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Robert Wright on Religion and Conflict - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Robert Wright. (Asharq Al-Awsat Photo)

Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat—The American writer Robert Wright refuses to be labeled a scholar, preferring instead to be called a journalist. In truth, he combines the best of both fields: expressing thorough scholarly research with the graceful, simple style of the best journalism. His books delve into complex scientific, historical and religious issues, and are written in a crisp, enjoyable manner, often with a novel twist. Despite the depth of his work, his output has been prodigious, and praise from figures such as President Bill Clinton has made him one of the most prominent American non-fiction authors.

Throughout his career, Wright has also written for some of the US’s most popular magazines and journals, such as the New Yorker, the New Republic and the New York Times, in addition to a number of other publications, although lately his writing has been largely absent from the media. In this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Wright revealed the reasons behind his furlough from journalism. He also spoke about his position regarding the Obama administration’s reticence to intervene in Syria, as well as his view of critics of organized religion, and a host of other issues.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Your latest book focuses on the capacity of monotheistic religions to coexist and evolve over many centuries. In other words, these religions are capable of adapting to change, and this is what has enabled them to survive and coexist with one another. I know that the idea is more complicated and complex than that, but could you explain it for those who have not read your book yet?

Robert Wright: Firstly, in America one often hears others repeat the notion that religion breeds conflict. But in truth, even when you see religious sects fighting each other, the true source of the dispute is not religion. The true underlying causes for these disputes are often less obvious. For example, the Palestinian–Israeli conflict may seem as if it is a conflict between Muslims and Jews, but the true cause has nothing to do with religion. The source of the conflict can be traced back to the conflict over territory.

What I want to say is that religion is not the underlying cause of conflict, but it can play an important role in solving these conflicts. If certain circumstances create the impression that coexistence would benefit the conflicting parties, then religious justifications that call for tolerance and coexistence would emerge in its wake. It would also promote mutual understanding. We can see this clearly in the beginnings of Islam, which contributed to the unification of warring tribes, and we see something of this in modern history.

Q: Sectarian radicalism in the Middle East, which can often lead to violent conflict, is a very important issue that troubles many people. How does your book approach this issue? Is there another reason, aside from hatred, that makes them unable to coexist?

I am not a Middle East expert, but I do know that when the minority feels that the ruling majority does not respect their rights, problems begin and are quickly given a religious or nationalistic wrapping. We see this happening in Iraq and other places in the world. Religious differences can be exploited, but it is not the fundamental source of the conflict. Reconciling people caught up in conflict and persuading them to cooperate and live together remains a major challenge, but religious differences are usually not among the underlying causes of disputes.

Q: What about religious reform? For example, every year many books are published in the Arab world that center around the importance of implementing religious reform that would integrate Muslims into modernity and help them embrace modern values.

In general, whenever societies evolve, their values evolve. We see this clearly in America, for example, where many values have changed over the past sixty years, especially with respect to rights of women or black people. I think that the Islamic societies which have recently been exposed to modernity will also undergo this modernizing change. This is a new thing, but the true challenge lies in how they will do it. This is the important question. How can the Islamic societies or non-Islamic societies that have been exposed to the effects of modernization in past decades change? I think, to a certain extent, that the Western insistence on changing the Islamic world sometimes leads to adverse reactions.

Q: What is your position on criticism of religion itself, such as that by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?

This movement claims that religions are anachronistic and will not last, and this is not true. There are many scientists who believe in the theory of evolution, for example, and still maintain their religious faith. Religions have also demonstrated a great ability to survive. The main point of contention is that they want science to prevail, but they scare people away from it with their attacks on religion. People feel threatened by this movement’s claim which categorically states, “If there were no religions, the problems would disappear.” This is not true. Imagine, for example, that the Palestinians and Israelis had the same religion; would their conflict over land end?

By the way, I spoke with Dawkins recently, and he seemed to understand this. If the sharpness of this movement’s tone were toned down, then it would be beneficial for everyone. They are defeating their own purpose.

Q: You have published many articles on the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. What is your take on it at the present time?

Frankly, I am not optimistic about this conflict. We in America frequently talk about the two-state solution, but with the increase in the number of settlements, it appears that this solution is no longer feasible. It is hard for Israel to force the settlers to leave, and the Israeli government is not enthusiastic about doing this. I think that the one-state solution is the only possible solution, but it will be a difficult challenge for everyone.

