Why Our Societies Today Are Gripped By an Irrational Fear

Religion or religious symbolism have been used deliberately to mislead, denigrate or divert attention and even to pre-judge or prejudice the assessment of historical events.

Since both religion and politics relate to societies, “the relationship between the two becomes highly complex given the coexistence of religious and secular normative orders, the differentiation of the religious and political spheres and the international interpenetration of diverse traditions.”

Sociologists also draw a distinction between ‘absolute’ politics and ‘routine’ politics, and define the former as “the state of affairs where no boundaries are set to political will and everything social is seen as transformable by politics”. In routine politics, however, it is possible to distinguish between (a) politically relevant religious action (b) religiously conditioned political action (c) religiously relevant political action and (d) politically conditioned religious action. Thus in terms of motivation of action, religion can provide a source of normative guide for political action:

“Millennialism is perhaps the most dramatic instance of the religious motivation of revolutionary action, and one of the oldest forms of absolute politics. Millennial beliefs motivate political action by upholding utopia, ideal order to be realized by revolutionary action.”

A cursory look at human history does suggest the validity of this fourfold categorisation and the felt need to cloak human motives in supra-human considerations. Evidence of this is to be found in stated objectives of political leaders, battlefield commanders and the motivating slogans for soldiers in the field. Good instances are the remarks of Generals Allenby and Henri Gourand in 1918 about the end of the Crusades, the ‘crusade against terrorism’ expression used by President George Bush in 2003, and in the frequent use of the expression ‘jihad‘ for motivational purposes by Muslim extremist groups in different places. The same holds for motivating cries for mob action. Religion or religious symbolism have also been used deliberately to mislead, denigrate or divert attention and even to pre-judge or prejudice the assessment of an event.

An old map depicting the 'Crusades', from <em>The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire</em> edited by Edward Gibbon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/British Library

An old map depicting the ‘Crusades’, from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire edited by Edward Gibbon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/British Library

Terminology matters. Some may be familiar with the debate in the early decades of the 20th century about the impact of Christian fundamentalism in American society. A survey conducted in 1992 showed that 9% of adult Americans identified themselves as ‘fundamentalist,’ and a report in the New York Times on May 27, 2018 indicates that in California, one in five adults are evangelists. Other scholars have argued that fundamentalism is part of the rear guard action with which small town US and commercial capitalism fight their losing battle against nationalised culture and industrial economy of mass organisations. It is distinguished in recent times by political militancy focused in an earlier period on the Roman Catholics and the Jews and more recently on Muslims, environmentalists, homosexuals and political groups like the communists. In its external manifestation, different societies in the developing world have had difficulties with evangelical activities of US-based church groups.

Some scholars have opined that President Harry Truman’s decision on May 14, 1948 to extend a de facto recognition to the newly formed State of Israel did have an element of ‘religiously relevant political action’ premised on evangelical Christianity; others have attributed it to American voter supportive of Zionism. Some light on this was shed by a report by Davis Kirkpatrick and Elisabeth Dias in the New York Times of May 19, 2018 quoting US Ambassador to Israel’s remark that “evangelical Christians support Israel with much more fervor and devotion than many in the Jewish community”.

US ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman. Credit: Reuters

US ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman. Credit: Reuters

Islamic fundamentalism, perceived today as a generic term, in fact covers three separate movements, namely revivalism, reformism and radicalism. The first was induced in the 16th and 17th centuries by the European commercial and political expansion; these were accompanied by missionary activities that had limited success in the face of what Curzon called ‘the impregnable rock wall of Islam’. Movements of Islamic revival in different Muslim societies in Asia and Africa were also a reaction against contraction of internal and external trade brought about by the mercantile activities of European nations. It induced an internal dialogue without reference to other systems of thought. Islamic reformism, on the other hand, was a modern movement in the wake of European supremacy, expansion and consolidation. It focused on political and social reforms induced by European ideas but riveted on revivalist and Salafi principles.

