by Wayne Te Brake
Wayne Te Brake is Professor Emeritus of History at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Religious War and Religious Peace in Early Modern Europe (2017) and Making Religious Peace: Historical Perspectives on a Global Challenge (forthcoming).
Nearly twenty years ago, on October 7, 2001, the United States, supported by a broad international coalition, started what the Bush administration called a War on Terrorism; it began with an aerial attack on Afghanistan, whose radical Islamist Taliban government had harbored those responsible for the devastating 9/11 attacks. Two weeks earlier President George W. Bush had described the coming conflict as the necessary response to “a new kind of evil. . . . This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while, and the American people must be patient.”
The President’s aides quickly tempered Bush’s rhetorical impulse, insisting that this was not a “crusade” against Islam, but a defense of freedom and democracy. Still, Bush was right in at least one respect: The War on Terrorism has taken a while. At this point, we still don’t know how and when our war in Afghanistan will end, but the Taliban and “radical Islam” are still generally considered to be the principal obstacles to peace. As the Biden administration struggles with the questions of whether and how soon to withdraw the remaining US military forces from Afghanistan, it is critical to recognize the religious dimensions of our “forever war” and to accept the challenge of making religious peace possible.
The day the aerial attack on Afghanistan began, Andrew Sullivan declared, in an essay in the New York Times Magazine, “This is a Religious War,” not unlike Europe’s religious wars. As a scholar of Europe’s religious wars, I appreciated Sullivan’s sense of historical recognition, which is still useful today. The problems and enmities that underwrote Europe’s religious wars as well as the War on Terrorism were religious in the sense that the forces in conflict recurrently and often insistently identified their enemies in term of religious ideas, behaviors, or affiliations. While some observers framed the War on Terrorism as a global struggle between Islam and the (Judeo-Christian) West, Sullivan framed it as a “war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.” After twenty years of “religious” war, however, religious fundamentalism has not been defeated in Afghanistan. It’s long past time to make religious peace.
But how do we shift from prosecuting religious war to making religious peace? Here the historical analogy with the religious wars in Europe is particularly useful. During more than a century of intermittent and increasingly destructive religious wars, Europeans learned to accept and manage their religious differences, thereby establishing the foundations of modern religious pluralism. This European religious peace, which I have described as complex and messy, has since been disrupted by revolution, nationalism, authoritarianism, and world war, but so far it has survived even the mass religious migrations of the last decades without descending to the coordinated destruction of religious war.
To learn anything useful from this history, however, we must shift our focus from contentious ideas to political action. Ideas, theologies, and ideologies provide useful clues for understanding the motives and intentions of those who prosecute wars, but it is a much broader array of political actors and actions that make war and peace possible, as often as not quite unintentionally. This is because the outcomes of large historical processes – like the cycles of religious conflict, violence, war evident in early modern Europe and in the world today – are the product of contentious human interactions, which do not yield clear winners and losers. Indeed, European history shows that if the essential foundation of religious war is ideological intransigence, the essential foundation of religious peace is political compromise.