Summary of "Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East"

Summary of

Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East

By Mark Gopin

Summary written by Michelle Maiese, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Gopin, Mark. Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Marc Gopin's central idea is that religion can, and should, be used to create bridges among the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. Religion and culture often interact with conflict in subtle ways and have a very significant role to play in the peace process. As we attempt to constructively intervene in other people's conflicts, we should attempt to draw upon religious texts, myths, metaphors, and values. If a culture or religion has ways of peacemaking, these practices may resonate in ways that no other peace processes will. Thus, in order to take advantage of important opportunities for transformation, facilitators should be trained to see the more profound cultural and religious dynamics at work during conflict. The adopted peacemaking process should integrate the relevant cultural values of the people involved and engage with the rituals of reconciliation already in place within the region.

In the first two chapters, Gopin argues that the interrelatedness of certain religious traditions can lead to points of convergence that increase potential for conflict transformation and peacemaking. He points out that the notion of family often serves as a metaphor to describe cultural and religious origins and collective identity. The metaphor of the Abrahamic family, for example, is a critical means of organizing the world and making sense of one's history, one's origins, and one's future. [p. 7] It is true that the story of Abraham's family is mediated through different lenses, depending on the religious group and individual's interpretation. Yet the potentially unifying power of the metaphor is unmistakable. There is an abiding connectivity that monotheistic peoples feel toward each other as relatives in an intense but troubled family.

While religious myths do sometimes motivate large-scale violence, they also have the potential to bring complex problems into a manageable framework. Myths can reveal new ways of treating and thinking about one's enemies. For example, while the metaphor of the sacred primordial family has often been used as an exclusionary device, it might also be used as a peacemaking tool. [p. 14] This myth emphasizes the importance of relationships, without which long-term conflict resolution and transformation cannot take place. Therefore, extensive and deep cultural interactions, religious or otherwise, should be an indispensable part of any high-level or grassroots-level efforts to engage enemies in meetings. Family can be used as a metaphor to bind human begins together and create the possibility of coexistence and community. In the long view of history, Israelis and Palestinians must establish new relationships that can enable them to fix the wrongs of the past and repent for what they have done to each other.

In the third chapter, Gopin talks more about how myths are pervasive in human constructs of reality. They often include both an idealized image of self as well as a demonic mythic construction of the "other." Conflict resolution strategies must confront these myths rather than ignoring them and recognize the difference between healthy myths and destructive myths. Through the transformation of myths, we may be able to change people's ideas about whom to love and whom to hate. Individuals should reexamine their identities and goals, acknowledge their past wrongs, and apologize so that new understandings of their identities, goals, and values can emerge. Any peacemaking that does not transform underlying myths takes place only at a superficial level.

Changing people's mythic worldviews is a matter of extending the peace process to their minds and hearts. Mythically-based peacemaking focuses not on achieving political goals, but rather on relationships and visions. These deep cultural and psychological transformations can often stimulate breakthroughs in the political arena. Cultural and religious transformation can sometimes pave the way for profound shifts in trust and willingness to share power. For example, the jolting effect of seeing chief rabbis and sheikhs embracing might generate its own momentum of peacemaking. Religious actors and leaders should not be excluded from the sphere of diplomacy.

Gopin ultimately suggests that we open a track of peacemaking (parallel to the political one) that focuses on religion, culture, symbolic gestures, moral commitments, and transformation of relationships. Building peace demands more than political agreements. It requires an understanding between religions and an ability to address the cultural dimensions of a conflict that has distorted perceptions and bred intolerance. Inter-religious peacemaking has the potential to culturally and spiritually reinforce political peace processes and potentially propel stalled processes forward. [p. 47] For example, the groups might develop a peace treaty that juxtaposes the two religious communities' highest ideals and emphasizes their common cultural, moral, and religious values.

In Chapter 4, Gopin explores ways in which religions can move from incrimination and alienation to inclusion, engagement, and mutual honor. He points out that "othering" is a general human tendency not unique to organized religion. Moreover, destructive patterns of "othering" and incrimination are not necessary concomitants of religion. There is a strong need for religious groups to shift away from radical and violent "othering" and toward pluralism or more benign forms of exclusion. According to Gopin, the best way to accomplish this is through "re-mythification." This means creatively rereading traditional texts and reworking religious theology to emphasize life and justice and formulate more peaceful forms of "othering." These new interpretations of a religious tradition can move a community toward a new way of thinking about and relating to their enemies.

In Chapter 5, Gopin maintains that injured cultures need to confront their injuries and disappointments in a variety of ways: psychologically, culturally, and religiously. Individuals must deal with humiliation, dishonor, and the scars resulting from the torture or murder of loved ones. Part of the mourning process that should be fostered is the religious impetus to self-examination. One way to turn people away from violent solutions is to remind all sides that they have sinned. Systems of mourning and coping with ultimate loss must be brought into the realm of peacemaking and reconciliation. It is important to demythologize trauma and to wrest it from leaders who wish to use it to further their political ambitions. Mourning over lost visions and evolving new or reworked visions is an important part of the process of change in monotheistic traditions. This involves creatively confronting trauma and moving on to practical methods of peacemaking.

In Part II, Gopin begins to describe some of these practical methods. He suggests that the ethical, pro-social resources within the Abrahamic traditions must be emphasized. Ways in which religious communities cope with individual moral failure include repentance, apology, active penance, and offerings of forgiveness. The critical transition to peace requires that people acknowledge that not all the justice, truth, right and goodness reside with their group. Typically there is both right and wrong on both sides. As we explore the varied cultural uses of the concept of 'forgiveness' in the conflict situation, we may discover parallel conflict resolutions processes between many different cultural traditions that will form the basis for cooperation and intergroup reconciliation. Only by attuning ourselves to the subtleties of these understandings of forgiveness can we build new relationship between enemies of different cultures. [p. 116]

While there are different understandings of forgiveness in the different traditions, all of the traditions view forgiveness as a component of moral transformation. We must build upon the religious traditions and understandings of forgiveness to develop better peacemaking practices. The values and practices these different religious traditions share can form the basis of common methods of trust building.

Of course, dialogue and verbal communication are not the only modes of peacemaking. Peacemakers should also be aware of nonverbal cues and symbolism to find important opportunities for transforming relationships. In many cases, actions that show honor or offer the enemy dignity, safety, or a feeling of home can mean much more than words. These cross-cultural processes of relationship building should accompany more formal negotiations.

In Chapter 9, Gopin makes some specific recommendations for cultural conflict resolution that focus on relationship-building rather final settlements. For example, gestures of regret, honor, and rededication should be made in religious spaces that have been violated in Israel and Palestine. There is need for mourning and joint expressions of regret, and efforts should be made to offer support to injured members of each community. There is also a need to foster greater communication between moderates so that people hear the voices of average people on the other side. Religious statements and gestures can be used an expression of a shared monotheistic commitment to peace. Parties should find symbolic ways to honor the culture and identity of those on the other side. In addition, fair inquiring bodies should inquire into what happened, acknowledge wrongdoing, and assess who behaved badly. Finally, because extremist politics often gains impetus from the relative deprivation of poor communities, anti-poverty activism should be an integral part of peace processes.

Note that none of these recommendations require that leaders surrender any ground on the conflict's substantive political issues. All of these methods, while no doubt psychologically difficult, are materially cost-free ways of breaking the cycle of violence. [p. 194] They all draw upon modes of reconciliation, such as justice, remorse, and forgiveness, which are already in place within the cultural and religious context.