Islamic radicalism or Islamism, however, is a 20th-century phenomenon principally in the Arab societies of West Asia and North Africa in which the Islamic theory of state, on consent being the basis of political legitimacy, was invoked in the context of the autocratic nation-state and of the failure of nationalism. An impetus was provided by the cataclysmic political happenings like Palestine in 1948, the war of 1967, the Intifada of 1987, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, the Algerian army’s reversal of election results in December 1991, and US-led allied invasion of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. These propelled resort in each case to armed resistance as a religious duty and brought forth a British ambassador’s remark in 2004 that President George W. Bush was ‘Al Qaida’s best recruiting sergeant’. They did not result in a unified movement; instead, diverse and polymorphous movements developed in individual societies to respond to the perceived local challenges broadly contextualised with a reference to the Muslim condition globally. In each case, it drew selectively upon the foundational texts and their contemporary interpretations. Its early manifestation in Nasser’s Egypt in the period of the Cold War was not viewed as a threat by the United States since the Islamists were ‘opposed to left-wing nationalist regimes that the Americans themselves despised and wanted to see removed’.

Separately, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 generated its own impulses. ‘For its leaders,’ an eminent Israeli scholar has observed, ‘the “Islamic Revolution” was a vision of an ideal Islamic order, not only in Iran itself but as a model for other Islamic communities to imitate’ and to ‘provide a fundamental cure, based on Islamic doctrine and revolutionary politics, for the ideological, social and economic malaise that has plagued Iranian society in modern times.’ The Islamic imperative was thus ‘both individual and collective.’ Given the nature of the convulsion and the geopolitical centrality of Iran, developments there had regional and global implications and were viewed as such. One result of it was the eight year long Iraq-Iran war in which many powers, regional and extra-regional, were complicit on the side of Iraq.

Perceptions underwent change with time and political priorities. After the experience of post-Soviet Afghanistan and by the mid-90s, the critical questions were posed differently in a conference in Tel Aviv University in March 1996: ‘Is Islamism driven by religious fervor, social protest, or nationalist xenophobia? Is the rise of Islamism a threat to stability, tolerance and order? Or is it the first step towards reform, participation and democratization? Does repression of Islamists radicalize them or tame them? Are Islamists in power guided by their ideals or their interests? Should the governments of the West base their policy on human rights or realpolitik?’

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath in the West Asian region, Islamism took the shape of militant activity against its domestic opponents (autocratic regimes) and its external support system (Western powers led by the United States). The Arab Spring of 2011 did no emanate from Islamist movements but did result in success for the Islamists in some lands; the Arab counter-revolution was the response in others. As a result, ‘Islamism has returned to the debate and the definition of Islam is fiercely contested between religious/state establishment, middle class commercial Islam and militant insurrectionary Islam.’ The latter manifested itself in Al Qaeda Central, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and finally in the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). They all ‘offered a route to a past that never existed’, and resorted to the use of indiscriminate violence to achieve it. The ISIS also developed a social base in poorer segments of society and sustained it by promoting anti-Shia and anti-Iranian passions based on real or perceived victimisation.

Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad are seen in Deraa area, Syria July 5, 2018. Picture taken July 5, 2018. Credit: SANA/Handout via Reuters

Elsewhere in the world, developments in West Asia and the emergence of Muslim individuals and organisations using religious motivation for violence to attain political goals and having trans-national dimensions has been witnessed in some countries of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and in some central and west African countries. A similar impulse surfaced in the case of Chechnya and Dagestan in the Russian Federation and among Uyghurs in China. The presence of volunteer fighters from some of these countries, as also from the European Union, in Iraq and Syria suggest newer dimensions to the motivational factor. Jason Burke has called them ‘inspired warriors’ who with or without assistance from organised groups and acting alone or in small networks commit violent acts in the name of God in their home countries.

A good example of excessive religious zeal to promote an engineered narrative of history and aspiration is Pakistan, where the promotion of violent extremism has made jihad ‘a pliable instrument in the hands of a few who are more politically motivated than ethically grounded’. It has resulted in making the state and society dysfunctional in good measure.

After decades of support and funding for versions of religious conservatism and activism the world over, some Arab governments registered alarm at its impact on their own populations and have sought to undo Salafi and ‘Jihadist’ thinking by promotion selectively of versions of ‘Moderate Islam’. A somewhat similar effort is underway in Indonesia through the 2017 Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam.

