POMED Notes: Religion, Culture, and Interpretations of Democracy
USIP hosted its final panel in a three-part Democracy & Conflict series, entitled, “Religion, Culture, and Interpretations of Democracy: Implications for Peacebuilding.” The panel included Mohammed abu-Nimer, Professor in the School of International Service at American University, Marc Gopin, Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, James Patton, Executive Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, and Juliette Schmidt, Director of Partners in Humanity at Search for Common Ground, as moderator.
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James Patton began, saying the key question is how does religion think about democracy? Having worked in Latin America and South East Asia, Patton discussed the relationship between the majority religions therein and how they work with democracy. Patton emphasized that democracy and religion meet in the common space created for community wellbeing. He also stressed the importance of understanding that religious leaders, religious institutions, and religious followers all have different motives, and those at the top may be more driven by politics than religion. Patton concluded by reminding the audience to “untangle identity creation from the truth,” by discovering peoples actual identities, not making assumptions.
Marc Gopin argued that historically democracy has been “about removing and limiting religion.” He agreed with Patton, stressing what he sees as the radical distinction between organized religion and religious values, and also noted that highly secular/state-based interests often use religious notions to their advantage. He said the single greatest threat to human rights, coming from religion, is the “spiritual religious cultural notion that women are not equal [to men].” Gopin was adamant, however, that human rights and democracy, as universal aspirations, can align with religion by emphasizing specific religious values instead of relying on “outside, western, secular imposition.” For example, Gopin argued the religious idea of individuality is becoming universal, which implies that all individuals deserve rights. In conclusion, Gopin said both religion and the secular state need to be “less arrogant.”
Mohammed abu-Nimer said the notion of democracy came from monotheism, but cultural norms have greatly effected how religion functions in the world today. For example, in democracy everyone is equal, but in all cultures there is a hierarchy. In democracy, individualism is praised, whereas in the culture of religion, “you have many people speak for you and you’re happy with that.” Gopin said democracy values pluralism, where the culture of religion values a dominant culture. Abu-Nimer said the only current model for democracy is the Western/European model, which does not work for every country. “We try to export western or packaged values, which is biased in an area where there is supposed to be no bias,” abu-Nimer explained.
During the Q&A, Patton said there must be better understanding of people’s motives, and that religion is not the only force at play. Abu-Nimer argued there is no such thing as universal values, because what we call universal values are actually Western values. Abu-Nimer expressed frustration that the democratic models in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt are not given a chance by the international community due to their fear of religion. Gopin, following abu-Nimer’s thought on Middle East democracy, said although the model isn’t ideal, it’s a step in the right direction, sighting the examples of Christian democracy that predates our current form of democracy in Europe. Patton reminded the audience that “democracy is a great example of conflict that hopefully doesn’t manifest itself in violence.” When asked how best to prepare “peacebuilders” for their work, Patton mentioned a panel set up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to advise Foreign Service Officers on the culture and religion present in the areas they will serve, while Gopin argued for additional collaboration between FSO’s on the ground.