IPS News: Faith in a Time of War

From Republican contender John McCain’s Jul. 25 meeting with the Dalai Lama in Aspen, Colorado to Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall the same day, the intersection of religion, politics and the “war on terror” has been a recurrent theme in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

While many evangelical Christians have vocally supported the George W. Bush administration’s policies, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, other religious faiths have been at the forefront of both anti-war activism and less visible humanitarian work.

“We started in Afghanistan after 9/11 by sending blankets and also helping the Afghan female population. Later there, we began to do work in the support of the building of schools,” said Alice Andrews, deputy associate general secretary for international programmes at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker group.

The Pentagon recently announced that, for the second consecutive month, more U.S. military personnel were killed in Afghanistan than Iraq. Andrews said the dangers faced by AFSC staff members in the country include, “the threat of suicide bombing, the widespread use of hidden bombs, and an increase in kidnapping for [ransom] money”.

She added that the Quakers have also participated in anti-war demonstrations and protests with other religious groups and denominations. Yet not every faith, even those with a pacific bent, encourages this kind of direct action.

“Buddhists don’t do that,” laughed Lama Karma Chotso, of the Tibetan Buddhist Place of Worship in Miami, Florida. “For a Buddhist, the job is trying to deal with your own innards and to try to find an awareness. I would not do this [participate in a protest or demonstration] until I reached a level of enlightenment on a scale such as, say, the Dalai Lama, who has reached such a state that he can speak out on world issues.”

Adam Taylor, senior political director for “Sojourners” magazine, a progressive Christian publication whose target constituency is ecumenical, noted that, “We haven’t endorsed any presidential candidate. A big part of one of our [social] plans is to battle poverty and we would like to see the next president, whoever he is, cut the poverty rate in half in 10 years. Much of that money which could be used to help the poor is now being used to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The election is an opportunity to shape the public debate and see hard, concrete diplomacy bring an end to these wars.”

For members of the United Methodist Church, the issue of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is particularly sensitive, as President Bush is a member of the church (as are former Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Vice President Dick Cheney attends United Methodist Church services, but is not officially a member of the church).

“I wish George W. Bush had listened to his church, or at least leaders of his own church,” confessed Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington D.C.

“Shortly after the war on terror began, we [United Methodist Church administrators] had meetings with the Pope, and with senior officials of the governments of France and Russia, in those countries, to discuss humanitarian ways of ending the war on terror. The only place we couldn’t get an interview was with the leadership of our own country.”

Winkler thinks that a key difference in the role of faith groups during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and today’s U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is that, “with Vietnam, many religious groups didn’t show their opposition until years after [the war] started and there was little interfaith work against the war. But with the war on terror, there has been much more interfaith work [among religious leaders and laymen] to show that they disagree.”

One religious group in the U.S. had a much more difficult problem than any other — Muslims. They faced intense discrimination, and even physical violence in some cases, in the U.S. in the immediate days and weeks after Sep. 11, 2001 — and this has persisted until today.

“Our position was that the [Iraq] war was based on faulty reasons; the other problem is with how the war has moved on,” said Ahmed Rehab, media relations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “We don’t have a solution [to the war on terror], and we don’t say we have a solution; we just want Muslims civil rights to be respected.”

Although almost seven years has passed since the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, Rehab said that, “Unfortunately, there are still many people who don’t fully understand us. That emotional intensity that many Americans had is mostly gone, but now these people [anti-Muslim propagandists] get their message out in different ways, such as the Internet.”

CAIR is a “civil rights organisation, not a religious organisation, but many of our members are observant Muslims,” explained Rehab. CAIR does interfaith work, “because we believe that the Muslim religion is a misunderstood one. So if we need to work with other religions to get the word out that we are a peaceful people, that’s what we will do,” said Rehab.

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. Originating in India, Hinduism is unique in the sense that it has no sole founding member. Narasim Battar, chief priest of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California, in Malibu, said that, “We [Hindus] always pray to the gods for peace. We don’t tell anyone what to do, or who to vote for, and we never would.”

“We pray to the gods to banish war. War never does anyone any good. We pray that people will be enlightened to see this,” added Battar.

Copyright © 2008 IPS