region itself needs to take leadership on security and economic development, and the world needs to anticipate a better future. In the heart of Europe’s darkest hour the Allies planned an audacious postwar plan on the back of presumed victory. The Levant badly needs that audacity today.

When Christians Kill and Destroy but Also Make Peace, CAR Today

Consistency Deficit Disorder is a problem among Christians these days. Many Christians have been at the forefront of asking Muslims, “So, what are you Muslims going to do about violence committed by Muslims today?” while we Christians ourselves at times, perhaps not infrequently, turn a blind eye to violence committed by Christians. We need to stop, and then pray and think about this. The Central African Republic (CAR) is a good place to start.

A few days ago U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted about the “frightened Muslim pop[ulation]” in the CAR. Imagine if you and your family were living in the midst of a civil war and a group from a different religion and ethnicity were targeting people of your religion and ethnicity. I would be frightened, as I suppose you too would be.

For those of us who are Christian, there is an added gut-wrenching element to this: many of the perpetrators of death and destruction in the CAR, who are targeting the Muslim population, are from the Christian population.

Ambassador Power explained to reporters that as of her recent visit to CAR, 417 of the 436 mosques in this country had been destroyed, and around 20% of the country’s 4.5 million people have fled. Muslims are not the ones destroying mosques in CAR, Christians are.  Moreover, many, if not most, of the nearly 1 million people who have fled are Muslim, and they are fleeing from violence committed intentionally against them at the hands of the Christian population.

To my fellow Christians I ask:

So, what are we Christians going to do about violence being committed by Christians in CAR?

I ask for two reasons. The first is my concern about our Christian Consistency Deficit Disorder. The second reason is  because I continue to wonder:

What is the responsibility of religious believers in a given faith to engage fanatics advocating ideologies of hate while claiming to act in the name of this faith?

I am not sure what the answer to this question is. Violence is a human problem and we humans have responsibility for each other, regardless of religious affiliation. But even so, I do not think that “nothing, no responsibility at all” is the right answer to this question. Aside from this, Jesus teaches me, “love your neighbor.” The people of CAR are among my neighbors in this world. I had to stop to ask myself what I am going to do about this. I have neither a magic wand nor billions of dollars to donate. But I can do at least something.

First I did some research to learn about the conflict, and then I contacted a Christian expert I know with decades of experience doing development work together with the people of this region. I asked him for advice, and learned about some important peacemaking efforts led by Christians in CAR — efforts which can continue only with financial support.

Today I sent a donation to World Vision International’s Central African Relief Fund. World Vision’s peacemaking efforts in CAR are a collaborative effort involving Protestant and Catholic Christians together with Muslims.  Catholic Relief Services is a partner in this work. Another Christian partner in this work is INOVARCA.

So, what are we Christians going to do about violence being committed by Christians in CAR?

Prayer for the people of CAR and those working with them is part of my action-plan. Prayer matters. And alongside prayer is a need for as many people as possible to support concrete, wisely conceived action, such as the work by the Christian groups World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and INOVARCA.

 

 

Our social commons: two climate challenges

The growing crises in ecological sustainability and identity politics are straining our social commons. As part of responding to both climate challenges, protect and invest in our social commons.

The doomsday clock has been moved to 3 minutes to midnight. Climate change, fed by carbon emissions, is expected to push us above the 2 degree temperature increase threshold in 30 years, based on current trends in usage of our carbon budget. This manmade crisis creates far-reaching issues of justice. Those best positioned to act unilaterally to protect themselves from climate change harm- in the near term- are the wealthy, who have also been the biggest contributors to the problem. Those most likely to suffer from it are the poor, who did the least to create the problem. Mitigation demands collective action in numerous arenas and at different levels. The scale, complexity, and number of related problems stretch our institutional capacities for addressing them collectively.

Meanwhile, our global identity-politics tensions are heating up, largely but not exclusively from the clash of civilizations narrative and various nationalisms. This latter form of climate change wears and rips at our social fabric, ultimately threatening to widen and escalate conflicts into humanity-encompassing mutual destruction. Public opinion in Europe and the US, particularly after the traumatic Paris attacks in January, has gravitated further towards a clash of civilizations mentality. Identity politics- my side, right or wrong- can be contrasted to principled deliberation about principles. Without redoubled efforts to provide meaningful avenues for addressing injustices, and to counter the identity clash story, a self-fulfilling prophecy will result.

