24 February 2014 14:01

“Everyone is quoting God,” said Shuruq Naguib, speaking in the first Westminster Faith Debate of 2014. The topic was the place of religion in the Arab Spring. Dr Naguib was describing the situation in Egypt and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. 

She left us in no doubt that what’s happening is about religion as well as politics and economics. The uprisings coincide with a crisis of religious authority and leadership.

The speakers’ depiction of the situation made me think of the English Civil War with its explosion of sectarian groups, preachers, pamphleteers and prophets. But now the preaching is on Twitter, the tracts on Facebook, and the sermons on YouTube. Not only can information spread rapidly in the digital age, so can rage, hatred and violence. Young men with minimal grasp of the grammar of the Qur’an and the context of its revelation set themselves up as self-styled religious leaders issuing fatwas for the consumption of the like-minded.

The issue of authority has become acute for Muslims, but it rumbles not far from the surface in many of the world’s religions today, particularly those with a clerical or scholarly class and authoritative texts and tradition. In a democratic age, with vastly increased access to knowledge and learning, why should believers listen to what leaders tell them rather than try to discern the truth for themselves?

It’s a question Islam is currently being forced to address, but which all religions will soon have to face. Even in Western democracies, traditional leaderships are in crisis. It’s not just that their credentials as the sole legitimate interpreters of religious truth are being questioned by well-informed lay people, it’s that they can no longer speak for their “followers.”

My recent YouGov surveys in Britain found that just 4% of Catholics, 6% of Jewish people and 14% of Muslims now say they take guidance from religious leaders. Even amongst active mosque and church-attenders, that climbs to only 24% of Muslims (the highest for any religion) and 10% of Catholics. Religious leaders still speak, but few are listening.

There’s a similar crisis of authority in politics, education, healthcare and most other social spheres these days. A flight from deference. You can call it rampant individualism – and most religious leaders do – or you can view it as the rise of participatory citizenship and a healthy civil society in which previously marginalized groups like women and young people have more voice and choice. Is it they who are at fault, or the institutions which are meant to serve them?

Far from helping religious institutions to reform, western governments exacerbate the problem. They continue to relate to religion in outdated ways, treating traditional leaders as authoritative representatives of homogenous religious “communities.” Meanwhile religion on the ground diversifies and flourishes in new forms and with different actors. What’s ignored is the scale and depth of contemporary religious diversity – even within a single religious tradition or institution. And what’s fetishized aren’t unchanging forms, but a set of 19th and 20th century arrangements which are increasingly out of time.

In Islam, for example, the historical norm has been a plurality of different legal schools which were usually independent of the state and lay funded – often by women. The fact that Muslims in many countries – including Britain – can still “shop around” for legal advice is not new. The idea of Sharia as a monolithic rule book imposed on passive subjects is a fantasy dreamt up by modern Islamic fundamentalists rather than a window on the past.

Political solutions to sectarian conflicts cannot be lifted from other countries, for each one has to find a model which fits its historic specificities. Neither state-sponsorship of authorized religious bodies nor total state-religion separation will work. The choice between the religious and the secular is false; it has to be “both-and.” Religious education must be part of the solution, because 21st century citizens need to know at least enough to immunize them against pseudo-leaders, misinformation and hate-speech. The outdated idea of religions as “blocs” needs to be abandoned. Proliferating religious diversity must be acknowledged, respected, and managed with sensitivity. All this is new – and not even the USA has the answer.

At the start of our debate, former foreign secretary Jack Straw reminded us that it took several centuries for European countries to reach a religio-political settlement – so we shouldn’t expect too much of the Arab world too soon. It was a generous sentiment, but it assumed that Islam is dealing with a problem which Christian societies have solved. I am not so sure. It may well be that the upheavals in the Arab world are be forcing Muslims to deal with a crisis in religious authority which Western societies have yet to face.

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