Forum V: Seeing “political choices as human, rather than as sacred decisions”

What is the relationship between religion and politics and how can we use citizenship education to broaden our understanding of the other? These were some of the questions that were picked out as central themes yesterday in the forum 'Politics and Religion: Re-defining the relationship in diverse societies?'.

To fight against the prejudices existing in the West about the way in which Islam exerts influence over political systems, Sara Silvestri from the City University London (UK) explained first of all the need to reflect on the vocabulary that we use and that is frequently the source of misunderstanding. She described how the actual significance of religion in practice is lost to many Europeans. Islam is seen as having competing values and favouring authoritarian regimes that pose a threat to Western democracy. This, for Silvestri, is a conflation of Islamist parties as political actors and of Islam as a religion in itself. The former, she stressed, are not a necessary outcome of the latter. This demonisation of religious traditions impedes the Western understanding of political change that is not entirely secular in its nature. From this it follows that citizenship education can be seen as a way to “facilitate our ability to respect humanity” and “to train our sense of responsibility”, values which, for her, supersede the division of secularity and religion.

Boudris Belaid from the Centre de la Formation des Inspecteurs de l'Education nationale (Morroco), went on to explain how it is not an inherent feature of Islam to favour authoritarian over democratic political systems. He described how in North Africa political actors hide behind God to escape questions of accountability and transparency; if a regime in general or a policy in particular is mandated by God then, supposedly, there is no need for the people to challenge it. Belaid then emphasized that, rather than taking these government statements as given, society should ask if this is really the will of people or instead the will of some political organisation or leader. The solution for him lies not in copying the European process but in finding “a way to look at political choices as human, rather than as sacred decisions”.

In the lively discussion that followed several important issues were raised that linked nicely with what had been said before. One of the problems was for example the universality of human rights. Another participant remarked that it is not only Islam that we should be concerned with, as Christianity in the USA, for instance, exerts a huge influence on right-wing policies. Furthermore the different connotations of the word 'secular' were discussed. This happened on the basis that in the Arab world it is a rather negative expression, such that it often creates the aim of establishing a citizen state rather than a secular one. In the end, the discussion round seemed to agree that with an enhanced understanding of each other, prejudices and exaggerated fears about the opposition between religion and politics can be abandoned.

Citizenship Education
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