Religion in a Time of Ambivalence

Lesson One from the Arab Spring in 2012: revolutionary political change is neither seasonal nor predictable. But in a time of resurgent religious identities, in North Africa and the Middle East, it was always going to heighten divisions between world views as well as between different concepts of governance and political order.

Once the lid of authoritarian and repressive rule came off, an ugly blooming of human fears, and hopes encroached on political space  propelling untried political leaders into perilous uncharted waters.

Lesson Two: people in the midst of anarchic political turmoil need to find, and tell, a story about what is happening to them. Those who succeed who find a compelling narrative for their cause like the Bolsheviks in 1917, often win the battle.

Religions and secular narratives provide meanings, goals and identities that seek political expression and delineate clear boundaries. In times of flux they become as important as electricity, jobs and water. Sacralized, non-negotiable, non-instrumental, they transcend moral considerations such as the sanctity of life.

Yet this is the time when the inherent ambivalence of religion – and of secular world views – is most rarely acknowledged. Religion can be a powerful vector for hatred, and a justification for violence and division, as well as an extraordinary force for good.

It just takes a few sacred texts ripped out of context to determine the former. In a fragmenting society, the Manichean logic of “them against us,” good against evil, casts its defensive, protective spell. Then all that is required is for my religious vision of society, at all costs, to prevail – or my secular one – and all will be well.

The ambivalence of resurgent religion motivated Tony Blair to create his Faith Foundation in 2008.

Religion could be part of the solution to the problems of the 21st century, even if increasingly part of the problem.

Against the sacralization of the secular, and the perverse politicization of the religious, had to be set the goal of religion-friendly democracy and democracy-friendly religion. And this required a global approach to education for religious pluralism for a new generation of citizens and their leaders.

This was never going to be easy. It required certain preconditions: recognition that religiously motivated terrorism was not simply a product of western interventions around the world, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but an extreme reaction to all the changes lumped as “modernity” and “globalization,” changes that had multiple causes and were ubiquitous.

Likewise, recognition that inability to navigate these changes generated less perverse religious identities that, nonetheless, were dysfunctional, damaging social cohesion and creating new hostilities. The rise of Salafist movements would be a case in point. Then came alienated youth, with negligible understanding of their faith, attracted to the crudest of imaginary social models, or what they believed were utopian pasts.

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Neither was it easy gaining recognition in a secular Europe, with its vague quest for “spirituality” and declining formal institutional religion, that secularism was not necessarily going to be a shiny light on a hill for future generations around the world.

The symbols, worship, practices and meanings contained in the different world faiths were vital elements in how people saw their world and the hopes they had for themselves and their societies. Many Europeans found this difficult to understand in any other way than an impediment to “progress” and globalization.

So Faith and Globalization demanded in-depth scrutiny – hence the Faith Foundation’s commitment to building a consortium of universities around the world to  study the topic. The high level of religious belief in the United States might have produced a dramatic contrast to Europe were it not for the importance of Churches manifesting a form of Christian exclusivity that was not at ease with interfaith dialogue. North American universities, though, have made an outstanding contribution to developing courses and engaging students around this issue.

The Arab Spring revealed again the original European motivation for secularism, the secular state as the least bad protection for religious minorities. For many Christians, Ba’athist States were the secular devil they knew which, particularly in Syria, given a minimal measure of protection.

But in all the political ferment, the encouragement is that there has been intimations of a dialogue between those wanting to codify Islamic principles in constitutions and those for whom minority rights are paramount, needing the clear protective provisions that only secular constitutions have afforded, and that not always very effectively.

The threats of theocracy and anarchy are symptoms of a deeper malaise. The great enemy of minority rights in 2013 will be human failure to live with difference, with ambivalence, fluid boundaries and open minds. It would be easy to define this inability as the product of religious consciousness.

The point is that bad religion reinforces it, good religion combats it. The contrast between Sierra Leone, where the Faith Foundation works, and North East Nigeria, where it supports religious leaders confronting intense conflict, is a stark illustration.

It may be that we are each psychologically predisposed to tolerating different levels of ambivalence and difference. And, no doubt, bad religion can channel this predisposition into a Manichean dualism of intolerance, division and conflict. The task of the Faith Foundation is not simply to study these preconditions for religious violence but to change them.

Charlotte Keenan is Acting Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.