Religious literacy is essentially the intellectual backdrop that enables policymakers and citizens to understand and properly analyze the complex and dynamic relationship between religion and politics. In particular, religious literacy should help enable politicians/opinion leaders/intellectuals to delve into the fault lines of their societies and develop relevant policies at the national and international level.
- Historically religion has been a harbinger of conflict and violence within and among organized human entities. Despite claims of peace and tolerance, monotheistic religions in particular, given their ultimately exclusionary nature, have often bred and fed violent confrontations with their internal or external opposites.
- Modernization and prosperity along with timely interjections of thought and philosophy helped the development of secularism, placing matters of faith and belief in the private domain, separating them from the affairs of the state.
- The principle of secularism and its practice in different contexts are certainly not uniform. However, in all successful cases of secularism, the end result is the same: religion is not part of the mainstream of politics. Put differently, secularism, when successful, harmonizes the co-habituation politics and faith but keeps them separate.
- The more sustainable version of secularism is when state and religion are separated, but religion and society remain connected. This is best exemplified by the USA. The more aggressive version of secularism is when not only the state but also the society is separated from a religion where the manifestations of the latter are challenged on charges of anti-secularism. This stricter version is exemplified by Turkey and France.
- The virtue of secularism is that it provides a leveling ground for all faiths and beliefs. It rests on the assumption that there is not and cannot be a hierarchy among different religions/faiths/beliefs. In this sense, it embraces an egalitarian stance towards different faiths. Secularism is therefore the neutral backdrop to pluralism.
- Chronic poverty, exclusion, and hopelessness at one end and prosperity and boredom at the other end breed the search for more, not less religion. For the poor, religious radicalism is the means of social mobility on earth, for the well-to-do, spirituality is the path of social mobility in the after-life.
- Analysts have often disregarded the role of religion as a public force capable of shaping domestic and international politics, though this has changed since the terrorist attacks undertaken by radicals. This has led to the current focus on religion as a tool in the hands of radical and extremist elements. However, religion has also become an effective tool in the hands of main-stream politicians vying or holding power, abusing it domestically and in their foreign relations in order to gain or maintain themselves in power and shape society and the world according to their beliefs.
- Democracy should be a secular regime by nature and by definition. It rests on the equal participation of all citizens – which are equal before the law – in the political process.
It is therefore misleading to try to establish an organic link between democracy and a particular religion. Nonetheless, the relationship between political culture and religion is an important one because it is ultimately the political culture of any given society that sustains its democracy. Religious beliefs and precepts are more assertive ingredients of political culture in Muslim societies than in others.
- All terrorist organizations are the products, reflections, and manifestations of prevailing political, economic, social and psychological conditions in any given society. If this premise is sound, then it follows that the fight against Al Qaida, ISIS and others is/should be more about addressing those conditions and ameliorating them than about weakening and eradicating the terrorists. We must learn to deal with the causes of these events, not just the consequences.
- What then are we to do in the light of the above analysis?
- Approach “religious literacy” as a society-wide need.
- Involve and engage international institutions and organizations in the drive to increase religious literacy on a global scale.
- Promote secularism by appropriate means in schools and civil society.
- Give equal space to different faiths/beliefs.
- Explore and study the subject of “political culture” and its relationship to democracy; uncover and strengthen elements in a traditional culture that could be transferred to the political arena in support of democracy.
- Help improve economic and social conditions and enhance the sense of hope and opportunity for the younger generation.
- Religious literacy requires an understanding of how religion is used for political ends by political actors.