The Religion Question in the New Year

Westerners consider church-state separation to be crucial for ensuring that religion plays a healthy role in society. But this view has little purchase in most of the Islamic world, and particularly in Asian societies, which have a vastly different understanding of religion’s place in people’s lives.

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OXFORD – As we enter 2017, a very old debate about the role of religion in society has come to the fore. It is centered on the extent to which religion should determine political legitimacy, social frames of reference, and personal identities.

Religion’s social role is a conspicuous problem in the Middle East. But now it is causing tensions in Europe as well, owing to the influx of predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing to the continent, and in the United States, where President Donald Trump’s campaign stoked fears about Islamist radicalism. With militant Islamism on the rise in the last decade, many people in the West are asking if Islam itself is inherently in conflict with diversity – whether it necessarily rejects the “other” – and is therefore incompatible with secular modernity.

This debate has far-reaching implications for European and American Muslims, in particular. Most Western, and particularly European, observers consider the separation of church and state (or mosque and state) to be crucial for ensuring that religion plays a healthy role in society. In this view, religion is a philosophical and ethical framework that exists outside the public realm, a private matter subject to individual choice, detached from the reproduction of the political, economic, and social order.

But this perspective has been shaped primarily by the evolution of Judaism and Christianity particularly in certain parts of the West. It has little purchase in most of the Islamic world, and particularly in Asian societies, which have a vastly different understanding of religion’s place in people’s lives.