Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

Religion has become a fateful force in the contemporary world and it is crucial that it be a force for good—for conflict resolution, not just conflict creation. If religion in the twenty-first century is not part of the solution, then it will surely be part of the problem.

I am going to put forward a simple but radical idea. It is difficult to say something new about the world’s great faiths, thousands of years old, but that is what I want to do—to offer a new reading, more precisely a new listening, to some ancient texts. The reason I do so is because our situation in the twenty-first century, especially post–September 11, is new, in three ways:

First, religion has returned against all expectation in many parts of the world, as a powerful, even shaping, force.

Second, its presence has been particularly evident in conflict zones throughout the world—in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, other parts of India and Pakistan, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia.

Third, religion is often at the heart of conflict. It has been said that the Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslims in the Balkans speak the same language and share the same race; the only thing that divides them is religion, which none of them believe. Religion is the fault-line along which the sides divide. The reason is simple. Whereas, broadly speaking, the twentieth century was dominated by the politics of ideology, the twenty-first century is and will be dominated by the politics of identity—by the questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Now the three great institutions of modernity which have dominated the West since the seventeenth century—science, economics, and politics—are more procedural than substantive. They answer the questions of “What?” and “How?” They do not answer the questions “Who?” and “Why?” Therefore, when politics turns from ideology to identity, people turn to religion, the great set of answers to the questions, “Who am I?” and “Of what narrative am I a part?”

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