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The Age of Holy War & Poetics of Solidarity – (Part 1)

Credit: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

NEW YORK, Jun 24 2024 (IPS) - “Holy War” is how the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church referred to the Russian war on the Ukraine, and indeed, on “the West”1 . “Holy War”, aka “jihad” is a foundational principle of “the Base” or “al-Qaeda”, which has grown into a non-state hydra with too many names and atrocities to list here (but if you are curious, one of the hydra faces is ISIS).

In a recent opinion piece published in Foreign Policy, columnist Caroline de Gruyter noted that “Israel and Palestine Are Now in a Religious War”, in her attempt to argue why the Middle East conflict has been getting increasingly brutal, and increasingly hard to solve.

The intersection between holiness and war is even more nuanced in Zvi Bar’el’s Opinion piece in Haaretz, when he notes that “the war in Gaza is no longer about revenge for the murder of 1,200 Israelis or the hostages.

If they all die, along with hundreds of more soldiers, the price would still be justified for the Jewish Jihad waging a war for Gaza’s resettlement” [emphasis added]. Hamas’ own name –the acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) – needs no elaboration. Neither does Lebanon’s Hizbullah (Party of God).

In India, a report by the Indian Citizens and Lawyers Initiative (in April of 2023), entitled “Routes of Wrath: Weaponising Religious Processions”, notes

Indian history is rife with instances of religious processions that led to communal strife, riots, inexcusable violence, arson, destruction of property and the tragic deaths of innocent residents of the riot-hit areas. There have been horrific riots and bloodletting caused by other factors too, most prominently the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, but no cause of interfaith riots has been as recurrent and widespread as the religious procession. This is as true of pre-Independence India as during the 75 years since we became a free nation…Post-Independence, we have faced numerous communal riots in diverse parts of India, under different political regimes, and the vast majority of these have been caused by the deliberate choice of communally-sensitive routes by processionists, and the pusillanimity of the Police in dealing with such demands, or even their collusion and connivance in licencing such routes.2

Already back in August of 1988, in an article entitled “Holy War Against India”, explicitly speaks of “Sikh terrorism” in the Punjab, noting that it “took about a thousand lives in 1987 and more than a thousand in the first five months of 1988.

If it continues at the present rate, Sikh terrorism in the Punjab will have cost more lives in two years than the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland has cost in twenty.” 3 Speaking of Northern Ireland, the marching season remains a flashpoint among Catholics and Protestants.

Politicised religion, or religionised politics – whence religious discourse is part of political verbiage, tactics, expedient alliances, sometimes informing foreign policy priorities, occasionally used to justify conflict – are not new phenomena. In fact, they may well be one of the oldest features of politics, governance – and warmaking.

The Crusades against Muslim expansion in the 11th century were recognized as a “holy war” or a bellum sacrum, by later writers in the 17th century. The early modern wars against the Ottoman Empire were seen as a seamless continuation of this conflict by contemporaries. Religion and politics are the oldest bedfellows known to humankind.

What is relatively new, is that after the 100-year war in Europe, and the subsequent moves towards secularisation or the so-called ‘separation of Church and State’ (again, really only in parts of Europe), provided a false sense of the dominance of secular governance in modern times.

Yet, even in the citadels of secular Western Europe, a relationship binding Church and State always existed, for the religious institutions and their affiliated social structures, remain critical social service providers – and humanitarian actors – till today. A reality now understood to be relevant in all parts of our world.

Nevertheless, what we are seeing today is a resurgence of religious politics, and the politics of religion, in almost all corners of the world. Before the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed its “holy war” narrative, the reference to religion and politics almost always focused on Muslim-majority contexts, specifically on Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

Other realities would often go unnoticed, or somehow deemed as ‘odd’ or one-time phenomena – for instance the fact that the 2016 US elections delivered a Trump administration with full and public backing by a significant part of the Evangelical movement (many of whom are backing a potential comeback of him now); or the fact that related Evangelical counterparts backed Bolsenaro’s rise to power in Brazil; or the fact that religious arguments against abortion remain a key US electoral feature for decades; or the fact that a number of right-leaning anti-immigrant political discourses and blatant white supremacist politics have religious backing in parts of Europe and Latin America.

Was it perhaps that since these took place in ‘white’ and Christian-majority polities, somehow set these aside from being factored as part of the global resurgence of religious politics?

Whatever the case may be, it is time to smell that particularly strong brew of coffee, now. And as we do so, we are also obliged to note that it is no coincidence that this ‘brew’ is taking place at a time of remarkable social and political polarisation in many societies.

Indeed. we speak of multiple and simultaneous crisis (e.g. climate change, catastrophic governance, wars, famines, rampant inequalities, soaring human displacement, nuclear fears, systemic racism, rising multiple violence, drug wars, proliferation of arms and weapons, misogyny, etc.) and we also acknowledge the wilting multilateral influence to confront these. But as we acknowledge these, we must also recognise that social cohesion is a lasting and tragic victim.

Some governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental entities have turned to religion(s) as a possible panacea. Religious leaders are being convened in multiple capitals (at significant cost) in almost all corners of the world.

Regularly touting the peacefulness and the unparalleled supremacy of their respective moral standpoints. Religious NGOs are being sought out, supported and partnered with more regularly to help address multiple crisis – especially humanitarian, educational, public health, sanitation, and child-focused efforts.

Interfaith initiatives are competing among each other, and with other secular ones, for grants from governments and philanthropists in the United States, Europe, Africa, many parts of Asia (with the notable exception of China), and the Middle East. Engaging, or partnering with religious entities is the new normal.

But just as the largely secular efforts we lived through (and some of us served for decades) in the 1960s to the 1990s, did not realise a brave new world, religious ones, on their own, cannot do so either. Especially not with the kind of historical baggage and contemporary narratives of holy war, we are living with now.

It is time we re-consider, re-engage and re-envision a poetics of solidarity rooted an abiding adherence to (and re-education about) all human rights for all peoples at all times. What would that entail?

2 Connor O’Brian,
3 Connor O’Brian,

Part 2 follows.

Dr. Azza Karam is President and CEO of Lead Integrity; a Professor and Affiliate with the Ansari Institute of Religion and Global Affairs at Notre Dame University; and a member of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.

IPS UN Bureau


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