21 - 28 January 1999
Issue No. 413
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Roots of the religious right
In the first of a series of three articles, Eqbal Ahmad looks for the origins of modern religious violence in the nature of the modern world itself
They belong to differing, often contrasting, religious systems -- Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- yet their ideas and behaviour patterns are remarkably similar. In India, they have burned down churches and destroyed a historic mosque. In Palestine, they call themselves pioneers, desecrate mosques and churches and, with state support, colonise and dispossess Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the ancient land.
In Algeria, they are engaged in savage warfare with a praetorian government. In Serbia, they attempted genocide and ran rape camps. In Pakistan, they have struck at Christians, Ahmadi and Shi'a Muslims, and also at each other. They wage holy wars and commit atrocities in a sanctimonious manner, yet nothing is truly sacred to them. They spill blood in bazaars, homes, courts, mosques and churches. They believe themselves to be God's own warriors, and so they are above man-made laws and the judgement of mere humanity.
They are the so-called "fundamentalists", an epithet reserved by the Western media for the Muslim variety, who are invariably referred to as "Islamic fundamentalists". Others of the ilk are assigned more neutral names: Jewish zealots in Palestine are called "settlers" and, occasionally, "extremists", Hindu militants are described as "nationalists" and Christians are labelled "right-wing" or "messianic". The bias in the use of language obscures an important reality: they are reflections of a common problem, with shared roots and comparable patterns of expression.
Those parties often mistakenly known as "fundamentalist" are a modern phenomenon; in effect, a response to the crises of modernity and identity. Modernity, as scholars have defined it, is a historical process. It refers to the passage of societies from the agrarian/pastoral mode of production to the capitalist/industrial mode. The shift from one mode of production to another invariably brings about revolutionary changes in society. It compels a new logic of social and economic life, threatens inherited cultures, and dictates significant shifts in the arrangements and utilisation of land, labour and capital. As such, it requires adaptations to new ways of being and doing, and demands drastic changes in human values, and in the relations of sexes, classes, individuals, families and communities. It transforms the co-relation and arrangement of living spaces, the organisation of the workplace, the gathering and distribution of new skills and the governance of the people.
When this process of change sets in, old values and ways of life become outdated and dysfunctional much faster than new, more appropriate values and ways of life are able to take root. The resulting social and cultural mutations are experienced by people as both a threat and a loss. For millennia, humanity has experienced similarly unsettling processes, such as the shift from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, or the discovery of fire and consequent move from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But never had this process been more intense and more revolutionary than it became with the rise of capitalism and the industrial mode of production. This latter development was more radical in its impact on societies than any other historic shift in the mode of production.
The industrial and capitalist mode threatened nearly all values and institutions by which people had lived in the agrarian order. It induced large-scale migrations from villages to cities, shifted the locus of labour from farm to factory and the unit of production from the family/community to the individual, forced increasing numbers of women into the labour market, shifted the focus of social regulation from customs to laws, re-ordered the structure of governance from the empire to the nation at increasing pace, obliterated distances to permit the penetration of markets and transformed the focus of economic life from subsistence toward manufacture and consumerism.
A transformation so demanding and systemic was bound to threaten old ways of being and doing. It destroyed the autonomy of rural life that people had been used to for millennia, reduced the distances that had separated communities from each other, forced diverse peoples and individuals to live in urban proximity and compete with each other, undermined the structures and values of patriarchy as it had prevailed for centuries, and threw millions of people into the uncertain world between tradition and modernity. In brief, the phenomenon brings into question, and increasingly renders dysfunctional, traditional values and ways of life. Yet, cultures tend to change more slowly than economic and political realities. All of the societies caught in this process undergo a period of transition, but how peacefully and democratically a society makes this transition depends on the historical circumstances of a given society, the engagement of its intelligentsia and the outlook of its leaders and governments. Their responses and actual record offer meaningful variations which scholars are still trying to document and analyse.
