DOES religion play any role in your professional growth? This was a question put before successful women professionals and leaders from different fields at an international conference. It was a tricky question. One hardly assesses the role of religion in one’s professional life. The Muslim women leaders wearing hijab were no exception.
The answer was ‘no’. It came from a leading woman professional associated with Islamic banking. Religion had not created any hurdle in their paths or these women had not bothered much about it. It can be interpreted either way. But many acknowledged the value of religion in building morality and character. Others considered society, state and culture as the determining factors in the development of their moral behaviour.
Usually, we overlook the role played by religion in our daily lives. But it remains in our surroundings, shapes certain types of behaviour, and influences the socio-cultural and politico-economic patterns of society. Most of these women had struggled to break cultural and familial taboos to develop independent identities. Many had bitter feelings about how their families tended to use religion-based arguments to stop them from pursuing their ambitions.
Apart from the gender perspective, it has been observed that the influence of religion is increasing in Asian and African Muslim societies and their diasporas in the West. Religion is part of almost every discourse, including on policymaking and socialisation. Power elites are confused about how to deal with rapidly growing religious influences in their societies. Different states are trying to deal with the challenge by adopting reconciliatory and/or confrontational approaches.
In Pakistan, the power elite are scared to touch religious issues. Religiously inspired actors are fully exploiting this weakness.
In a wider perspective, weak or absent political institutions provide spaces to resistance forces. And in most parts of the Muslim world, these resistance forces are religious in orientation. This fact was largely ignored by the US and its Nato allies when they launched military and political interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. The interventionists had alternative plans for these countries, but the resistance forces foiled most of them. Religious forces exploited the crises, which traditional secular and political elites had failed to resolve.
In Pakistan, the power elite are scared to touch religious issues.
Interestingly, now the interventionists think that they should factor religious sensitivities into their geopolitical adventures. The damage that has already been done by their interventions is huge. These have not only destroyed the socio-cultural fabric of societies where they have intervened, it has also accentuated the sectarian fault lines. Sectarian tensions provide an excuse to interventionists in their exit strategies as they blame local factors for sectarian divides.
At the same time, the ruling elites in these Muslim countries and their regional allies further provoke sectarian tendencies in their narrow strategic and political frameworks. This is a globalised world, and other Muslim societies cannot avoid the impact of such developments in the Arab world. These developments are triggering sectarian tensions in many Muslim countries, which were under rural-to-urban transition.
Religion helps in maintaining social cohesion, mainly in the lower and middle classes, during social and urbanisation transformations. Especially in societies where political and social institutions fail to provide connectivity in such transformations, religious institutions take over the process. At that time, sectarian influences damage the processes of social cohesion, and religion becomes more a dividing force than a uniting one.
Terrorist groups are also benefiting from these sectarian tensions. They are increasingly devising their strategies on a sectarian basis. The same is happening in the case of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is gradually becoming a sectarian terrorist group.
The problem is complex and spread over international politics to local-level societal developments. The situation provokes a question: is religion ‘manageable’?
This question makes the situation more complicated and vague because it provides different, paradoxical alternatives. The stakeholders try to present solutions which suit their interests. Answers vary from counter-narratives, mainstreaming to creating safe spaces. The concept of safe spaces is about creating an environment for dialogue between the hardliners and moderates.
No one can deny the power of narratives, but who will challenge the existing troublesome ones, which also have roots in religious traditions? Decoding and developing narratives also require serious intellectual pursuit to challenge the faith-based connotations of these narratives.
There is a counter-argument which completely rejects the concept of managing religion. Proponents of this narrative believe in the extrication of religion from political and extremist influences. For that purpose, they advocate managing the religious actors rather than faith itself.
This creates space for direct intervention by the state, but in Pakistan’s case, the state is reluctant to deal with religiously-inspired actors. The reason is that state institutions do not know who the real religiously-motivated actors are in the country. Their narratives are based on their interaction and relationship with the leadership of religion-based political parties. These parties may not necessarily represent moderate voices in the religious discourse. A few such voices might be found in religion-based political parties, but they do not have a major impact on party policies.
On the other side, a segment of the religious elite has emerged in Pakistan which is apologetic about the actions of religious extremists and tries to justify them through externalising the problem and shifting the burden on other institutions. The so-called religious elite cannot respond to these challenges.
Managing religion or religious actors are both hard tasks. These challenges become even more complex when we see that a conducive environment for such initiatives is not available either on the international or the domestic level. The establishments and social and religious elites prioritise their interests rather than work for solutions. ‘No religion in our professional lives’ will not remain an option unless the challenge is faced by both state and society.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn March 8th , 2015