As we enter 2017, a very old debate about the role of religion in society has come to the fore. It is centred on the extent to which religion should determine political legitimacy, social frames of reference, and personal identities.
Religion’s social role is a conspicuous problem in the Middle East. But now it is causing tensions in Europe as well, owing to the influx of predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing to the continent, and in the United States, where President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign stoked fears about Islamist radicalism. With militant Islamism on the rise in the last decade, many people in the West are asking if Islam itself is inherently in conflict with diversity—whether it necessarily rejects the “other”—and is therefore incompatible with secular modernity.
This debate has far-reaching implications for European and American Muslims, in particular. Most Western, and particularly European, observers consider the separation of church and state (or mosque and state) to be crucial for ensuring that religion plays a healthy role in society. In this view, religion is a philosophical and ethical framework that exists outside the public realm, a private matter subject to individual choice, detached from the reproduction of the political, economic, and social order.
But this perspective has been shaped primarily by the evolution of Judaism and Christianity, particularly in certain parts of the West. It has little purchase in most of the Islamic world, and particularly in Asian societies, which have a vastly different understanding of religion’s place in people’s lives.
In a society where the majority are adherents of a particular faith, order is established through rules and regulations that the majority deems divine, and with revered social institutions that are furnished with considerable resources. For example, Cairo’s al-Azhar University, one of the oldest in the world, established many decades before Oxford, was the main seat of learning for the entire Sunni Islamic world for more than 800 years.
For believers in these societies, religion is at the foundation of their identity and a source of comfort during periods of fear, grief, or uncertainty. Thus, it plays a particularly important role in societies, such as those in the Middle East, that have suffered through years of turmoil.
But, as history has repeatedly shown, when religion is deeply entrenched in a society, political powers can manipulate religious institutions to serve their own selfish interests and silence opposition. This has long been a problem throughout the Islamic world, where religious authorities have rarely ruled outright—unlike in much of Western history—but have instead served as arms of the state, through which political elites could wield power.
Religion-based social and political structures tend to be less adaptable to change and innovation. The debate in many parts of the US about whether schools should teach some version of creationism alongside the theory of evolution demonstrates the extent to which religious-ideological rigidity can take hold, even in the most developed societies.
There is no shortage of such examples, which suggests that while religion can provide emotional support, its role as a source of identity can be socially problematic. Throughout monotheistic and Asian religions’ histories, adherents have often excluded and demonized social minorities, and shunned plurality in favour of conformity. In particular, the history of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and parts of the Islamic world today, shows that religion can fuel militancy, and be used to justify curbs on free speech.
These problems are exacerbated when communities with fraught historical relationships are forced to live together, which is what happens in states with borders imposed by foreign powers. They become still worse in countries that have had complicated experiences with modernity, characterized by polarized views among various social groups about how religion should inform legislation, politics, and identities, and what should be considered sacred. And these disagreements can become explosive when a society’s younger members come to constitute a majority of the population and are confronted with severe political and economic problems not of their own making.
Not surprisingly, all of these aggravating dynamics exist simultaneously in many of the wars currently plaguing the Middle East. The region today seems to be undergoing a painful catharsis, following the collapse of institutional structures that had defined the field of political participation for seven decades. Long-suppressed conflict over fundamental questions, such as religion’s role in society, is now coming to the fore—often through violence.
As this process continues into 2017 and beyond, more demons could be unleashed, consuming the region for a long time. If that happens, the region will fall further behind, just as many other parts of the world are reaching new technological and scientific heights. These profoundly different trajectories will only make it harder for the Middle East’s burgeoning younger generations to escape their crippling heritage.
But this is not the only possible future. The Middle East’s young people have an opportunity to learn from their societies’ achievements and failures over the past two centuries. They can reflect on the Arab and Islamic worlds’ first encounters with secular modernity, and on the West’s own political experimentation with religion over the past 400 years. Such reflection is the best hope for finally moving the region toward a more promising future. The alternative is to continue paying a high price for religiosity, without reaping any of its potential benefits.
Tarek Osman is the author of Islamism:What It Means for the Middle East and the World and Egypt on the Brink.