By Ram Puniyani
16 March, 2015
What has religion to do with politics? What has violence to do with religion? And how does the expression of major political agenda shape itself in contemporary times? Roughly speaking it seems that the religion is being used as a cover for many a political phenomenon. This seems to be the observation more so from South Asian-West Asian perspective.
To talk of last few decades, the first major presence of religion in politics began with the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. This was the political aftermath of the overthrow of Mossadeq, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953. Mossadeq had nationalized the oil wealth and this move hurt the interests of the Western oil (mainly US) companies. After the overthrow of this Government, Raza Shah Pahlavi, a US stooge, was installed into the seat of power. He was overthrown in a revolution which was so manipulated that Ayatollah Khomeini came to capture power. Khomeini and Company’s politics was that of Islamic Fundamentalism. With this, there were rumblings in the media, and phrase ‘Islam: the new threat’ came to be coined. In South Asia during these decades in India we see the rise of politics of identity constructed around Hindu religion, in Pakistan Zia ul Haq Islamized the politics and Maulana Maududi’s interpretation of Islam came in handy for Zia to consolidate his power. A bit later in Myanmar in due course we saw the rise of likes of Ashin Wirathu, also called as Burma’s Bin Laden, Sri Lanka also saw the emergence of Buddhist clergy which ran along to supplement the politics in name of Buddhism. On a different note one also recalls the presence of Christian Fundamentalism in US.
With the Twin Tower, 9/11, attack, the US media coined the word “Islamic terrorism’, dragging Islam into the murky world of terrorist violence. Here after ‘Islam, Muslims are the cause of terrorist violence’ has been a part of social understating all over. The deviant tendencies with Islam, Political Islam have done enough to deepen this understanding to the detriment of Muslims all over.
The morality aspects of most religions’ talked of Humanism in the contexts in which they emerged. Somehow, the identity aspects of religion, the rituals; communitarian functions, clergy etc. became the dominant one’s and have been perceived as major parts of religion today.
In feudal society, pre-industrial society, we see a big alliance of clergy of religions with the powers that be. Clergy did evolve the concepts for people’s subservience to the power of the rulers. King-Pope in Europe, Nawab-Shahi Imam in large parts of Islamic world and Raja-Rajguru, where Hinduism was prevalent; formed the nexus of this alliance where the rulers took the cover of religion to carry on with their goals of power. During this era again we see that Kings' expansionism also expressed through the language of religion, the quest of Christian kings for expansion was called Crusade, Muslim kings had Jihad as a cover and not to be left behind Hindu kings expanded their kingdoms under the guise of Dharmayuddh.
The countries where the process of secularization, removal of the hold of feudal-clerical elements from social affairs was substantial, the religion was kept in the by lanes of society. Religion became related more to matters personal. State came to treat all its citizens on par, irrespective of their personal beliefs. In contrast; in South Asia in particular; the process of secularization remained incomplete and the declining sections of landlords and Clergy hit back with the politics in the garb of religion. In India we saw the emergence of Hindu and Muslim communal streams from the section of Kings and landlords, later to be joined in by the section of educated middle classes. They were exclusive, Hindu or Muslim Nationalists, and were led by small section the educated elite, likes of Jinnah or Savarkar or Golwalkar. This had its own trajectory, assisting the colonial project of ‘divide and rule’ and to maintain the economic dominance of colonial now imperialist powers. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stood tall religious person advocating the secular state. The communal streams, spread hatred against the other communities.
The communal violence in South Asia is now a frighteningly disturbing phenomenon. It is taking the cover of Hinduism in India, of Islam in Bangladesh and Pakistan, of Buddhism in Myanmar and Srilanka for example. This violence has a political motto, the agenda; the values of the pre Modern feudal classes in a modern context. The attempt to reinforce the feudal values of caste and gender hierarchy is made in a language which sounds modern and is modified for the contemporary context.
To add salt to the injury of violence in the name of religion, the post Khomeini, labeling of “Islam as the new threat’ was boosted by the phrase “Islamic terrorism’ in the wake of 9/11 attack on twin towers. The Al Qaeda came to the forefront. This organization is the root of most the terrorist violence in the central-west Asia. The Boko Haram, ISIS and AL Qaeda form the triad where Islamic identifies is kept at the core. The process started with joining the anti Soviet forces in Afghanistan, calling the communists as infidels and so the violence. Now other’ sects of Muslims are called as infidels and done to death in the scary manner. Surely, more Muslims have died due to this violence than any other community.
Al Qaeda was a product of three major foundations. On one hand was Islamism of Zia ul Haq, who set up Madrasas in Pakistan for indoctrinating the youth. The ideology used here was from Saudi Arabia, Wahabism, which centres on the ‘king-ruler as the representative of God. Here one who disagrees with this version is the Kafir (Infidel), and killing the Kafir is projected as the noble act Jihad, with reward of Janna waiting for those doing this inane violence. The major support for this endeavour came from US, which poured in 8000 million dollars and 7000 tons of armaments to build this root of the cancerous Al Qaeda and terrorist violence in the name of Islam.
So where do we go from here. The roles of religion have been changing over periods of time. We need to pick up the threads from the saint tradition of religions and face the present challenge to human society. Religion as a moral force needs to be projected; and morality of religions needs to be projected and the violence in the name of religion needs of is deconstructed to see the real intent of the violence, which is aimed at the preservation of pre modern values or which is an offshoot of the politics of oil. The activists and scholars of religion need to harp on the morality aspect of religion and debunk the religion as identity part.
Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. He is involved with human rights activities from last two decades.He is associated with various secular and democratic initiatives like All India Secular Forum, Center for Study of Society and Secularism and ANHAD.