When South and South East Asian nations won independence from their European masters in the late 1940s,1950s and 1960s, their leaders genuinely wanted to modernise their countries economically, politically and ideologically. The two things they were keen on adopting from the West were secularism and democracy.
However, as it turned out, the adaptations were far from being perfect. Eventually, and pretty soon in fact, secularism and Western-style democracy suffered grievous erosion. Primordial affiliations to religion, ethnicity and language attained ascendency over rights based on citizenship. It is this process which is brought out in Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s fascinating paper in “The politics of religion in South and South East Asia” (Routledge Contemporary Asia Series). Dr. Ahmed is currently Professor Emeritus at Stockholm University.
According to Dr. Ahmed, pre-colonial South and Southeast Asia was a religious and ethnic mosaic with a plethora of local religious cults, deities, anti-conformist spiritual and social movements, and ethnic and linguistic groups. This was so despite the fact that major world religions like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity were also there. These world religions were considered to be “high cultures” backed by the ruler, while at the grassroots level, what existed was a plethora of native beliefs and practices with either strong or tenuous links with the “high culture”.
Another characteristic of this system was that the ruler, irrespective of his religious affiliation, was taken to be the guardian of all his subjects irrespective of their individual faiths and practices. As Dr. Ahmed put it: “Society in general was hierarchical but proto-pluralistic.”
After establishing military control over most of South and South East Asia, the European powers introduced such institutions and practices as were consistent with their economic and military interests. European penal and civil codes were introduced in modified forms, but religious laws were retained to cover personal matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, Dr.Ahmed notes.
However, over time, thanks to contacts with the colonial masters, indigenous elites with Western liberal and socialist ideas appeared to challenge the rulers on their own ground. Once colonial rule ended, many of these leaders wanted to modernize their societies on the pattern of the West. But progress in this direction was stalled or thwarted by the rise of religious fundamentalism in the 1970s.
On the religious fundamentalists, Dr.Ahmed says that they felt that intellectual freedom, democracy and human rights threatened the distinct identity of a community of believers held together by acceptance of the absolute truth and unquestioning authority of their sacred scriptures.
“Such a development included internal reform aiming at purging ‘unauthentic’ accretions and deviations that had crept into the beliefs and practices of their members over the course of centuries and instead restoring a standardised version of the faith,” Dr.Ahmed adds.
Even faiths without a book like Hinduism and Buddhism, created fundamentals and sought adherence to them with an iron hand. All these movements were directed against secularism, liberalism and democracy and were meant to create a basis for differentiated rights instead of equal rights of individuals and groups irrespective of communal affiliation.
“The experience from South and Southeast Asia conforms incontrovertibly that such a politics of religion has been invariably violence-prone and can take recourse to terrorism, wrecking innocent lives. In short, religious nationalism seeks to impose the will of brute majorities on hapless minorities; among assertive minorities, it takes the form of separatism and secessionism; and it provides an illegal basis for extraneous forces to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states in the name of worldwide religious bonds.”
“At times, even in majoritarian situations, such as in Islamic-dominant Indonesia and Malaysia, there have been assertive minority factions within that have tried to impose their views on the silent majority, thereby affecting the existing status quo.In effect, the politics of religion is subversive of the territorial nation-state project, and if not brought under control, can destabilise societies and threaten the security of states.”
World War II A Watershed
Liberalism as we know today, is barely 75 years old. It came after World War II and the ascendency of the United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was the watershed. It recognised a whole range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. UN conventions and covenants dealing with racism, genocide, freedom of religion and belief, discrimination against women, rights of the child, minority rights followed. A polity with emphasis on equal rights for all, including scope for special measures for vulnerable groups, began to be recognised as legitimate claims under the law, Dr. Ahmed points out.
But practical difficulties in enforcing the new commitments arose quickly enough. As Dr. Ahmed observes, the new order faced opposition from the deeply religious societies of South and Southeast Asia. The West-influenced elites had to take cognisance of the objective realities as religion-based nationalist and separatist movements began to challenge the post-colonial system. In India, a Muslim-majority Pakistan was created from a Hindu-majority united British India. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar there was majority Buddhist assertion and in Thailand and the Philippines, there was minority Muslim assertion.
In South Asia, economic stagnation not only slowed down modernisation but also triggered unrest, a part of which was led by Leftists and a part by the Rightists wedded to religion and religion-based nationalism. South Asian countries could have solved their socio-economic-political problems if only they were united and had cooperated. But disunity became the hallmark of the region, with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) becoming non-functional due to the perennial India-Pakistan conflict.
But the South East Asian countries were exempt from this as their Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) became a symbol unity and not discord. They also joined the West-led global capitalist economy to prosper. But politically, South East Asia is not homogenous. It is a mixed bag of democracies and dictatorships. However, thanks to all round economic growth, Left wing and Right wing radical movements are under check.
The rise of the oil rich Middle Eastern Islamic countries in the 1970s had both good and a bad effects. On the one hand they gave jobs to millions of persons from poverty-stricken South Asia, but on the other, they gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism/radicalism. Oil-rich Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia tried to dominate the world ideologically too. Their ideological brand, Wahabbism, began to be promoted aggressively creating all round tension. Wahabbism triggered rival Buddhist and Hindu movements and also opposition from Western democracies.
Dr. Ahmed says that the origin of the fundamentalist Islamic revival in the Middle East lay in the defeat of the Arabs in their wars against Israel. According to him, there was a myth that Israel was successful in its military conflicts with the Arabs because it was a religious-nationalist state while the Arabs were unsuccessful because God wanted to punish them for forsaking Islam in favour of secularism and socialism.
In Iran, religious extremism and fundamentalism burst out into the political arena with unprecedented force, riding a wave of popular agitations against the ruler’s dictatorial and repressive actions against both the Left and the religious Right. In 1977, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power in Pakistan and Islamised it thoroughly. He made Pakistan a part of the Jihad against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. But Zia’s Islamisation exacerbated tension with India where it gave a new impetus to aggressive anti-Muslim and nationalistic Hindu revivalism.
But the successful Afghan Jihad against the Soviets emboldened the Taliban and the Al Qaeda to challenge the US, their erstwhile ally and sponsor. The prolonged Afghan war, the war on terror and Islamophobia that we now see, have all stemmed from the conflict between the US and the radical Islamic outfits.