Every year, the Brookings Institution holds a conference dedicated to relations between the United States and Muslim-majority countries. This year, its overriding theme was an intriguing one for a conference that began in the aftermath of, and as a response to, the attacks of September 11, 2001. The leitmotif was “Islam and inclusion” – a topic that has recurring resonance in the context of the Arab region.
It ought to be noted that the topic of religion and inclusion is not one that is of enduring relevance simply to Arabs – indeed, the issue goes beyond into other non-Arab communities and also non-Muslim communities. But certainly in this region in particular, there are very poignant and important challenges to be aced and, ultimately, dealt with.
They certainly vary. Islam is at the core of the public sphere throughout this region – whether one is Muslim or not, one will encounter Islam. In the past few years, we have all seen how that encounter is not necessarily always positive – indeed, what grabs our attention are examples of how those encounters can be negative and divisive.
There will be, for example, the pure and unadulterated politicisation of religion for sectarian ends. The region has certainly seen that with some Islamist forces – some more extreme and radical than others. It’s unsurprising that demographic minorities, such as Christians, will view the rise of some of those groups as deeply threatening – not because they have some sort of animosity towards Islam, but because their experience of the rhetoric of those groups is a hurtful one, where they have been presented as being on the wrong side of some sort of cultural war.
While we focus on those sorts of politicisations as deeply problematic, as we should, we often tend to forget or neglect that they are hardly the only ones. We’ve seen examples of completely non-Islamist, anti-Islamist or non-Muslim forces exploiting religion as well, but for entirely different purposes. They are not doing so for sectarian purposes, but for exclusionary ones. For them, the “other” is not another religious group – it is a political “other” that they may demonise and dehumanise, using the language of religion to support their political project.
In such cases, the underlying current is directly concerned with one overriding concern – a relationship with power. When Islamist radicals (and even many of those who are not so radical) engage in that sort of discourse about Christians, other types of Muslims, or even Muslims who are simply “not Muslim enough”, it’s about power, and their attempts to get it.
When opponents of Islamists routinely deploy religion in order to support certain power structures, they may not be doing that to acquire power for themselves directly – but they are certainly doing it to support the power structures that they prefer.
In the midst of conversations at this annual forum, I was fortunate enough to observe and engage with people of faith who privately asked: What exactly has taken place? Are the people of the region incapable of articulating their political and social imperatives without contaminating religion in the process?
For these people, the groups who misuse religion corrupt religion itself. Believers look aghast at how their faith is so cheaply tossed around like a political football.
One fairly well-known religious figure confided that perhaps it was time for people of faith, for the sake of their faiths, to be careful in articulating their concerns using religious language. Unless their cause in that regard was one of unity and inclusion – as opposed to anything that could be described as exclusivistic.
He wasn’t quite arguing for a secularist approach – as a Muslim religious intellectual, he would have to mediate that kind of slant quite carefully. But the encounter between politics, social factors and religion had become, for him, so divisive that it would damage the ability of religion to make a truly profound difference when it really counted.
Islam has never been a religion whose adherents shrink away from being open about its impact on their lives in the private arena or, indeed, in the public one. On the contrary, perhaps there has never been an “Islamic liberation theology” because, at its core, the Islamic tradition identifies itself as being a “liberation theology” as a normative stance. But as the headiness of the Arab uprisings becomes more sombre, the question of what Islam means in public life remains.
The mistake we have made is to assume that these questions are only going to be uncomfortable for Islamists – actually, they are uncomfortable for a broad variety of groups, including those that support the status quo. Indeed, perhaps they are the ones that will have the hardest time of all.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer