Othering as a Political Instrument, from the Religious Perspective

Othering as a Political Instrument, from the Religious Perspective

Cemal Uşak

A paper by Cemal Uşak, Vice President, Journalists and Writers Foundation, Secretary General, Intercultural Dialogue Platform, presented for Eighth Rhodes Forum Session, October 2010

As expressed in interfaith dialogue meetings at times, holy wars that we have faced throughout the history are wars against the essence of religion though claimed otherwise. For religions intrinsically are a whole set of values and principles proposed to human-beings by the Creator in order for them to build peace and calm.

However, as it has been the case in the East and the West at different times of the history, some political figures have exploited religion, men of religion and religious institutions as a tool to basically legitimize war for political and economic reasons: As they use so many other elements. Similarly, a few terrorist groups use Islam to legitimize their purpose and some interventions are used to legitimize “security concerns”.

Methods applied are almost identical in every period of the history: “Othering” or “Demonization” of a targeted faith group by interpreting Holy Scriptures differently or beyond purpose. And this is done through mechanisms to create publicity and provoke public opinion; nowadays it is media, but professional propagandists it was in the past. For some Christians, the Prophet of Islam turns into an “anti-Christ”, or Dejjal, though his pillar was solely to have peace and compassion. And for some Muslims, devoted Christians, “Ahl’ul-Kitab”, “The People of Book”, become idolaters and infidels.

As a consequence, crowds do not even realize that they are used as a tool for a political goal while they struggle for their beliefs. Crowds, with all naivety, see elimination of “infidels” a holy duty while politicians enjoy reaching their goal.

“First popovi and then topovi”, is a widespread idiom mostly uttered in the Balkan countries which means “First priests and then cannon balls” summarizes, the relation between politics and war. But this is, at the same time, an unfortunate expression as far as religion is concerned.

The “other”, be him/her a member of a different religion, or a faithless, he/she is potentially in need of believing. No faith must be forced upon. Some things may be forced or may have traces of violence but that can never be true for faith. This could only be hypocrisy.

Contrary to the great thinker Jean Paul Sartre, I can say that the hell is not the “other” but “othering”.

Otherwise, God the Greatest would have been created Eve in order to turn Heaven into Hell, since Eve was created as the latter one, the “other”. But Eve was created as Adam’s companion because the latter one had the ability to befriend.

However, Adam and Eve’s first born sons Abel (Habil) and Cain (Qabil) equipped with the “demonization” capability because the Creator wanted to test him. Therefore, the first ever act of “othering” in the history of mankind was attempted by Cain.

Holy book of Islam, The Quran, commands:

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted,” in Surah Al-Hujurat, 13.

The key phrase in the verse is to “know one another”. The Great Will which distinguishes a man from others must have done so to give a reason for the mankind to know each other, to get acquainted, not as a reason to go to Hell.

The word “to know” or “to acquaint” means “örf” in Arabic. And that is common true, common benefit and common good. From there on, it is possible to find a second meaning: As the Creator Will makes one man different from the other, the target is set as getting united around a common truth and common good by exploring harmony in diversity.

Another two verses on the subject matter are:

“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (Surah Al-Rum, 22)

Yet another one is:

“…Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good…” (Surah Al-Maidah, 48)

As you all may see, through the perspective of Islam’s reference point; in other words, through the perspective of the Quran, Divine Will makes a choice on diversity or difference. Therefore, “not othering”, even having respect for differences and diversities to the contrary, and trying to protect differences and diversities is the requirement of faith in God.

In the tradition of Sufism in Islam, comprehension of “I-You-We and He” plays a critical role.

A disciple first begins with understanding himself. The second step is to conceive “You” or the “Other”, who is next to his own being. The third step is the comprehension of “We”, as in entire mankind, living creatures and non-living. The fourth is the annihilation of “I, You and We”… At this point, there exists only He; everything belongs to Him.

Could everything in His possession be excluded? Could everything created by Him be thought of as others? Could His choices be objected?

The “other” and “I” are not rivals. In order for the “I” to exist, in order for the “I” to get matured depend on the “other”. The “other” is sine qua non for the “I”. All I’s and You’s, all together, are the mirror of Him.

The poet says beautifully:

O God! Thou reflected beauty of Thy on the faces of the beautiful, as the mirror, in order to be loved by them. Thou return and contemplate them through the eye of the Lover.

However, social and cultural history of mankind which runs through the veins of Abel to date is the stage of the survival struggle of the aforementioned meaning. On the other hand, political history of the mankind which runs through the veins of Cain to date colors pages of the history with blood and violence while othering people, as is the case today.

As relations turn more global, social, cultural, political and economic, the risk of world’s being an instrument for religions, local or international politics has increased, compared to the past. Therefore, believers and representatives of religious institutions need to be more alert than they were in the past.

We need masters of peace and calm as well as knights of love more than ever.

As promised in the Holy Scriptures, materialization of the “days in which wolves can travel together and drink water from the very same creek with sheep” depends on the efforts of these masters and knights.