February issue 2012
Book Review: The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia
Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, a renowned scholar of Pakistani origin, is presently a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. However, this book The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia was conceived after a symposium in March 2009, when he was a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. The purpose of the seminar was to investigate the role of religion in the countries of South and South East Asia. Dr Ahmed, as editor, has given an overview of the politics of religion in this region, followed by articles on the two areas separately: on South Asia by Ali Riaz and South East Asia by Bilveer Singh. These are followed by research studies in the form of chapters on Pakistan (Ishtiaq Ahmed and Tahmina Rashid), India (Tridivesh Singh Maini, Ishtiaq Ahmed and Rajesh Rai), Bangladesh (Taj Hashmi), Malaysia (Maznah Mohamad), Indonesia (Noorhaidi Hasan), the Philippines (Raymond Jose G. Quilop) and Singapore (Eugene K. B. Tan).
These 14 chapters, followed by an index, comprise an erudite and insightful study of the oft-discussed role of religion in politics in this vast region of the globe.
In the overview, Ishtiaq Ahmed alludes to the different theories that explain the increasing salience of religion in politics, in significant countries of the world relevant to Pakistan, and the region in which this country is located. He argues that modernity destabilised the world since it was based on rationalistic refutations of tradition, religion and folk belief systems inherited from the past. The other complication that occurred in Asia, was the alienation of the modernising elites from the masses. With reference to western and modern categories of thinking, the latter remained pre-modern and non-rational. Some of these elites, nevertheless, sought legitimacy by appeals to religion which were based more on political expediency to gain popular support, rather than a conviction about the correctness of the viewpoint of the masses. Others opted for suppressing the religion-based worldview of the masses. But, as these elites failed to provide good governance and were seen as lackeys of western powers, a vacuum was created, either by deliberate effort or default, by this elite. These policies helped the religious narrative to permeate society. The success of the Iranian revolution contributed to creating a model which encouraged faith-based politics in the Muslim world.
The three chapters on Islam and Pakistan would be of most interest for a Pakistani readership and are, therefore, given more space here than other chapters. These include the two chapters by Ishtiaq Ahmed entitled ‘Religious nationalism and minorities in Pakistan’ (Chapter 6), and ‘Women under Islamic Law in Pakistan’ (Chapter 7), and the third by Tahmina Rashid (Chapter 14) on transnational cyber networks and Pakistani women. In the chapter on minorities in Pakistan, Ishtiaq Ahmed argues that there is a direct relationship between religious nationalism and the weakening of the rights of sectarian minorities. Pakistan’s early founding fathers were not in favour of making a dogmatic religious state, but they had defined nationalism in such a way that sooner or later the minorities could be excluded from it as they eventually were. The legal basis of such exclusion was laid down during General Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian rule, when the persecution of minorities was conspicuously meted out by the religiously inspired masses, rather than the state which still had a justice system which could, in theory at least, try cases of a religious nature. However, this legal nicety is not even given lip service by enraged members of the public in cases perceived as violations of religion.
As for women, Ishtiaq Ahmed extends the same argument to account for the persecution of women. Basically, traditional mindsets choose such interpretations of Islamic injunctions which facilitate such persecution. In a sense, these are consequences to the politicisation of Islam and its increased role in society. Tahmina Rashid explains how this happened, and especially how organisations such as Al-Huda and the Tableeghi Jamaat spread their message in society, by contesting traditional Islamic authority, both locally and internationally.
Let us take the cases of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. In Bangladesh, the polity, though created on secular principles, is passing into the hands of Islamic militants who are increasingly becoming accepted leaders. In Indonesia, the leadership started accommodating Islam in the polity after the 1990s. However, Noorhaidi Hasan has also indicated that there is a possibility of the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) making their interpretation of Islam compatible with democracy. In Malaysia, the ruling elite has used Islam to consolidate a strong, supportive, cohesive majority with appeal to the Islamic identity. This entails not only subordinating non-Muslim minorities in various ways, but also Muslims whose interpretation or practices are not compatible with the monolithic version of Islam, promoted by the Islamist or Malay-nationalist elite. In the case of two non-Muslim majority countries, such as the Philippines and Singapore, religion plays a less salient role. However, for the Philippines, Quilop tells us that Catholicism does affect politics, but only the electoral part of it, and that too is far less than in some Muslim countries. However, the Muslim minority in South Philippines does use the symbol of its Islamic identity to demand their rights, including greater autonomy or even independence, though how far that will be successful is not discussed by the author. Similarly, Tan argues that in multi-religious Singapore, the government uses religion not so much to privilege any one faith but to keep a balance between them while also keeping them away from the public sphere.
The articles on resurgent Hindutva and Sikhism are interesting in that they point to new forces in the politics of South Asia which have not yet been properly taken into account. Rajesh Rai argues that Hindutva groups have established a strong presence among the Hindu diasporas living in the USA, UK, East Asia and elsewhere. They have strengthened the nineteenth century movement to convert a basically ethnic category (those who live across the Indus) into a cohesive religious category on the model of the Abrahamic religions. This reduces the regional interpretations of traditional Hindu communities and, further, impacts India’s relations with Pakistan, since nationalism has become an important strand of the Hindutva identity. Ishtiaq Ahmed focuses on the internal aspects of Hinduism, with special reference to the caste system in India. He argues, that India should combat ‘reactionary Hindu culture in society and greater state intervention to bring about egalitarian change that benefits both the majority and minorities,’ (p. 63). This is an imperative which South Asian elites should keep in kind in both India and Pakistan. In his chapter on Sikh politics, Maini argues that although there are common factors for mutual affection between the Pakistani, Muslim and Sikh identities, future relationships between the two communities will depend greatly on the treatment of Sikh minorities and Sikh shrines in Pakistan by militant groups and the state.
In short, this book is a rich source of useful information and an excellent analysis of the role of religion in politics in the context of South and South East Asia. It has been very competently edited by a scholar who has deep insight into the politics of this region. I recommend this book as a milestone of research on South Asia to scholars of this region as well as the lay reader.
This book review was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Faith and Politics.”