Religion and Social Order

By Etzioni, Amitai | Policy Review, April-May 2008 | Go to article overview

Religion and Social Order


Etzioni, Amitai, Policy Review


WHAT DO RUSSIA, China, Afghanistan, and Iraq have in common? In nations where an authoritarian regime has collapsed, liberation is typically followed by explosive increases in anti-social behavior. This fact, which holds irrespective of whether the regime was militantly secular or theocratic; communist or Islamic, is rarely discussed in the Western media or during political give and take on "regime change" and related subjects. Some presume that these destructive behaviors will go away on their own, that the disturbed condition of society following liberation will correct itself. Others dismiss these pains of transformation as simply a price a society must pay for gaining liberty.

Explosive increases in anti-social behavior (details follow) do not naturally subside by themselves. Such behavior has been at a high level for years in many liberated and failing states (e.g., more than 15 years in Russia). After surveying some statistics and trends in several newly liberated societies, I confront the question of how such conduct can be curbed. Enhanced law enforcement may do so initially, but, in the longer run, a rather different kind of authority must become the major source of social order if it is to be considered legitimate, which, in turn, is essential for sustained stability. Religion (in its moderate, nonviolent expressions), I will show, is a major source of such authority. Several assumptions found in both political as well as popular discourse obstruct the recognition of this basic but crucial fact: the extensive focus on extremist expressions of religion; the tendency to view religions monolithically; and a tendency to treat the need to export the separation of state and religion as an equal priority with establishing peace and security. The recognition of religion's role as a major source for stability points the way towards a new approach to U.S. policy in newly liberated societies.

Newly liberated, newly anti-social

RUSSIA PROVIDES AN especially important and troubling example of the social consequences of liberation. In the period immediately following the fall of the communist regime (from 1989 to 1993), the murder rate rose by 116 percent and assaults rose by 81 percent. Especially indicative of the breakdown in the social fabric was that 63 percent of reported physical assaults were committed by a friend or relative of the victim. Twelve years later the situation showed no improvement; nearly 3.5 million crimes were registered in 2005, compared with 2.8 million in 1993. In 2005 Russia's prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, estimated that the true number of crimes committed was closer to 9 million. Russia is rife with organized crime and corruption has infiltrated business, municipal government, police forces, and the judiciary. Murders often remain unsolved because the police are bought off, and judges are intimidated into delivering the "correct" verdicts.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of drug addicts in Russia has skyrocketed. Between 1991 and 1995 their numbers doubled; over the next five years they quadrupled. By 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that there were between 1.5 and 4 million drug abusers in Russia. Dramatic increases have also been seen in rates of alcohol consumption and suicide, although these were already comparatively high in earlier periods. The WHO estimated that about 62,000 people died of alcohol poisoning in 2004 alone. In addition, the suicide rate increased from 26 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 40 per 100,000 people in 2000 (three times the world average), and has only just begun to decrease to 3 5 per 100,000 as of 2004.

It is true, the impact of such increases in anti-social behavior and criminality pales in comparison to the crimes systematically committed by the state during the communist era, when victims numbered in the many millions. Liberation has largely eliminated this form of crime. …

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