Does religion unite or divide?
24 May 2010

Is religion per se an integrating or dividing factor in societies of the third millennium? A round table organised to answer this age-old question was held on May 21st at the Bilgi University in Istanbul, within the framework of the Istanbul Seminars 2010. The round table was attended by Fred Dallmayr (professor at the Political Science and Philosophy Department at Notre Dame University, in Indiana), Abdou Filaly-Ansary (former director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations at the Aga Khan University in London) and Ibrahim Kalin (advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan).

In the course of the debate, Fred Dallmayr emphasised the centrality of the religious message in our societies, starting with the identification of the idea of God with the concepts of truth and virtue. Following a path that appeared to follow in the footsteps of the philosophical ideas of Emmanuel Lévinas, Dallmayr underlined the centrality of a culture that sees ‘otherness’ as an indispensible condition for abandoning an egotistic and individualistic perspective of human communities. In this sense the religious message is not a dividing element but rather one of unity, with the ethical and transcendent élan it adds to a society’s aspirations. The central message provided by monotheistic religions consists of the prospect of divine love as the universal reflection of particular love for humankind.

Therefore, the problem appears to be linked to the changing interpretation of the religious message since the historical-religious perspective has been created by human beings, and hence is subject to political manipulation of various kinds. To further clarify his thoughts, Dallmayr used a metaphor of the words, “you are the salt of the earth.” The existence of humankind is indissolubly linked to the earth but is not merged with it. When religion is no longer the salt that gives ‘flavour’ to the earth, but corresponds to the earth itself, then religion enters a sphere it does not belong to and demands to rule over governments and politics. This leads straight to the deformities of theocracy.

Ansary instead expressed the belief that religion can provide a different path for collective life. Faced with the crisis experienced by modernity, we are observing a return to religion, especially in the Arab-Muslim world, that results in an important cultural, sociological and ethical framework for addressing collective life. The theorem has worked for millennia and according to Ansary can still work today, albeit with suitable corrections. Religion has the potential for uniting people through its liturgies, traditional postures and the timeless rituals that link our history and sensitivity. Attempts to eliminate the religious substratum mean alienating the community from its own history. According to Ansary religion is the adhesive that unites communities.

Ibrahim Kalin instead emphasised the fact that for European societies, the problems posed by multiculturalism have nowadays become exclusively the problem posed by Islam. While in the past fingers were pointed at the fanatical interpretation of the Koranic message, nowadays parts of European society are raising their voices against Islam as a whole, as if the problem were no longer the distortion of the initial message, but the very nature of this specific religion. According to Kalin, the European debate on relations between religion and rights and civil obligations is dominated by an obsessive security-linked vision, linked to public order and emergencies. Kalin added that Islam was the first religion that allowed the other religions of the Book to legally exist within its own geographical territory, the first political experiment in view of founding a multidenominational society. This is a viewpoint that should perhaps be taken as an example today, when, especially in Europe, we are seeing the ideological triumph of another religion, secularism, which would like to impose a totalitarian vision of an aridly a-denominational public arena.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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