In the case of India, a different set of impulses induced revivalist thinking. Many followers of the Hindu faith were influenced by strains of thought of the sages of the 19th century renaissance movements leading to an attempt to conflate ideas of Hindu cultural nationalism with mainstream nationalism. This was succinctly expressed by Sri Aurobindo in his famous Uttarpara speech of May 30, 1909: ‘I say no longer that nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is the Sanatan Dharma which for us is nationalism. The Hindu nation was born with Sanatan Dharma, with it moves and with it grows.’

Rabindranath Tagore, on the other hand, called nationalism ‘a great menace’ and ‘one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented’; he expressed himself emphatically against ‘the idolatry of nation.’

An eminent commentator has recently observed that ‘politics is religion in India, and religion is politics’. There is some truth in this dictum. Socio-religious rituals do tend to overflow into everyday politics. The focus of the recent efforts here has not been about preaching of faith per se but in its conflation with a religio-political ideology. It emerged in the shape of Hindutva as a concept of cultural revitalisation and political mobilisation. Hindutva, wrote Savarkar, ‘is not a word but a history. Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, of Hindutva. Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity, of the whole being of our Hindu race.’ Savarkar’s effort was to define the two main coordinates of the Indian nation, its territoriality and its culture, and to demonstrate their congruence.

The ingredients of the concept, spelt out with greater specificity by Golwalkar, depicted India as matrbhumi (motherland), dharmabhumi (land of dharma), karmabhumi (land of duty), punyabhumi (land of virtuous deeds), devabhumi (a land of gods), and moksabhumi (land of liberation). Iran, interestingly, is depicted as ‘nothing but the base of Aryabhumi.’ Golwalkar also expressed himself candidly on authoritarian centralism:

‘The most important and effective step will be to bury for good all talk of a federal structure, to sweep away the existence of all autonomous and semi-autonomous states within Bharat [India] and proclaim: ‘One Country, One State, One Legislature, One Executive’ with no trace of fragmentational(sic), regional, sectarian, linguistic, or other type of pride being given scope for playing havoc with our integrated harmony! Let the Constitution be redrafted, so as to establish this Unitary form of Government.’

This ideological formulation, however, does not seem to gel with the more recent political pronouncements on cooperative federalism; does this signal a change of objective, or a deferred agenda?

The approach of ethnic specificity, in the words of sociologists D.L. Sheth and Ashis Nandy, ‘seeks to subjugate and homogenize the ethnic pluralities by establishing the hegemony of an imagined cultural mainstream.’ These principles, depicting Indian nationalism in terms of the faith of the religious majority, have serious negative political implications for sections of the citizen-body and are in violation of the principles of the constitution. The distinction, an observer has noted, ‘was meant to exclude all except Hindus, though Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists would also qualify. It was Muslims, Christians, Jews and Parsis who were excluded’. It has led to the generation of politically relevant social violence in different guises by some adherents of this approach, has been reported in sections of the media and studied by many observers including the journalist Dhirendra Jha. A recent publication, Dismantling India: A 4 Year Report presents this in graphic details.

Credit: Reuters

These manifestations of Hindutva combined with not infrequent ineptitude in governance and departures from the rule of law norms have led to expressions of unease among minorities. Observers have noted ‘chain reactions of fear (that) have largely accounted for counter-fundamentalism (and) have spurred reactions by Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists.’ Some of them have resorted to sporadic, and others to organised, violence bringing in its wake harsh responses from the state machinery.

In a different but related context and based on analysis of basic doctrinal texts, it has been argued that ‘an exclusionary nationalism actually hinders rather than enhances, national power’ and ‘hampers economic development.’

Beyond the shores of India, Buddhist fundamentalism in the shape of ethno-religious nationalism has assumed violent dimensions in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In each case, it is directed against religious minorities – Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Available literature suggests some form of state or quasi-state encouragement or complicity in most case. Earlier examples of religion-supported terrorism are the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and the Jewish-/Zionist group Irgun opposing the British rule in Palestine before 1948.

It is thus evident that zeal or extreme ardour invoked by religious motivations, or attributed to them, has today come to occupy an unprecedented centrality in human affairs in a global community of sovereign states at different levels of development and having divergent interests and varying capacities to pursue them. This at times has resulted in xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’, leading to demonisation or the deliberate use of fear for political purposes, ignoring in the process the real sources of alienation in individual societies. The phobia or irrational fear thus generated has been disruptive of social harmony in individual societies.

This article has been extracted and adapted from the Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture, delivered by the author on August 11, 2018.