It has been argued that a separation of religion from politics could help to facilitate peace and stability in contemporary societies. Is this argument a convincing one?
In this essay I will endeavour to demonstrate that the argument of a separation of religion from politics would help in facilitating and maintaining peace and stability in contemporary societies is a convincing one, by looking at the impact of religion on world politics, in the past and by giving examples of recent events of the political involvement of religious actors around the world having consequences therefore in contemporary societies. I will try to explain what religion is and why it represents a threat to the maintaining of international peace and security. The meaning of politics will be disused as well, during the conduct of this essay. There will be an in-depth analysis of Al Qaeda, the anti-Western Islamic militancy ideology, both from the Western perspective and the Islam perspective.
Starting with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religion was the main cause of conflict in the world, affecting the international peace and stability of that time. Islam and Christianity were the two main religions, both of them spreading their beliefs in all directions. Christianity spread to small territories in Africa and the Middle East, while vast areas from Africa, Asia and even Europe, like the Balkans and the Iberian Peninsular became Islamic.
Haynes (1993, 1998) pointed out that even in the twenty-first century it is difficult to find any country, and especially in the developing world where religion does not represents an influent actor in the political agenda.
There are many recent events, which show the impact of religion on world politics everywhere in the world. In Europe, for example where is considered that secular principles are long experienced, the civil war in the early 1990’s in Bosnia- Herzegovina between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians degenerated into a religious conflict. The same happened in the late 1990’s in Kosovo between Albanians and Serbs which can easily be defined as a war between Muslims and Christians. In Russia, the Orthodox Church arises from communism and became an important influence in the political world. The Islamic militancy was seen in various parts of the world, including the West, by the 9/11 events and in the developing world also, where probably the most noted rise of religion was the Islamic militancy in the Middle East, encouraged by the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978-1979. Iraq conflicts with the West in 1991 and 2003 are more of a religious nature too. Another example from the developing world is Africa, in Nigeria which was polarized between Muslims and Christians while Somalia may lead to an Islamist government. The civil war in Sudan was due to religious grounds between Muslims and Non-Muslims. Algeria’s civil war was between the state and the Islamists, or also known as ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ where more than 120.000 people are estimated to have died.
Marty M. and Scott Appleby (1997) examined religion and politics, and came to the conclusion that ‘religion is an important source of basic values. But it can have a powerful impact upon politics within a state or region, especially when it is linked to ethnicity and culture. Religious belief often reinforces both ethnic consciousness and inter-ethnic conflict, especially in the Third World (but not only there, for example Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia)’.
I think it is important to understand how society appreciates religion, considering the diverse regions of the world, such as the Western secular society and Islam. For the West, religion is something personal between man and God and does not have any role concerning society, being totally separated from politics. Religion is based on fear and tradition, serving the weak people who cannot understand science and development, also restraining the freedom of speech and opinion.
As for Islam on the other hand, they have a completely different view towards religion. The Quran, through the preaches of the Prophets, held that religion serves for the reformation of the individual and society. They believe that no society has absolute freedom, because this will lead to chaos and is against human nature. The Western societies, which claim democracy and freedom of speech, are not so different from any other types of rule, such as dictatorship or monarchy, because in the end they all have rules and laws. Islam agrees with the difference of opinion and speech as long as this difference does not affect and threaten its political structure.
There are many definitions of religion, and some of them tend to be too narrow and exclude many beliefs which are considered by many to be religious, or they are too vague and ambiguous. So far, based on my research , I think that the best definition of religion I have seen is Mircea Eliade’s, a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago, who defined religion as something special and autonomous, that cannot be reduced to the social, economical or psychological standard. He saw the sacred as pivotal to religion, often dealing with the supernatural not with the society or the people.
Having some awareness of the meaning of religion, I will try to explain how religion interfering with politics represents a threat to the international peace and security of the world. In order to do this, it is imperative to analyse first the meaning of politics. Politics is generally understood in terms of ruling or governing a nation, and is concerned with the political affairs of the society. Problems arise when religion interferes with politics, as in the case of Islam, based on the idea that religion cannot be separated from politics, offering as example all the prophets of Allah, who came as leaders to reform society at large.
The Islam politics or also known as ‘the politics of God’ is the language of political theology, having its roots in the past for millennia, being the only language people used to express their opinions on the political affairs of their country. This happens even today, in the contemporary society, as for example, in 2006, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent a letter to the former President of the United States, George W. Bush, letter that was translated and published all around the world. The subject of the letter was contemporary politics and religion, Ahmadinejad writing ‘If Prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) were with us today, how would they have judged such behaviourI have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) and believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth […] According to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine Prophets.[…] Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. . . . Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.’ (Lilla, 2007)
In the contemporary world there are many religious groups with different principles and practices and diverse political aims, which reflect not only the country’s beliefs and traditions, but also the political problems of that country’s system, as for example in Israel, when Hamas confronted Israel, due to the political culture conflict between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
Haynes (1998) thought that religion will lose its influence in time, as societies would secularize and modernize but his belief proved to be wrong, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the late 1970’s re-emerged religion as an issue in the political affairs.
