An old debate about the role of religion has come to the fore.
what extent should it 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, and in the United States, where
president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign stoked fears about Islamist
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. 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
outside the public realm, a private matter subject to individual choice,
detached from the reproduction of the political, economic, and social
But this perspective has been shaped 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 in Asian societies, which
have a vastly different understanding of religion’s place in people’s
In a society where the majority of people are adherents to one faith,
order is established through rules and regulations that the majority
deems divine, and through revered social institutions that are furnished
with considerable resources.
For example, Cairo’s al-Azhar University — one of the oldest in the
world, established several 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 an 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
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.
Religiously-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
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 demonised social minorities, and shunned
plurality in favor of conformity.
The history of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and parts of the
Islamic world today, demonstrates that religion can fuel militancy, and
be used to justify restrictions on free expression.
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, characterised by polarised views among
various social groups about how religion should inform legislation,
politics, identities, and what is considered sacred.
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
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
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
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.