Clashing Minorities, Converging Majorities: Toward a Coming Religious Peace

Clashing Minorities, Converging Majorities: Toward a Coming Religious Peace

Jon Pahl

For scholars of religion and violence, the recent past poses a conundrum. Are civilizations clashing—as Samuel Huntington has provocatively posed, or cooperating, as Steven Pinker has recently contended? Pinker recognizes the apparently quixotic character of his argument on behalf of cooperation, and acknowledges that the 20th Century and first decade of the 21st were notable in a notorious way for World Wars, genocides, and the rise of terrorism (1). But Pinker also marshals impressive data on behalf of his claim that over the centuries, but especially in the past fifty years, developments in political organization, literacy, scientific and technological mastery, and social and economic cooperation have significantly improved the duration and quality of life for many human beings.

And yet where Pinker meets Huntington is in a failure to correlate the impressive data on the decline of violence with perhaps the most significant social trend of late modernity, namely, the global resurgence of religion. Because he draws on a typical Richard Dawkins or Samuel Huntington-like ignorance of lived religion, and depends instead on the stereotypes of religion’s cultured despisers, Pinker fails to recognize what peacemakers like Mohandis Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Thich Nhat Hanh, Badshah Khan, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Leymah Gbowee share in common: a deep and critical grounding in a spiritual tradition.

In this brief essay I will first sketch how Huntington’s famous “clash of civilizations” hypothesis does point to an empirical truth, but not exactly the one he imagined. Secondly, I’ll sketch, building on and correcting Pinker’s thesis, what I call a coming religious peace, using especially the example of the Hizmet (service) movement associated with M. Fethullah Gulen. A coming religious peace does not, as some might imagine, envision a utopian kum ba yah small world of Disney fantasy. It does point to one fragile possibility, what political scientist David Cortright has called “pragmatic pacifism,” that is woven into the fabric of the empirical history of the recent past, and that is grounded in the durable and deep spiritual traditions of humanity (2).

Clashing Minorities

Huntington’s hypothesis holds true for a minority (3). There are groups across spiritual traditions that continue to cling to reactive or parochial forms of performative violence, or what has been called “terrorism.” I am persuaded by the arguments of Robert Pape that these acts (notably suicide bombings) are largely reactions to occupation, and that (following Mark Juergensmeyer) they are acts of performative violence designed to maximize symbolic impact in situations of political asymmetry (4). And—as should be obvious (but isn’t)—the number of people who participate in, and even who are impacted by, such attacks is on the global scale minute. Pinker puts it well: “In every year but 1995 and 2001, more Americans were killed by lightning, deer, peanut allergies, bee stings, and ‘ignition or melting of nightwear’ than by terrorist attacks” (5). Terrorists, simply put, are minorities across religious traditions. Even Pinker admits as much. In a backhanded compliment, he allows that “the overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians [and Muslims, I must add] are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide” (6). As an observant Christian, I also must admit to being under-whelmed by being welcomed into this moral elite of non-genocide sanctioners.

More damaging to Pinker’s thesis, confirming of Huntington’s, and troubling (in many senses) on the global scene are those religious minorities devoted to what I call, in my book Empire of Sacrifice, American “innocent domination” (7). These devotees of what used to be called “manifest destiny” imagine a God-given mission for America that absolves the nation, in a spasm of innocent exceptionalism, of any moral responsibility for any atrocities. These are the believers who might sanction atrocities, from the stalking and killing of a young black man on the streets of a gated community in Orlando, to the scapegoating of gay and lesbian youth in DOMA laws, to the justification of torture as an episodic fraternity prank or under the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation,” to the justification of war on Iraq for the mere suspicion of a weapon of mass destruction when the U.S. holds an entire arsenal of them. Often, devotees of innocent domination resort to discourses of “sacrifice.” For example, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have repeatedly invoked “sacrifice” to explain and justify sending youth to die in Afghanistan and Iraq (8). Such language, of course, has become almost conventional in warfare, but we must not thereby miss its significance. Calling a death from policy in warfare a “sacrifice” associates a religious practice with killing and dying, and therefore cloaks violence in a religious aura. The state symbolically hijacks the power of transcendence traditionally identified with religion in the service of warfare—or some other social policy.

