The Impossibility of Governments Alone Institutionalizing Religious Harmony in Society

In the past few weeks, Cornerstone contributors have assessed the state of religious freedom in various parts of the world, including China, Israel-Palestine, and India. This week on Cornerstone, research assistants at the Religious Freedom Project share their experience during their time abroad and offer distinct perspectives that highlight issues concerning religious freedom in various regions of the world. 

By: Kelly Thomas

May of 2013 marked both the end of my sophomore year and the first time I ventured on my own out of the United States. Armed with a suitcase, a scrap of paper with a few phone numbers scribbled on it, and a sizable dose of naiveté, I boarded my flight headed to Amman, Jordan to begin my internship with the Jesuit Refugee Services. During my stay, I taught English while living in a hostel in a conservative Muslim neighborhood in downtown Amman. 

Being an Irish girl from New England, I was fully expecting to not quite blend in with the Jordanian population around me. However, what I had not anticipated was the response of the locals to the cross I wore around my neck. Reactions varied from politely curious to disdainful. My students, the majority of whom were Muslim refugees from Iraq and Syria, explained to me that the men and women I passed as I walked around the city weren’t necessarily hostile, but that it was a fairly shocking phenomenon to see someone of a completely different faith background in their midst.

Although I grew up in Maine, which is far from diverse, my entire childhood and education had prepared me for the numerous faith traditions I would encounter when I moved beyond my small Catholic high school and into college. Despite being thrust from a small town into the national capital, I was hardly shocked by the proliferation of religious variations I was now exposed to. As I examined the difference between that experience and the reality I was faced with in Jordan, I paused to reflect on where the difference lay.

The differences in the culture of the United States and Jordan regarding religion are multilayered, but I see them stemming from a common source. When the Founding Fathers were first guiding the fledgling Republic, they not only recognized the presence of religious factions among the populace, but they welcomed these lively, and even raucous, debates. James Madison himself wrote in Federalist 10: “There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” In so cultivating a social acceptance of different opinions and belief systems, the Founders helped ensure that religious pluralism would come to be viewed as the norm, rather than the exception.

In Jordan, the situation is quite different. Religious freedom is protected by the constitution, but the established religion of the state is Islam. Other religions and religious institutions can exist legally and peacefully, as I did by living and working with the Jesuit Refugee Services. However, rather than doing away with the standard of uniformity as was done in the US, the Jordanian government has established a cultural norm: Islam.

It is worth noting, of course, that the Jordanian Constitution has been ratified numerous times by Jordan’s representative parliamentary body, and, as the population of Jordan is over 90 percent Muslim, it is certainly not surprising that Islam is continuously maintained as the state religion. Indeed, I would argue that attempting to disestablish Islam as the state religion would be a massive affront both to religion and to the democratic process. However, when I think back on my time in Jordan, which was admittedly too short to fully delve into the culture around me, I can’t help but wonder if there is another way to maintain an established religion while not creating the kind of cultural dissonance between religious faiths that I witnessed while I lived in Amman.

I believe the solution, or at least an intimation of the solution, can be found in the language employed by civil society leaders regarding religion. The government has said its bit: Islam is the state religion but all religions enjoy equal freedoms under the law. What comes next is cultivating a social mindset that does not view the minority religious traditions as being deviants from the norm, or outsiders to the national culture.

Accomplishing this requires schools, academics, celebrity figures, and religious leaders to begin shifting their language regarding other religions. Jordan is far from a religiously intolerant country; the majority of Jordanians with whom I interacted were more bemused by my Christianity than outright hostile. But even in such a relatively hospitable nation, native Jordanians of a different faith than Islam are faced with various levels of social tension. By encouraging leaders of civil society—including religious ones—to help educate the populace on other faiths and by working to dispel the various myths that frequently abound surrounding other religious traditions, Jordan as a whole could move that much closer to being a nation where religious freedom is not only protected by law, but guaranteed by society.

Kelly Thomas is an undergraduate student studying International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies at Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service, class of 2015. 

To read more about Georgetown students' encounters with various religions and cultures while abroad, visit the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) blogs

This piece was originally authored on October 27, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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