Embracing Pluralistic Religious Identity for Inclusion

01/08/2016 16:42 | Updated 01 August 2016

We are now in an age of disruption, the way we communicate; do business; politics and how we relate to each other. Thanks in part to globalisation we are now experiencing the disruption of the social fabric that helps individuals define themselves and assess their social roles. Now in one sense that doesn't seem to be such a bad thing, because we have seen the upending of traditional structures of authority, the relocation of centres of power and the emergence of a flood of perspectives on how life should be lived. Yet primarily because of these disruptions that have unanchored lives and challenged traditional structures and networks, we see a backlash of increased racism and xenophobia. The rapid pace of change has unsettled people to such an extent that they yearn for agents of constancy to provide an oasis in the shifting sands of today.

Today we are excluded from each other in more ways than one. Our search for a social identity is a paradox and has become fluid in the midst of the increasing mobility of people along with the ease of global communications which make it possible for everyone to live everywhere. As a result, huge new multicultural populations are emerging around the world that have mixed identities shaped by multiple competing factors. The loss of the moral compass from those in charge is compounded by a general loss of authority as it is no longer clear who is in charge: is it corporations/ big business? Is it ideology?. With the loss of authority comes a threat of security compounded by the challenge on national unity by division based on religious, ethnic and tribal identities and new ideologies of nationalism emerging from this division.

These feelings of exclusion have manifested themselves by civil conflicts. In many cases, politics, faith, identity and rights are the foreground factors for conflict. Consequently, conflicts manifest themselves in rumour, hearsay and generalisations, which are often the first steps towards the stereotyping of people, on the grounds of their faith, their culture and identity, and the denial of a diverse, lived reality.

It is precisely in this scenario that there are calls for new solutions to challenge people to create equal opportunities for diverse communities of ethnicities, traditions, cultures and faiths. This challenge starts with the premise that whilst faith is seen as a cause of turmoil and exclusion, it can be used as an antidote. As the sociologist Ali Sharyati put it, "Religion is an amazing phenomenon that plays contradictory roles in people's lives. It can destroy or revitalise, put to sleep or awaken, enslave or emancipate, teach docility or teach revolt."

Why faith? Simply put, for many people around the world, faith is embedded in cultures, practices and communities. Religious practices and perspectives continue to be sources of values that nourish an ethics of multicultural citizenship, commanding both solidarity and equal respect. Historically, spiritual heritage has often provided humanity with the capacity for personal and social transformation.

Today as we experience dark moments, in the tumult, religion can appear to shine like a beacon of hope and reliability. Religions provide trusted institutions that have their bases of legitimacy in the divine order of the universe and in the societies they have nourished and been nourished by. As a repository of symbols, a system of belief, a convergence of cultural rights, a structure of morality, an institution of power and one that challenges old systems, people often find religion offers them a sense of community, a trusted authority and meaning for their lives. Religious institutions can also be mediums for inclusive engagement, as they offer simple and easy access to communities, and a simple language to express the commonalities of existence through the expression of common values, the invoking of social responsibility and working together on issues of social justice and ethics.

Thus this speaks to a concept of inclusion around religious identity that works on the premise of building an understanding of religious pluralism, founded on common features in a language spoken by most people, setting the agenda for creating a new, improved environment.

Globalisation has challenged the familiar national/international polarity by transforming relationships between what were considered global and local aspects of politics, culture and society. As religion can cut across class, ethnic, geographic and cultural divisions, religious leaders can serve an important, if sometimes informal, representative function. Members of a religious community, anchored in different parts of the world, have an enormous latent capacity to increase their cultural, social and economic links with one another and with other religious and secular partners in other parts of the world. Religious identity can thus serve as a powerful bond amid the vicissitudes of globalisation, and one reinforced by ethical commitments embedded within a particular tradition. Working on wider diverse shared polity of pluralism means that you can tap into a hidden channel for creating engagement between people. This can perhaps allows us to find new ways to anchor us in a globally connected world. In the turbulent waters of the global era, religion, which has its basis in the past, can provide solid ground and protection, but also inspire creating the very "ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become."

A longer version of this article appeared in the recent CIVICUS report on "The State of the Civil Society 2016"