People displaying "COEXIST" symbol, representing religious system or spiritual idelogy. | Photo credit: OHCHR

Racial Discrimination on the grounds of Religion

Is it really the fundamental doctrines of religion that cause racism or is it the human propensity for conflict?

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Over the course of history, no aspect of society has played more directly into social issues than religion. It is a powerful motivator – it encompasses far beyond shaping one’s social identity to providing one with a sense of group membership, where these groups guide and influence them. From race to religion, people identify with groups that inevitably shape their social responses to a range of circumstances. 

Religion is tied to our basic life values and promotes social conformity, providing moral clarity and common spiritual ground. An estimated 84 per cent of the world’s population identifies with a certain religion that inevitably shapes their beliefs. Social issues arise out of differences in values, and religions are founded on values. The intersection of religion and politics has been a persistent source of conflict within systems, and I have to admit it is an issue that cannot be simply summarised within an opinion piece without sounding fragmented. The correlation between religiosity and racism has been extensively researched, but it would be fallacious to only entertain the notion of religiosity positively reinforcing racism, and not consider other factors. Despite being in a time where there’s increasing awareness about the many facets of racial prejudice, racial discrimination is still rife in today’s society, most blatantly in the form of restrictions on religious freedom and racial biases. Racism could be distinguished as “colour racism” or “cultural racism” where they are not mutually exclusive but rather co-exist together. In short, you would associate “colour racism” as one being discriminated against for their skin tone, and “cultural racism” as people subscribing to the idea that some cultures are superior and fundamentally incompatible with others. The difference between these two ‘racisms’ is that while the former is prejudiced against the perceived biological differences between ethnic groups, the latter is prejudiced against the intrinsic cultural differences between cultures. These two types are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they can and do exist together.

It is indeed true that religion can reinforce the worsening of existing racial divisions. It has been affirmed that religious fundamentalism correlates positively with religious ethnocentrism. Although the concept of fundamentalism is complex, a strong religious in-group identity was associated with increased hostility towards religious out-groups. Other races might be treated as hostile due to religion being largely practised within a race, thus promoting ethnocentrism. Various forms of extremism and religiously-motivated acts of violence (terrorism) have been done in the name of religion. 

The vast majority of wars waged have been in the pursuit of profit or power and unfortunately,  religion is often caught up in these pursuits. The witch hunts, the crusades, slavery, terrorist attacks and violent religious episodes that rocked the world were committed in the name of religion.

Religion has been implicated in all sorts of conflict even in diverse and tolerant communities. But I firmly believe that religiosity itself does not cause racism, it is in the service of the belligerent that religion is used as a force of great harm. In a rapidly globalising world, it is inevitable that state populations are now religiously and racially diverse. Differences in religious beliefs and doctrines lead to strife and hostility towards outgroups. For so many heinous crimes to be committed in the name of religion really speaks more about the human psyche than the intricate doctrines of religion. To completely misunderstand the very tenets of a religion, and perpetuate violence in the name of belief does not excuse the barbarity unleashed by extremists over the centuries. It was simply used as an excuse to further territorial ambitions or perverted to justify crimes. The misogyny, beheadings, terrorism, killings, beatings and cruelty were and are still real. Wars are waged, and it is a fact that the human propensity for conflict will continue regardless of religion, contrary to the altruistic and virtuous teachings. Millions suffered at the hands of Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot in brutal regimes. It is futile to blame religion stimulating racism for the wars waged. Instead, blame the human constant – the propensity for conflict. The intentions of religious doctrines were not to facilitate racist attitudes, but the violence and oppression along with the extensive history of atrocities committed were perpetrated in the name of religion. 

I hail from France – a country that has a staunch stance on secularism (separation of church & state). Liberté, égalité, fraternité. These three words embody the principles of the French Revolution, the national motto pushing for absolute equality amongst its racially diverse population.

Yet despite instituting legislation and measures taken to prevent racial discrimination, the concept of absolute equality has hindered racial equity – So much emphasis is placed upon secularism to the point that religious identity has been erased, deepening the divide between the various religions and races in France. The hostility towards religious/racial out-groups has increased in lieu of the rise of right-wing conservatives in France and put a strain on the delicate boundaries. The absolute stance of equality renders minority ethnic/religious groups invisible and impedes measures to support these groups. The Roma, Muslims and Jews are frequent targets of racial discrimination, slowly delving France into another obstacle – to try to reconcile secularism and the freedom of religion. Hate speech and racist discourse have been on the rise in France in recent decades, and what was once taboo is now commonplace. Failure to isolate religion from politics has led to a strong trend in party identification. Religiosity has now become a political dividing line, leaving party loyalties and religious beliefs interlocked. This has led to party strategies shifting to appeal to voters, shaping party beliefs and reinforcing institutional racism. Racism has already been embedded through systemic disadvantages, resulting in a society that facilitates racist habits. Culture shapes the human psyche and a call to end racism would be met with many hurdles – It is impossible to change both the institutions and culture that stimulate racism overnight.

Religion can be used to help the oppressed, but also oppress the helpless when misconstrued. Despite the fundamental tenets of religion itself proclaiming love and understanding, a brief look at history shows us the moments where it has provided a justification for atrocities committed in the name of religion. If one really wishes to understand the relation between religion and racism, they should focus on how people behave with these beliefs. While religion may stimulate racism, who are the ones who actually perpetuate it? On the surface, it may seem that religion stimulates racism. But dig a little deeper, and we uncover the harsh reality of racism. That the fundamental concepts of religion have been twisted to be used as a cover for those who perpetrate violence. Deep down, we know the truth. God was not the one who demanded you to be racist, you were a racist, to begin with.

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