Q: That brings to mind your other book, The Logic of Human Destiny, in which you argued at length that people will accept solutions and compromises to end conflicts if they feel that they stand to benefit. But this principle appears not to apply to this particular example….

I think that there will be a long-term solution. If the two parties felt that they will profit from the solution, then they will agree to this solution, and vice-versa. Every time one side thinks that it needs to make gains at the other’s expense, the situation worsens. Unfortunately there are those, on both sides, that start from basic principle of ‘my gain is your loss.’

Q: In your book, you claim that this theory expresses the driving force of history. The world has now become more open and convergent, there is a wider exchange of ideas, and there are few limits to travel. All of this occurs because all parties feel that they profit and benefit from these transformations….

I think that history has proved that more people are joining the trend explained in the book, which says that people flock to globalization and convergence because in the end they benefit. For example, many of the US’s relationships around the world are based on this notion. However, this is not to say that people necessarily comprehend this underlying theory, and behave rationally based on their understanding of it.

Since ancient times, I think this force has been the fundamental driving force of history, and still is in the world in which we live today. This does not mean that zero-sum thinking does not exist. When this is the case, crises and conflicts ensue, as is the case with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Q: In your book, you make the important point that humans are, by nature competitive, but at the same time they can also be cooperative….

This is true, and these characteristics shaped human history. We see this in the most ancient societies which competed, for example, in hunting, but were also forced to cooperate to survive. Competition is not necessarily bad if it takes place under peaceful and fair conditions. In reality, it will lead to a lot of development in many fields. There is an aspect of human nature that drives us to compete, but if it is acted upon outside of a framework shaped by civility and a concern for justice, violence can ensue, and therein lies the danger.

Q: You recently announced that you will stop writing for the Atlantic. One of the reasons you cited was that you have become tired of waking up every day and trying to think of a topic on which to write. Do you think that this is the right time to stop?

The basic reason is that I want to finish my new book, and me stopping is in some ways related to the book’s subject, in that the book is about how humans sometimes deceive themselves, and make incorrect judgments. The book also deals with the idea of how humans convince themselves that they are right and the other party is wrong. The book addresses many of the issues that we talked about, and the importance of how mankind’s capacity for self-deception prevents us from coexisting and cooperating with others, or comprehending the idea of gain and loss, which we discussed. I stopped because I want finish this book, and because I felt, as I mentioned in my last article, tired of repeating the same ideas. But I am sure that I will come back to writing again, and maybe focus more on politics.

Currently, we can see that those spouting polarizing and provocative ideas enjoy much popularity on television and social networking sites. They can influence a larger number of people, while those who hold important ideas are ignored.

This problem has always existed, even before social networking sites. Simple messages spread quickly. It is easy to sow fear in people’s hearts for a certain cause. It is difficult for the voice of reason to be heard. This is how the situation has been for a long time, and this is the battle we are fighting.

Q: What is your opinion about the Obama administration’s reticence to intervene in Syria?

I think that Obama became president with the intention of not entering another war. With relation to Syria, he was afraid that arming the rebels would draw America into yet another war. Obama preferred the Libyan approach that quickly toppled Gaddafi. But in Syria, the situation is much more complex. We know that the American position partially changed in recent months, and it is clear that the Obama administration will end up supplying the rebels with arms.

Q: Your last book was on the Buddhist mindset. What drew you to this topic?

One of the reasons is that the meditative aspect of Buddhism is widespread in America, and I personally am interested in this topic. I meditate every morning. I also think that meditation is a good way to give the voice of reason precedence in the mind over the other competing voices, such as the voices of fear, hate and jealousy. I think that it is also a spiritual exercise that is not confined to any particular religion.

Q: Former president Bill Clinton really seemed to have enjoyed your books. I remember that he praised you a lot in his speeches….

He’s generous with his compliments for my books and he increased their readership. This was especially the case for my book, The Logic of Human Destiny. It is consistent with his vision that promotes cooperation, coexistence and integration.

Q: Have you had the chance to meet him?

Yes, I met him years ago, and we talked for some time.