world council of churches

Religious Plurality in the Context of Globalization:
Introductory Reflections

Tarek Mitri

In the world of today, the waves of economic, technological and ecological forces at work favor integration and uniformity. Increasingly, we are all tied together by communications, commerce and entertainment, where businessmen "do not find foreign countries foreign." Many structures of governance have become much less able to address major problems and take major decisions. The exercise of power within the limits of a national territory is weakened substantially. But national governments have become, at the same time, too complex to deal with small problems. One need not give examples of the many existing nations that are unsuitable for accommodating all those who would have liked to live together, or considered unstable, as they impose an undesired co-existence on religious communities and ethnic groups.

In many situations we see the logic of economy favouring interdependence and regional integration while that of politics seems to follow the path of national fragmentation. A widespread interpretation, based on a culturalist or primordialist understanding of the nation, considers nationalism to be an archaism, something like a return of history. At best, it is a late and disordered construction that is still thought to be the way of access, in many societies, to modernity. Politicians evoke a world to be ruled by the universal principles of market economy, democracy and human rights but which is threatened by "ancestral hatred." The problems of nationalism are seen as belonging to the realm of affectivity rather than that of politics.

It is true that most of the protagonists in conflicts such as the recent nationalist ones invoke history. Collective memories, once reactivated in political mobilization, may aggravate the temptation of "thinking with the blood." The success of such mobilization is not determined by ancestral atavisms but by political strategies of power conquest or preservation. It is not ancestral hatred that is the cause of wars, and the examples are many, but war causes hatred. Ancestral hatred is, more often than not, fabricated rather than inherited. It is in many ways a creation of modernity, and much less an expression of a continued history.

History, as it is present in the public arena, is neither an ancestral memory nor a collective tradition. It is mediated by contemporary education and communication. Hatred is inculcated as much, or even more, by a modern discourse than by memory. It is often stirred up by radio broadcasts, articles in the press and television programmes than inherited from parents. If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another one can always be invented.

The paradox of modernity
We are before a paradox of modernity. The development of consumerist societies and of planetary televised entertainment did produce unprecedented homogenization and uniformization. But at the same time they exacerbated the quest for distinction and recognition, where symbols of cultural and religious identity count tremendously.

The clash between the "West and the rest," we are told, is religious to the extent that religions shape civilizations and they do so significantly. It is political as long as politics is determined by civilizational affinities instead of ideological options.

This discourse is nourished by what is called the regained vigour of religions. But when we observe the relationship between nationalism, ethnicism and religion, we see the latter functioning as a sort of diacritical mark. There are conflicts between communities that have a religious past, but the religious content is of no or little relevance. A religion in which people have little or no faith continues to define a community in which they have much faith.

Yet, there are cases, such as in the Muslim world, where religion is not only the mark of a group identity, for its content is part of the self-image. In other words, religion does not define borders between groups only. It draws their internal landscape as well.

However, in a religiously plural context, wether rooted in history or recent, a secularist option continues to be widespread. Religions are seen as divisive. Such an assumption is, more than ever before, questionable. Failing to recognize the power of religious identity, and the sense of meaning it gives in a world threatened by its loss, may defeat its own purpose: that of integration and the consolidation of civil and political rights of all, across the boundaries of religious affiliation.

Concomitant to the secularist approach we find an essentialist one which, aggravated by the reductionist sensationalism of the media, amplifies the differences between Westerners, called Christians or Judeo-Christians, and Muslims. What is called Islamism, which sees Islam and the Muslims under threat, is depicted as the threat of Islam and the Muslims.

This duality of perceptions accounts, to some extent, for the difficulty to come to grips with religious plurality. While the idea of an integrated society, on the basis of a secularist assumption, minimizes religious differences, its alternative model, the multiculturalist one, maximizes differences and tends to drive minority communities into a ghetto-like existence.

In the first case, the right of being a full member of a religious community and all that is derived from it is not sufficiently taken into account. In the other, persons are viewed as parts of a collectivity and an embodiment of a community essence.

Needless to say that the two described models do not exhaust the various societal, political and juridical structures that regulate religious plurality. In many places, religious plurality has a long history, marked by continuity but also by a variety of adjustments. At present, many examples suggest that living together across religious differences has to be constantly reconstructed and its model reinvented.

