The dialogue delusion —Ejaz Haider

It is good to have interfaith dialogues. They are most useful for academic information and offer great optics. But to expect them to influence what is happening on the ground, which is the stuff of hardcore realpolitik, is to put undue premium on optimism

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia has inaugurated an interfaith dialogue conference in Madrid Spain. It’s a grand event, as such events are supposed to be. Will it succeed? No.

Cutting through the high ceremonial flourish and photo-ops, the conference is really an attempt to tell the world that Islam can live peacefully with other religions and the current drift towards chaos can be prevented by emphasising belief in God as the common link between all religions.

Yes, Islam can be at peace with all religions, including non-monotheistic ones; no, belief in God as a commonality will not stop humanity’s march towards multiple clashes within the paradigm of irregular war that, over time, may lead to a big one, what eschatological fatalism describes as the Armageddon.

The reason is simple. Interfaith dialogues, which have become the vogue since 9/11, are based on a wrong premise i.e., Islam (or any religion) can be the cause of war. The fact is that no conflict is the product of religion. Religion (or ethnicity) is never the cause of any war or conflict even as it lends itself readily to constructing a discourse about common identity, common travails, sense of persecution, the need to band together and a common destiny, all of which are supposed to cut across other parochial identities — ethnic, tribal, linguistic, racial and so on — and bind disparate peoples together.

In the army (and this is common to all armies) they say, and trenchantly, that there is no atheist in a foxhole. But the soldier in the foxhole, even when he believes, is not there because of his belief. The cause(s) of a conflict is to be found elsewhere, in the mundane world, in matters political, economic or social or a combination of them.

Belief can motivate and sustain, and it does. Fighting requires organisation, training, motivation and morale. The first two are objective categories and can be qualified and quantified; the latter two are subjective psychological ingredients, though no less vital than good organisation and training. They are begotten of and sustained through various devices: religion, nationalism, honour, the flag, regimental, clan and familial traditions, personal courage, et cetera.

All of this informs the discourse which creates institutionalised memory and way of thinking. The discourse, as scholars have noted, creates boundaries, limits speech, defines modes of thinking and by doing so billets the process of thinking itself. On the plus side, it allows group identity and cohesion, organisational integrity in the face of external pressures, and the ability to counter internal and external threats.

So yes, all believers, regardless of the nature of belief, monotheistic or pantheistic, believe in God. Within respective groups they can use religion to live peacefully or to kill each other — just like they can and do on the basis of ethnicity or tribal traditions. But while the conflict may be called religious, ethnic, sectarian etc, its causes lie elsewhere. It depends on what kind of marker is being used for group identity and when and why. It makes sense to use one that shall guarantee the best possibilities of morale and motivation by suppressing parochial interests and pressures.

Take the example of the Taliban. What would be the best way of controlling a territory comprising tribes, sub-tribes, clans and sub-clans, a mosaic of multilayered solidarity groups? It can either be done by appealing to the larger Pashtun sense of group identity or an even higher ideal, Islam, or a combination of the two, the Pashtun identity being complemented by Islamic identity.

Afghanistan has seen both and the multi- national and ethnic warriors and ideologues of Al Qaeda have played an important role in developing the larger identity.

Take the case of sectarian clashes in the NWFP, especially in the areas of upper and lower Miranzai valleys. A Sunni Bangash can only link up with a Sunni Orakzai to kill a Shia Bangash if the tribal bonds have weakened and the sectarian identity, a higher layer, has subsumed the more parochial, tribal layer.

Add to it another variable. In 1998, within a day of sectarian clashes in Hangu, this writer travelled to Kohat, Hangu and Tal. It was a sight and an insight to see the name of a Punjabi, Azam Tariq, carved in bold white letters on one of the mountains facing the town of Hangu!

The sectarian affiliation had not only suppressed the Pashtun tribal identity and sense of solidarity but had clearly cut across even the larger, trans-tribal Pashtun identity to subsume another ethnic group traditionally considered less martial by the Pashtun.

But while conflicts are not born of religious, sectarian, ethnic and other such reasons, once the discourse takes over, is iterated, and the conflict gets underway and begins to claim lives, these markers of group identity come into play and, quite often, make it impossible to bring the conflict to an end. Since such conflicts unfold among the people, even in the ebb, passions can simmer and manifest themselves through confrontations. The process seems never-ending.

It is good to have interfaith dialogues. They are most useful for academic information and offer great optics. But to expect them to influence what is happening on the ground, which is the stuff of hardcore realpolitik, is to put undue premium on optimism.

Any situation on the ground develops its own complexities, wheels within wheels. Protracted conflicts also develop a vicious action-reaction cycle; information is hard to come by and when it does brings its own slant. Sifting the grain from the chaff becomes nearly impossible. Conflicts also develop their own vested interests and economies. None of this has anything to do with God but He is invoked and claimed by all sides in all His glory, both transcendent and imminent.

It is interesting that while inaugurating the conference King Abdullah, who is also footing the bill of this extravaganza, declared that previous such attempts had failed to achieve their objectives. He hoped, however, that the present effort would succeed. How, if the premise is wrong, is a moot point.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at

Daily Times, 18/7/2008

Leave a Reply