These examples of how religion can be mobilized on behalf of violence—in suicide bombing and in state policies—are troubling, and yet they represent perversions of the ethics at the core of the world’s deep traditions, and they are always justified as exceptional enactments that violate what ought to be the normal course of things. Or as I put it in Empire of Sacrifice: religions exist to end violence, insofar as possible. It is because this is true that we see religious violence as a particularly egregious form of hypocrisy. Religions use symbolic means to resolve conflicts, and seek power through cultural means (“how many divisions has the Pope?” as Stalin famously asked). Religions substitute language, rituals, communal solidarity, and institutional mobilization for the “war of all against all” that threatens any social order. And religious teachings, while undoubtedly at points reflective of archaic cultural patterns dedicated to “might makes right,” ultimately propose through their very structures a “higher ethic” or third way beyond fight or flight that engages people on behalf of civilization and the common good.

It is, then, true that there is a clash of civilizations underway, but not exactly the one that Samuel Huntington imagined. The clash is not, as Huntington supposed, between the “West” against “the rest,” but the clash is within the West and the rest between those minorities of religious believers who compromise with force against those majorities committed to the principles and practices of their traditions that promote peace. The clash is within the West and the rest between those minorities of people of faith who have compromised with a facile “realism” to sanction atrocities against those majorities committed to the patient work of diplomacy that stems from the deep trust fostered by commitments to transcendent values. The clash, one last time, is within the West and the rest between those minorities of believers who are committed to blessed brutalities of utopian sacrifice against those majorities who are spiritually grounded in a community and in the contingencies of history in a way that leads to an honest recognition of our mutual fragility and the need to cooperate. In this clash, representatives of historic religious traditions are, as even Steven Pinker candidly admits, in the “overwhelming majority” on the side of the peaceful, the diplomatic, and the grounded. Those committed to utopian projects of sacrifice are increasingly in the minority and on the defensive across historic traditions, with the possible exception of those blinded by U.S. military and economic might (what might be called the American “civil religion”).

Converging Majorities: A Coming Religious Peace 

Once again, to reiterate my thesis: the vast majority of spiritually grounded people and communities around the globe are converging on the importance of democratic participation, social enterprise, education, and interreligious cooperation as foundations for durable, if not perpetual, peace. These practices across traditions -from Gandhi to Gbowee- happen to accord with the so-called Kantian triad of peacemaking (9). Nations that are democratic, that trade together, and that are engaged in cooperative political structures do not go to war with each other (10). These practices also happen to coincide with what Pinker identifies as “the better angels of our nature,” those attitudes and principles responsible for the modern decline of violence (as an aside–it might be worth pointing out that Lincoln’s famous metaphor about angels is, of course, religious, although naturally Pinker gives that no weight).

Examples of the religious engagement with participatory politics, social enterprise, interreligious cooperation and education abound around the globe, but for our purposes we can concentrate on the Hizmet (service) movement associated with M. Fethullah Gülen, taking each point in turn (11). First, then, Hizmet welcomes democratic participation. Gulen asserts, in his book that directly answers to Huntington’s “clash” hypothesis, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, six fundamental principles at the intersection of Islam and politics:

  1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.
  2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.
  3. Freedom of belief and rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health … cannot be violated.
  4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.
  5. No one can be convicted of a crime without evidence, or accused and punished for someone else’s crime.
  6. An advisory system of administration [checks and balances] is essential (p. 221) (12).

Any actual government, of course, will more or less effectively and in actuality promote these principles—as has historically been the case both in the United States and in the Republic of Turkey, to take just two examples. Individuals of Hizmet, however, have consistently been committed to working within the systems of government in place wherever they reside, while also working to transform those governments and hold them accountable to democratic, participatory principles (13).

