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Defining One's Own Destiny: Self-Determination, Religion and the 'Arab Spring'

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Self-determination can be described as the ability of individuals and groups to be able to enjoy the values of life, prosperity, freedom, and human dignity. Self-determination means to define one's own destiny; and is especially effective when involving the younger generation, the empowerment of women, and the economically disenfranchised.

Since the 19th century, the idea of self-determination has been applied to the building of nation states, and in the second half of the 20th century it has often been used in response to colonialization. However, a new definition of self-determination is evolving in the second decade of the 21st century inspired by current events in North Africa and the Middle East described as the 'Arab Spring.'

Struggles in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen can and should be considered expressions of this new form of self-determination -- not necessarily with its traditionally understood state-shattering character but with the objective to make the people's voices heard and renovate the nation within the existing boundaries.

Talk of the role of religion within these movements has largely been framed in negative terms. Yet religion has an important role to play in these self-determination movements and religious leaders and communities should be part of any international policy calculations towards the region.

Religion gets to the core of who people are and aspire to be. The term religion is a stand in for the striving of an ultimate realization, enlightenment, or union with the will of the Divine. It involves ideas, but also action. Religion is never abstract, it is always very specific and consists of a dynamic combination of moving parts, both seen and unseen, that animate individuals, communities and nations. For that reason religion becomes an even more powerful factor when discussing self determination.

Even the term 'self-determination' has to be modified as religious people may understand the movement of their life not as self-determined but rather as co-determined with God's will. Religious commitments recommend what is worth struggling for, sustain the endurance of a people in their efforts, provide a prolonged sense of eternal rather than temporal time, and form a cost/benefit analysis which includes an ultimate sacrifice as worthy of the ultimate reward.

When speaking of religion's influence on self-determination we can say that instead of religion being an opiate, it functions like an amphetamine.

Religion can be important within cultural or national identity as it involves a transcendent or ultimate value. Religious identity not only affirms a core connection with the tenets of the faith, but also a Divine sanction of that identity and all those that hold it. Religious identity can be a source of communal and national cohesion, but it can also trigger disconnect with people who do not share the same faith identity, and thereby the same connection with the Divine.

We should recognize that all countries have religious histories that are either implicitly or explicitly tied in with their current character. India, Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Iran, and most recently Sudan, are vivid examples. But the United States and the member states of the European Union also have their unique religious DNA that informs how they will manage questions of national allegiance, as well as the best ways to incorporate people of other faith commitments within their borders.

The role of religion complicates self-determination efforts as it both includes and excludes. International relations come into play as outside powers may feel compelled to become involved within the internal religious tensions of another state -- particularly when they share religious commitments and/or identity with what they perceive as a persecuted religious minority within a foreign sovereign territory.

In terms of the new form of self-determination in the Middle East, we have both positive and negative examples of the role religion can play. The case of Egypt demonstrates the tenuous possibility that the religious difference between Coptic Christians and Sunni Muslims need not shatter the state, but that both religious communities can be involved in one new national identity that includes their religious traditions. By contrast, Bahrain has seen a movement originally inspired by socio-economic and political concerns devolve into a conflict increasingly defined by religious difference and exacerbated by outside intervention.

It would be a grave mistake for those who seek to encourage peaceful change in the region to ignore the powerful role that religion can play -- both as a means of reconciliation or disintegration.

Prof. Wolfgang Danspeckgruber is the Founding Director of The Liechtenstein Institute On Self-Determination (LISD) at Princeton University; Paul Raushenbush is former Co-Director of the Program on Religion Diplomacy and International Relations at LISD.