My first time in India, on a service trip, we took the last five days of our three week journey to interview survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots that left thousands dead and over 100,000 displaced. As I heard recount after recount of the religiously fueled attacks, I couldn't imagine what would drive people to these extremes, and similarly, what kept my own community from meeting the same fate.
Increase in religious diversity in thriving urban centers is often looked at as the cause of religious-based violence. I don't believe that to be the case. Now obviously mass migration and urbanization definitely create the opportunity, but I don't equate opportunity with causality. Rather, if we want to truly understand the origins of communal violence, we'd best compare those diverse metropolises that are rife with violence with those curiously devoid of such conflict.
While in my work with World Faith I have observed many examples of religious violence, and have worked with people for whom religious violence is a part of everyday life from Ahmadabad, India to Jos, Nigeria. Each situation has different potential sources of conflict: abuse of religious language, classism, regionalism, racism or tribalism, or the sociological remnants of colonialism. Rather than viewing these contexts symptomatically, I prefer to discover the similarities between the success stories, and identify the differences from the rest.
Which brings me to Queens. One of the lesser known boroughs of New York City, it's the home of both the La Guardia and Kennedy Airports and the eternally faltering Mets (whose religiously-devoted fans are the epitome of "blind faith"). Queens is also the most diverse county in America (sorry Brooklyn). Just how diverse is Queens? 47.1 percent of its 2.23 million residents are foreign born, and a sizable chunk of the rest are the first-generation children of immigrants. While estimated that there are 800 languages spoken in New York, the US Census Bureau released that households in Queens had 138 languages were listed as the primary tongue in the household. Religion is no different, with over 6,000 churches, 1,000 synagogues, and over 100 mosques used by approximately million Muslims in New York City as a whole, and special concentrations of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others in Queens.
So how does Queens handle all of this diversity? Is it a hotbed of religious violence or a peace-abiding utopia? Reality points surprising to the latter. In 2010, New York State reported only 51 hate crimes in Queens (primarily non-violent in nature). This puts Queens at .02 incidents per 1,000 people, which is slightly less than the national average. This is significantly low because there are a huge number of communities that lack the religious, ethnic, or racial diversity to make hate crimes possible. In other words, the chances of two people of different cultural identities should in theory lead to an increase in communal violence or hate crimes, just based on opportunity. But it doesn't.
While Queens and New York City in general may be the most extreme in regards to both the diversity and success, they are not the only safe-havens for religiously-diverse. London, Kampala, Sydney and Singapore all have strikingly similar stories, albeit with their own dilemmas and blessings. So what magically keeps these cities from meeting the fate of our world's torn communities? I propose three things: loss of communal insularity, the prospect for a better life (jobs), and a lack of a religious or ethnic majority.
The Loss of Community Insularity: I live in Astoria, Queens. Astoria is claimed by many to be the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in the world. Often associated with its Greek roots, the encroachment of other communities, including Egyptians, Brazilians, Italians, Dominicans, Moroccans, Indians, Colombians, Turks, Chinese, and others have dissolved any ethnic boundaries in the neighborhood. What's striking about this is that while Greeks still have a home in Astoria, even in "their" neighborhood, they no longer can avoid interacting with everyone else. Whether it's the halal cart on the corner, the Brazilians who own the hair salon (they don't call it a Brazilian for nothing), the Mexican food truck parked in front of the Chinese owned fresh produce store. Even the neutral Citibank has to have at least one teller on duty who speaks Greek, one for Arabic, for Spanish, etc. The point is, chances are in Astoria your neighbor, boss, co-worker, and friends come a different ethnic or faith community. If dehumanization is a product of a lack of interaction with the "other," Astoria makes dehumanization impossible. In a place where you can't eat or work without reaching outside your community, you can't afford to avoid "the other."
The Prospect for a Better Life: When it comes to religious violence, social scientists often fail to acknowledge that such violence is typically perpetrated by young adults. So what develops a hopeful youth into a vengeful young adult? While on the individual level catalysts may be diverse, as we examine communities most prone to violence sociologically, one factor becomes increasingly relevant: employment, especially among young adults. While the World Bank warns of oversimplifying the employment-violence connection into simple causity, there have many conflicts where unemployment has been explicitly linked to both the potential and the expansion of conflicts. The British Council and Harvard School of Public Health sponsored a study called Next Generation Nigeria, which found that "demographic factors are steadily elevating Nigeria's risk of conflict" and gave the vital recommendation that "Nigeria needs to create almost 25 million jobs over the next ten years if it is to offer work to new entrants." Having myself returned from Nigeria last year conducting site visits of World faith Nigeria's projects, I found that challenging the religious violence in Jos and across northern Nigeria demands moving beyond the standard bounds of interfaith work to engage in this pressing issue.
The Lack of Communal Majority: Human migration is at an all time high. Global Issues estimates that there are 191 million people living outside their country of birth, or 3 percent of the world population. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs found that by 2010, the world hit the milestone of 50 percent of the world population living in an urban environment, up 10 percent from 1985. Both of these trends point to more communities living in smaller spaces. But many times this is a source of conflict. Whether or not conflict arises is not so much about "the Other," but how many "Others." In the classic majority-minority relationship, the majority feels invaded while the minority feels persecuted, which restarts the cycle of isolationism and conflict. However in an increasing number of communities, no one religious or ethnic group have a majority. In Singapore, for instance, the Department of Statistics released that the religious breakdown is 33 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Christian, 15 percent Muslim, 11 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu, with a sizable non-religious community. In a mix between necessity due to high real estate prices, and intention to honor the memory of Singapore's 1964 Race Riots, religious communities have began sharing houses of worship, such as the Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple. It's clear that a multi-polar community has greater potential for collaboration.
I'm no sociologist, or an academic researcher for that matter, so what I propose here is not complete, proven, or reviewed. Rather, this is a hypothesis with the limited research available on this crucial subject. I hope others will do more research, adding more nuance and insight to how we can deincentivize violence in our increasingly diverse communities. The future of the world depends on it.
So in conclusion, if we want to look for inspiration on combating communal violence -- religious or ethnic -- we take examples from diverse cities that do it right. The answers to religious and communal violence is out there, we just need to look in the right places.