When faced with a crisis so systemic, people have tended to respond in four different ways. We might call these restorationist, reformist, existential, and revolutionary responses. The restorationist wants, somehow, to return to an old way of life, re-impose former laws or customs, recapture lost virtues and rehabilitate old certainties, and restore what he believes to have been the golden past: Hindutva and Ramraj, Eretz Israel or Nizam-I-Mustafa. Restorationism invariably entails rejections of the Other -- Muslim, Arab, Hindu, Christian and Ahmadi -- and what are construed to be the Other's ways, which can range from a woman's dress and a man's beard to song, dance and such symbols of modern life as television and radio. Moreover, the restorationist ideology and programme can range from relatively moderate to totally extremist. Atal Vehari Vajpayee offers a "moderate" example of Hindu Restorationism, Bal Thakeray is an extremist and Lal Krishna Advani falls somewhere in the middle.
Similarly, the Jamaat-i-Islami's Amir Qazi Hussain Ahmed may be viewed as a moderate Islamist, while the leader of the Taliban, Mulla Omar, occupies the extreme end.
The reformists are invariably of modernist disposition: men and women who care deeply about preserving the best and most meaningful in their culture and religious tradition, while adapting them to the requirements of modern life. The converse is also true: they seek to integrate modern forms and values into inherited culture and beliefs. One of the early modern reformists in India was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a founder of the ecumenical Brahmo Samaj movement. The first great Indian Muslim reformist was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and the last to be so regarded is Mohamed Iqbal, whose Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a quintessential example of reformism in modern Islam. Like the restorationist, the reformist trend emerged as a response to a perceived decline of Muslim power and the encounter with the colonising Western powers. From the second half of the 19th century, it gained hegemony in the Muslim world, but stagnated in the post-colonial period.
Reformism suffered its first setback in the last six decades of the Ottoman Empire, when successive attempts at reform failed, mainly because they were feeble attempts. The Turks' revolutionary turn was premised on the failure of Ottoman reforms. Mustapha Kemal Ataturk's was the first revolutionary response in the Muslim world. He abolished the Caliphate, established an uncompromising secular republic, suppressed many religious institutions and passed secular laws regulating property rights and women's rights on the basis of equality. No other Muslim country has equalled Ataturk's radical break from tradition and from the association of Islam with state power. In Iran, the Ulema legitimised the Constitution of 1906, of which the promise and premise were secular. But the coup d'état led by Reza Khan Pahlevi and another engineered by the American CIA in 1953 put an end to what might have been the most successful experiment in democratic reformism in the Muslim world. Under nationalist regimes, a number of other states -- Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia and Malaysia, among others -- instituted secular constitutions without affecting a radical break with the tradition of associating religion and power. Many of these secular authoritarian regimes are now being challenged by Islamist movements.
With the exception of Pakistan, the secular alternative has been favoured in post-colonial South Asia. Under Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership, India adopted a secular constitution, which means lawmaking in India is not required to conform to religious beliefs. However, as the official restoration of the Somnath temple indicated soon after independence, India's Congress-led governments often evinced a special sensitivity towards the feelings of the majority population, a fact widely criticised by left-leaning Indians. In recent years, the rise of the Hindu nationalists to power in several provinces and recently in the federation itself, has greatly undermined the secular character of the Indian Republic, a problem to which I shall return later. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the issue of the relationship between religion and state has remained a source of confusion, instability and misuse of Islam in politics -- a phenomenon which contributed greatly to the violent separation of East Pakistan in 1972.
The dominant feature of the post-colonial period has been what might be called an "existential" approach -- a posture of deploying religion whenever it is politically expedient for those in power, and of ignoring the challenge of defining the relationship of religion and politics when governments and ruling elites feel secure and content. In the Muslim world, this posture came under assault with the rise of Islamic militancy following the Iranian revolution and, more importantly, Afghan jihad, which, thanks to the efforts and generosity of the US, became a transnational project. Ironically, the pro-US governments of Egypt and Algeria have since been the prime targets of the mujahideen who were trained in Afghanistan.
The 1980s and 1990s also witnessed a worldwide resurgence of right-wing religious movements. They played a particularly violent role in Israel, where government-armed Zionist zealotry became particularly oppressive towards the Arabs of Palestine. In India, the Hindu movement launched a campaign against the Babri Mosque as part of its attempt to mobilise mass support, which ended in the destruction of the 17th century mosque, widespread communal violence and the rise of the BJP to power at the centre. In Sudan, an Islamic government has imposed a reign of terror and mismanagement, which has produced a widespread famine. In Serbia, Christian orthodoxy linked with Serb nationalism and Milosevic's diabolic opportunism has aided a reign of terror and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and now in Kosovo.