CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited
Wars of religion
Jeremy Seabrook is a London-based author with a long-term interest in South Asia. His next book, to be published by Pluto Press, is called Reflections on a World Grown Old, which explores the ageing of the world's population.
Keywords: Religion, National cultures, War, South Asia
AbstractThe recent conflict between the US/UK-led coalition and Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq has highlighted the religious and communal divisions in South Asia, where minorities, whether Hindu or Muslim, find themselves under threat from exclusionary forms of religious nationalism. Superficially, there is a division between the secularists, who look to the West and the global economy, and fundamentalists, who seek recourse to indigenous religious and cultural traditions. But, the author argues, the situation is more complex. Secularists are often far from democratic (Saddam Hussein was a militant secularist, after all), whilst fundamentalism is not traditional but rooted in modernity – a type of counter-Reformation in response to Western cultural penetration. The people of South Asia are caught increasingly between extreme political alternatives: all they want, however, is liberation from poverty and control over their own lives. The problems of South Asia are global in origin and so find certain echoes across the globe, including Europe.
War in Iraq has not radically re-shaped the politics of South Asia, but it has given new impetus to old antagonisms, which have, in any case, been sharpened by the events of the past 15 years. The most significant of these is the conflict in Kashmir, which has escalated since the late 1980s. The demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque by Hindu extremists at Ayodhya in 1992, and communal riots, followed by powerful bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993, intensified the growing estrangement between Muslims and Hindus.
The first Gulf War, the coming to power of the Hindu nationalist BJP government in India, the military take-over by General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, and of course, the events of 9/11, marked the widening of global cultural fissures which have nowhere been felt more keenly than in South Asia. The killing of Muslims after the Godhra burnings in 2002, the electoral success of the BJP in Gujarat, and the present Gulf War – everything heightens communal alienation. In Pakistan and Bangladesh fundamentalists are created, while fear seizes Indian Muslims and Bangladeshi Hindus. Proponents of Hindutva in India, the imposition of a Hindu state, gain new hope for their malign project.
Pre-emptive war in Iraq demonstrates to India the double standards of the West: since most attacks in Kashmir have been supported, if not instigated, by Pakistan, they fail to see why the USA urged restraint on an India confronted by real acts of terror, when the USA mobilizes its military power against an unproven threat from Iraq.
I was in Bangladesh on 9/11. At that time, I did not meet a single person who thought crashing aircraft into buildings was a good idea, no matter what the cause. When I returned to Dhaka four months later, I met scarcely anyone to whom bin Laden was not a hero. People had seen a shaken USA turn its overwhelming military power on one of the poorest countries in the world, in which the majority of casualties were borne by a US proxy army and civilians. This squandered the popular sympathy which the USA had universally commanded after September 2001.
The raw confrontations of religious identity have been accelerated by the decay of "secularism"; particularly the death of the Soviet Union, the disintegrating ideology of socialism and, with it, the extinction of hopes of social justice. This was reflected in the Indian version of secularism: India: the Congress, which ruled for most of the first 40 years of independence, had itself forfeited the moral capital it had inherited through the independence struggle. It had assumed its right to rule in perpetuity, dispensing patronage, building corruption and nepotism into the structures of governance. "Secularism" became identified not only with economic but also with moral failure; religious and regional parties became the beneficiaries.
This stripping away of ideologies and beliefs that claim to transcend faith and ethnicity leaves people with an irreducible core of identity: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, black or white, male or female, speaker of this or that language, representative of one or another culture. In a competitive, confrontational globalism, these identities create virulent antagonisms; and majoritarian tyrannies, inflected by religion, soon emerge.
The rhetoric of the "far Right" pervades these developments. The language is identical, only the groups at which it is directed vary. In India, it is said, Muslims have no place. They are a fifth column. They were "given" Pakistan and should go there. Not only are they terrorists, but older stereotypes are evoked, linking them to the Hindu revival in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, when they were seen as predatory sexual beings. They are accused of "breeding", with the intention of outnumbering the Hindu population. In Bangladesh, Hindus were targeted by extremists as soon as the Bangladesh National Party came to power with its fundamentalist allies of the Jama'at e Islami in October 2001. In some areas, Hindus were attacked and fled to India. The government has been at pains to deny that any such persecution took place. But the Jama'at, apparently the junior coalition partner, is setting the agenda, especially since 11 September and in the protest against war in Iraq. The Jama'at fought on the side of Pakistan in 1971, and never believed in the existence of a country of whose government they now form part. That they should now enjoy such prominence is a measure of the altered sensibility of the times. A senior figure in the ruling party, a barrister, said to me, "Hindus have no place in Bangladesh. Their allegiance is to aforeign power".
