The Religion-Politics Nexus
Professor Dr Ali Riaz
In an increasingly globalised and complex world, the mix of religion with politics has proven volatile for many nations.
Based on his forthcoming edited book Religion and Politics in South Asia, Dr Ali Riaz (AR), Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University, who was recently in Dhaka, spoke to The Star's (TS) Kajalie Shehreen Islam about the historical antecedents and contemporary complexities of the religion-politics nexus in the sub-continent.
TS: Religion in politics has become a burning issue worldwide since 9/11, but can the relation between the two not be traced back throughout history?
AR: Religion had played a key role in South Asian politics even before the recent resurgence; the partition of India in 1947 is a case in point. In fact, one can find many instances in the long history of South Asia even if they are not as dramatic and as cataclysmic as the partition. The dominant narratives of the anti-colonial movement in South Asia insist that it was a secular nationalist movement par excellence until a 'Muslim separatist' ideology emerged in the early 20th century. But, I would argue differently.
Take Gandhi, for example. Gandhi has repeatedly used Hindu religious idioms and symbols, such as ahisma, Swaraj and Rama Rajya. According to Gandhian philosophy, religion is not alien to the individual existence or the existence of the nation. Similarly, to date, among the Muslim population in Bengal, Titu Mir is a folk hero who died for the cause of religion and independence, in that order.
These instances show that religion has served the purpose of ideology in political activism at different times and at different places throughout colonial South Asia. But the presence of religious icons in these movements, use of religious idioms in political discourses, and evocation of religious texts in fashioning the messages do not make all of them the same. A distinction may be made here between two modes of the use of religion -- religion-as-aim and religion-as-reason.
The first category of movements involves citizens in a holy war (jihad or crusade) against the “enemy of the faith.” The “enemy of citizens” is easily converted into the “enemy of the faithful” when the citizens concerned suffered religious persecution in the hands of the same exploiting class(es)' as occurred in the case of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. In the second instance, religion is utilised as a mobilisational ideology to establish justice sanctioned by the religion. The long and tumultuous history of South Asia reveals that religion has played both roles in the past.
TS: What role does religion play in politics today?
AR: The growing importance of religion as a marker of identity and a tool of political mobilisation is reshaping the political landscape in an unprecedented manner. Nowhere is this more evident than in South Asia, inhabited by the world's largest populations of Muslims and Hindus, with significant number of Buddhists.
The accession of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India to power in the 1990s, the increasing importance of the Muttaheda Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) since 2001 in Pakistan, and that of Islamists as kingmakers between 1991 and 2001 and subsequently the Jamaat-i-Islami's rise to power as a coalition partner in Bangladesh in 2001, not to mention the evocation of religious rhetoric by a wide range of political parties, all serve to demonstrate that the role of religion in politics can no longer be treated as a marginal issue. In Sri Lanka, since 1960s two major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have adopted Buddhism as the essential plank of the party platforms. Additionally, in the early 2000s the Buddhist monks launched their own political platform - the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Nepal was a Hindu state between 1959 and 2006. Avowedly religio-political parties known as Pashupati Sena, Shiv Sena Nepal, and Nepal Shivsena have emerged in the late 1990s. Lest we forget, the Sikh separatist movement in India in the 1980s, a religion-inspired nationalist movement, challenged the multi-ethnic, multi-religious foundation of the Indian state. In the case of Afghanistan, the ideological basis of the anti-Soviet resistance movement (1979-1989) and the emergence of the Taliban as a movement and ruling power (1994-2001), was clearly religious. Additionally, the region has witnessed a significant increase in religious-inspired violence, sectarianism, and militancy. In recent years, religious minorities have faced a pogrom in more than one country.
TS: How have religion and politics come to be intertwined in our recent history?
AR: In recent decades, religion, religio-political parties, and religious rhetoric have become dominant features of the political scenes of all of these countries.
The presence and influence of the religio-political parties are the most obvious indicators of the use of religion as a political ideology, but should not be the only indices in measuring the scope and depth of religion's role in society and politics. Understanding the interplay of religion and politics warrants further exploration, particularly the role of the state and the society. The adoption of a state religion, as in the case of Nepal in 1959, Pakistan in 1972, Bangladesh in 1977 and/or granting a special significance to one religion, as in the constitution in Sri Lanka in 1972, are testimony to religion's political role. In Afghanistan, the constitution and the Political Parties Law ban parties that 'pursue objectives that are opposed to the principles of the holy religion, Islam', and thereby shrink the political space for those who may oppose religion's public role. These measures bring religion to the fore, to begin with and then privilege one religion over another.
Equally important is the public discourse which accepts religion's role within daily lives and naturalises the role through various social practices and institutions. This is reflected in popular culture. The public discourses are then adopted by political parties of various creeds, whether or not these parties subscribe to religion as a political ideology. It is not too difficult to understand this if you look closely to the rhetoric of the major political parties in Bangladesh and India.
TS: Why and how has religion become a potent political ideology in these countries?
AR: There are many factors, both domestic and international. However, I would like to highlight three important factors. Firstly, historical antecedents; as I said earlier, although the interplay of religion and politics in South Asia has received heightened attention in academic circles and the media in recent years, it is not an aberration.
