Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Religion, Identity, and Politics in the 21st Century
Religion, Identity, and Politics in the 21st Century

Religion, Identity, and Politics in the 21st Century

This article is based on the 24th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion & World Affairs, given by Ziya Meral on November 19, 2020.

When I was writing my book on religion and conflict in Africa and Middle East, I thought my conclusions and the direction that my thinking was taking was quite heretical. For so many years, you would have read and heard countless discussions on whether or not religions lead to violence, but my research on the ground as well as professional and academic work was pointing to the opposite direction: that it was violence that leads to religions, and it was violence that alters and shapes religions, and that while religions bring unique characteristics to conflicts and terrorism, the nature of human violence, when and how it emerges, what it seeks to achieve was timeless.

As GK Chesterton once said, like every young boy, I wanted to find a heresy of my own, but when I put the last touches to it, I realised it was orthodoxy. In other words, in thinking that I was being heretical for seeing both religions and violence as intrinsic aspects of how homo sapiens survived, adapted, and lived in a hostile planet, I was not saying something new, but only unmasking how heretical the public discussions on religion, violence, conflicts, and politics have been in the West, particularly since September 11 attacks.

Now, decoding how and why we ended up in such heresies as common sense is not something I want to waste much time on. Because doing so is accepting a debate, a direction of discussion, and an enquiry and a horizon that almost always limit our imagination. It does not result in any other new insight or understanding, and far from providing any solutions, often only results in demonization or alienation or relativization of the other. You have all heard of those already anyway: deeply unsustainable theories of clash of civilizations, romantic notions of science and education as the answer to it all, seducing language of essentialization that convinces you with hints that the other is always violent, different, destructive, and spares you from a lot of uncomfortable conversations about yourself, your own identity, values, and religion or belief. Or even the more scholarly airbrushing of religion out of issues we see today; either by simply ignoring the topic, or side lining it as not the real issue unlike economy, or relativizing the content by simply noting that religions are utilized by political actors and agendas. Which are only true to the extent of what it is they are affirming: i.e., that yes religions are often not the drivers of conflicts or politics as they seem to be and yes political entrepreneurs as well as religious entrepreneurs seek to capitalize on religious language and appeals and networks, but ending the conversations there falls short in explaining why is it then such appeals work and religions have such a pervasive presence and that they matter to people and that people often actually believe in what they say and practice. So, while it is tempting to not fall into trap of popular discussions and see other variables and mechanisms in play, it is also a mistake not to take religions seriously into consideration and study.

Let me offer another way, another line of reading these complex issues: while accepting that every locality, every local political context, and every local conflict have unique factors, drivers, and reasons for the way things unfold, thus it is often problematic to universalize discussions and abstract religion, since religions do not exist in their own, but only in the lives of human beings, there are also some overarching insights and threads we can observe across the world now and in history. Hopefully, these might give a basis to our discussions later on the specific areas of interest to you.

I start with the observation that the ultimate drive of religions isn’t about providing an individual a better life in the world to come, and for the time being controlling them and keeping them moral. But that it is about providing a meaning to a world that often does not make sense. It is about ascribing a story, a narrative to the reality that we are all subjected to, a reality that demands answers, explanations, and providing guidance on how we should live as individuals and communities, and where we belong, and where we are heading to or should aspire to. You could argue that the quest to fin­­­­­­d a meaning, to find explanations and a path to steer through the chaos of being alive and living through confusing times as individuals and as nations, is what has enabled our species to survive, flourish, advance, and create beyond basic necessities of survival. Taking religion out of such human drive often ends in an attempt to compensate religion by mimicking its role through another pervasive value system that explains the world, that shows us our place as individuals, and anchors us in a communal vision and identity.

If our starting point is what I just described above, then you can already start making sense of why is it that religions, religious language, religious ideologies, religious figures, narratives seem to be freshly relevant and widely consumed in today’s world in plethora of ways. From the re-emergence of white far-right extremism with Christian references in Europe and North America to multiple forms of Islamism as well as religious nationalism across the world from Turkey to India, Russia, Hungary, and United States, we are witnessing a phenomenon that is both old and new, and both local and global. But we have been here before. We have seen this pattern before. Sudden changes, fragmentation of certainties, ungoverned spaces, and the search for a moral order when every value system seems to be crumbling almost always leads to two things: One, anomie. And two, radical attempts to respond to anomie.

Anomie is the condition that emerges from collapse or disintegration of norms, standards, values, meanings, and explanations that ground individuals and cements communities. It is the in-between moment, between the new and the old following tragic incidents, sudden luck or richness or poverty, loss of loved ones, wars, pandemics, abrupt political shifts. Émile Durkheim captured that word both in his study of the shifts in the labor force during the Industrial Revolution, but also in his study of suicide. He highlighted the link between social and economic changes and how they impact us as individuals, making anomie a personal as well as a societal issue. Anomie is a helpful concept to make sense of our own milieu. All across the world, we see so many countries and communities trying to make sense and respond to sudden changes, old narratives and visions that no longer bind us as societies, alliances being strained, our beliefs in motivations of friends and enemies alike found unsustainable. We are looking for lighthouses in the dark. The trajectory of national myths is broken, and new visions set before us seem to be more divisive and destructive than unifying and edifying. New technologies only speed up the confusion and economic and social changes. With an overwhelming exposure to domestic and global news, we are left numb and confused, sticking to pre-held beliefs we hold about the world tighter.

