By Salam Sarhan
Feb 01, 2019
It is an understatement to say that the political use of religion has had a corrosive influence throughout human history. It continues to ignite and sustain the most intractable global conflicts. Unfortunately most of the worst abuses of religion in politics today are carried out in the name of Islam, but the political use of any religion has led – and will always lead – to the same results.
The theocratic revolution in Iran, which is centred on exporting sectarian ideology, was a turning point: it has ignited, over four decades, the rise of dark forces across Middle East and beyond. The situation has only got worse since the destabilising of Iraq by the American-led invasion in 2003 and the subsequent uprisings in many countries in the region in 2011, which opened a Pandora’s hox, as any anarchy always does.
The trend towards theocracy is taking hold in countries including but not limited to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Nigeria. And it holds a significant influence over social groups and individuals across the world, including western nations. It's easy to place all the blame on exclusionist, impetuous regimes, but that would ignore the way the world’s leading powers have regularly made grave mistakes when dealing with these ideological conflicts, playing directly into the hands of sectarian and extremist groups.
The international community is dedicating enormous effort and resource to dealing with the consequences of the political abuse of religion. But it could be much more effective if it orchestrated a meaningful, global response to the root causes.
There is now a need to move towards an international consensus to prevent any invocation of religion – from mainstream as well as extremist religious groups – to support national and political agendas. It is time for a campaign to create an international treaty to ban the political use of religion.
The campaign can start by attracting the support of influential public figures to mobilise a global movement, leading later to the publication and dissemination of a formal treaty to exert pressure on states that perpetrate such abuses.
As no responsible state should use religion for political gains, so obtaining international approval should be straightforward. Moreover, there are many governments who would seize the opportunity to endorse such a treaty to settle inflammatory pressures among religious groups in their own region.
It will offer the international community, particularly the leading global powers, a crucial guideline on how to deal with such inflammatory conflicts, preventing costly mistakes. It would also provide a starting point from which to refute any claim by terrorists that they are defending Islam, or indeed any other religion. This would remove a key recruitment technique by which the naive and vulnerable are attracted to their ranks – namely, through the false allegation that there is a war being carried out against their faith.
There is a desperate need to lobby such powers to pay greater regard to the balance of religious, political, and economic forces when determining courses of action in order to avoid exacerbating such conflicts. The dangers come not only from those using supposedly divine rights to trample over the rights of others, but also from the extreme reactions directed towards people of the same faith as the fanatics.
The world has recently witnessed many examples of the above, from the call by US president Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the United States to the repeated use of faith to legitimise attacks against immigrants and minorities in too many parts of the world, including Europe.
It is overdue to initiate and coordinate a concerted global effort to stop the use of any religion to justify any political endeavour that uses religious intolerance and division to its own ends.
The movement could take the form of an NGO to push for governmental endorsements to a well-drafted "International Treaty to Ban the Political Use of Religion", along the lines of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Such a treaty would set out a clear framework for what constitutes the many and varied abuses of religion in politics, and would represent a step towards greater respect for human rights by liberating those who suffer from religious repression – which is, in itself, a major abuse of human rights.
The treaty would emphasise the prevention of political disrespect for religions and encourage greater transparency in politics. This aims to prevent the common misunderstandings exploited by extremists, such as the claim that there is an international agenda against a certain religion.
Endorsement of the treaty by powerful countries would help to tip the balance in favour of more moderate, tolerant ideals. It would be a step towards bringing outlier states back to the majority world consensus, similar to events following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in December 1948.
It could also lead to the establishment of a global monitoring service for raising awareness of the abuses of religion in politics, providing media organisations and other interested parties with credible, trustworthy statistics and facts about such abuses.
There are very few countries that would hesitate to endorse such a treaty – including those who can be implicated in such acts, but consistently deny using religion as a political tool.