Religion and Politics

AARON HAHN TAPPER – It is impossible to separate religious determination from a people’s will, especially in democracy. 

Religion and politics are often intertwined in many Middle Eastern countries, yet the United States continues to push American-style democracy there. In what ways can democracy be adapted to fit into the region’s religious-political template?

I would approach that question from two angles. I am trained to understand religious studies from a sociological perspective. The general way that most people see religion is that it has to do with god. They think that politics has to do with human-to-human relations, vis-a-vis governments. This is the simplistic view of these two entities. For me, religion is one of many ways by which humans enact their identity, and for some people politics is another vehicle for identity. When politicians talk about politics they mean the “government.” But when we are walking around in society, we have political identities. For example, in the United States and around the world, being a male has political clout in a way that it doesn’t necessarily have if you are a female. I study the interplay of politics and religion insofar as the two are indicators of how humans behave and enact their beliefs. 

As for democracy, Churchill said that it is “the worst form of government except for all the others.” My point is that there are many problems with democracy. Americans have been raised to think that democracy is the be-all and end-all of governmental systems. It might be, at this stage, the most stable form of government, but there are many different definitions of democracy, and our definition is a work in progress like all democracies. The irony is that the US government has tried to impose democracy in, say, Iraq. Yet democracy is based on the notion “of the people for the people.” It is ironic that one country would try to impose something on another that is based on self-determination. 

Is religion separable from the ‘people’s will’?

It is impossible to separate the two. Religious minorities in any given country often are better able to see the dominance of the majority’s opinion. Raised as a Jew in the United States, for example, I can see how this country is a Christian nation, how Christian ideals permeate our culture. It is wrong to pretend that we live without religious identities and that these identities do not affect our politics. 

Is the US Government’s unique identity perhaps a reason why it cannot seem to understand some of the problems it has created in the Middle East?

I think sometimes this is the case. There have been efforts to work on the ground with people in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is also clear that that was not the main motivation. We wanted to make the American people feel safe, and if that goal was achieved at the expense of indigenous peoples and cultures, American policymakers accepted that cost. But that is how all governments work. 

Both Jewish and Muslim religious texts preach nonviolence, yet the conflict between Palestine and Israel has become increasingly bloody. How can ‘religion’ be used as an avenue to achieve peace in the region?

 I think all religions have powerful passages about peace, but they [almost] always all have powerful passages about war as well. After 9/11 President Bush said Islam is a religion of peace. I have no problem with that statement, but as an academic who studies religion, I think Islam is also a religion of war. Judaism is a religion of peace and war. Christianity embodies both as well. Wars are commonly justified — religiously, politically — by the desire to bring about peace. That is the grand irony. I think there is much in religious texts that promote peace, but the problem — or solution — stems from how people choose passages. There is so much material and history, say, encapsulated in Jewish and Islamic traditions, that there is a vast array of opinion and commentary on war and peace. It is difficult to orient these texts towards one outcome only. 

So people who use religion to wage war and people who use it to create peace are both technically correct?

To a degree, yes. Judaism and Islam are much more specific than Christianity because they have legal traditions whereby one is told how to live from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. The question of whether someone like Osama bin Laden had the authority to call his followers to murder can be answered using the legal traditions that are part of Islamic religious texts. 

 Is the conflict today between these Abrahamic religions faith-based, or is faith used to justify fighting over political objectives?

 Conflict is rooted in both religion and politics. What is happening today is not a religious battle nor a political battle. It is a battle between peoples, between different groups. All battles are about identity and power. The conflict between Palestinians and Jews today is not strictly religious or political, for example. It is problematic to see conflict through just one lens. When Jewish Zionists were traveling to Ottoman-controlled Palestine, they were highly nationalistic — a political trait. Yet their nationalism stemmed from the Five Books of Moses. To say whether that was a religious or political move is impossible; it was a move based on their religious-political identity. 

How has the conflict between Israel and Palestine manifested among populations of Jews and Muslims in the United States? Could these populations provide a key for reconciliation internationally?

I think there is strong connections between American-based populations of Jews, Muslims, and Christians and the Middle East. Part of that connection is due to America being the most powerful nation in the world. So in a sense, anyone living in the United States has more potential to affect global change than populations in other countries. 

If we had to summarize the dominant American-Jewish narrative about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I think the sentiment is much simpler than it is in Israel. On the whole, the Israeli-Jewish narrative is much more nuanced, for obvious reasons: they live in the region, it is part of their culture to have disparate points of view [for example, their political system is multi-party in a way that America’s is not]. In the United States, the sentiment is much more monolithic. I think there is validity to the argument that part of the reason Israel has thrived is because of the influence and voice of the American-Jewish establishment. About two-percent of the US population is Jewish, yet Jews make up far more than two-percent of the conversation. The Palestinian community in the United States is radically smaller and much less organized, for a variety of reasons. 

The Jewish and pro-Israel Political Action Committees (PACs) exert a great deal of power in government, and some scholars point to these groups as perpetuators of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do these PACs represent obstacles to peace? 

I don’t think that the goal of groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is to stop the violence. I think their goal is to support the current Israeli government at all costs. This is not a wise political stance; I would not be supportive of any group that thinks it should support a government at all costs. Governments are made up of people, and there is no human who is flawless. It is not in the best interests of the State of Israel nor the Jewish community for these groups to support every Israeli action. 

There is some validity in John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s book, The Israel Lobby, which argues that the so-called pro-Israel PACs exert too great a force on the US government. But, the American government has its own interests, too. The American government has wanted a foothold in the Middle East for decades, and Israel presents that ability. If AIPAC dissolved overnight, the Americans would not all of a sudden change policies. There is a modicum of anti-Semitism in the Mearsheimer/Walt argument insofar as they seem to perpetuate the myth that Jews have so much power in the government, as if they control the government. 

The United States has been such a conspicuous player in the Middle East over the last decade. How has this involvement affected its credibility to moderate the conflict between Israel and Palestine?

 Americans are the only ones who think that they can serve as some sort of “neutral arbiter.” No dominant voice in European or Middle Eastern communities give that statement any support. America has been giving more foreign aid to Israel than any other country for over three decades. Whether the US was trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine, or Israel and Zimbabwe, they would promote Israeli interests. And when one takes into account the American government’s positions in the region, and their role in the United Nations Security Council, it becomes clear that the country is far from being neutral. And that is a huge problem. 

Does that mean the United States shouldn’t be involved in the region? No, they have to be involved because they are so powerful. The role of a third party is incredibly delicate. It is nearly impossible to look out for the interests of both parties in this situation. 

President Obama outlined his strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, noting the importance of a two-state solution. Is the two-state solution the best option?

At the moment, yes. There is a great difference between conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Resolving conflict is very different than transforming it; resolving it means creating a stable situation in which people can live their lives and not have to worry about being shot at or going hungry. 

A two-state solution is the best option right now, but I think it should be part of a much broader idea of stable peace. By itself I do not think it will be enough.

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AARON HAHN TAPPER is the Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice and current Swig Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of San Francisco. In 2003, he founded Abraham’s Vision, a conflict transformation organization working with American-based populations of Jews, Muslims, Israelis, and Palestinians, for whom he has served as Co-Executive Director since that time.