Is Zionism relevant today? Or for that matter Hindutva or Islamism? Whether it is India, with its ruling party – the BJP, which has a strong Hindu revivalist motif or Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, after a debacle of sorts, religion and religious parties continue to challenge our understanding of politics and public life. The question that is of interest to me is: Are these religious nationalist parties relevant? Is the idea of religious nationalism – by which I mean a political party or group that uses strong religious symbolism to create its nationalistic identity – relevant? What sort of a world does this lead to and more crucially, can we all live with a ‘plural’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a country?
Recent scholarship has challenged our understanding of public religions. For instance, Jose Casanova, a prominent scholar of sociology of religion has written extensively about the phenomenon of ‘Public Religions in the Modern World,’ where he argues that our understanding of privatization of religion perhaps needs revision, given that it evolved in the context of Western Europe’s enlightenment. The battles fought between the Church and the ‘enlightened’ were real – and often bloody- before the Church gave in and realized that religion had to be a ‘private’ issue. But we are once again, seeing the ‘return to religion,’ across the world. Or is it that religion never really left the public sphere, but scholars and observers just didn’t write about it or frame the discussion of religion using that understanding?
Casanova himself argues that his own understanding of public religion was flawed primarily because it was ‘Western-centric’ and also that there needs to be a more ‘global comparative’ component to transnational religions. This means that one cannot directly apply the ideas of how religion is supposed to operate in the West on the non-Western world. As he suggests, religion and ‘secularism’ themselves are constructs that emerged in a Western model of society and one that may call for reexamination, given the historical development of how this model of the world has changed.
As a Muslim who grew up in India, I am always surprised in ways that my own understanding of Islam – as a force for social organization – differs from that of others who grew up in Muslim majority countries. I have had discussions, debates and arguments with folk who want to see Islam as a ‘perfect’ system that doesn’t need change. I fail to understand how they don’t see their ‘Islam’ as a constructed reality, not an immutable and unchanging idea. Which ‘Islam’ one follows is truly a matter of one’s social circumstance? And I don’t mean to simplify this by alluding to the cliché of ‘extreme’ or Salafi Islam and ‘Sufi’ Islam – that is Islam for Dummies and I will spare you more of those simplistic generalizations.
When I hear of Hindu nationalists trying to ‘save Indian culture’ or Islamists trying to ‘preserve Islam’ or Zionists trying to be the guardians of Israel, they are all talking about roughly the same thing – how do we project and preserve our version of our religion in the public domain. While many Western style democracies (including India and Israel) allow for ‘pluralism’, the challenge really is preserving this plurality of voices. Each time a leader or idea is criticized; there is often a hue and cry, as if the entire religious edifice is being questioned. Questioning Mr.Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India is not questioning Hinduism. Hindutva is not Hinduism. It is a political manifestation (and a rather recent one) of what some Hindus think it is.
Similarly, calling to doubt the ways that Zionism operates today doesn’t mean that one is attacking Judaism – the problem with religious nationalism is that it wants us to conflate the groups ideology with that of the nation – and vice versa. This is where the real danger is. This uni-dimensional narrative of ‘One India’ or ‘One nation’ leaves out the many narratives that have shaped the nation. This muzzling of power to dominate the narrative is what most religious nationalist organizations attempt. While there is no real reason to discriminate against them, only for this reason, there is a need for caution and vigilance. As much as I dislike the aggressive nature of Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to grab power, it is a fact that they are part of the political framework of Egypt (or at least were). To deny them participation in the public sphere is to deny them a constitutionally mandated freedom. The same applies to political parties in India or religious groups in the U.S. – as odious as their rhetoric may be.
This brings us back to the question I started with: Is religious nationalism relevant today? I think not. While religion gives us meaning, and I certainly don’t have a problem with that, politics in today’s world should be about a vision for our society, as a whole. Not just for one’s community or group. This narrowing of vision can lead to what William Connolly has called ‘miniaturization of human beings.’ While religion can be a force for social good– through philanthropy, social activism etc- there is also danger in this identity based politics can become majoritarian. I am fine with religion and OK with politics. To mix them in together seems to be a heady cocktail, most modern nation-states cannot tolerate, too well. We have Egypt, Israel and to some extent India as examples, before us.