Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ron E. Hassner's "War on Sacred Grounds"

Ron E. Hassner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, War on Sacred Grounds, and reported the following:
Sacred sites are both awesome and awful; the most beautiful and yet the most dangerous places on earth. Why do groups fight over holy places, like Jerusalem, Mecca or Ayodhya (India), and how can these conflicts be resolved? These are the two questions that War on Sacred Grounds sets out to answer.

My goal in writing this book was to offer an alternative to many contemporary analyses in which religion is seen as a mere pretense for conflict. Although I am a political scientist by training, I wanted to start my exploration of sacred places from the believers’ point of view to understand why believers are willing to kill to protect their sacred places. Throughout the book, I describe the extraordinary places that are holy to Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Native Americans, Jews, and Buddhists, among others.

I found that believers value sacred sites because they offer an opportunity for direct contact with the divine. But because they perceive these places to be abodes of the gods, religious communities have to protect them ferociously against desecration. Outsiders, both secular rulers and competing religious movements, have an equal interest in controlling these sites. The resulting conflicts are difficult to resolve because holy sites are indivisible: believers are not willing to share even the smallest part of these shrines.

On page 99, halfway through the book, I turn to examine options for managing these disputes. The key lies in religious leaders who have authority to reshape the rules that govern sacred sites.

“Can these actors redefine existing sacred space in a manner supportive of dispute management or resolution? Could religious leaders reduce the significance of contested sacred sites or relax the rules constraining worship so that groups in conflict might coexist peacefully at these sites?”

In multiple case studies throughout the book, ranging from Saudi Arabia to California, from Europe to India, I show that efforts at resolving these conflicts by ignoring their religious dimension have ended in disaster. At times, religious actors can mitigate these disputes by reconfiguring the meaning of a sacred place to their followers. Left out of the picture, as in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over Jerusalem, religious leaders are likely to scuttle peacemaking efforts.

In conflicts over sacred places, politics and religion are inextricably intertwined. We cannot hope to understand -- let alone resolve -- these disputes unless we are willing to take religion seriously.
Read an excerpt from War on Sacred Grounds, and learn more about the book and author at Ron E. Hassner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue