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Islam and Sectarianism ( 9 Aug 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Critiquing Communalism: Re-Thinking Religion

By Yoginder Sikand,

That there is no single universally-approved definition of 'communalism', the term having been defined in many diverse, indeed often contradictory, ways.  But, as a working definition, one could define it as an ideology and politics that are based on the wholly untenable notion that human communities are defined on the basis of an extremely reified notion of religion, and that the interests of each community so defined are wholly or to a large extent opposed to those of other communities defined in the same way. Inevitably, therefore, communities defined in this way are seen as antagonistic to each other, and it is believed that they can never harmoniously and peacefully co-exist. If they at all do live in peace with each other, the assumption is that this peace is only temporary, that it is out of compulsion of circumstance or due to the fear of the law or the wrath of the state, and that, in the absence of these compelling circumstances, the different communities would otherwise have been engaged in never-ceasing conflict, whether symbolic or physical.

It is crucial, however, that such fairly dominant understandings of community and religion be forcefully challenged, not only because of the very real potential for violence that they contain, but also because more often than not such definitions of community and religion do not at all correspond to empirical reality. Textbook definitions of each religion that such notions of community are predicated on assume that each religion is a homogenous, well-defined entity, which is completely separate from and has no overlaps with other religions, defined in this reified way. This assumption is wholly erroneous. It overlooks the fact that every religion is diversely understood, often in very contradictory ways, by those who claim to be its adherents.  Often, intra-religious sectarian rivalry is much more acute than inter-religious rivalry, a fact that is cleverly concealed when we talk of each religion as a monolithic entity and of each community constructed on the basis of this notion of religion as a single whole containing no internal divisions. This fact very clearly challenges the monolithic notion of religion that forms the basis of the ideology of religious communalism. Furthermore, at the empirical level, communities and people who might claim to follow a certain religion might well share practices, beliefs and even what they regard as sacred spaces with what are regarded as followers of other religions. This is what is sometimes mistakenly called “religious syncretism”, where borders between what are thought of as distinct religious communities are blurred and somewhat unambiguous. The notion of communalism based on religion, which is routinely exploited by those who claim to represent such communities and religions, also conceals other internal divisions and contradictions, such as of caste and class, within each of these communities. This, of course, is often deliberate, a tactic deployed by self-styled leaders to clamp down on internal dissent that might challenge them by diverting this dissent onto what is projected as the menacing religious ‘other’. The self-appointed representatives of this religious ‘other’, too, act likewise. Thus, while various forms of communalism might appear to be viscerally opposed to each other, in fact they need each other to define and justify themselves, to shore up their self-appointed spokesmen’s claims to leadership and the various interests linked to such claims. In other words, while appearing to be furiously battling each other, they desperately need each other simply in order to survive.

I do not wish to elaborate all these points further, as these would all be familiar to most readers.  But what I would rather focus on is some practical suggestions as to what we could do to tackle the menace of communalism, that has now assumed terribly violent and extremist forms across the world, including in India as well. There are different things what the state can do, or what civil society actors can do. There is the law-and-order approach, the carrot-and-stick approach, the economic development and equity approach. All these and more are all very necessary. But one approach that has been woefully neglected is what I would like to turn to, which is the religious, or, to be more precise, the spiritual, approach. But before I go on to discuss this let me clarify that I am not a religious person at all. I don’t even think I am very spiritual, either.

It is fashionable to say that religion has nothing to do with communalism, and that communalism is just politics being played in the name of religion. In this way, the blame for communalism is put entirely on politics and religion is said to be innocent of all the hatred that is being spread in its name. I think this approach is entirely naïve and, moreover, represents a quite untenable apologetic approach to religion, reflecting a refusal (for various reasons that I won’t go into here) to accept the harsh reality that religion, as conventionally understood, has much to answer for  its direct and central role in communalism. Religion, I believe, should not be regarded as a holy cow that is completely above criticism.

Without discounting the many people who might be religious (in the conventional sense of the term), without being communal (as we understand it), I think we need to recognize that the manner in which many more people understand the religions they claim to adhere to is such as to promote a distinctly communalist way of thinking. Certain beliefs, personages, rituals and what are regarded as sacred spaces associated with a particular religious tradition come to be seen as the defining bases of a particular religion, and the assumption is that these alone represent the divine will or the way to approach the divine or whatever. The corollary, therefore, is that other ways to understand and approach the divine are inferior or even, in some cases, completely satanic and sure paths to hell. These beliefs, personages, practices and spaces thus come to serve as boundary markers, setting apart a group that claims, on the basis of these attributes, to be superior to others who do not share these attributes. The latter are regarded as polluted or as infidels, who are to be grudgingly tolerated, at best. Distressingly, even if all these mutually opposed religions, as they are conventionally understood, acknowledge the One Ultimate force that pervades the universe, called God or by other names, the force is conveniently forgotten as communities perpetually squabble over whose prophet or founding hero is superior, and over their different ways of worship and performing rituals, each claiming theirs to be the sole ‘correct’ one that leads to heaven. This problem of understandings of religion being indelibly shaped by communalism takes different forms in different religious traditions as conventionally understood, but it is a fairly extensive and deep-rooted problem, and reflects, one can confidently state, a very dominant understanding of what religion is all about that transcends community divisions. In this regard, the typically Indian definition of secularism as ‘equal respect for all religions’ is deeply problematic, for it does not encourage critical examination of the claims of various religions from both a rational as well as humanist point of view. Nor does it in any way sanction the muc-necessary critique of communal supremacism that religious, as commonly interpreted, are a thinly-veiled guise for. Often, it turns out to be used as an argument for equal respect for competing, equally obscurantist and communal supremacist understandings of religion, and so does precious little to critique such understandings. Indeed, any such rational or humanist critiques can easily be branded as a violation of the ‘sacred’ principle of ‘equal respect for all religions.’

