IT is tempting to dismiss as unimportant anything not fully understood. But to ignore the growing politicization of religion on the world scene is a dangerous mistake, as Robin Wright's recent Monitor series, ``Politics in the name of God,'' suggests. From the key role played in Tibet by Buddhist monks in protests against China to that in Nicaragua by a Roman Catholic prelate, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, as intermediary in cease-fire talks coming up, the blend of politics and religion is becoming a potent third-world force; it deserves both respect and understanding.
The mix has its roots in economic injustice and political repression. Individuals are turning to religion to renew their sense of purpose and bolster their demands for secular reforms in the face of pressure to modernize which is too often defined in Western terms. They see the developed world's emphasis on material gain, its definition of success right down to a dress code, and its failure to solve basic inequities despite sophisticated technology as challenges to their own culture, traditions, and values. In turning to what the West often regards as primitive religion, third-world peoples are searching for their own sense of identity and progress. Nationalism remains strong. Kuwaiti Shiites may financially aid the Iranian revolution, but they have no desire to adopt a similar system; they want their own version.
Many Westerners may be troubled by what they see as the intrusion of religion into the secular world; yet the rising role of religion in politics should neither be feared nor automatically opposed. The West should remember that the mix has its roots in a deep sense of frustration; the aim is largely constructive. Islamic groups, for instance, have started thousands of schools and clinics to help meet society's needs. The Western tendency to treat Iran as an adversary and its brand of Islam as a threat bars capitalizing on that force to ward off Soviet expansion in the Gulf.
Revolutions of all kinds overdo at the start. In time, the politicization of religion will probably settle down. Meantime, distinctions should be made between activists demanding change and extremists relying on violence. The US State Department's new vow to denounce terrorist tactics rather than label groups per se as terrorist is encouraging in that regard. Stepped-up education and understanding on the part of the developed world can go a long way toward working out a more productive, peaceful coexistence.