Sustaining a conflict

Sustaining a conflict

Religion may be the root cause of many struggles round the world, but many other elements enter into the mix  

A COLUMNIST in the Israeli daily Haaretz argues that the western, liberal, secular shower of ignorami that we are, we don’t understand the war with Hamas. Anshel Pfeffer says that is because we don’t understand religion anymore.

I paraphrase but that is his basic point.

He observes correctly that many commentators in Europe simply ignore the reasons that Hamas itself offered for the October 7 invasion of Southern Israel and the massacre of Jews there.

That motivation was religion, the defence of the Al-Aqsa mosque, on the holy site in Islam where the Angel Gabriel conversed with the Prophet Mohammed.

Instead, says Pfeffer, we get it all wrong by discussing the current war in terms of colonialism and apartheid, terms he thinks we are more at ease with.

The suggestion here is that the question of Palestinian statehood is a separate issue to that of jihad, or “holy war against the infidels”.

Nor, he says, do we understand the religious passions that motivate Zionism, the sense that the land west of the Jordan was given to the Jewish people by God.

Much of Israel is secular now.

I have dined out in Tel Aviv and sunned myself on the beach there and it feels like a western tourist hotspot where fine food and wine are enjoyed.

And the point that the West has lost touch with the significance of religion and religious culture is fair.

He uses the image of the faith room at Bristol airport, a neutral but bland and unattractive space where people of all faiths are invited to contemplate their God but where, in fact, none do so.

But Pfeffer should come to Ireland.

Our conflict in Northern Ireland seemed obviously a religious war in past generations. You couldn’t have told De Valera or Rev Ian Paisley that it wasn’t about religion.

Both Protestant and Catholic traditions had sought to claim territory within which their religious cultures would dominate. That made it a dispute about territory.

And families wanted to maintain their religious cultures from generation to generation. They wanted their children to marry people of the same religious convictions as themselves.

We see the same tradition in Judaism and in other traditions.

Hindus are sanctioned not just against marrying out of their religious tradition but out of their caste.

And even today - in fact more so today than at the time of independence - India seeks to define itself as a Hindu nation.

But look what happened when religious faith declined in Ireland.

Thirty years ago the anthropologist Tony Buckley argued that the main driver of sectarian division in Northern Ireland was the sanction against mixed marriage. That is what held religious communities intact and separate, and along with their religious convictions, their national politics, their sense of being Irish or British.

Today maybe twenty per cent of marriages in Northern Ireland are mixed in that sense, between one baptised a Catholic and one Baptised a protestant, often with neither actually practising their religion or even seeking to raise their children within it.

And with this comes some evidence of a mellowing of nationalistic ardour, whether British or Irish.

About a third of Catholics would not now vote for a united Ireland and current research shows that the ‘grin and bear it’ unionists are on the increase. They don’t want a united Ireland but they will put up with it if they have to, taking the position of Doug Beattie rather than that of Arlene Foster who said she would leave.

But in the main, what we find, unless we are within a long slow decline, is that the main sectarian blocks that were defined by religion a generation ago are still intact.

Practically everyone who votes for Sinn Féin and the SDLP is from a Catholic background, baptised Catholic and educated within a Catholic school. These parties do little to nothing to attract votes from outside that community though religion as belief has nothing to do with it.

And the same applies within unionism which takes its votes from Protestants.

So, in the past the argument for the retention of territory was that it belonged by historic right to a religious community which would decline if the territory was lost.

But those communities have declined anyway and the people who have given up their sense of a God-given right to belong to that land still cling to the land.

It is surely much the same in Israel and Palestine where nationalism is still strong even among the secular.

The things that preserve division in Northern Ireland now are territory, education, political party affiliation and culture. If the decline of sectarianism is evidence of the benign effects of secularisation it is also evidence that such transition is slow.

Working class Catholics and Protestants live mostly in separate housing estates, go to separate schools, vote for distinctly communitarian political parties and express separate cultural interests related to sport, language and the historical narrative. They have different understandings of who to blame for the past violence and current division.

Pfeffer says that if we are looking for a solution to the Israel Palestine conflict we should see it as ‘religious nationalist’ rather than ‘some race-based or settler-colonial artificial concept imported from western campuses’.

I don’t see the difference. Religion no doubt energises nationalistic passions but when it subsides, nationalism manages well enough to divide people without it.