Roots of Religious Right

Posted on April 20, 2009 by


Eqbal Ahmad

DAWN  – 24 January, 1999


THEY belong to differing, often contrasting religious systems-Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet their ideas and behaviour patterns bear remarkable similarities. In India they have burned down churches and destroyed a historic mosque. In Palestine they describe themselves as ‘pioneers’, desecrate mosques and churches, and with state support dispossess the 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 hit Christians, Ahmedis and Shi’a Muslims and also each other.

They wage holy wars, and commit atrocities sanctimoniously, yet nothing is truly sacred to them. They spill blood in bazaars, in homes and in courts, mosques and churches. They believe themselves to be God’s warriors, above man-made laws and the judgment of mankind.

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 nouns. The Jewish zealots in Palestine are called ‘settlers’ and, occasionally, ‘extremists’. The Hindu militant is described as ‘nationalist’, and the Christian is 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 similar patterns of expression. Here we briefly review first the environment which gives birth to these political-religious movements, then the commonality of their style and outlook.

The mistakenly called ‘fundamentalists’ are a modern phenomenon, a response to the crises of modernity and identity. Modernity is a historical process. It refers to the development of societies from one mode of production to another, in our age from an agrarian/pastoral mode to the capitalist/industrial mode of production. The shift from one to another mode of production invariably brings revolutionary changes in society. It compels a new logic of social and economic life, threatens inherited styles of life, and forces transformations in the relationship 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, requires change in how the workplace is organized, how new skills are gathered and distributed, and how people are governed.

When this process of change sets in, older values and ways of life become outdated and dysfunctional much faster than newer, more appropriate values and ways of life strike roots. The resulting social and cultural mutations are experienced by people both as threat and loss. For millennia, humanity had experienced this unsettling process, for example, when it moved from the stone age to the age of iron, or when it discovered fire and shifted 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 has been more revolutionary in its impact on societies than any other event in history.

The industrial 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, obliterated distances to permit the penetration of markets, and transformed the focus of economic life from subsistence toward production en masse and consumerism.

A transformation so systemic was bound to threaten old ways of life. It destroyed the autonomy of rural life lived for millennia, shrank 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 of transition between tradition and modernity. In brief, the phenomenon puts 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 societies caught in this process undergo a period of painful passage. How peacefully and democratically a society makes this journey depends on its historical circumstances, the engagement of its intelligentsia, the outlook of its leaders and governments, and the ideological choices they make.

The capitalist and industrial revolution started from Europe. European responses to its dislocating effects offer meaningful variations which scholars have not yet examined with sufficient rigour. The western and non-western experiences are, nevertheless, comparable in that they reveal that when faced with a crisis so systemic, people have tended to respond in four ways. We might call these restorationist, reformist, existential, and revolutionary responses. The restorationist wants to return somehow to an old way of life, re-impose the laws or customs that were, recapture lost virtues, rehabilitate old certainties, and restore what he believes to have been the golden past – Hindutva and Ramraj, Eretz Israel, Nizam-e-Mustafa. Restorationism invariably entails rejection of the Other – e.g. Muslim, Arab, Hindu, Christian, Ahmadi – and what are construed to be the Other’s ways which can range from woman’s dress and man’s beard to song, dance and such symbols of modern life as the television and radio.

The restorationist ideology and programme can range from relatively moderate to totally extremist. Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee offers a ‘moderate’ example of Hindu restorationism, Mr Bal Thackeray is an extremist, and Lal Krishna Advani falls somewhere in between. Similarly, the Jamaat-I-Islami’s Amir Qazi Hussain Ahmed may be viewed as a moderate Islamist while Mulla Omar, the Taliban leader, occupies the extreme end.

The reformists are of modernist disposition, men and women who care deeply about preserving the best and most meaningful in their religious tradition while adapting them to the requirements of modern life. The obverse is also true: they seek to integrate modern forms and values into inherited cultures and beliefs. An early reformist in India was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement. The first great Indian Muslim reformist was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and the last to be so regarded is Mohammed Iqbal whose “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” is a quintessential example of reformism in modern Islam. In the Arab world, the al-Manar group led by Mufti Mohammed Abduh, and in the Maghreb Shaykh Ben Badis, Tahir al-Haddad and Abdel Aziz Taalbi were influential reformists. Like the restorationist, the reformist trend emerged as a response to the perceived decline of Muslim power and encounter with the colonizing 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 an initial setback in the Ottoman empire where successive attempts at reform failed, mainly because they were feebly attempted. The Turks’ revolutionary turn was premised on the failure of Ottoman reforms. Mustapha Kemal’s was the first revolutionary response in the Muslim world. He abolished the Caliphate, established an uncompromisingly secular republic, suppressed many religious institutions, proscribed the veil, prohibited polygamy, and enacted secular laws regulating property rights and women’s rights on the basis of equality. No other Muslim country has so far equalled Ataturk’s radical break from tradition and from the association of Islam with state power. Yet, in the 1980s and 1990s Turkey did not escape the resurgence of Islamism.

In Iran, the ulema legitimized the constitution of 1906 of which the promise and premises were secular. Shaykh Mohammed Husayn Naini (1860-1936) delineated the doctrinal justification for the ulema’s support for constitutional government, a position later affirmed by the Ayatullah-e- Uzma Husayn Burudjirdi (1875-1962) who was the sole marja of his time and remains a figure of great authority among contemporary Shi’a clerics. But the coup d’etat led first by Reza Shah 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 partial reformist influence, the nationalist regimes in a number of states – Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, and Malaysia among others – instituted secular constitutions without effecting a radical break from the tradition of associating religion and power. Many of these secular authoritarian regimes are now being challenged by Islamist movements.

With Pakistan’s exception, the secular alternative has been favoured in post-colonial South Asia. Under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership India adopted a secular constitution so that 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 Party governments evinced a special sensitivity toward the feelings of the majority population, a fact widely criticized by left-leaning Indians. In recent years, the rise of the Hindu nationalists to power in several provinces and recently in the federation 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 the 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 1971.

The dominant feature of the post-colonial period has been the existential style of deploying religion whenever it suits the political convenience of those in power, and of ignoring the challenge of defining the relationship of religion and politics when governments and the ruling elites feel secure and contented. This posture came under assault with the rise of Islamic militancy in the eighties and nineties, a period that witnessed accelerated globalization of the world economy. The Islamists were further propelled by the Iranian revolution (February 1979), and more importantly by the Afghan jihad which, thanks to the generosity of the United States, became a transnational project. Ironically, the pro-US governments of Egypt and Algeria later became the prime targets of the Afghanistan trained Mujahideen.

The resurgence of right-wing religious movements in the eighties and nineties was world-wide. They have a particularly violent role in Israel where the state-armed Zionist zealots became specially oppressive toward the Arabs of Palestine. In India, the Hindu movement launched a campaign against the Babri mosque as part of its effort at mobilizing mass support. It ended in the destruction of the 16th century mosque, widespread communal violence, and the rise of the BJP to national power. After the Russians withdrew, the victorious and faction-ridden Mujahideen of Afghanistan tore the country apart. In Sudan, an Islamic government imposed a reign of terror, and mismanagement which has yielded a horrific famine. Christian ‘fundamentalism’ linked with Serb nationalism and Milosevic’s diabolic opportunism has aided a reign of terror and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now it battles on in Kosovo.