The politics of religion

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

In an article in the Financial Times of London titled “Why religion has become the new politics”, the writers, Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar, have tried to explain why religion is the emerging political language of our time all over the world, be it the United States, the Middle East or the Third World.

They feel that even in Europe, which introduced the concept of the separation of the church and the state, religion is assuming a new significance. This phenomenon is now universally recognized, though its causes are hotly disputed.

After the Reformation and the Renaissance in Europe, politics became fully secular and was concerned purely with the worldly affairs of states. Religion was kept out of the public domain and was treated as a strictly personal matter. So strong was this trend that even when religion found its way into political and constitutional discourse, it only had symbolic meaning.

For instance, in spite of the first amendment of the US constitution which prohibits the Congress from making a law in respect of the establishment of a religion or prohibiting its free exercise, the pledge of allegiance invokes God, the American money carries the inscription “In God we trust”, the US Congress starts its daily session with a prayer and the Supreme Court opens its public sessions by asking for the blessings of God. But for all practical purposes, God has not been invoked in the day to day political life of the country – until President George W. Bush brought religion to his political discourse.

Yet it was politics and economics which determined the course of the country’s development and not Christianity. Some presidents did talk of morality and ethics being the key determinants of public policy, but in practice, this was not the case. It was real politik – always in conflict with morality- which dominated foreign and domestic policies.

As for religion, in the 20th century, Pakistan and Israel were the only two states to emerge on the ideological basis of religion. Israel, created on territory usurped from the Palestinians, was said to be the homeland of the Jews.

Pakistan was created for the Muslims in the Muslim majority regions of the Indian subcontinent. The Objectives Resolution adopted in 1949 by the Pakistan Constituent Assembly declared that sovereignty rested in Allah. But in both cases, politics and economics rather than religion have served as key factors in their development.

Why has there been a revival of religion in politics in modern times after centuries of secular politics? According to Ellis and Haar, in Africa religion is a “political comment by people who believe that all power has its ultimate origin in the spirit world.

Consequently, they consider spiritual and political power to be connected”. In regions ruled by Muslim rulers, with a few exceptions, Islam served as the guiding principle of governance.

The separation of religious from political thought was developed in the West and exported to the rest of the world in colonial times. The colonial powers sought to reform and modernize the societies they ruled – the white man’s burden that called for a civilizing mission on the part of the conquerors.

In this process, religion did not have a role to play in public policy. It was to be treated as something personal. The current resurgence of religion is, in effect, seen as a return to an earlier practice that had been interrupted by the advent of colonialism.

The fact is that the democratic systems introduced by the colonial powers in Africa and Asia failed to deliver. The constitutional structure these countries inherited from their colonial masters did not, in most cases, work smoothly in the indigenous climate of Africa and Asia.

Hence there was a perpetual quest for a system that promised results, and political experimentation became the order of the day in the newly decolonized developing countries.

Meanwhile, decolonization and the communication revolution which first started with the development of the transistor radio and television brought in their wake social changes, economic transformation and political volatility on an unprecedented scale.

This was also a period of raised expectations. Then came satellite television and the multiplicity of channels broadcasting and tele casting round the clock. These have had a dual impact on all countries.

First, the instantaneous transmission of news and reports has quickened the pace of domestic and international politics all over the world. There is little time to weigh, analyse and plan the reaction to events taking place halfway down the globe.

The globalization led by satellite television has also had a profound impact on the mindset of the people. It is changing perceptions when the ground realities are not changing.

This dichotomy is creating dangerous trends, given the fact that the channels focus on everything under the sun – from religion and business to food and entertainment.

The masses in the Third World had been led to believe that the exploitation of their resources by the colonial powers was the cause of their backwardness and deprivation. With independence they would be taking the road to prosperity and development. But this never happened.

Soon thereafter, international capitalism saw a powerful revival in the garb of the plan for economic restructuring forced on Third World countries by the financial institutions, notably the World Bank and the IMF.

This restructuring had an adverse effect on social development by intensifying the social inequities, class divisions and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The sense of insecurity and the instability generated by capitalism-driven reforms have given a fillip to those who seek the integration of the state and religion. The religious parties which had receded to the fringes of politics in the Third World countries have made a comeback in the struggle for political office.

For these elements a return to religion is also characterized by a strong hatred of the West – the colonizing power. The Islamic revolution in Iran was marked by a strong anti-American sentiment and “Marg bar Amrika” became the slogan of the day. (Incidentally, Iran did not come under western occupation in the age of colonialism, but it definitely became a victim of neo-imperialism.)

The Hindutva of the BJP in India had a strong nationalist stamp on it. Though the sense of avenging the colonials/imperialists for their onslaught on the religious systems of the subjugated states may not have been etched in the consciousness of the religious fundamentalists who have sought a return to the theocratic systems of yore, this sentiment certainly did exist in their collective memories.

This does not, however, mean that they will succeed where others have failed. The manner in which religion is interpreted and practised in most societies makes it highly unlikely that it will prove to be a panacea for our ills.

With greater stress on rituals and forms, and little attention being paid to the underlying principles of compassion and humanism, the champions of a state based on a religious system will fail to provide the relief they promise. In fact, they will create greater human distress and economic misery, while promoting communal and sectarian conflict of the worst kind.

In the US, the situation is different. There is no talk of a return to a state integrated with the church. But Christian values – interpreted by vested political interests – are being used for narrow political purposes.

In the re-election of President George W. Bush religious symbolism was freely used to win over the Christian belt. Here again it is not religion but political opportunism and expediency that have determined the course of politics.

The danger in this state of affairs lies in the confrontation that such religious revivalism can provoke. Born from a sense of insecurity generated by the rapid changes that the world is witnessing, this return of religion in politics will intensify the polarization in the international community and within every society. When the showdown comes, it will be deadly and devastating.