Second, Hizmet supports social enterprise. Sociologists Helen Rose Ebaugh and Muhammed Çetin have independently profiled the contours of Hizmet as a “civil society” movement “rooted in moderate Islam” (14). More specifically, however, the movement engages a model of business and trade called “social enterprise,” which according to Temple University Professor of Business T. L. Hill is “the disciplined, innovative, risk-tolerant entrepreneurial process of opportunity recognition and resource assembly directed toward creating social value by changing underlying social and economic structures” (15). Social ventures associated with Hizmet mobilize the considerable resources of entrepreneurial activity and organize it on behalf of a healthier commons through engaging stake-holders (not just shareholders) in operations. What the category of a “spiritually grounded” social enterprise like Hizmet adds to this understanding of social entrepreneurship is the capacity to articulate the deep symbolic motives and discourses, ritual processes, communal and ethical horizons, and institutional or system-wide organizing principles that the leaders of these agencies engage (16). That is, social entrepreneurship is a catalyst for fundamental social change; a process of transforming opportunities and resources into going concerns that support good jobs through social efforts, involving in meaningful ways a wide variety of stakeholders in the design, management and governance of ventures. Within Hizmet, the range of social enterprises includes media, banks, construction companies, think tanks, and, especially, schools (17).

An increasing body of scholarly literature is identifying and describing these processes across spiritually-grounded social ventures, including Hizmet. Robert Putnam’s conception of the way religious communities create “social capital” is only one notable recent foray, but perhaps the best example of the work of social enterprise within Hizmet, and its contribution toward peace-building, is the work of the Hizmet schools around the globe—which can (happily) help us clarify the third aspect of how Hizmet contributes to strengthening “the better angels of our nature” (18). I have visited schools associated with the Hizmet movement on every continent except South America, including in some of the poorest places on Earth, and have been impressed by the quality and quantity of the efforts to develop sustainable and participatory institutions that promote literacy in the sciences and humanities. I have often compared these efforts to the far-better known attempts by Greg Mortenson, in Three Cups of Tea, and have tried to point out that these schools flourish despite the lack of publicity associated with a large publishing contract, on the one hand, and without the apparent administrative incompetence (at best) that has eroded Mortensen’s reputation in recent years, on the other (19). Other scholars, such as Harun Akyol, Greg Barton, Philipp Bruckmayer, Mehmet Kalyoncu, Martha Ann Kirk, Jonathan Lacey, and Mohamed Nawab bin Mohamed Osman—to name only a few, are analyzing in discrete case studies the contours of these social enterprises and their effectiveness in promoting more just, peaceful societies (20). As Gulen puts it: “Now that we live in a global village, education is the best way to serve humanity and to establish a dialogue with other civilizations” (21).

Finally, the commitment of Hizmet members to inter-religious dialogue is evident in the building of agencies such as the Peace Islands Institute, the Gülen Institute in Houston, Dialogue Forum in Philadelphia, and similar centers around the globe (22). It is easy to forget that interreligious understanding and cooperation is, in contrast to the advances in other scientific disciplines, a relatively recent phenomenon (there are, of course, historical exceptions among some particularly generous missionary types). We have only had the capacity to read widely in each others’ most profound spiritual texts in translations for the past century or so, and the critical study of religions in the academy is an even more recent phenomenon (dating, in the U.S., basically to the 1960s). Interreligious agencies on behalf of peace and justice date by and large from the founding of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1914—but have produced (again) notable successes on the global stage: the Tolstoy-inspired non-violent revolution of Gandhi; the Gandhian-inspired Civil Rights Movement that was organized in church basements across the United States; the interreligious Kairos theologians and their anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa; the Catholic (and Protestant and secular) Solidarity Movement in Poland; and (most recently) the Muslim-Christian Women’s Movement for Peace in Liberia—to name only a few (23).

