Interrogating Religious Radicalism
A principal premise of all forms of religiousradicalism—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim orother—is a stark and rigid dualism. Religiousradicalism reflects a very simplistic, and, to itsadherents, a very convenient way of looking at theworld, saving them from the onerous task of carefullyexamining it in all its complexity. It divides all ofhumankind into two neat compartments, hermeticallysealed off from each other and projected as beinginherently and permanently at odds. One part ofhumanity is projected as consisting of the ‘chosen’ones: fervent soldiers of God, ardently strugglingagainst all odds to implement His will. The rest ofhumankind is depicted as ‘deviant’, ‘irreligious’ oreven worse: as enemies of God and helpers of theDevil.
In this stark way of compartmentalising all ofhumanity, what people of different religions share incommon, their common hopes, fears, joys and sorrowsand their innate humanness thus come to beinvisiblised, forgotten or even rudely denied. Goodthings in other religions or philosophies are eitherignored or else referred to grudgingly as only‘partial’ and ‘limited’ and, therefore, as inadequatefor salvation. True, often enough, when pressed withevidence that belies their claims, religious radicalswill admit that people who do not adhere to theirparticular ideology, too, are human beings, or evenchildren of the one God. Yet, in the same breath theywould also insist that for these others to be truly‘saved’, to be truly true to God, they must abandontheir beliefs and ways and join their ranks. Onlythen, they argue, would God be pleased with them. Andif they refuse, they would, they contend, continue tobe considered by God as His ‘enemies’, and theirpersonal piety and goodness would count for nothing,failing to save them from perdition in the life afterdeath.
Aspects of the various faith traditions or alternateunderstandings of these that seem to question theprincipal premise of ideology of religious radicalismare routinely glossed over, denied or sought to besuitably ‘explained’ away by religious radicals. Notsurprisingly, in the South Asian context, forinstance, both Hindutva and Islamist religiousradicals routinely denounce popular forms of religion,such as the humanistic tradition of many Bhakti andSufi saints, which, while speaking in the name ofreligion, evoke a common humanity transcendingnarrowly inscribed boundaries of caste and creed. Suchtraditions are seen as a menacing threat to the stern,straight-jacketed dualist ideology that religiousradicalism is premised on.
Religious radicals see human beings as defined by onlyone identity out of the many that they actuallypossess: their religion. All other identities, such asof class, caste, sect, nationality, region and gender,are considered only secondary, at best. Because theseidentities sometimes threaten to disturb and challengethe ideological hegemony that religious radicals seekto impose in the name of religion, those who share abroader religious tradition with the radicals butinterpret it differently and speak for these otheridentities are routinely branded as dreaded ‘fifthcolumnists’, ‘agents’ of the enemies of what ispresented as the one true faith.
Thus, for instance,Dalits who demand reservations and denounce ‘upper’caste domination are denounced by Hindutva ideologuesas ‘pawns’ in the hands of the ‘enemies’ of Hinduism,who are alleged to be using the Dalits to destroy the‘unity’ of the Hindus. Likewise, Muslims who speak forMuslim ethnic and sectarian minorities, such asSindhis and Baluchis or Shias in Pakistan, are quicklyberated as ‘enemies’ of Islam by Islamists, who insistthat the only identity one should possess or be proudof is that of being Muslim. To talk of otheridentities is thus a major threat to those who wishpolitical discourse and people’s worldviews to bedefined solely by religion, and that too by their ownparticular, fiercely dualistic, version of it.
Related to this is the point that religious radicalismoften serves the function of preserving and promotingthe interests of entrenched elites or of middle-classelements seeking that status. Religious radicalism,generally speaking, reflects a certain cognitive orintellectual arrogance that is sternly elitist: ‘Wealone are right, and others, including people of otherfaiths as well as people who claim to follow our faithbut follow or understand it differently are wrong”.But this suffocating elitist exclusivity does notremain limited to the realm of discourse. More often,it is consciously used to forcibly counter other,particularly subaltern, ways of understanding the verysame religious tradition that religious radicals claimto represent—witness the fervent opposition of Hinduand Muslim radicals to popular Hindu and Muslimsubaltern cults, which has, throughout history, takeneven violent forms. Witness, too, the fiercepersecution of various subaltern Christian sects bythe Catholic Church. Such alternate forms of religionare seen as in urgent need of being countered andsuppressed, peacefully or by manipulation, but, ifthat fails, then through force, because theyeffectively challenge the claims of religious radicalsof being the sole spokespersons of the religion theyclaim to represent.
Religious radicalism is also often used to suppressdemands articulated by subaltern groups protestingagainst their subordination at the hands of elites whoare associated with their own broadly definedreligious tradition. As part of this agenda, religiousradicals seek to entice the oppressed to turn theirwrath onto people of other faiths instead, who areprojected in radical religious discourse as their real‘enemy’. Hence, for instance, Dalits protesting‘upper’ caste Hindu hegemony are told that they shouldcease serving the agenda of the ‘enemies’ of theHindus and that, instead, they should attack Muslims,who are projected in Hindutva discourse as the great,menacing ‘other’. Similarly, in Pakistan, workers andpeasants struggling against landlords and thefeudal-industrial elites and non-Punjabis opposed toPunjabi hegemony are warned by radical Islamists tocease what they denounce as their ‘anti-Islamic’agenda which, they claim, is inspired by the ‘enemies’of Islam and calculated to divide the Muslim ‘ummah’against itself. Instead, they are told, they shouldjoin hands with their fellow Muslim oppressors in ajoint struggle against a range of forces who areroutinely depicted as Islam’s ‘enemies’, including theHindus, India, the West and so on. Religiousradicalism is thus often consciously used as a deviceto keep subaltern groups associated with the samebroadly defined religious tradition as the radicalsfirmly in their subordinated position. In this sense,therefore, religious radicalism is more often than notan enemy of most members of the very community whosefaith tradition it claims to represent and champion.
Because they speak the same idiom ofreligiously-inspired exclusivity and sharp dualism,different religious radicalisms, while claming to beinveterately opposed to each other, actually feed onone another, all being opposed to the recognition andcelebration of a common humanity and of alternatetruth claims. In effect, therefore, the ideology ofreligious radicalism is a major stumbling block togenuine inter-faith dialogue and solidarity. At a timewhen religious identities are playing a major role inshaping world affairs and local as well as translocalconflicts, religious radicalism needs to be criticallyinterrogated. While the complex economic, politicaland cultural roots of many of these conflicts have tobe addressed, the religious or ideological dimensionsalso need to be carefully understood and critiqued.Although not adequate by itself for this purpose,promoting alternate understandings of each religion,more accepting and accommodative of other religionsand their adherents, is a crucial necessity in thisregard.