Understanding the demonization process
RELIGIOUS fundamentalism in the present age is like a mirror, a rear view mirror in which we see others in the historical traffic trailing behind our modernity, but not ourselves. There is no established religion in the world without fundamentalist sections. It is a part of the challenges and threats of change, an almost irresistible force in the history of the world in the last two centuries affecting all aspects from science and technology to lifestyles, from earlier authoritarian societies to modern liberal democratic ones. They are like the tides in our life which ebb and flow.
The fundamentalism of the media is a creature of another religion, another culture; a threatening spirit of either violence and death when the West looks East; or a libertine Satan of western consumerism and moral decay when the East looks West. To some extent it is an East-West divide, as also an old-new orthodox/heterodox and a generational divide. It is as subject to politicization as any divide in human affairs. And politicization encourages demonization in national and cultural forms, the way Khomeini, Gaddafi, the RSS and Shiv Sena have been demonized from one point of view, and the way western capitalism, Ronald Reagan, Hollywood, Coca-Cola and beauty queens have been demonized from another.
Each of these has deeper nuances from below the surface. They are identified as opposing national cultures beyond religions, and they take on nationalistic, jingoistic euphoria, far from matters of spirit and the transcendental in the original religions. So the media and nationalism create their own anti-national demons, and they then generate a primordial kind of hate and divisiveness. These once led to the Crusades, the wars of religion, to jehad, and even to the ‘white man’s burden’ in which colonialism and evangelism rode in tandem aboard the chariot of imperialism.
The politicization of any kind of fundamentalism in the 20th century has also led to the harsh phenomenon of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – from the Nazi holocaust of the Jews to the 1400 year old fratricidal conflict between the followers of Mohammed among Sunnis and Shias in the Islamic world, perhaps the world’s oldest fundamentalist conflict, or the ethnic civil wars in Africa and now in Serbia. The message, whether of religion or science or ideology, is diminished when it is made exclusive.
So if fundamentalism is not just the ugly face of another’s religion or culture or cult and is found in all major religions and cultures, these foregoing perceptions on both sides of the divide call for some deeper understanding of each and collectively. The alternative to understanding in this charged atmosphere between fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalists is mindless warring in a media-dominated politicized world. Let us first examine the varieties of fundamentalism, their differences and commonalties in each religion.
V.S. Naipaul in Among the Believers offered the first and simplest explanation for fundamentalism in Islam. He said Islam was finding it hard to cope with the modern world and hence its anger, frustration and rigid reactions. To an extent, this is common to all fundamentalisms: a fear of change hard to accept and cope with. Islamic fundamentalism puts women back behind the purdah, the latest experience being of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. To that extent it is an assertion of the traditional patriarchal society.
Further, there are degrees of the patriarch’s dominance in the roles of women within and outside the home and family. Khomeini made a demon of western consumerist society: ‘The Great Satan’, which included its freedom and equality of women, apart from what appeared to be a sinful, permissive society, the visual symbols of which were Hollywood and TV. Fundamentalistic clergy seemed to fear an open liberal scientific education which challenged their traditional authority, and as some educated Muslims have pointed out was not in accordance with the views of the Koran and the Prophet’s primary respect for ilm or knowledge. Even less fundamentalistic Islamic regimes seem to fear liberal, universal education as a threat to their authoritarian regimes. One wonders, therefore, whether the more fundamentalist a regime, the more politicized its fundamentalism as an instrument of power through religion. Islam, incidentally, is the only religion which knew state power in the time of its founder, first in Medina and then Mecca.
Christian fundamentalism expresses itself in a literal interpretation of the Bible, with no concessions to Newton in the cosmic world and Darwin in the world of evolutionary life on earth, especially about man, once regarded as being made by God in his own image. So sections of Christian fundamentalism too found it hard to come to terms with science as a source of truth. It has also found it hard to come to terms with aspects of modern social life in divorces (marriage as a sacrament, not a contract), with abortion (as violence to God-given life), and with women priests (as a mark of equality in clerical affairs).
Fundamentalist Christianity becomes even more evangelist, it seems to me, in the conversion of pagans and lost souls. Christianity also knows extreme politicization among the Irish on one side, and various religious cults in the U.S. on the other.
With all his great qualities as a world leader, Pope John Paul II is generally regarded as a Catholic fundamentalist, but his politicizing role is seen in a different light between the liberating role in Poland against communism and his apparently less liberal role in Latin America, in what has been called liberation theology. The former was clearly pro-West in political terms; the latter seemed against western values of human rights and liberal democracy. Yet, Pope John Paul II has also preached to the U.S.A. on human rights and opening its doors to the poor of Latin America.
Christian fundamentalism does not seem too strong or so adversarial as Islamic fundamentalism, as Christianity has also fostered its own liberation since the Renaissance, the Reformation, modern science, industrial democracy and secularism. These latter are strong forces, whereas they seem to be marginal in most Islamic societies. The Inquisition is long dead, but the fatwa still prevails. Christian women are far freer now than in, say 1800 AD; hardly so in Islam.
Five factors seem to dominate recent Hindu fundamentalism, uncharacteristic of it in all the past centuries. These are, first, anti-Muslim feelings arising out of the loss of power to the Muslims a millennia ago; second, conversions to Islam and Christianity perceived as a threat to numbers in a new democracy; third, a similar cultural threat from the West as that perceived by Islam affecting Sanskrit (vis-à-vis English), permissive lifestyles, films and tv; fourth, an East India Company complex towards the West in the economic and political sphere as a second invasion of Hindudom in the last millennium; and fifth, the political manifestations of all of these in the phenomenon of Hindutva, Swaraj and Swadeshi, in which religion, culture, politics and economics are all indissolubly mixed.
