The Arrogance of Ignorance: War in Ukraine, Religion and Abiding Ethnocentrism
By Azza Karam
Refugees entering Poland from Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing point. March 2022. Credit: UNHCR/Chris Melzer
“The war in Ukraine is a European …and a Christian… matter… It does not require the involvement of a colourful array of religions or people”. These words were uttered and affirmed by some European Protestant men, working in interfaith circles in Europe. The ‘colourful’ encompassed other than European, mostly Christian – and likely mostly male.
Add this perspective to another one from a seasoned Catholic lay male leader, diplomat and academic, echoing representatives working in various Vatican offices, who maintain that if there is to be any religious engagement [e.g. a meeting with the Russian or Ukrainian senior Orthodox Church representatives] around Ukraine or Russia, “it is the Pope who should be doing this [not any other faith leaders or institutions] …and this is the preference of European governments”.
To these people, the fact that the war in Ukraine (and economic sanctions against Russia), have raised the price of oil, gas, and wheat (and therefore basic staples such as bread) for all other inhabitants of our world, is simply irrelevant.
The important fact appears to that Europe is suffering – and losing face in doing so, one might add. The fact that there are religious minorities in Ukraine also suffering, is not meriting as much attention. The supremacy of the Catholic Pope, who is a leader of but 16 percent of the world’s religious populations, is also apparent in the discourse of many esteemed European male leaders.
Were European governments to see value-added to religious involvement in affairs of state, then it would clearly be the Pope who would merit the role, out of the thousands – if not more – of other faith leaders in (the rest of) the world.
Yet so significant is the war in Ukraine, along with the role of Russia (and perhaps after that China) in geopolitics, and the changing political, financial and economic consequences around a world already damaged by the vagaries of Covid lockdowns and declines in tourism (which was the source of basic income for hundreds of millions of people), that it is a staple of many conversations – outside of Europe.
One such perspective of some seasoned diplomats in the USA, is that “religion and religious institutions have nothing to do with this war nor play much of a role in it. This is one politician’s madness”. Someone must have forgotten to send the memo with the words of a Patriarch of the largest Church in Russia, with over 120 million adherents worldwide, justifying the war – and using a homophobic discourse to do so.
Or maybe we erased the other memo where millions of Russians voted for this one “mad” politician (as millions of others voted for other mad politicians elsewhere in the world).
And yet, as we ponder the rampant ignorance about the intersections of politics and religion worldwide, and the arrogance of some European religious and political actors, and as some of us listen to religious leaders from other corners of the world, it would be wise to ponder a couple of questions: are we sure that all religions would have found the Patriarch of Russia’s language, and its subject, quite so distasteful? And, are we sure that it is one man causing all this carnage and hate (and profit to weapons manufacturers, mercenaries, and all who make money from war)?
There are many forms of this kind of arrogance of ignorance, which have coalesced to bring our world to this point where it would seem that almost every corner of it, is blighted. For some it is the blight of many forms of extremism: from launching war against a sovereign nation and killing its people, to horrific gang violence, to desecrating sacred sites and attacking pilgrims and devotees during their prayers, even during times which are holy to both attacked and attackers.
For others, it is the blight of democracy abused and myriad human rights systematically and deeply violated. For yet others the blight is having to live with various forms of hate speech and hate filled actions, including those with distinct anti-Semitic and Islamophobic blows. Holocaust deniers are reemerging out of many layers of rotten woodwork in all corners of the world.
The semantics of Islamophobia are being argued about in some western government circles, even as veiled women are being openly abused in some streets and denied access to jobs in countries claiming respect for religious freedom, and where even turbaned Sikh men continue to face abuse because they are mistaken as Muslims, and/or because their form of dress is deemed injurious to secular sensibilities.
For others the blight is to have to contend with shootings by lone gunmen of innocents in schools or subways or nightclubs or concerts. All this in the middle of a public health epidemic that has claimed the lives of millions – and we are still counting (where it is possible to have reliable data) – and while climate change is contributing to the largest numbers of refugees and forcibly displaced peoples ever in recorded collective human history.
Yet climate change is still being denied. And as for misogyny, it is the new normal in private and public spaces, everywhere in the world – in Europe too.
But it is not all gloom. The same European country which decried the one million Syrian refugees it allowed in (and subsequently quietly offloaded thousands of them to other countries), has announced no limit to the number of Ukrainians needing to enter it, and sometimes ensuring that some of the newer Ukrainian refugees receive access to homes before other refugees (who had waited longer but now must continue their wait). Another European country which let some refugees die of cold on its borders rather than allow them in, is now providing all manner of support to the Ukrainian ones.
The United States, which a few months ago lost significant credibility as a result of a messy exit after a 20 year struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan (leaving the country largely back in control of the Taliban), is today resonating with righteous indignation, and crowing that “the West is back”. The European Union too, has seen the error of its ways of being overly dependent on cheap Russian gas, and oil, and is now hastening to rid itself of such a dependency.
The war in Ukraine (albeit apparently not the ongoing horrors in Myanmar, Yemen, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, and Ethiopia – to name but a few) is indeed impacting our world. Like Covid-19, the war will doubtless continue to influence political, financial, and socio-cultural frames for decades. But here is another question: are we sure that the rampant and now fully on display discriminatory arrogance of ethnocentrism, and its appendages, will change?
This April 2022, witnesses another form of coalescing. Bahá’ís celebrate Riḍván, a festival of joy and unity which commemorates the beginning of their Faith. For Hindus and many others also, this month marks the celebration of the Spring festival of the harvest, and the Hindu new year. For Sikhs as well, this April celebrates the birth of the religion as a collective faith.
Jews celebrate Pesach, or Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Jewish people escaping the slavery of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Christians (Western and Eastern) – celebrate the resurrection of Christ this Easter. All while Muslims observe the thirty days of fast known as Ramadan. There are more faith traditions celebrating and/or commemorating. Definitely the best time, then, to pray for – or for those of tender anti-religious sensibilities let us say ‘to reflect’ on: the twin birth of humility and mercy.
This post first appeared on IPS News.