The difficulty of knowing what the truth of the matter is, whose solution is actually going to provide meaningful futures to us as individuals, as families and as societies, who will establish fairness for me, and for people like me, and protect me from the others that seem to be set to deny me a place, a voice, a future, and equal ownership of the common space, is a political as well as a personal challenge that captures so much of what we see and live through these days. And these create, fuel, lead to radical attempts to regain control of reality. Anomie amplifies politics, identities, beliefs, ideologies, and that strange value we give to skin colors. The more precarious the conditions that you are thrown into, the more extreme your reactions and solutions and behaviors might be, the more differences between groups are highlighted and the more radical options available and amicable to you are.

It is no surprise that religion finds a comfortable and well-secured place in conditions of anomie. When faced with anomie, the world confronts us without a moral order of rights and wrongs, without rituals and taboos that are shared by our community, without a sacred that binds us, our politics seem to have lost direction, our understanding of ourselves in relation to the Other crumbles. It results in xenophobia, scapegoating, attacks on religious minorities, migrants. It opens the door for the most extreme proposals and calls for a restoration of what is imagined to be lost, or a revolution to establish what was never there. Religion, religious language, justification, affiliation, not only serves as an effective boundary between us and the other, but it also promises a clarity and a foundation to restore, return, rebuild on. That is why religions have easily adapted to both early 20th century nation-making visions, as well as revolutionary projects against nation states or strong rulers. And in later 20th century, they adapted easily into international networks and visions enabled by globalization, and then to movements and visions of this century that seek to undo the impact globalization had on particular societies.

This is also why religions are intrinsic to violence. You could very well argue that violence lies at the heart of religions, not as something they promote, but as something they have emerged from, in response to, and in management of: From the violence of the nature that first religions sought to contain, to rituals like scapegoating or sacrifices that seek to divert violence and appease tensions, from the sacrifice of the Messiah on the Cross to appease the wrath of God and of the crowd, to the elaborate theologies of “just war” and “jihad,” and rituals of remembrance that maintain the losses of a community and provides an eternal reference for lives we lost in wars for very temporal aims. Thus, religions are present in modern militaries with chaplains, prayers, justification, as well as in militant groups and their management of violence. Extreme experiences need to be tamed, justified, processed, and when it comes to life and death issues and experiences, few can do so effectively as religion and beliefs with transcendental reference points.

These already hint at how religions are not simply ideological beliefs held by individuals, but it is about huma­­­­n interaction, organization, participation, and communal formations. Religion is an “eminently collective thing” as Durkheim put it. We often do the mistake of seeing religion only as personal beliefs and ideology when we try to understand religion in other parts of the world beyond North Europe and North America. But the evasive nature of religion goes beyond the privatized boxes we ascribe to it, even in Europe and North America. That is why you see it in ungoverned spaces and conflicts more clearly in attempts to establish law, order, welfare, governance, and an alternative order. So you see religion, in revolutionary visions to establish a new radical order in a given country, and also in attempts to build a state, or a local authority in a failed state or ungoverned or contested spaces, or serve in maintenance of diaspora communal identities.

But in none of these, whether in meeting the challenge of anomie or violence, does religion act as an “unmoved mover,” as an unchanging independent force. Religion is as much a shaper as it is shaped by these. God is our creator whose image we reflect as much as our creation who reflects our own image. Believers might very well believe in timeless truths of their religion, but what those truths mean, how those sacred texts are protected, read, interpreted, and applied across centuries and languages and geographies make it all very human, very varied, and very difficult to maintain discussions on what might or might not be the essence of one religion or another. For sure, there are simple theological tenants that believers of a particular religion might share and repeat as plain truths shared by a billion people based on a sacred text, but the practice of that faith, its theological methods, burdens, and application show substantial differences. Thus, the term Evangelical signifies substantial political and social connotations in the United States, which is often not translatable to describe evangelicals in the United Kingdom. Or while Islam has very-easy-to-communicate pillars and practices, Islam as lived and expressed by a billion Muslims from West Africa to the United Arab Emirates, from Pakistan to Bosnia, Indonesia to Tunisia have different local expressions and unique ways it accommodates local cultures, politics, and ethnic identities.

Before we jump into specific issues you might want to discuss, and I might be able to offer some perspectives depending on my knowledge of it, there are a few key takeaways from all these abstract points I made thus far:

Religions are alive and kicking, and while their social and political significance might alter depending on developments in a given era or country, their place in the lives of human beings are consistent today, as it has ever been. But religions are far from independent factors shaping the way things unfold: They do not exist in a vacuum, and they are as much products of their contexts as they are its influencers. Given religion’s capacity to provide meaning to experiences that demand explanations and a sense of order, it is no surprise to see them more visible in seasons of anomie and turbulence and conflict. It is impossible to argue that there is an essence of any religion, but, for sure, there are overarching beliefs and practices that bring believers together. Thus, religions are neither categorically promoters of peace or war, reconciliation or hatred, progression or a return to an imagined past. Within them, they carry powerful motivations, visions, and mechanisms that can lead people to undertake truly brave steps to end conflicts, racism, protect their neighbors from pogroms, help those in need, advance science and knowledge, risk lives to bring aid and relief, pursue diplomacy to deescalate emerging crises. In fact, the world is full of people of faith doing so. But the same potential and power of religions as described in the positive could also escalate and prolong conflicts, divide us, deny freedoms to others, demonize people of other religions or none, and while claiming to be charitable and merciful and just, can demonstrate utmost cruelty, injustice, immorality, and hatred. And perhaps then, we return to our own reflection on the mirror, the connection of the events out there in politics and global affairs with the very complex contentions between right and wrong, honorable and shameful, meaningful and meaningless, inspiring and destroying undercurrents that we all have within us as individuals. In the end of it all, religions do not exist, we do.

This very human context should give us hope: a hope that we might be able to find solutions to revert and contain some of these excesses associated with religions today, not by alienating those who believe, but by understanding their world better and working with them, to address the problems that we are all facing in the 21st century.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.