Secondly, the abject failure of secular liberal states in South Asia. As in many other parts of the world, most of the South Asian states have terrible track records in terms of delivering developmental goods and services. These failures have delegitimised the states and the ruling blocs. This engendered an environment within which religion has appeared as both an ideology of the ruling class and as a counter-hegemonic project. On the one hand, the ruling elites have used various means to continue their hold over power including use of religion (General Ershad's decision to declare Islam the state religion is an example), while on the other hand religio-political forces attempt to demonstrate that failure is inherently connected to the secularist liberal ideology. One good example is Pakistan. In Pakistan it was the wavering between socialist rhetoric and Islamic symbolism of the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (19721977) that created opportunities for the Islamists to colonise the political arena. In India, the Congress lost its appeal to the masses as the Indira Gandhi regime (1971-1977) turned more authoritarian and used religion for short-term gains.
Thirdly, it has to do with globalisation, particularly the pace of globalisation. The appeal of religious identity is a result of ontological insecurity and existential uncertainty faced by individuals as a result of the pace and nature of globalisation in recent decades. The unsettling effects of globalisation are true for individuals and nation-states alike. The pace and speed of globalisation has destabilised the sense of certainty and security that individuals enjoyed for decades. With the compression of time and space, individuals now face a new world where boundaries have disappeared and their identities are in flux.
In the context of South Asia ontological insecurity has become an issue of great importance, because of the mode of its interactions with the global economy. Countries, and by extension their citizens, have remained perpetually at the receiving end of the global economy. The neo-liberal economic agenda and political and economic cosmopolitanism have furthered their marginalisation. Thus a resistance to this process was called for. In the absence of a viable leftist critique of globalisation and political forces to mount resistance to this process, increasingly religion became the only mode of resistance. It is not surprising that the religio-political forces in South Asia have gained further ground after these countries adopted a neo-liberal economic agenda.
TS: Is the re-emergence of religion necessarily a step back?
AR: The religion-politics nexus is not an anti-modernist phenomenon. The rise of religio-political forces in South Asia, as elsewhere, must be distinguished from religious revivalist movements. Take for example, the countries with Muslim majority populations where we have witnessed the growing strength of Islam as a political ideology and Islamists as formidable political forces within domestic political arenas. These societies had experienced occasional Islamic revivalist movements, some of which can be appropriately termed as 'fundamentalist.' Those movements emphasised the need for the spiritual purification of the adherents. Fundamentalists, as individuals and as a group, are concerned first with the erosion of religion and its proper role in society. On the contrary, Islamism pursues political objectives. Let us be very clear, the advocate of Islamism provides a political response to today's societal challenges. Indeed their imagination of a future rests on reappropriated, reinvented concepts borrowed from the Islamic tradition. Islamists emphasise specific courses of action to improve their political power, and adopt various strategies to assert themselves on the social and political plane. These features are not unique to the Islamists. They are like any and all other religio-political forces.
Be it an Islamist or a Hindutva ideologue, or a political Bhikkhu they draw on religious referents -- terms, symbols, and events taken from the respective religious traditions -- in order to articulate a distinct political agenda. But these signs and symbols are reconstituted, traditions are reworked, and norms are redefined. The use of history and traditions occasionally led analysts to believe that these movements advocate a retreat to a “glorious past” -- an antimodern phenomenon and an antimodernist movement. There is very little to support the claim that these forces try to 'de-modernise.' Instead, these responses are anchored in a modernist paradigm. Religion, as it is understood today with all the trappings of institutions, is a result of western modernity.
TS: What role do the media play in the religion-politics nexus?
AR: Since September 11, 2001 interest in the interactions between religion and politics has grown. There has been a phenomenal increase in popular and academic discourse on this topic. However, the media coverage is fraught with shortcomings. The coverage lacks, among other things, a probing analysis of this growing phenomenon and discussions on the socio-political contexts of this new trend. The media have often presented a lopsided picture, adding to existing misconceptions about many religions. One of the key weaknesses of the media coverage, as well as the academic discussions that preceded and succeeded the events of 9/11, is an essentialist view of religion; that is, portrayal of religion is a monolithic category. When we speak of any religion, we tend to ignore the simple fact that no religion, be it Christianity or Islam or Hinduism, can be monolithic. To view a religion as monolithic, unchanging and immutable is simply flawed. The adherence to some basic tenets by followers of a religion does not necessarily mean that there is no variation within the religion itself; instead every religion is multi-vocal; denominational difference is the most obvious indication of the presence of different worldviews but there are more than denominational differences. Social differentiation provides different interpretations of the religion and consequently shapes the role of religion in personal and social lives. Religion should not be the markers of our identity and it should not be the criterion based on which we vote.
TS: How can the misconceptions regarding religion, especially in a political context, be countered?
AR: It depends on the social context. But, I think knowledge is the key. Seeking knowledge, interpreting without decontextualising, and engaging in debate are essential to counter misconception, misrepresentation and misappropriation of religion. Religious texts have underscored this as well. For example, after the words 'Allah' and 'Raab', the third most referred to concept in the Quran is 'ilm' -- knowledge.
Ali Riaz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA. He has previously taught at universities in South Carolina, England, and Bangladesh. He also worked as Broadcast Journalist in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service in London. His recent publications include Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web (Routledge, 2008) and Faithful Education: Madrassahs in South Asia (Rutgers University Press, 2008). His forthcoming edited volumes are Religion and Politics in South Asia (2010) and Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh (with Christine Fair, 2010).
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