As I have just mentioned, dominant understandings of religion are often another name for communalism and are deeply shaped by feelings of communal superiority over other communities. Naturally, then, given this, it is untenable to argue, as many defenders of dominant understandings of religion often do, that religion is not problematic at all and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with communalism, and that the cause of communalism is politics pure and simple, and that religion is perfectly innocent of the crimes that communalists play in its name. The fact of the matter is that religion, as it is often defined and understood by large numbers of those who claim to be religious, is simply another name for communalism and a guise for claiming communal supremacy in the name of being the sole or the best way to approach or worship what is regarded as the divine.

This being the case, the ideology and politics of communalism cannot be critiqued and countered effectively without a critique of religion as it is conventionally understood in a markedly communal supremacist way by vast numbers of people. Simply raising slogans of ‘Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai’ and so on, or invoking the compassion and love that some Sufi and Bhakti saints preached that transcended communal boundaries, can serve no purpose at all without critiquing and challenging supremacist notions of Islam, Hinduism and other religions that many of those who claim to follow these religions deeply cling to. In other words, dominant exclusivist and supremacist understandings and interpretations of religion need to be liberated from the narrow communalism that underpins them.

In order to be justified, religion or a secular substitute for it, ought to serve human beings (irrespective of ascriptive labels such as community, caste and so on) rather than the other way round. Unfortunately, however, that is precisely the opposite of how many people who claim to follow religion understand it. And, as far as I am concerned, religion is true only insofar as it enables those who claim to follow it to become better human beings, rather than better ‘believers’, as that term is understood in an extremely irritatingly ritualistic, narrow and communal supremacist way. It must inspire them to be more compassionate and loving to all human beings, irrespective of religion and community, and even to all living and inanimate beings. It must lead them to understand that association with certain key figures, called prophets or avatars or whatever, as well as distinct rituals and beliefs (all of which set communities apart from each other) should enable them to be better, more kind and compassionate and socially-engaged human beings, and if these do not, then such rituals and beliefs and claims of association with religious personages are completely useless. Unfortunately, however, that is not how religion is often understood by those who claim to be religious. Indeed, people who do not regard themselves as religious are often much better human beings, and, therefore, closer to the One, whom they may not confess faith in, than religious folk who understand religion in a ritualistic and communal fashion and who see themselves as God’s chosen people, believing that others who worship in a different fashion or claim to follow a different prophet or religious hero from theirs are doomed to perdition forever in hell—in jahanam or narak or call it what you will.

From what I have said so far, the urgency of developing new understandings of what religion is, or, rather should be, and, in particular, developing inclusive understandings of the religious ‘other’ in each religious tradition should be readily apparent. Without such reformulation, the communal supremacist interpretations of religion and of the status of the religious ‘other’, which underpin the ideology and politics of communalism, cannot be challenged.

Who should take on this task? Obviously, it would be naïve to expect the so-called and self-styled religious ‘leaders’ in each community to do this. Of course, there may be some notable exceptions. This is because it goes quite against how they understand their own religions, as well as because it directly challenges their own interests. Their authority as self-appointed interpreters of their religions rests on their ability to maintain and continuously reinforce and promote communal supremacist understandings of their own religion.

This task, therefore, falls among others, on the shoulders of secular intellectuals and groups in India who have played a central role in the struggle against communalism. At present, however, few of them are well-equipped for this task. This is because they have, by and large, shunned the realm of religious discourse, seeing it as simply too sensitive to handle or else regarding religion as false consciousness, a primitive vestige that is best left to wither away on its own. This stance has had the lamentable result of leaving the realm of religious discourse to be virtually monopolized by obscurantist forces that thrive on propagating and reinforcing communal supremacist understandings of religion. Therefore, I think it is imperative for secular intellectuals and activists (who may or not be religious personally) to engage creatively with religion and to think of means in which new, inclusive and positive attitudes to the religious ‘other’ in each religion can be promoted and exclusivist, communal supremacist understandings of each religion countered. This would require far greater engagement with the realm of religious discourse than the standard ‘Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai’ sloganeering approach, which is, as I have indicated, totally inadequate. For this purpose, secular forces also need to identify and work closely with progressive-minded religious people,  including what I suspect are the not small number of religious ‘specialists’—priests, mullahs and so on, who may be committed to genuine inter-community solidarity and harmony, and who forcefully challenge the right of communal chauvinists to speak in the name of their religion.