Our social commons— the community space in which we meet and engage with the other to devise answers to our shared problems— is under strain. The best responses to both types of climate change start with invigorating our social commons to generate participatory answers. This means nurturing a more responsible global civics: acknowledging and affirming the humanity of the other through an ethic for mutual obligation, such as the Golden Rule; including religion, not solely for the pragmatics and semantics, but also for the consciousness of the intrinsic worth of nature; appreciating that diverse scales and social ecological settings require a polycentric approach, while supporting the critical functions of central government; and maintaining vigilance against the vigilantes on all sides, cooling identity-based conflict escalations and promoting cooperation for the common good.

Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Our planet is losing its ability to sustain human life. That’s the premise of Christopher Nolan’s recently released Interstellar. Amid blight, dust, and skepticism about science and technology, a secret effort launches something even more improbable than a proverbial moon shot. Without getting into more detail and giving away the movie, what if we entered the story much earlier, and knew what we needed to know to prevent collective catastrophe- would we be able to make the needed changes?

 

This is about where we find ourselves now. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the system is blinking red. In the most important  assessment of global climate change yet- a report based on 30,000 scientific papers- the panel has warned of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are cut rapidly. At present rates we will use up our global “carbon budget” in 30 years, pushing us over the 2 degrees centigrade rise in average temperatures- a threshold beyond which severe impacts are far more likely.

 

We need to decarbonize now to avert a tragedy of our climate commons. It’s the mother of all collective action problems: no single group or individual can solve it. Some individuals will have an incentive to seek a “free ride” by continuing to pollute while others cut back- hoping that others’ cutbacks will suffice to avoid catastrophe. Left uncurtailed, free-riding will undermine collective action.

 

Late in 2015 in Paris, the world will see the next round of global climate talks. We can each take tangible steps to make a difference. Raise awareness. Cut back on red meat consumption. Switch to LED bulbs. Adjust our modes of transport. Work for alternative energy in local communities. Lobby politicians. And yet top-level summits and individual actions are unlikely to succeed on their own.  We need a shift in consciousness to support multilevel cooperation in the push to cut carbon emissions. What ethical foundation might promote such collaboration?

 

One possibility is the Golden Rule: to want for others what you want for yourself.  Both sacred and secular, shared by many religious and humanist traditions, the Golden Rule can support diverse covenants- agreements on the obligation to work together to tackle shared problems, fostering trust and reciprocity, contributing to a collection of globally consequential interventions from many places. This may appear idealistic- and yet, in many cases where a tragedy of the commons was predicted, communities figured out mechanisms and rules to govern their behavior and sustain their shared commons resource. Can we, in differing steps and scales, do this for our global climate commons?

 

To the extent that the Golden Rule helps bridge divisions to build community and address difficult collective challenges, it is more urgent to affirm now than ever. That way we might be able to go Interstellar not from desperation, but choice

Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.

The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.

Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.

Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.

Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation.  By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.

In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.

Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word

Some commenters reject the attempts to distinguish ISIL from Islam more broadly. Their underlying belief seems to be that Islam is at war with the Judeo-Christian West. And it is a fact that self-described Islamic political actors have been fighting the West. The “clash of civilizations” story is alive and well. Yet there is a danger in the story: if people act as if the story is true, they risk turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Westerners will target Muslims, Muslims will target Westerners, and the conflict will escalate into all domains where Islam and West potentially collide. Wider still is what would happen if the story of civilizations at war extended to all Muslims and Christians–together, they make up over half the world’s population.

Other stories exist, yet haven’t reached many Muslims and Westerners. A crucial one is the path-breaking initiative in Muslim Christian relations known as “A Common Word Between Us”. This authoritative statement has been signed by diverse Muslim authorities from around the globe. The initiative seeks to affirm the two greatest commandments- to love God above all, and to love for one’s neighbor what one love’s for oneself- as the basis for relations between Muslims and Christians. It invites Christians to work with Muslims on this basis, and says that to do otherwise would be to risk not only our worldly well-being, but our very souls. The Common Word initiative provides principles for a constitutional reset in Muslim-Christian relations. As I have recently argued, institutional design founded on these principles can promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians.

