Beware secular fundamentalism: we need to be open to religion’s role in a troubled world

Religion can be a force for peace, the goal of these Australian religious leaders, or conflict – the believer and not the religion itself bears the responsibility. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

For many years, there has been much talk about the fall of religions as a result of enlightenment and modernity, leading to “disenchantment” as Max Weber argued. Some extreme movements even sought to eliminate religion completely.

But religions are still alive and strong. They have a wide and deep influence on the public sphere.

Does that present a threat to secularism? Is religion part of the problem in the rise of extremism globally, or can it be part of the solution?

This is not an advocacy of the religious state in all its forms; rather, it is an attempt to understand how sufficient is the globally dominant Western secularism. It is a critique of particular forms of adjustment of the separation between religiosity and politics.

Is religion to blame for extremism?

In the modern era, it is very common to attack religion as a problem-maker. We see this following any violent incident in any part of the world where religion is merely one factor among many others in the violence.

This shows that ideas about secularism (at least in the Western context) have gone beyond the formal separation of state and religion. This has evolved to the level of what Charles Taylor calls “the condition of belief”: there is a clear emphasis on the necessity of disappearance of God and religion combined with a strong rejection of religious involvement in public activities.

This “ethical secularism”, as Rajeev Bhargava puts it, regards religion as merely a disease in the public sphere, which should be forced to retreat to a very secluded part of the private life. It leaves no space for acknowledging the strong potential of spirituality and religion in conflict resolution and peacemaking.

Ethical secularism as an ideology has the potential for being radicalised itself by privileging secular humanism, exclusive humanism or atheism over religions. The unfairness of favouring one part of society over others and the potential for radical secularism point to the need for a moderate version of secularism.

From this perspective, the correlation between religion and extremism would be understood differently, as radical secularism produces extremism as well. This is the case in the Middle East, for instance. The forcible imposition of the secular nation-state upon the Muslim world led to not just despotism, suppression and massacres in the last century, but also paved the way for Islamic fundamentalism to come to the surface at the expense of moderates.

Secularism as a critique of religious hegemony must not just be a “mechanical repetition of violence-enacting critique, but rather the manifestation of critique as a receptivity-enacting, possibility-disclosing practice” as Nikolas Kompridis argues. Secularism as a system of “mediation”, using Abdullahi An-Naim’s description, must promote compromise between religious and non-religious groups, rather than prioritising or privileging a non-religious lifestyle.

Another issue with blaming religion is that a distinction needs to be made between religion as an abstract phenomenon and the actions of specific adherents. Religion, secularism, atheism and other such concepts need to be viewed through an agency. Consequently, a particular religious institute, a specific secular state or a certain religious or non-religious conduct can usefully be discussed.

Religion is a far more complex entity, with a broad variety of interpretations. It is not necessarily tyrannical or oppressive by nature.

Religion has a proven record of peacemaking

Ayatollah Sistani has been a highly influential, calming presence in Iraq. Wikimedia Commons

Religions with a long history of traditions, wisdom and spiritual experience have a very big potential to be a part of the solution, not the problem. According to the Institute of Peace, religious or faith-based peacemaking “is becoming much more common, and the number of cases cited is growing at an increasing pace”.

Some faith-based peacemaking has successfully averted civil war. As an instance, the Christian-rooted Community of Sant’Egidio in its 50-year history has contributed to many cases of peacemaking. With 70,000 active volunteers of various religions in more than 70 countries, it has vast experience in conflict resolution and in promoting peace worldwide.

The community has contributed to peace negotiations in Algeria, Mozambique, the Philippines and elsewhere. It recently hosted two dialogue meetings between high-ranking Shiite and Sunni leaders in Iraq, and Shiite and Catholic religious leaders to confront global challenges in terms of extremism and conflicts.

In another example, the Muslim-Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sistani has had a prominent role in countering religious extremism and promoting forgiveness and peace. He has acted wisely during Iraq’s occupation and sectarian strife; his presence has helped avoid even worse humanitarian catastrophes. He never asked for an “Islamic state”; rather, he calls for a democratic civil state in Iraq.

The religious contribution to peacemaking and resolution of various social issues must be recognised and encouraged, instead of simplistically blaming religions and pushing them out of the public sphere based on an extreme understanding of secularism.