The principality of Liechtenstein, with its small population (35,000) and its gift of great wealth, is an exemplar and a supporter of the idea of self determination.

So its ruler, Prince Hans-Adam II, supports many causes, among them the Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination at Princeton University. An indomitable and visionary scholar/activist, Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, leads the Institute, and each June, he gathers a group of academics, practitioners, and students in Vienna, Austria to grapple with a global problem. This year, with the challenges of North Africa and the Middle East very much in mind, the theme was religion and what it means for self determination today.

In some respects, Liechtenstein exemplifies the traditional notion of self determination, essentially the right of a people to determine their destiny and to govern their own affairs. Pride in its beautiful location and its history leaps off the tourist website: “Liechtenstein, the jewel at the pulse of Europe, is like a book. Once you’ve started reading, you can’t put it down. Liechtenstein is traditional and modern, just the right size and open to the world, athletic and sensual.” Traditional self determination meant that a grouping of people who saw themselves as distinctive could determine their political status and thus pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. Getting there might mean wars or negotiations but the end result was a nation state with borders, a flag, an independence day, and a national identity.

But the concept of self determination in the 21st century calls for a revamping of the traditions that have driven diplomatic history in the past, where the focus was on the nation state. Today self determination is more and more linked to the idea of empowerment, of women, youth, and the economically downtrodden. That notion takes us well beyond the questions of borders and national identity.

And religion is an integral if complicated part of the changing ideas. Professor Danspeckgruber’s invitation to Vienna read, “The push to ‘determine one’s destiny’ and the rising emphasis on faith are inextricably linked”. The “Arab spring” and summer are less about “state-shattering” notions of self determination than about “the objective to make the people’s voices heard and renovate the nation within the existing boundaries.”

Much commentary about religion’s role in events sweeping the Middle East has had a fearful tone. There are plenty of reasons to view religion with caution. Extremism and violence justified in the name of religion are major forces that shape a good part of contemporary international relations. But there is a positive, hopeful aspect that we need to focus on far more deliberately. Religion, argue Danspeckgruber and Paul Raushenbush (senior religion editor of the Huffington Post) “gets to the core of what people are and aspire to be... 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.” Religion should be seen not as the opiate (the notion that Engels immortalized in condemning religion) that dims consciousness but as an amphetamine that can perhaps awaken souls and, hopefully, minds.

Sitting in Vienna, we discussed turbulent, unfolding events in so many countries: Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Iraq,Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Afghanistan, and Egypt. The historic struggles to form and develop nations in the past two centuries and the contemporary visions of empowered citizens seemed worlds apart. And the role that religion plays today is part of the contrast.

Religion was a major force that shaped the changing map of Europe, but it was an organized, tangible religion, with a definable hierarchy, and even at times armies and autocrats. Today’s struggles also focus identity and peoples’ rights as human beings and as citizens. In the mix of this modern search for self determination, politics and power, as always, are part of the equation. Yet there are important differences and religion’s roles, especially, need to be seen in a new light. Religious affiliations today are less about belonging to a specific entity, following a particular line than they used to be. Leaders and ideas are dynamic and shifting. There are dangers, real dangers, in religion’s power to amplify grievances and to magnify differences. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore the positive inspiration that religion can give to people. It is also an error to look primarily to historic models of religious institutions and entities as shapers of political events. Today’s religious forces are different. They are often more a matter of personal motivation than of toeing a line, following a scripture, or obeying a leader. Modern religion, in the Middle East as in so many places, plays a complicated part in defining aspirations and shaping ideals. The events sweeping the Middle East today have, as part of their DNA, a spiritual gene. If there’s one lesson I took from the Vienna discussions it is that we need to work harder to identify and understand it.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.