One doesn't have to look too far to see the growing influence of religion in politics – whether in the rise of religious nationalist groups in India and Myanmar, or the religious influence that has led to a change in textbooks from the national curriculum in our own country.
Is religion being brought into politics by authoritarian regimes? Does the role that religion play in forming personal identity mean they are bound to enter into democratic politics? Is religion a tool for conflict or for legitimacy? Is it ever possible to separate religion and politics?
These were only some of the questions that came up at the session “Religion in politics: absolutism or democracy?”
with Azeem Ibrahim, Charles Glass, Jeff Kingston, Michael Vatikiotis and Zafar Sobhan, moderated by novelist and journalist Samrat Choudhury.
The mass appeal of religion v secularising forces
Azeem Ibrahim, who recently wrote a book on the Rohingya and is working on another on radicalisation, expressed his belief that religion and politics will always be intertwined “because first of all religion provides cover for many political manoeuvres and provides a complex discourse to legitimise political action, and secondly, religion still continues to play a very formative part in identity formation for people around the world.”
Charles Glass drew on his decades of experience as a journalist in the Middle East to provide a brief glimpse of the evolution of religion and politics in the region, referring to the secular, left politics of the 1970s led largely by the Palestinian revolution as well as Gamal Abed Nasser, former president of Egypt “who represented a great secular force.”
He said, “The role of religion began to assert itself during the Lebanese civil war and after the death of Nasser. Because secularism and socialism had failed to address the fundamental problems of the Arab world, people began to look elsewhere, and that void was filled by religion.”
However, he also added that while people were turning to religion, they were also turning away from religion playing a daily role in their lives – which is why the black flag of ISIS was not welcomed in most of the region.
Religion as a tool of legitimacy
Editor of Dhaka Tribune Zafar Sobhan explained the Bangladeshi context and current struggle between secular politics and religiously backed demands, saying that while many have viewed Awami League's willingness to negotiate with religiously affiliated groups as concerning, he believes it is only their attempt to co-opt an already existing movement and change or control its direction.
Michael Vatikiotis drew on his experience as a journalist and private diplomat in Southeast Asia to explain the Indonesian context and discussed how Islam is often used to win votes and legitimise political power struggles.
Does this mean that in democratic systems, the mass appeal of religion will inevitably influence politics, or worse, political leaders will always use religion as a tool of legitimacy?
At this point, Glass brought up what he called the “elephant in the room” - the role of the US in using religious language in their campaign against the “Godless communists,” and the violent ideological framework of Wahhabism that was created as a blow-back from Cold War policies.
However, Jeff Kingston, professor of history at Temple University Japan, argued that it is also important to look at the role played by state security forces especially in Asia, and used the examples of Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka, Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar and Front Pembela Islam in Indonesia to demonstrate how they were in some ways funded or established due to the intervention of national security forces.
While the panellists differed on the role and influence of different actors, they all agreed that different geopolitical struggles underwrite all religious conflicts across the world.