A recent New York Times article highlighted the dramatic, post-WWII increase in the number of Hasidic Jews in New York City. They now number more than 300,000 and constitute over 25% of that city's Jewish population. Hasidic demands have conflicted with state and local laws and policies over the importance of a female lifeguard at community pools (to permit modest bathing by women), the use of well rather than reservoir water in baking matzo, and dress codes for shoppers in some Hasidic owned stores. As the article notes, New York's Hasidic population has increased so dramatically because of birthrates that result in six to eight children per family.
Ironically, Israel experiences a similar problem, but in reverse. Israeli Arab birthrates are substantially higher than the birthrates of Israeli Jews. Only by continuing to reduce its Arab population through adverse treatment that engenders emigration and constructing the wall to exclude other Arabs can Israel maintain its dual identity as democratic and Jewish. Otherwise, sometime in the next three decades, and perhaps in the next decade, Israel might become a nation with a Muslim Arab majority and a Jewish minority.
Religious fundamentalism – of any flavor – almost invariably triggers conflict, either with fundamentalists from a different group or proponents of democracy. European nations (e.g., Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) all experience this type of religious driven conflict from their minority of extremist Muslims. In addition to the conflict the article highlighted in New York City, the U.S. experiences this type of conflict from Christian fundamentalists (the anti-abortion and anti-gay rights crowd) and our growing population of Muslims fundamentalists.
Unfortunately, I suspect that religious conflict – hopefully falling short of violence – will increase before fundamentalism subsides into a quaint remnant by a bygone era and the religious scene in most of the world becomes either thoroughly secular or comfortable with the confluence that I advocate in Charting the Confluence.
Building bridges between diverse religious communities is not an activity that directly benefits most clergy of all flavors, whose professional advancement depends primarily upon building a numerically and financially thriving congregation. However, promoting religious understanding and mutual respect represents an important contribution that religious leaders are well-situated, perhaps even best situated, to make to the common good. If religious conflict becomes a catalyst for motivating religious leaders to engage in religious bridge building, then signs of conflict may signal hope for a better future.