When Bangladesh came into existence in 1971, Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman inscribed socialism, secularism, democracy and nationalism on his banner of liberation. Within five years, and after a series of coups, the army was in control. Socialism and secularism were struck from the constitution.
In an irony lost on the zealots of South Asia, precisely the same rhetoric is heard from the European right. The rhetoric of the right does not belong to anyone; it is a pre-existing scenario, a kind of commedia (or tragedia) dell'arte, in which the story is already scripted, and the changing actors have only to play out a drama known to all. The British National Party (BNP) in the UK, like the Hindu right in India, claims that the differential fertility rate between blacks and whites will ensure that in the UK whites will be outnumbered within 60 years. It seems everywhere that "aliens" breed, while "we" merely have children. The war-cry of extremism everywhere is "Enough is enough": this is usually the prelude to showing "them" who is boss, and pogroms and persecution duly follow.
Symbolic events – 9/11, war in Afghanistan and now in Iraq – do not create these enmities, but crystallise them, turning yesterday's unthinkable into tomorrow's orthodoxy, and quickening the formulation of ideologies of religious and ethnic superiority.
It is not, however, only the failure of secularism and socialism which has eased the politics of hatred into the ideological vacuum.
The other element in the rise of communalism cannot be separated from the ideology of development – born of globalisation, and the integration of all "economies" into a single, though unequal, and still partial, entity. This – the Western ideology – appears in the world in a number of ways: first, as a "natural" process, against which resistance is futile and unnecessary, since it is benign and unstoppable; and second, as a "merely" economic matter of mechanistic prescriptions and policies. It is made material in a global iconography of luxury and affluence which reaches the remotest places on earth. In this way, science combines with myth and magic, on the one hand, and with nature, on the other, in the irresistible drama of global "development".
Whether secular vision or a quasi-religious cult, globalisation strikes, with its imagery of florid consumerism against older, religious sensibilities. These have, from time out of memory, taught restraint, frugality, sacrifice, non-attachment, cultivation of the life of the spirit; and when they collide with the imagery of excess, the celebration of waste, the throwaway potlatch and unleashing of appetites, the dedication to sex, fun and money, there is bound to be a powerful reaction.
While, it seems, the great majority of humankind sees in this process a promise of liberation from poverty, many religious leaders condemn it as blasphemous and contrary to their teachings. That millions of people from South Asia seek nothing more than the opportunity to escape from the scenes of impoverishment of their homeland and to reach the West suggests, not only that they believe in the way of life embodied by the imagery, but equally that they doubt it is going to come to them. Accordingly, they will risk everything – land, property, savings, even their lives – in migrations, legal or illegal, to the lands of promise and plenty.
For the majority, who cannot leave, but must remain in the penumbra between tradition and modernity, between belonging and escape, this sets up complex and conflicting feelings. The psyche of the people cannot remain untouched by the transformations of globalism. But in order to survive it has to change. It mutates: and fundamentalisms emerge as a re-assertion of traditional sensibility, which ceases to be traditional, since its survival depends upon becoming even more aggressive than the dogmas of material salvation which threaten to supplant it. The idea of secular salvation suggests the Western ideology is itself a form of fundamentalism; and explains, perhaps, some of the responses it engenders.
Of course, most people want the best of both worlds: they want to enter the garden of earthly delights while retaining faith in the everlasting feast.
This creates profound splits in the psyche and sensibility, sometimes in the same people. In South Asia, a majority now have access to TV and the global media, as well as to mosque, temple and church. This often leads, not to a tolerant pluralism, but to strange social pathologies and psychopathologies.
South Asia is at the heart of new wars of religion, one of the most significant elements in which is usually denied by the West; namely, its own zealotry in the promotion of an ideology of development, which is perceived as a cultural onslaught on ancient, rooted civilizations.
Confronted by TV images of the liberators of humanity employing missiles, cluster bombs and bunker-busters in support of their ideologies of emancipation in Iraq, the violence latent even in the peaceable "imposition" of a universal vision of freedom, democracy and truth is made clearer. It appears to people that this version of freedom means not so much relief from tyranny or poverty as compulsory liberation from their profoundest sense of who they are. That they are as likely to turn on one another as on the primary source of the assault on their identity and culture is a phenomenon long familiar to those versed in the calculus of imperial dominance.