BEIRUT – The airport here is in territory controlled by Hezbollah. Driving across Beirut, you see affiliations declared by large posters hung on lampposts: Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Shiite areas, assassinated leader Rafiq al-Hariri in Sunni neighborhoods. Some Palestinian camps display images from Hamas; others from Fatah, including the long-dead Yasser Arafat. “His eyes,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in a rather different context, “dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
There is the Beirut of Gucci purses, designer sunglasses and Ferrari dealerships. But all this exists like a bubble on the surface of an armed truce among religiously defined groups: Christian, Shiite and Sunni. Each tradition is defended by the functional equivalent of mafia families, providing security, dispensing jobs and favors, and dividing up public offices.
Apart from the occasional car bomb or Israeli invasion, the arrangement has recently held. But all Lebanese adults can recall religious civil war. A Lebanese Christian aid worker shared with me the memory of hiding with other families in a bunker during rocket attacks. To distract the children, her mother would start counting when they heard a rocket – one, two, three, four … – then applaud when it thudded without hitting them.
The role of religion in Lebanese politics would seem to be a strong argument against religion itself. In this case, faith has been a cover for tribalism and a source of violent zeal. Genuine tolerance, in the modern, Western view, would require secularization. The real problem is belief itself.
The response of religious people – the argument that I have often made, and that I heard during my visit with pious Lebanese Muslims – is that people are really not religious enough. If they understood the central teachings of their own tradition – on human dignity and divine compassion – rather than quoting a few problematic verses from ancient texts, they would resist the use of religion for violent and political purposes. The best response to corrupted belief, in this view, is true belief.
This theory is now being tested in two great religious traditions by events in the Middle East.
The first is Sunni Islam (the tradition of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims). The rise of the Islamic State has forced many Sunni believers to look in the mirror. Is the caliphate declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi really the logical extension of their views? How does this square with the fact that most of the refugees from the Syrian war are Sunni, and many are fleeing from areas held and terrorized by the Islamic State? (“When ISIS first came,” one Syrian refugee told me, “they were welcomed. Then came the decapitations and hitting with sticks in public places.”)
The propaganda of the Islamic State obviously has some appeal in Syria and Iraq and among thousands of global recruits. This somehow involves nostalgia for the caliphate, theological trends within Salafism and Muslim popular eschatology (involving the return of the al-Mahdi and Jesus to conduct a final battle against evil).
I have no standing to address the theological matters at issue. But Sunni authorities around the world – Grand Muftis, prominent imams and lay leaders – have found it absurd to equate their faith with a totalitarian terrorist movement that promises to kill or expel all Shiites and Sunni Sufis and reduces the cultural diversity of Islam to a single, narrow, Arabized version. The general Sunni embarrassment with the Islamic State is beginning to result in a strong rejection of its theological underpinnings, particularly on the nature of jihad and the caliphate. This could be an important moment of Sunni self-reflection.
But a second tradition, American Christianity, has its own self-examination to conduct. The largest humanitarian disaster of our time – involving 4 million Syrian refugees and 7.6 million internally displaced – has mainly befallen Muslims. The response? Charitable giving by Americans to international causes has gone down for two consecutive years. Some Republican presidential candidates seem indifferent to the plight of refugees, and even some evangelical leaders have joined them.
To respond to the AIDS crisis, American Christians had to overcome a belief that the disease was deserved. To respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, Christians must overcome their discomfort with Islam, and their belief that conflict among Muslims is none of their concern.
Is the Christian faith merely a cover for tribalism? Or will it demonstrate its essence in service to the refugees of another faith who did nothing to deserve their fate?
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.