Religion Is Used As A Divisive Tool In Both America And Pakistan
A year ago, I arrived in the United States as a fellow in the Hubert H. Humphrey program wanting to learn different aspects of life in this country, the issues that matter to me most. I am from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where religion shapes the entirety of our lives—from the family institution to the state. I thought American society was more secular than Pakistani society where religion was personal matter that has no interference in law and culture. I was wrong.
I got a chance to study at Arizona State University and one of the courses I picked for the fall was “Exploring Religion, Politics, and the Media.” I was struggling to follow the discussion in the first few classes because there was a lot about other religions, in specific Christianity, that I didn’t know about. At the same time, I was unearthing some of the misconceptions that Pakistanis have about America. One of those misconceptions is that religion has played a vital role in U.S. history and politics, but that this role often goes unrecognized when we talk about the United States.
We had class discussions where we disagreed in matters of religion and politics, but those discussions were vibrant, tolerant, and constructive. The best part of the class, to me, was the openness and diversity of perspectives on religion and politics, topics that are often considered off-limits in Pakistan. For many of us, they involve our deepest and most personal feelings and beliefs.
In class, we created an environment of goodwill, and it was in this environment that I followed my journey of understanding. I heard and read stories about religion and politics that enabled me to learn that all religions include rituals, scriptures, sacred days and gathering places. All religions give their followers instructions on how human beings should act toward one another. I found out that three of the world’s religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share a common origin, all three trace their beginnings to the biblical figure of Abraham.
There is incredible diversity within each religion in terms of how members define their connections to it. For some, a religion’s theological beliefs and rituals of worship are central to their lives. Others are more drawn to a religion’s community and culture. Some governments grant privileges to one religion and not to others, while other governments protect citizens’ freedom to follow any religion without privilege or penalty.
But to me, being in that classroom was different. I never knew the United States was such a religious country. I didn’t know that there are policymakers in the United States who consider religion a solution to the country’s social problems, including violent crime, substance abuse and poverty.
We discussed how difficult it was for Boston Globe to report about the Catholic Church, a powerful institution that can twist the arms of the system.
These were surprising elements, particularly for a person who lives in Pakistan and often hears how it is our mosques and sects that are the biggest reasons for division in society. For instance, Shia and Sunni Muslims don’t go to each other’s mosques. But it dawned on me that there are several branches in Christianity that also have their differences and that these differences have grown as the American religious landscape has undergone dramatic changes in the last decade.
Evangelical Protestants have become the single largest religious tradition as fewer Americans identify as white mainline Protestant or Catholic. There are also Mormons, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who comprise 2 percent of the population.
Things do not end here. I come from a society where skin color doesn’t define hierarchy. In fact, I never heard anyone actually refer to others by their skin color. I learned in The Farewell Sermon, also known as Muhammad’s Final Sermon, that “a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white; none have superiority over another except by piety and good action.”
In the United States, “white” and “black” carry great meaning—white mainline Protestants, black Protestants and so on. They each pray in different churches. I wonder if they feel that their God is different too, as Hindus have their different deities, lords and divas.
In Pakistan, discussing religion openly is prohibited or at the very least uncomfortable because it always creates disagreements, whether you do it at home, at school or even as a journalist. Sometimes people even get killed just for sharing their differences about religion. I used to think that American society was far more liberal and secular in this regard. It’s true that, here, people respect each other’s differences, but these may be changing times in the United States.
While we were discussing the reporting on the alt-right protest in Charlotesville, Virginia, that culminated with the death of a counter-protester, my classmates and I were all very confused over whether showing hatred and white supremacy on TV is the right thing to do. The only space hate speech should get on the media, then, is when it is being exposed or condemned.
But I question what will happen as the broadcasting of hate and the polarization of religion and politics continues in America. Faith-based groups are becoming stronger, driven by the online movements, fueled by media messages.
Also, religion is becoming a strong determinant of voting behavior in the United States. Elections this year will reveal as to how far and deep these trends of polarization in religion and politics are relevant, and how do these influence the overall functioning of the political system.