On October 14, The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs (CRGA) hosted its first “Beirut Conversation” as a strategic follow-up to its recent report, Theologies of Hope.1 Distinguished guests included an Ambassador, two Lebanese MPs, and several well-respected Lebanese scholars and civil society actors.
“Beirut Conversations”2 is a new programme designed to bring together key leaders and intellectuals for high level dialogue around some of the pressing issues of our era at the intersection of global affairs and faith.
CRGA’s first Beirut-based initiative was a conference in February on “Religion, Failed States, and Violence,” bringing together scholars from around the world to compare the rise of groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabab. It was out of this gathering that the idea for Theologies of Hope emerged as an alternative to the “solutions” that these extremist groups seem to provide.
Theologies of Hope is a report commissioned by CRGA and drafted by religious scholars from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish backgrounds elaborating on the conceptualizations of hope in their faith traditions. A panel consisting of three of its main contributors- Father Boulos Wehbe, Sheikh Mohammad Abu Zaid, and Dr. Martin Accad3- summarized the theological perspectives presented in their papers. Following these presentations, CRGA founding director, Dr. Ziya Meral, opened up the floor for discussion around the validity of theologies of hope as a key concept that might contribute to resilience in our communities, thus carrying practical implications for policy and further research.
It was observed that while there may be differences in terminology within the faith traditions surveyed, the general framework of corrupted humanity (imperfect, falling short of God’s infallible image), coupled with the hope of reform is consistent across all of the theologies presented. Moreover, there was general consensus that such theologies of hope could help to counteract narratives of false hope. “Extremist groups are talking about fake hope,” one speaker warned, “They provide a fake hope with a shortcut. Just press a button, and you will have a shortcut to heaven.” Such myths need to be dispelled and alternative perspectives offered.
Linked to the concept of false hope, was the assertion that there needs to be clarification around the difference between misunderstanding Islam and misinterpreting it (indeed, the roots of extremism could be deduced from the holy books of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). It was argued that many times extremist teachings are a case of “intentional misinterpretation,” and that this must be carefully exposed. Initiatives guided by Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar are currently attempting to address this issue.
It was further agreed that the concept of causality has been over-emphasized recently in discussions around the rise of extremism. Moreover, that this fixation can lead to reductionism, which may be counter-productive as there are always exceptions (e.g. the prominent and wealthy bin Laden family, clearly motivated for reasons other than “poverty and social oppression”), and the lumping together of diverse contexts (e.g. extremists recruited from the Global North, versus those emerging from the Global South). What is needed is more talk of solutions.
Despite the potential pitfalls of causality, it was also agreed that the issue of violence in failed states is a critical discussion in relation to the rise of extremist groups. Failed states create a power void and a trail of disillusionment that makes it easy for radical ideologies to creep in, offering the kind of “false hope” that is so dangerous. The luring call of these radicalized groups is “rather than work for the kingdom of man, work for the kingdom of God.” Furthermore, one of the participants noted a loss of trust between religious institutions, or between religious institutions and the State, “and that leaves a vacuum for organizations like Daesh [ISIS] to fill.”
The role of education was highlighted as an important channel for inoculating youth against false narratives, educating them in the true doctrines of their respective faiths, and disseminating messages of hope. Additionally, it was widely acknowledged that we are living in an era of revolution. “We are facing this notion of revolution…,” shared one interlocutor. "Replacing the old system, and top to bottom change. How do we influence the individual, who will influence the collective, who will influence ‘the power of the land’?” It is within this context that such “revolutionary theologies” of hope could be critical in envisioning an alternative reality not rooted in religious fanaticism.
A feminist perspective on the discussion was also offered in pointing to the marginalization of female voices in the majority of religious texts, and how this often leads to the degrading and domination of women. Thus, any construction of hope is incomplete and spurious if it only appeals to half of the world’s population.
3 Sheikh Mohammad Abu Zaid serves as the president of the Saida Islamic Sunni Court and is a Lecturer at Jinan University in Lebanon. Father Boulos Wehbe serves as parish priest of the Sts. Michael & Gabriel Orthodox church in Beirut and is a Senior Lecturer at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. Dr. Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut and teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.