Religious Identity and Inclusion

A discussion about religious identity and inclusion has to theoretically  start from a perspective of exclusion.  We have to understand what are the factors causing exclusion.

Globalisation has disrupted the social fabric that helps individuals define themselves and assess their social roles (Jurgensmeyer, Griego and Soboslai, 2015). The shifts of the 21st century have upended traditional structures of authority, relocated centres of power and allowed a flood of perspectives on how life should be lived. These shifts have unanchored lives, challenging the traditional structures and networks that guided peoples’ behaviour in society, such as learning from the teachings of our forefathers and following the models of others. In times of rapid social change, these networks are erased or shifted to a degree that they become unrecognisable. The frantic pace of change has unsettled people to such an extent that they yearn for agents of constancy to provide an oasis in the shifting sands of today. At a time when we are, in some ways, more interconnected than we have ever been, ironically we are also disconnected, with exclusion taking place on a variety of levels. In particular, exclusion is reinforced by:

  • Our search for social identity: The increasing mobility of people and the ease of global communications seem almost to make it possible for everyone to live everywhere. As a result, huge new multicultural populations are emerging around the world that have mixed identities, grounded in their new homelands but in touch with countries of heritage. Thus today one’s social identity is fluid and often determined by changing global circumstances, and remains a paradox. This paradox arises from the fact that unlike previously people have multiple competing factors around which their social identity is formed.  This can in some cases create challenges especially for those who comprise the second and third generation of migrants in the west.
  • Our need for for accountability: There is a global issue of the lack of viable moral authority. As the concept of the nation state becomes diluted with globalisation, it is no longer clear who is in charge. This phenomenon is further exacerbated by disaffected nationalist regimes and movements that claim, but at the same time have seemingly lost, moral bearings.
  • Our push for security: We see mass disillusionment with the system of sovereign, secular states. National unities have been challenged by division based on religious and tribal identities, and new ideologies of nationalism have emerged based on the sectarian interests of religion.

Consistent with these feelings of exclusion, we have seen that the beginning of the 21st century was one marked by predominantly civil conflicts. An authoritative estimate is that 1.5 billion people – a little over 20% of the world’s population – live in countries under the threat of large-scale, organised violence, whether perpetrated by terrorists, state forces or– mostly – by criminal gangs (World Bank 2011).   Challenges to the established order are arising in different places around the world, linked to diverse causes such as political change, regional and national autonomy, urbanisation, climate change, faith and cultural identity, or the struggle to secure the basic conditions of life. In many cases, politics, faith, identity and rights are the foreground factors for conflict.

It is precisely in this scenario that there are calls for new solutions that will challenge these exclusionary factors. This challenge starts with the premise that whilst faith is seen as a cause of turmoil and exclusion, it can also be used as an antidote.  As the sociologist and Islamic reformer Ali Sharyati put it, “Religion is an amazing phenomenon that plays contradictory roles in people’s lives.  It can destroy or revitalise, put to sleep or awaken, enslave or emancipate, teach docility or teach revolt.”

For many people around the world, faith is embedded in cultures, practices and communities. Religious practices and perspectives continue to be sources of values that nourish an ethics of multicultural citizenship, commanding both solidarity and equal respect. Historically, spiritual heritage has often provided humanity with the capacity for personal and social transformation.

Today we are experiencing dark moments, and in the tumult, religion appears to shine like a beacon of hope and reliability. Religions provide trusted institutions that have their bases of legitimacy in the divine order of the universe and in the societies they have nourished and been nourished by. As a repository of symbols, a system of belief, a convergence of cultural rights, a structure of morality, an institution of power and one that challenges old systems, people often find religion offers them a sense of community, a trusted authority and meaning for their lives. It gives them a sense of identity.

The concept of inclusion around religious identity thus works on the premise of building an understanding of religious pluralism, based on common features in a language spoken by most people, setting the agenda for creating a new, improved environment.  As a concept for espousing inclusion, religious pluralism is the interaction of religious actors with one another and with society and the state around concrete cultural, social, economic and political agendas. It denotes a politics that joins diverse communities with overlapping but distinctive ethics and interests.

Yet despite this potential, there has been a certain reluctance to recognise and acknowledge this and subsequently engage with faith organisations on such measures. Reluctance stems from the fact that, despite the importance of inclusion in principle, there is a character to the religious playing field that can complicate matters. Faith communities, whether they are numerous and powerful, a minority struggling for a voice, or even an influential tiny cadre, undeniably have as strong a history of internecine strife and struggle as they do of cooperation and collaboration.

Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture, and faith-based organisations will continue to thrive as part of civil society. If we choose to ignore this reality, we do so at our peril, especially in a time when traditional understandings of identity, accountability and security are being continuously challenged, as is the way we belong to a community, which has changed due to increased mobility, improved communication technologies and the weakening boundaries of communities and the nation state. There is thus a need to find new ways to anchor us in a globally connected world. In the turbulent waters of the global era, religion, which has its basis in the past, can provide solid ground and protection, but also inspire creative ways to aid transition. There is a need to recognise the role that faith can play and provide a seat at the table for faith organisations.

This is the current problem with some thinking about exclusion. Many people misinterpret their little truth as being the whole truth and are not inclusive enough.  True inclusivity can only be obtained when we carefully position everything to create a compelling cosmopolitan mosaic. This will never be easy, but remains vitally important because, it involves creating the very “ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.”


A longer version of this article  appeared in the recent CIVICUS report on “The State of the Civil Society 2016

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2 thoughts on “Religious Identity and Inclusion

  1. This is a fascinating article that raises some viable concerns about the current exclusionary difficulties with social identity, accountability and security. I am a firm supporter of the concept of inclusion of religious identity and believe we can learn much from a country like Scotland that includes Religious Education into its primary and secondary education. Through education we erase hate, fear, and anxiety. Through education we can break down exclusionary boundaries and work towards a global community.

  2. This article is challenging for me. I’m not so sure why, but let me try to explain my hesitations.

    (1) You claim that “it is no longer clear who is in charge,” which makes leads to this void that allows for “dark moments.” Was there a time before when it was clear who was in charge? If so, what did those times look like? Are they enviable?

    (2) Do you see a similar shift of decentralized authority and individualism happening to religion? I can’t tell if you think religion is participant in this macro trend, or if you think it just should be.
    a. If religion IS a part of the decentralized trend, how can it stand as a beacon of stability and hope?
    b. If religion IS NOT a part of the trend, why would it help solve for the exclusionary potential of decentralization?

    (3) I think I might challenge the assumption of this article that we are in dark times. Steven Pinker, for instance, claims that we are in the *least* violent era in history. (

    Generally, I think you’re making a good point that I’m not quite fully grasping! I’d love to hear your thoughts to the points raised above. Perhaps most simply, let me just ask: is decentralization exclusionary, in your mind? And if so, why would religion hope to emulate that which causes “dark times”?

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