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The Age of Holy War & Poetics of Solidarity – (Part 2)

Columns 2024-07-01, 11:12pm

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (UNOSAPG), speaks at the high level segment of the 10th Annual Symposium on the Role of Religion and Faith-based Organizations in International Affairs.



By Azza Karam

The symposium, organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and a coalition of faith-based and UN partners, featured UN officials, representatives of international faith-based organizations, and other experts. 25 January 2024. Credit: Marcelo Schneider/WCC

NEW YORK, Jun 25 2024 (IPS) - In Part 1, I outlined how our shared existence is challenged not only by simultaneous crisis, but also by the notions – and realities – of perceived ‘holy wars’. I point out that ‘holy wars’ are not only perceptions within, or of, monotheistic faith traditions, but actually enacted by members of diverse belief systems.

I note how these ‘holy war’ dynamics are part of the vicious cycle of polarisation and sorrowful lack of social cohesion in most societies, while also coexisting with an increasing realisation amongst several decision-making entities (governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental) of how important religions have been, and continue to be.

Religious institutions, religious leaders and religious (or faith based) organisations, are indeed the original social service providers, community mediators, social norm upholders and changemakers, and actually, historically, also the original human rights’ defenders.

I emphasize how the toxic mix with narrow political interests (might that be tautological?) means that in the minds of some who hold decision making positions, and/or have access to arms, and/or control laws and their implementation, and/or impact on beliefs, behaviours and attitudes through unparalleled pulpits (or all of the above), ‘holy war’, is justified.

In the age of ‘holy wars’, we are called upon to understand that part of our social disconnect resulting in the polarisation and significant weaking of our civil societies, may well be furthered by the manner in the current interest in and on religion.

Elsewhere I have argued that appreciating the ‘good’ powers of religious institutions and leaders, and the remarkable reach of religious social services and positive changemakers, is necessary, but by no means enough.

In fact, seeking to emphasize, support and identify the religious as the panacea, is harmful – in the same ways that marginalising the religious as evil, anti-human rights, unhealthy, misogynist, unnecessary, parochial, etc. has been, and remains, harmful, to the very same fabric of the civil societies we all uphold.

It is not all about good religion or bad religion. Rather, it could be about how to generate, nurture, protect, and yes, honour, civil societies.

Neither our governments (including even the elected ones), nor our religious institutions (including those which have survived centuries) nor our corporations (including those with the highest ranking of CSR and ESG) can, alone, change the dramatic junction of our collective human and planetary realities.

The late Wangari Mathai, a Kenyan woman environmental activist who won the Nobel Peace prize in 2004, demonstrated remarkable foresight when she highlighted the interconnectedness of our challenges, thus: “[I]n a few decades, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.”

We need to begin to investigate what it will take to identify, understand, and activate, a poetics of solidarity. The Oxford Reference explains that “poetics are the general principles of poetry or of literature in general, or the theoretical study of these principles. As a body of theory, poetics is concerned with the distinctive features of poetry (or literature as a whole), with its languages, forms, genres, and modes of composition.”

If we use the term ‘poetics’ to refer to solidarity, not merely as an aspect of literature and/or theory, but as lived realities, what are the “languages, forms, genres and modes of existence” that this would entail? In the following paragraphs, I do not propose definitive answers. I merely share some thoughts to engender and provoke each of us, to reflect – and to engage.

A poetics of solidarity needs to have as a premise of its existence, an understanding that working ‘alone’ to solve the problems which impact all – whether as a lone multifaceted institution, the United Nations, corporation(s), religion/religious or multi-religious entity, secular NGO or umbrellas of NGOs, judicial actor(s) or bodies, cultural agents or entities, financial or military behemoths, etc., is clearly not enough.

We have landed here in these very challenging spaces and times, even as so many have laboured for so long in almost all domains of human existence, and even after many movements of solidarity succeeded in overcoming and righting and fighting the good fight. Yet, here we are.

A poetics of solidarity needs to hold accountable all our ways of thinking and doing, so far. I am not implying, by any means, that we have all failed. Rather, we all stand on the shoulders of many who have given their lives to make this a better world for all. We must acknowledge that loud and clear and take responsibility for what many are doing, and have done, that contributes to our shared existence.

This alone would be unlike many leaders who take office and make a point of undermining, or worst still, undoing, all that was done before them or by their predecessors. Or those who hold offices and invest so much in decrying, complaining, unravelling, and withering critiques of those trying to work alongside. Or those who claim to be part of a team, but cannot and will not support one another when things get tough.

A poetics of solidary demands that we put our money, and other resources, including activating our so-called values – where our mouths are. It is not good enough to speak about human rights, and/or the glory of our respective faiths and/or “interfaith peacemaking”, or even building edifices to such ‘co-existence’, when we do not contribute to the efforts of those who fight for these rights.

It is hard to justify killing, maiming, criminalising, imprisoning and in other ways, silencing, those who ask for their rights, and struggle for the rights of others. It is also hard to justify those who pretend to fight for the rights of others, when the going is good, and are silent or notably absent, when the going is tough.

What if, rather than undermine, constantly critique, systematically oppose, complain, or even just remaining silent (and hide behind claims that the particular issue at hand is not their business or endeavour), when we see our fellow humans give – what if we praise, give thanks, reach out to share a kind word, and better still, ask how we can help…? What if we give of the ‘little’ we have? Don’t all our faiths say that? You think this sounds too simple?

Did Einstein not say at some point something like the only difference between stupidity and genius, is that genius has its limits, and that everything should be made as simple as possible – but not simpler? Kindness, praise, and giving of what we value, to those we would normally not (want to) see or deign to appreciate, giving to those who speak and work and live differently – but aim for the collective good, is not simple. It is genius. Working together with those who may bear a different institutional flag, rather than seeking to create or consolidate your own, is also genius.

A poetics of solidarity may require us to acknowledge that solidarity is fundamentally about how we relate to one another, with kindness, empathy and willingness to serve – in words and deeds. But it is also to humbly realise that even as some of us try our best to relate and to “support”, “empower”, “engender”, or “enable”, we may well end up hurting one another, and/or even damage parts of our environment that some of us, including future generations, will need, to just survive.

When it comes to the poetics of solidarity in the age of ‘holy wars’, we cannot afford to now see anything ‘religious’ as a saviour, or the only source of our interrelated salvation. Nor can we afford to ignore the religious realms altogether, thinking we know our welfare best, or keep the religious at bay. Instead, we need to take responsibility for the fact that our faiths – including our faith in human rights – demand us to be accountable for ourselves, one another, and our planet.

What we need is a poetics of solidarity which does no harm – but this may well mean sacrificing something dear to us. We have lived – and still do – in an age where we think it is possible to have it all. Perhaps we may just have to come to terms with the fact that we each, and all, need to let go of something valuable to us – and to give, in service, instead.

All our institutions, groups, communities and our individual selves, bear a responsibility. Our long-established religious institutions, faith-based and interfaith initiatives in their mushrooming multitudes, need to be held accountable to what we give of our most valuable, to those who are not religious, those who come from different religions or religious organisations, and especially, to those who uphold all human rights for all peoples at all times.

Secular rights’ bearers and duty holders too, need to take responsibility for how we marginalise even as we ‘advocate’, how we maim as we seek to ‘protect’, and how we silence as we vocalise the ‘like-minded’. We speak of alliances and partnerships, but we walk, and work, in silos, seeking our own profit(s).

A poetics of solidarity may well be about cultivating and deliberately working alongside those we dislike, and giving the best of what we have, and of whom we are.

Professor Azza Karam is President and CEO of Lead Integrity; an 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