To some people, having a religion is about having a deeply personal relationship with their God.
It is an intrinsically private set of experiences that provides strength, purpose and comfort. As such, it remains a uniquely personal feature of their inner world. It helps define their sense of identity.
To others it is better described as having a firm commitment to a particular way of living. It is about being immersed in a set of sociocultural practices, participating in fixed routines and engaging in rituals that have a distinctly public, yet intensely spiritual feel to them.
Some find themselves shifting around somewhere in the middle; whilst others hold no such beliefs at all. To me, it shouldn’t really matter how religious beliefs are understood; nor should it matter which particular religious beliefs people live by, if any at all.
What does matter is that religious beliefs are authentically and honestly preserved by those who hold them, and not mocked, disrespected or vilified by those who do not. But achieving that is always problematic.
The honest preservation of religious beliefs is often left to interpretation, and influenced by other competing factors, occasionally leading to corrupted versions of how they were intended to shape values and guide behaviours. And likewise, the obligation not to be disrespectful towards other religious beliefs is not universally felt today, sometimes as a direct consequence, and other times without any sound reason at all.
But this is precisely the point at which sectarian conflicts begin to emerge, not just in this country, but in any country in which there are very complex historical relationships between religion, ethnicity and politics. Sectarianism is rarely a stand-alone problem.
Various histories of military invasion, occupation and aggressive intervention, typically with the primary purpose of economic control and exploitation, have created the right mix of ingredients for the emergence of violent conflicts, local skirmishes and global wars among religious fundamentalists, extremists and other terrorist groups at different times.
Encouraging the growth of certain forms of sectarianism – by means of discriminatory Government policies, blatant or otherwise, pushed through media propaganda and establishment institutions – can be a very effective means of ethnic management and political control in some countries.
In this sense, sectarianism is a political tool through which ethnic groups can be managed, manipulated for electoral support, and territorially adjusted when it suits for economic purpose. But this takes us a very long way from the original starting point of religion as a bundle of fortifying personal experiences or as a guide to a peaceful way of life.
Sectarianism used as a political tool is a deliberate attempt to create a dangerous climate of suspicion, distrust and hatred. In extreme cases it leads to appalling violence and shocking acts of terrorism; quite often because it is used within a context of greed, exploitation and corruption, but usually always because it has been intertwined with an array of ethnic management measures that run deep into the fabric of our global society.