The conflict between religion and politics which threatens the international peace and security derives from the different values and conceptions about the world, or how Samuel Huntington (2002) pointed out the ‘clash of civilizations’ based on religious and political distinctions between two main rivals, Christians and Muslims. He identifies a ‘West versus militant Islam’ dichotomy where Islam represents a threat to the West peace and security. This is shown by many examples involving the West (especially North America and Western Europe) and its opponents, the Islamic militancy, such as Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan. The events that marked the conflict between the Arab world and the Christians (the west) was the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by Iraq and the 9/11 event, which is seen by many commentators as a dividing line in international relations.
According to Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama the international peace and security of contemporary societies is threatened by the followers of Islam militancy against the Christianity, which is considered to be a religion in accordance with the liberal democracy, promoting thus global peace and security.
Before analysing the most significant religious issue in international relations in the contemporary society, namely the threat posed to global peace and security by anti-western Islamic militancy, Al Qaeda, I will mention that religion-politics clashes may not necessarily happen between civilizations, but as well within them.
Akbar (2003) stated ‘In an age of despair the need for a hero who can inspire pan-Islamic victories becomes acute…Despair can become a breeding ground for mavericks who believe in themselves and their version of the faith … Osama bin Laden is in the tradition of another famous name from the eleventh century, Hassan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains, who has given the English language the word ‘assassin’’.
After the events of 9/11 and the subsequent attacks by the United States, Akbar agrees with Huntington that this is the beginning of the ‘civilization’ conflict between the Arab world (the militant Islam) and the West. Of course, there are commentators who disagree with this statement, arguing that is inappropriate to associate the terrorist attacks with the definite idea of Islam, considering that the following bombs attacks in Istanbul, Tanzania, Kenya, and Madrid were also ordered by Al Qaeda. It is important to note that the Islamic militancy and the groups associated with it, such as Al Qaeda, Hamas in the Gaza Strip are the result of the failure of Islamic governments.
Given that 9/11 and the following attacks are believed to be committed by Islamic radicals against the West there is a clear belief among many Muslims that Islam is opposed to the West, therefore United States lost support in many parts of the Arab world. As for example, in Morocco, surveys show that public support for the United States dropped from 77 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2003; in Jordan, it fell from 25 percent in 2002 to 1 per cent in May 2003; in Saudi Arabia, it fell from 63 per cent in May 2000 to 11 per cent in October 2003 (The Christian Science Monitor).
Going back to the Al Qaeda ideology, Sayyid Qutb, a radical Egyptian scholar of the mid-twentieth century, declared that Western civilization is the enemy of Islam, denounced leaders of Muslim nations for not following Islam closely enough, and taught that jihad should be undertaken not just to defend Islam, but to purify it (Haynes, p. 167).
Al Qaeda’s ideology is based on the ideas that the West has dominated the territories of Islam and that the liberal democracy beliefs advocated by the West corrupted Islam, and only respecting the pure and authentic Islam taught by the Prophet will save and purify the Muslims. These aims can be achieved only by defeating the West through any means, including violence and war. Al Qaeda movement can be understood as being against the West modernisation which can interfere and affect their societies on social, political and economic level. In both developed and developing worlds , there were large number of people, and not only the poor, the uneducated but also people with high education and social status who found stability in their traditions and beliefs, placing their hopes in religious groups and movements.
Al Qaeda is more than an organization, is a religious ideology and its consequences are very dangerous to the contemporary society. Even with the exclusion of the organization from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s ideology becomes stronger day by day, attracting new militant Islamic terror groups created by young believers in the concept of their religion. Analysing the events of 9/11 (when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were subjected to terrorist attacks and nearly 3000 people were killed) and the subsequent attacks, from Al Qaeda’s perspective I came to the conclusion that the Islamist radicals act the way they do because they think that there is no other choice. They feel irritated, assaulted and offended by the Western, fighting for the survival of their society, culture, religion and way of life. Al Qaeda militants argue that they acted in self –defence, their justification being that Islam is the perfect social system.
This essay has shown that the involvement of religion in contemporary societies and in the past societies as well, interfering with politics has caused serious problems in the maintaining of peace and security around the world. The resurgence of religion in the post -Cold War and the threat the militant Islamic groups, especially Al Qaeda represents, were broadly discussed and analysed during the conduct of this essay. Christianity and Islam were examined to provide a better explanation of the impact of religion in various parts of the world in recent years. The terms religion and politics were defined and analysed, a list of religious –political conflicts was provided, hence this essay demonstrates that the argument from the title of the essay of a separation of religion from politics would help to facilitate peace and stability in contemporary societies is a convincing one.
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