Prof John Esposito, S. Rajaratnam Professor of Strategic Studies and University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, delivered an RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture on the topic “The Role and Future of Religion in Politics” on 10 July 2019 at Marina Mandarin Singapore.
Prof Esposito began by speaking about the resurgence of Islam and other religions, in both the private and public spheres, where people became more religious in their personal and public lives. What followed thereafter was the emergence of religion that is seen in two ways: mainstream and extremist.
He gave the example of the Iranian revolution, which saw more Muslim countries appealing to religion. These governments used Islam to legitimise themselves as political figures and changed the political landscape. The rise of Muslim leaders led to the rise of mainstream opposition leaders who were calling for a better political and societal landscape, such as lesser oppression and lesser authoritarianism. Following that, the extremist groups emerged and eventually gave rise to opposition leaders. In understanding the continued relevance of religion, Prof Esposito alluded to the western context, like the United States, where there is a belief in the separation of church and state. However, whether there is a real separation between religion and politics is another matter. Politicians may not believe in the role of religion, but the religion card is often exploited by them to get electoral support and votes.
He shed light on the question of religion as a primary cause of or catalyst for Islamist political violence and terrorism. Major polls have reported Islam as being a significant part of a religious cultural identity. This can then become an instrument for violent extremists to legitimise recruitment, mobilisation, and actions. This also leaves those with an exclusivist mindset susceptible to extremists’ influence. As the world today becomes increasingly multi-religious and multi-ethnic, these different groups have very little room for tolerance towards the “other”.
Going forward, in dealing with pluralism as one of the challenges of the 21st century, Prof Esposito argued the need to have a robust political and religious pluralism, which is still absent in many countries. The United States, Europe, and other secular or non-Muslim democracies need to work with Muslims to create a new inclusive narrative at home and abroad. Through genuine partnerships between governments, the private sector, and civil society, we can go beyond tolerance, and have pluralism and tolerance based on mutual understanding and respect.