Interrogating Religious Radicalism
A principal premise of all forms of religious radicalism—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or other—is a stark and rigid dualism. Religious radicalism reflects a very simplistic, and, to its adherents, a very convenient way of looking at the world, saving them from the onerous task of carefully examining it in all its complexity. It divides all of humankind into two neat compartments, hermetically sealed off from each other and projected as being inherently and permanently at odds. One part of humanity is projected as consisting of the ‘chosen’ ones: fervent soldiers of God, ardently struggling against all odds to implement His will. The rest of humankind is depicted as ‘deviant’, ‘irreligious’ or even worse: as enemies of God and helpers of the Devil.
In this stark way of compartmentalising all of humanity, what people of different religions share in common, their common hopes, fears, joys and sorrows and their innate humanness thus come to be invisiblised, forgotten or even rudely denied. Good things in other religions or philosophies are either ignored or else referred to grudgingly as only ‘partial’ and ‘limited’ and, therefore, as inadequate for salvation. True, often enough, when pressed with evidence that belies their claims, religious radicals will admit that people who do not adhere to their particular ideology, too, are human beings, or even children of the one God. Yet, in the same breath they would also insist that for these others to be truly ‘saved’, to be truly true to God, they must abandon their beliefs and ways and join their ranks. Only then, they argue, would God be pleased with them. And if they refuse, they would, they contend, continue to be considered by God as His ‘enemies’, and their personal piety and goodness would count for nothing, failing to save them from perdition in the life after death.
Aspects of the various faith traditions or alternate understandings of these that seem to question the principal premise of ideology of religious radicalism are routinely glossed over, denied or sought to be suitably ‘explained’ away by religious radicals. Not surprisingly, in the South Asian context, for instance, both Hindutva and Islamist religious radicals routinely denounce popular forms of religion, such as the humanistic tradition of many Bhakti and Sufi saints, which, while speaking in the name of religion, evoke a common humanity transcending narrowly inscribed boundaries of caste and creed. Such traditions are seen as a menacing threat to the stern, straight-jacketed dualist ideology that religious radicalism is premised on.
Religious radicals see human beings as defined by only one identity out of the many that they actually possess: their religion. All other identities, such as of class, caste, sect, nationality, region and gender, are considered only secondary, at best. Because these identities sometimes threaten to disturb and challenge the ideological hegemony that religious radicals seek to impose in the name of religion, those who share a broader religious tradition with the radicals but interpret it differently and speak for these other identities are routinely branded as dreaded ‘fifth columnists’, ‘agents’ of the enemies of what is presented as the one true faith. Thus, for instance, Dalits who demand reservations and denounce ‘upper’ caste domination are denounced by Hindutva ideologues as ‘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 for Muslim ethnic and sectarian minorities, such as Sindhis and Baluchis or Shias in Pakistan, are quickly berated as ‘enemies’ of Islam by Islamists, who insist that the only identity one should possess or be proud of is that of being Muslim. To talk of other identities is thus a major threat to those who wish political discourse and people’s worldviews to be defined solely by religion, and that too by their own particular, fiercely dualistic, version of it.
Related to this is the point that religious radicalism often serves the function of preserving and promoting the interests of entrenched elites or of middle-class elements seeking that status. Religious radicalism, generally speaking, reflects a certain cognitive or intellectual arrogance that is sternly elitist: ‘We alone are right, and others, including people of other faiths as well as people who claim to follow our faith but follow or understand it differently are wrong”. But this suffocating elitist exclusivity does not remain limited to the realm of discourse. More often, it is consciously used to forcibly counter other, particularly subaltern, ways of understanding the very same religious tradition that religious radicals claim to represent—witness the fervent opposition of Hindu and Muslim radicals to popular Hindu and Muslim subaltern cults, which has, throughout history, taken even violent forms. Witness, too, the fierce persecution of various subaltern Christian sects by the Catholic Church. Such alternate forms of religion are seen as in urgent need of being countered and suppressed, peacefully or by manipulation, but, if that fails, then through force, because they effectively challenge the claims of religious radicals of being the sole spokespersons of the religion they claim to represent.
Religious radicalism is also often used to suppress demands articulated by subaltern groups protesting against their subordination at the hands of elites who are associated with their own broadly defined religious tradition. As part of this agenda, religious radicals seek to entice the oppressed to turn their wrath onto people of other faiths instead, who are projected in radical religious discourse as their real ‘enemy’. Hence, for instance, Dalits protesting ‘upper’ caste Hindu hegemony are told that they should cease serving the agenda of the ‘enemies’ of the Hindus and that, instead, they should attack Muslims, who are projected in Hindutva discourse as the great, menacing ‘other’. Similarly, in Pakistan, workers and peasants struggling against landlords and the feudal-industrial elites and non-Punjabis opposed to Punjabi hegemony are warned by radical Islamists to cease 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 should join hands with their fellow Muslim oppressors in a joint struggle against a range of forces who are routinely depicted as Islam’s ‘enemies’, including the Hindus, India, the West and so on. Religious radicalism is thus often consciously used as a device to keep subaltern groups associated with the same broadly defined religious tradition as the radicals firmly in their subordinated position. In this sense, therefore, religious radicalism is more often than not an enemy of most members of the very community whose faith tradition it claims to represent and champion.
Because they speak the same idiom of religiously-inspired exclusivity and sharp dualism, different religious radicalisms, while claming to be inveterately opposed to each other, actually feed on one another, all being opposed to the recognition and celebration of a common humanity and of alternate truth claims. In effect, therefore, the ideology of religious radicalism is a major stumbling block to genuine inter-faith dialogue and solidarity. At a time when religious identities are playing a major role in shaping world affairs and local as well as translocal conflicts, religious radicalism needs to be critically interrogated. While the complex economic, political and cultural roots of many of these conflicts have to be addressed, the religious or ideological dimensions also 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 religions and their adherents, is a crucial necessity in this regard.