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Drawing a Bead on ‘Politics of Religion’

By Farooq Sulehria

The situation took a surrealist turn, after the end of the Cold War when “even the Communist party of Bangladesh adopted ‘Socialism with Religion’ as its new slogan”

Politicisation of religion is not merely restricted to Muslims in South and Southeast Asia. Revivalist Hindu and Buddhist political projects have equally exploited the faith. The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia edited by Ishtiaq Ahmed, not merely documents and historicises the “politics of religion” in South and Southeast Asia but also helps deconstruct its subversive ramifications for the nation-state. The book does not argue that”religion in politics is Ipso facto dysfunctional with regard to peace and stability.” It instead asserts, “Democratic states must provide full freedom for such religious activism” that challenges totalitarianism regimes, inspires philanthropy and provides cultural codes that emphasise unity of humankind. It, however, calls into question the “intrinsic arbitrariness and exclusionary thrust’ of politics of religion” which ultimately leads to discrimination. Discrimination and democracy are incompatible.

While Ishtiaq Ahmed in his detailed introductory note defines fundamentalism as ‘generic term for politicised religious movements the world over that shared the same fear of modernity, especially the intellectual movement of liberal and free thought, Ali Riaz in his circumscribed but explanatory essay titled, “Religion as a political ideology in South Asia,” highlights the ‘emulative linkages’ between religious groups. Like, for instance, Sri Lanka’s National Heritage Party (JHU) has benefited by observing closely India’s Hindutva forces.

There are interesting case studies of puritanical political projects in Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, however, the most exciting essay for Pakistani audience would arguably is the case study of Bangladesh by Taj Hashmi. The analogy with Pakistan is most striking here. “Faltering and failing governance since its emergence and government manipulation of Islam for the sake of legitimacy since 1975 have reinforced political Islam in the country,” says Hashmi. Bangladesh was founded on four cardinal principles of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism. By 1976 “Absolute faith in God” had replaced secularism since the first military dictator, General Zia, needed religious cloak to legitimise his rule. His successor General Ershad, in 1988, declared Islam as the state religion. Like Pakistan, the rise of political Islam in Bangladesh is also attributed to blowback from the 1980s Afghan Jihad.

“Thousands of Bangladeshi Muslim youths who swelled the ranks of the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s have been the vanguards of various transnational Islamists terror networks in Pakistan and Bangladesh,” Hashmi asserts. He also highlights the exposure to Middle Eastern pre-Modern Islamism of millions of Bangladeshi workers as a contributing factor. The ISI also props up, in Taj’s narrative, as sponsor of terrorist outfit HUJI-B. The hypocrisy of secularists like Awami League, striking deals with Jamaat Islami, has been brilliantly exposed. The situation took a surrealist turn, after the end of the Cold War when “even the Communist party of Bangladesh adopted ‘Socialism with Religion’ as its new slogan.”

The following observation should make every Pakistani pause and reflect since it equally applies to the land of pure: “Despite the phenomenal growth in ritualistic Islam in Bangladesh, the average Muslim has remained almost totally insensitive to the corruption, deception and immoral behaviour of traders, professionals, bureaucrats, politicians and members of the civil society. In view of Transparency’s International’s singling out Bangladesh as the most corrupt country consecutively five times between 2000 and 2005, one wonders if Bengali Muslims’ apparent religiosity has any positive correlation with their moral degeneration at all as they accept corruption as a way of life.’’

Noorhaidi Hasan’s essay “Political Islam in Indonesia” offers chilling lessons as well as optimism. Indonesia that once was home to world’s largest communist party outside of the Communist Block has been ever since the Bali blasts, making ugly headlines. “The fall of Suharto,” according to Hasan, “seriously disturbed the political configuration that was in favour of pro-Islamist groups.” Like elsewhere, Indonesian Islamists also began to flourish once Sukarno’s secularist regime was displaced by Suharto dictatorship. Suharto arrived as a modernist. Hence, he also co-opted modernist Muslims through a newly founded party, Parmusi. However, lack of democratic freedoms led to the rise of “Campus Islam.” The first violent expression was a rebellion by Dar ul Islam veterans in 1981. These veterans were once employed by the regime to liquidate the communists. The rebellion was crushed by equally violent means. By the late 1980s, as Suharto’s popularity further plummeted, he resorted to Islam Gen Zia-style. His overthrow, therefore, disturbed the configuration benefiting Islamists hence, an aggressive reaction by Islamists to assert their place in the polity. However, “pro-democracy groups pressure against jihadist activism has gradually forced militant Islamist groups to leave behind their high-profile politics and shift to a strategy of implementing the Sharia from below,” says Hasan.

Tehmina Rashid’s concluding essay on diasporic networking through modern media is an intriguing invitation to media scholars. While debunking the fashionable myth that modern “media will provide free and easy access to knowledge, flatten hierarchies, encourage free exchange of ideas and result in new interpretations,” she points out that this has not happened particularly in the case of Pakistan. Instead it has alienated the Pakistani women from their indigenous roots and sociological origin by abandoning indigenous history in favour of an imagined Muslim Arab identity.

A recurring theme in all these essays is the abject failure of the ruling elites in delivering developmental goods and services that delegitimised their regimes, thus generating space for the politics of religion.

Though this book does not offer a radically new perspective, it is indeed helpful in enriching our understanding of fundamentalist politics in the region. The strength of the book lies in its academic yet an accessible idiom. Often academic works become too academised to be deconstructed by ordinary readers. Such a gap between the scholars and readers does not appear in the work under review. What is missing in this, however, is an attempt at examining the political economy of the political religion. There are scant references to Saudi funding in case of Islamists but a separate essay would have helped enrich the debate.

(This review was first run by The News on Sunday)

Farooq Sulehria is working with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen ( Before joining Internationalen, he worked for one year,2006-07 at daily The News, Rawalpindi. Also, in Pakistan, he has worked with Lahore-based dailies, The Nation, The Frontier Post and Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from Punjab University, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications in Europe and Australia.

Source: The Viewpoint