The benefits of keeping politics and religion apart

Recently Bahrain’s Shura Council ratified a proposed amendment to the 2005 Political Society Law stipulating that no pastorally active religious figure should be a member of a political society or take part in any political activities.

The move is a further attempt on the part of legislators to prevent often well-organised religious groupings or individuals from seeking to influence secular affairs.

The development illustrates the difficulty regional governments face in striking a balance between the preservation of religion and culture, as routinely championed by religious groups, and the need to foster economic development and attract investment through the acceptance of other creeds and cultures.

The amendment seeks to counter attempts by religious societies in Bahrain to shape political discourse through social activism as well as through the electoral system. Such activism has often rested on the theocratic premise that only religious leaders have the authority to interpret the will of God in both religious and secular arenas.

Religious organisations across the Middle East, sometimes strongly aligned with political and social movements, have proved themselves capable of using nascent representational channels to gain political standing. But the influence of many such people in the region’s representative assemblies has often led to pressure to curb, rather than enhance, personal freedoms such as women’s rights.

The ability of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to intertwine perceived religious orthodoxy with systemic social problems such as poverty and discrimination has left governments facing twin assaults on their secular and religious credentials.

This is not well understood by NGOs and governments in the West where the separation of the two, in now largely post-religious societies, has become entrenched.

The West often fails to understand that some movements aligning themselves with demands for social justice, liberation and an end to corruption turn out to be distinctly illiberal when it comes to groups or individuals who fall foul of conservative or extremist religious precepts.

Thus we witness some liberal western politicians and groups heartily endorsing a cause or political development on the basis of its apparently liberationist and/or democratic agenda, only to look the other way when that same agenda includes suicide bombing, or the subjection of the rule of law to theocratic interpretation, or the marginalisation of women and other minorities, or forays by self-appointed religious police into the realm of personal conscience.

However, it is hard to see how religion and politics in the Middle East can be separated by simple legislation. One could argue that it is just as impractical for the state to seek to legislate in areas of religious observance and perceived duty as it is for clerics to seek out entitlement in the political world.

Additionally, sectarianism finds additional purchase in local perceptions of specifically secular disenfranchisement in political and economic spheres.

The Roman Catholic Church experienced a politicisation of its clergy at the end of the last century when priests became politically active in the face of poverty and human rights violations by governments in Central and South America. This was soon quashed – but by the pope, not the state. This is an unlikely scenario in the Middle East where religious consensus and the channels for this kind of single-authority doctrinal policing are largely absent.

Christianity has retreated almost entirely into the realm of personal conscience and good works. It looks to eventual salvation after a life spent navigating through a “vale of tears”. In the post-Christian West there is little space for religion in public life.

Islam is a more applied religion, woven into the rhythms of daily living and offering practical guidance in the here and now.

At the extremist end, observance jumps beyond the moderate realm of charity, prayer and personal sanctity to cover political and social transformation as well.

Underpinning the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s slick electoral machine before the ascendancy of Mohamed Morsi – and behind its charitable affiliations with the country’s poor and marginalised, no matter how efficacious or well-meant – is the organisation’s founding principle that all things temporal, including the workings of the state and civil institutions, should comply with its understanding of Islam.

In this way secular competence is made dependent on religious conformity. In government, where technocratic, diplomatic, economic and judicial competence alone should be the gateways to office, this is a recipe for disaster. Civil society eventually becomes a realm for religious intervention and edict.

A dear Egyptian friend of mine explained to me his frustration with what he saw as the unworkability of a government dominated by Muslim Brotherhood ideals in his homeland: “If I am an electrician I expect to do well and make money based on how good an electrician I am, not on how good a Muslim someone else thinks I am.”

A good place to start in disentangling religion and politics is for governments to tackle those conditions in the secular world that give rise to simplistic religious solutions and interpretations.

The last Arab Youth Survey reminded us, for instance, that a majority of the young believed that unemployment and the lack of economic self-determination is a key driver to recruitment to ISIL.

The Arab Spring was primarily a protest against the lack of social mobility and self determination, against official corruption, unemployment and economic despair. Fix these ills and the lure of fundamentalism, the capacity of clerics and extreme conservatives to gain a voice through alignment with political, social and economic dysfunction, disappears.

Martin Newland is a former editor in chief of The National


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