Recent television images from the Middle East keep stirring all kinds of thoughts, most of them dealing with politics, military strategy and the wily Saddam Hussein. A couple of images, however, invited some thoughts on a different sort of topic: the impact of religion on today's world.
The first image, from Jerusalem, showed militant Jews defying police orders and demonstrating near the plateau whose shrines are held sacred by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In the second image, from Baghdad, scores of faithful Moslems were shown at a mosque, bowing in prayer, as the government activated another contingent of army reserves to augment its forces in and near Kuwait.While neither scene was at all extraordinary, they were alike in capsulizing the militancy of one or another religious faith. This militancy seemed to strike a jarring note, coming as it did just at Hannukah and shortly before Christmas. It was the season of peace for two major faiths; yet adherents of one faith and adherents of a third appeared to be pursuing their usual militant ways.
None of this is especially novel. Historians say that organized religion predates government itself - predates even civilization, as the term is usually understood - and has been distinguished, in many of its forms, by an assertive expansionism down through the ages. Bashing heads in the name of true belief enjoys the longest of traditions - think of the Crusades - and today's assertive intrusions of religion into the world of politics seem unremarkable.
Unremarkable it may be, but in the context of today's security-conscious world, the power of religion to command immense political (and military) forces may be worth some reflection. Among the most devout adherents of any faith, it may be supposed, are those who tend not only to put their religion foremost, but justify extreme tactics in its defense or advancement.
What makes this pattern of militant religions especially interesting these days is that many of the world's nations are beginning to grope for fresh approaches to managing the secular relations among states. Leaders talk grandly of a "new world order." The nations of Europe are immersed in their search for new links, new institutions. The United Nations, jolted by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, appears more vigorous than ever.
Against all of this civil, or secular, sorting-out are posed the many conflicts in which militant religion plays a dominant part. And the question I have is this: If this forcefulness of faith continues to empower so many conflicts in the political sphere, what chances are there for the political sphere to obtain any kind of order that will last?
Or, to cite just one of many specific cases: As long as ultraconservative Jews and fundamentalist Moslems exert the influence they do over their respective faiths, how can the political side of their dispute possibly be healed?
How can Ireland and Great Britain move toward closer economic ties, for example, if Catholic and Protestant gangsters keep murdering innocent people? How can India survive as a nation if Hindu-Moslem warfare is rekindled? How can the West begin to understand, in the world of Islam, the ancient credos that make the Islamic faith the unshakable organizing core for society?
It would be interesting to know if the world's religious or political leaders are giving much thought to how their respective spheres of influence interact. It might be useful, for example, if such leaders would examine whether the search for a "new world order" ought not also include a search for new ways by which nation-states and the various religious faiths can work out their differences without more bashing of heads.
It would be presumptuous to suggest any watering-down of any faith, or any retreat by any faith under pressures from civil authority.
Even so, something seems a bit askew when relative handfuls of religious extremists, in pursuing their beliefs, can cause such frustration and grief for the rest of society. It has always been so; yet amid the talk of new ways for keeping the peace, it might be worth reflecting whether those old patterns of militancy are with us for all time.