This reconstruction and reinvention is not only a matter to be negotiated by actors in a particular local or national context. It is affected by the global power relations. It will have to be discussed wether and in what ways interreligious dialogue and cooperation could contribute towards changing them.

Religions and frontiers
Such discussion may have to be preceded by a quick look at a few facets of the complexity of the religious reality in the world of today. Naturally, this has many limitations. It will be primarily descriptive. While it will give a few rough estimates of numbers, it will focus on two inseparable aspects : the displacement of frontiers between religions and the increasingly significant discrepancy between the actual religious map and its continued perception or representation.

Religions came from the east, from the ancient world. Today, some of them are exported from the west (Pentecostalism, New Age ...). Missionary movements follow different routes, not west to east nor north to south. There are cases where Christianity spread originally by western missionary movements has become itself missionary, sometimes to western countries.

Christianity is a religion of 1.6 billion baptized. Its center of gravity has been displaced from Europe. In 1939, the first three Catholic countries were France, Italy and Germany. Today they are Brazil, Mexico and the USA, followed by the Philippines.

The changes in the Protestant map are spectacular. Nigeria is the second largest Protestant country, together with Germany. The majority of Anglicans are Africans, though Anglicanism was born following a local church schism. Geneva, Calvin's city has more Catholics than Protestants, while parts of Latin America are loosing their Catholic predominance. Orthodoxy is somewhat an exception. It has stagnated geographically and numerically. This influences significantly relations between religion, ethnicity and nationalism.

More than a billion faithful are Muslims. The four largest Muslim countries are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. They are followed by Iran and Turkey. Egypt, the largest Arab Country, follows as seventh.

Numerical growth in numbers is less significant in the West than what visibility and sensationalist perception suggest. With the exception of conversions of African Americans, it is a result of migration. In some cases, it is only partly irreversible.

Shiite Muslims are a majority in Iran only. But a two-thirds majority of Shiites are not Iranian. One Muslim out of three lives in the Indian subcontinent which makes it, in the eyes of some, "less Hindu." However, ninety percent of the eight hundred million or more Hindus live in India.

Buddhism is the fourth largest religion. It has had a spectacular growth in Europe and America. However, ninety-eight percent of the three hundred and fifty million Buddhists live in the eastern half of Asia, almost equally divided between Hinayana and Mahayana. A minority Buddhism (2%) -- Vajrayana, often called Tibetan Buddhism -- is best known and seems to be the most attractive in the West.

Quite often animism is not a distinct religion. It interpenetrates with Christianity in Africa and Latin America, and with Buddhism in Japan and parts of Indochina. Its secularized form is expressed in movements like those of Deep Ecology.

It is difficult to isolate Chinese Taoism and Japanese Shintoism from the religious traditions of Buddhism and Confucianism.

Comparable in numbers (15 to 20 million), the majority of Sikhs live in India while one third of the adherents to Judaism live in Israel.

This reality did not change in any radical manner our representation of the frontiers between religions. Historical memories are constantly being re-awakened.

But historical frontiers are more remembered in certain areas; the new political configurations reactivated their divisive significance and effect. The example of the Crusades is a case in point. Palestine is in the heart of the Crusades, past and remembered.

Former Yugoslavia offers a unique example: the front line of the 1991 secession is almost the same as the partition line drawn in 395 between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, subsequently becoming the frontier between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and separating later the Ottoman Empire from the Austro-Hungarian.

New "frontiers" are emerging. They are determined by social exclusion and security fears. There are real risks of living in a ghetto in the case of some communities in "multicultural" societies. The divide is between cities and "les banlieues de l'islam " in societies that affirm national integration.

Self-definition and self-understanding of religions -- and of Christian confessions -- is more preoccupied with frontiers. Even when they affirm universality, they are assertive of particularity. Many examples illustrate this phenomenon: the differentialist ecclesiological discourse, the crisis in ecumenism, the reservations towards dialogue marked by fear of syncretism, the strong hostility towards proselytism and conversion.

But frontiers between religions remain quite often more political than religious.The twentieth century confirms the constant politicization of religion. It continues to vehicle protest or legitimation. In many societies, politics increasingly need to root the collective link in something sacred and, at the same time, historically profound.

The discussion on religious plurality in a context of globalization is a renewed discussion on religion and politics.

Dr Tarek Mitri is on the staff of the WCC and responsible for Christian-Muslim relations.

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