Unlike the Catholic context, where the teaching of Nostra Aetate could be spread among Catholics within a generation through the structure of bishops, the Muslim world is decentralized. Religious instruction is not dominated by an ordained clergy, but by a less hierarchical community. Traditionally, well-trained scholars and spiritual masters were pre-eminent Muslim religious instructors. Consensus was difficult to achieve. In our age, traditional authority has further eroded, making consensus even harder. It is all the more remarkable that the initiative has been endorsed by such a wide geographic and theological range of Muslim scholars, including figures with tremendous reputations in different communities. The teaching thus has the status of an authoritative claim about how Muslims are to relate to Christians.

Despite an initial wave of publicity, the document is still not commonly known. To make the Common Word a widespread reality, creative emulation and reciprocation through networks and institutions are needed. This is not impossible. It demands transnational entrepreneurship, awareness-raising, and civic artisanship. Particularly valuable would be the demonstration that the initiative has provided meaningful avenues for the redress of grievances. This would help stem the turn to violent alternatives. Tangible results of cooperation can further change the clash story. And that possibility depends on what Muslims and Christians do now.

Speaker for the Dead

As séances go, says Timothy Larsen in the latest issue of Books & Culture, most tend to be awfully one sided: a question, a gust of wind, a tap on the desk, a flicker of the lights. Not much of a dialogue, he says, which sadly tends to be the way we deal with the dead even when we’re using the tools of history and not a Ouija board.

The pillaging of the past for clear and unambiguous stories that make sense of the present day is not a new problem, but it’s earned a special place in the conflagration in Iraq in the last month. Yesterday, the New York Times ran some easy reading on how “Longtime Rivals Look to Team Up to Confront ISIS,” a feel good round up about how pretty much everyone in the region is grudgingly putting aside old enmities to face ISIS/ISIL together. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the seventh century,” quoted one former American ambassador. It’s a delicious piece of journalistic overstatement, but it also fingers the pitiless, and instrumentalist, way the history of the region is often picked over in the moment to score today’s talking points.

There has, in fact, been something like this since the seventh century. The now accepted truism that Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions are nearly eternal and intractable enemies neglects not only the basic political-theological history of a region, often defined by its mutual vulnerability to external threats (say, the Mongol demolition of central Asia), but also long histories of exchange and dialogue between groups that might alarm us. S. Frederick Starr in his important new book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane makes a long point that not only did scholars and theologians across ‘long time rival traditions’ engage in regular debate and dialogue, but that dialogue was itself the fruit of a great deal of scientific, philosophical, theological, and medicinal innovation. Further, he speaks at length of the central Asian legacy of these achievements, not only their Islamic origin, harkening both to Zoroastrian and Buddhist roots of what only retrospectively gets called the Islamic renaissance of culture and science. We hear stories about paper making in Khwarazm, of that jewel of trade and culture Samarkand, the astronomical sophistication of Balk, and the urban academies of Merv.

But to read (some) political commentary on war in the region today would convince you that rival political-theological traditions of Islam have been making total war on each other since the first Fitna (656-661). This is true in the same way as the wars of religion in Europe (1618-1648) were an uncomplicated contest between Protestants and Catholics, an easy history which all but the most committed dogmatics have long since abandoned. In fact, the history of central Asia is replete with historical facts on both sides of the argument – of fitnas and dynastic war, but also of interreligious, scientific, and cultural renaissance.

It serves present-day sensibilities, and sensationalism, to give a picture of a region/religion that is hopelessly and eternally divided, driven to aligning tactically on the back of the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL. Tactical alignment, as Nasr says, may be a present reality, but it is neither a first, nor last time, something like that has happened in a region, one time Center of the World, one time home of the world’s greatest, most enduring empires. Dan Philpott writes about the global resurgence of religion that the more interesting question is not ‘why religion is back’ but ‘why we [in the West] ever thought it went away.’ Larsen might say a version of that question is the more interesting for central Asia too. The more interesting question is not ‘why regional interests have aligned for the first time since the seventh century’ but ‘why we ever thought they hadn’t before.’

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.