Differences: co-existing with them versus shedding them off

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A popular bumper sticker depicts an assemblage of religious icons like the Christian cross, Jewish star, and Muslim crescent.  The sticker encourages us to co-exist peacefully rather than antagonistically.  This is a different message than the one in John Lennon’s song Imagine, which asks us to imagine a world in which humans don’t feel the need to sort themselves out into various groups in the first place.  There would be no religions or nations in Lennon’s ideal world.  As beautiful as this ideal may sound, I find the ideal in the “co-exist” bumper sticker offering a more realistic goal to aspire to.

A major theme of surah Baqara in the The Qur’an is about the relationship between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  It represents a commentary on the potential for cooperation and conflict among civilizations.  Part 62 of the surah clearly evokes the idea of the three groups co-existing peacefully, by saying “those who believe in the Qur’an, and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians…shall have their reward with their Lord”.  But then part 89 is an admonishment for those who reject the latest revelation of the Qur’an: “And when there comes to them a book from God, confirming what is with them-although from of old they had prayed for victory against those without faith-when there comes to them that which they should have recognized, they refuse to believe in it but the curse of God is on those without faith”.  

If we take the word of the scholar interpreting this copy of the Qur’an (Abdullah Yusuf Ali), we learn that criticisms like this one were directed at the Jews and Christians.  The Jews, Ali says, cling to strongly onto their exclusivist doctrines, which is why they rejected the Qur’an.  “If the Muslims of Madinah ever entertained the hope that the Jews in their city would welcome Muhammad as a prophet, they were mistaken” says Ali.  In another commentary Ali states that the Jews were jealous of Muhammad.  Supposedly when the Muslim community began to grow stronger the Jews pretended to be of them, but “tried to keep back any knowledge of their own scriptures, lest they should be beaten by their own arguments”.

There are obviously multiple ways to take in these messages of the Qur’an.  Some readers (especially those more secular) may view all this as a pointless and exhausting exercise of trying to prove why one group is better than the other.  For all the wisdom that scriptures like the Qur’an purports to have, it may seem as though it pushes forth petty divisiveness and stokes flames of conflict between groups.  Of course, for some devout Muslims or Jews these messages are all the more reason to feel assured that their religion is superior to the others, and probably contributes to furthering the animosity that each group has for the other.

Although I’m tempted to get on Lennon’s bandwagon and urge all groups to set aside all their feuds and differences, it seems our efforts at reconciliation and peaceful co-existence between groups has to take into account that a certain degree of group distinction and rivalry is a part of human life.  Perhaps we (especially those of us with more pacifist inclinations) have to acknowledge some rudimentary insights from psychology and history about human aggression and rivalry.

Here’s a relevant excerpt from Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We?:  

To define themselves, people need an other.  Do they need an enemy?  Some people clearly do. “Oh, how wonderful it is to hate”, said Josef Goebbels.  “Oh, what a relief to fight, to fight enemies who defend themselves, enemies who are awake,” said Andre Malraux. These are extreme articulations of a generally more subdued but widespread human need, as acknowledged by two of the twentieth century’s greatest minds.  Writing to Sigmund Freud in 1933, Albert Einstein argued that every attempt to eliminate war had “ended in a lamentable breakdown…man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.”  Freud agreed: people are like animals, he wrote back, they solve problems through the use of force. Humans, Freud argued, have only two types of instincts, “those which seek to preserve and unite…and those which seek to destroy and kill.”  Both are essential and they operate in conjunction with each other.  Hence, there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.

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