Gülen is no expert in the history of religions, but he does assert clearly that “no divine religion has ever been based on conflict, whether it be the religions represented by Moses and Jesus, or the religion represented by Muhammad, upon them be peace. On the contrary, these religions, especially Islam, are strictly against disorder, treachery, conflict, and oppression” (24). To recognize the foundational mutual accountability of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to peace is, of course, only a necessary first step toward the difficult work of negotiating the terms of any such peace. But as the theologian Hans Kung has famously put it: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions” (25). Huntington is right, unmistakably so, about a minority of religious believers around the globe. But the historical evidence is growing, with considerable track record over the past decades in ways that Pinker might have addressed, that the majority of people of faith around the globe are not only not perpetrators of genocide, but can be enlisted in movements, such as Hizmet, that promote participatory politics, social enterprise, literacy, and dialogue. Through such efforts to “compete in goodness,” as the Holy Qu’ran puts it (2:148), we hold each other accountable to the high standards of truth, goodness, and beauty shared across our traditions, and contribute to a more just and peaceful world—to a coming religious peace.

*Jon Pahl, Ph.D. is a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He presented this paper at a conference titled “9/11 and its impacts on international relations and domestic politics” at Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy, NJ, on March 23rd, 2012.


(1) Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (NY: Viking, 2011).
(2) See Cortright, Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
(3) See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” in Foreign Affairs 72(Summer 1993): 22-49. By the time the book came out the question mark was gone: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
(4) See for a succinct version of his research, Pape “It’s the Occupation, Stupid,” in Foreign Policy, October 18, 2010, online at:, as accessed 7/9/2012; for more extensive comments, see Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (NY: Random House, 2006). On Juergensmeyer, see Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2003).
(5) Pinker, p. 345.
(6) Ibid., p. 11.
(7) Jon Pahl, Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence (NY: New York University Press, 2011).
(8) See Kelly Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation (Sheffield: Equinox, 2011).
(9) See Immanual Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” Tr. Kevin Paul Geiman. Online at, as accessed 7/9/12.
(10) See again Cortright.
(11) For a blog connected to the movement, go to:, as accessed 7/9/12. For an overview, see Helen Rose Ebaugh, The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Examination of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam (NY: Springer, 2010).
(12) M. Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (Somerset, NJ: The Light, 2006), p. 221.
(13) See John L. Esposito and Ihsan Yilmaz, Islam and Peacebuilding; Gülen Movement Initiatives (NY: Blue Dome Press, 2010).
(14) Çetin, The Gulen Movement: Civic Service without Borders (NY: Blue Dome Press, 2010).
(15) T. L. Hill and Jon Pahl, “Social Entrepreneurship as a Catalyst for Practical Social Justice,” forthcoming in The Gülen Movement and Social Justice, ed. Heon Kim
(16) On this way to understand the contours of “religion,” see Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
(17) See again Ebaugh.
(18) Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010). See also Esposito and Yilmaz.
(19) Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (NY: Penguin, 2007). For the incompetence (at best), see Jon Krakauer, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way (NY: Anchor, 2011).
(20) See Esposito and Yilmaz, op. cit., and Martha Ann Kirk, Growing Seeds of Peace: Stories and Images of Service of the Gülen Movement in Southeastern Turkey (Houston: Gülen Institute, 2012).
(21) Gülen, p. 198.
(22) Peace Islands Institute (NJ) Homepage, at, as accessed 7/9/12; The Gülen Institute Homepage, at, as accessed 7/9/12; Philadelphia Dialogue Forum Homepage, at, as accessed 7/9/12.
(23) For an overview, see Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict (NY: Diane Publishing, 2000). On the women’s peace movement in Liberia, see Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. With Carol Mithers. (NY: Beast Books, 2011).
(24) Gülen, p. 256.
(25) There are many variants on this quote. See Global Ethic Foundation Homepage, at, as accessed 7/10/12.

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