In a time of exclusion, making space for Faith Based Organizations

By Amjad Mohamed Saleem

For many people around the world, faith is embedded in cultures, practices and communities. Earlier this month, World Interfaith Harmony week taught us that 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 the capacity for personal and social transformation. 

Today though, we are experiencing dark moments as globalisation disrupts the social fabric that helps individuals define themselves and assess their social roles, leading to greater exclusion. Exclusion has been reinforced by a search for social identity, accountability and security, all of which has lead to lives becoming unanchored, with traditional structures and networks being challenged. 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. As a consequence, we are seeing the rise of civil conflict and intolerance, where the ‘other’ becomes sharply defined by your colour, political opinion, gender, ethnicity or faith. Consequently, conflicts manifest themselves in rumour, hearsay and generalizations leading towards the stereotyping of people on the basis of their faith, their culture and identity, and the denial of a diverse, lived reality. 

This February 20th, the World Day of Social Justice, it is time to recognize the calls for new solutions that challenge people to create equal opportunities for diverse communities of ethnicities, traditions, cultures and faiths. In light of what is coming out of the USA, we are urgently in need of this rethink of diverse and inclusive solutions. From the perspective of this article, these new solutions have to take into account the rich heritage offered by spiritual teachings and religious practices as explained by the sociologist and Islamic reformer Ali Sharyati: “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.” 

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. Faith offers a simple language for people to express the commonalities of existence such as the values of a shared humanity, of social responsibility and a framework for social justice and ethics.

It is this simple common language that can be used to discuss the concept of inclusion; a concept that is at the core of CIVICUS Alliance’s 2016 State of Civil Society Report which summarizes the key events, issues and trends affecting civil society around the world.  As a response to the emerging threat of exclusivity – be it in terms of gender, age, indigeneity, race, refugee status, or mental and physical health – there is a need to develop a form of inclusion that works on the premise of building an understanding of religious pluralism in a language spoken by most people and setting the agenda for creating a new, improved environment. Religious pluralism can provide one platform for the discussion on inclusion as it denotes a politics that joins diverse communities with overlapping but distinctive ethics and interests.

Though globalisation challenges the familiar national/international polarity by transforming relationships between what was considered global and local aspects of politics, culture and society, religions can cut across class, ethnic, geographic and cultural divisions. Thus religious leaders can serve an important if sometimes informal representative function. Members of the same religious community, anchored in different parts of the world, have an enormous latent capacity to increase their cultural, social and economic links with one another and with other religious and secular partners in other parts of the world. Religious identity also serves as a powerful bond amid the vicissitudes of globalisation – a bond reinforced by ethical commitments embedded within a particular tradition. 

Despite this, faith has been often side-lined by secular civil society organisations due to its potentially sensitive nature. However, we ignore faith 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 that has its basis in the past can provide solid ground and protection but also inspire creative ways to aid transition. This Day of Social Justice, civil society needs to recognize 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 to consider the other. True inclusivity can only be obtained when we carefully position all components to create a compelling cosmopolitan mosaic. This will never be easy, but remains vitally important because, as Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “it involves creating the very ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.”

Amjad Mohamed Saleem is a Nigeria-born free-lance consultant from Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom and a guest-essayist for CIVICUS Alliance.