Fundamentalistic Islam and Hinduism share two things; first, an inability to draw distinctions between the religious and the secular; second, an East/West adversarial complex. Hence their strong and inevitable political implications lending weight to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in contemporary affairs. His thesis was that beyond economic and political interests in, say oil in the Middle East, the faultlines were civilizational and cultural, as between Christianity and Islam, or between Buddhist Tibetans and Communist Chinese, or between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Religious and cultural extremists then see these faultlines as political opportunities.
The two smaller archaic religions, Judaism and Zorastrianism, have their roots in fundamentalism in orthodox texts and ritualism. They find it hard to admit of modern rational changes, rather like the Papacy. Pristine forms and usages are paramount. Both have collective memories of conquest and persecution and the loss of identity after the loss of homelands in ancient Israel and ancient Iran. This affects the internal politics within the Zorastrian community. The political implications for Judaism are as much or more external as internal. This is because Judaism is a more far-flung faith than Zorastrianism, and its numbers and influence have been far larger in global affairs.
The far smaller Zorastrian diaspora beyond Iran and India, the two home countries, has been very recent, post 1970. Far from East-West hangups of Islam and Hinduism, both have taken a pragmatic view of westernization and modernization in the last two centuries, especially in education, business, and community welfare. They both share the psychology of isolates, a factor which encourages attachments to an orthodox, pristine past. Yet, they have embraced pragmatism to survive and prosper.
What major and significant conclusions can one come to in terms of similarities and dissimilarities in this complex and compelling phenomenon of global fundamentalism, spanning the most well-known religions, all originating in West and South Asia between the Mediterranean and the Ganga.
First, Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism appear to share an East-West complex, arising from the politicization of inner cultural and outer economic and political conflicts in the history of the last century, when East and West encountered each other in colonial and post-colonial conflict. To that extent, they seem to be part of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, beyond any one sphere of life. Apart from the East-West dimensions of these two fundamentalisms in the 20th century, their internal battleground, inter se, seems to have been the Indian subcontinent. It was a millennia-old story of Hindu-Muslim conflict which came to a climax in the partition of British India in 1947, and which has been festering since, with implications in neighbouring Islamic countries. Despite official India’s secular aspirations, Hindu fundamentalism has not expressed itself in any terrorist threats to the West as Islamic threats have been perceived by the West. Though, recently, both in Pakistan and in India, there have been violent attacks on small Christian communities, either on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan or conversions in India, the roots of obscurantist intolerance are the same.
Second, all fundamentalisms – Islamic, Hindu, Muslim, Judaism, to a far lesser extent Zorastrianism – have exhibited strong partiarchal tendencies affecting women’s roles and rights. Islam still largely enforces the purdah with all its socio-economic implications. Hinduism still has strong prejudices against the female child viz. the widespread practice of dowry marriage with its economic and social implications too. Occasionally, sati is still practised. Although most Christian societies have improved gender equality in the last century, ‘macho’ traditions of the old patriarchal society still continue, and Christian churches find it hard to admit women to the clergy. So far, earlier patriarchy is one of the roots of social fundamentalism.
Third, all fundamentalisms are afraid of change, scientific, technological, and democratic – from the problems of the Papacy with the Copernican revolution of the universe, the modern uses of biotechnology, to equal human rights for women – all the lifestyle implications of a liberal modern democracy. All such changes are part of that wider civilizational conflict of Huntington’s thesis, between and within societies. The more violent fundamentalisms do not hesitate to use the creations of science and technology to kill – be it bombs, nerve gas, or armaments. They reject the questioning, open-mindedness of good science.
Fourth, all fundamentalisms have been politicized, again between and within societies. They share a common view of other men as being depraved and evil, calling for a harsh priestly guardianship, and even state policies, in Islamic, Catholic, Hindu, or Buddhist states. They seek a religious and authoritarian state. They all pose the same basic questions to the modern societies: (i) what kinds of societies do we want to be in this turmoil of cultures? (ii) how can we retain our pristine purity, the ideals of religions as originally conveyed in religious texts, as practiced in early ritual and custom? and (iii) how can we keep at bay the cultural and other inroads and threats to perceived pristine purity and authenticity?
The heart of the problem lies in a world of irresistible change. This seemingly religious problem may well become the primary and fundamental problem of 21st century societies and states. It calls for a light global renaissance cum reformation in the light of two irresistible global forces – science, technology and their socio-economic and political implications and the spread of liberal democracies after the fall of Communism and military dictatorships. We are back to V.S. Naipaul’s thesis of coping between the old and the new worlds. This will be at the heart of future politics, even beyond the formidable forces of economics and technology. The psyche and the souls of human beings are no less important than bread, and all politicians know and manipulate it for political purposes.
Modern media has spread the belief that fundamentalism is solely a religious phenomenon. Some scientists also favour what may be called scientific fundamentalism. They may even advocate extremes of rationality, atheism, and even self-interest, particularly when more conservative public opinion could reduce their government grants for research, especially in areas denying patents in human genes and genetic engineering in animals and plants, a nebulous area between rational science and traditional values.
Some scientists behave like religious fundamentalists when they claim that science provides the answers to all questions in life; that matter is all; that there is a complete divorce between science and religion. They forget Einstein when he said, ‘Religion without science is lame, but science without religion is blind.’ Such scientists then also tend to become a dogmatic cult and cease to be open-minded searchers for realities and truths. In any case, all scientific ‘truths’ are provisional. Which scientist can claim the absolute, final truth?
Some fundamentalisms are, sadly, killjoys when they inhibit creativity and pleasure in such innocent things as music, the arts and dancing. This may extend to the unread banning of literature as well. In medieval Europe, this creativity of the mind inhibited science too, as in the case of Copernicus. Even Plato was a fundamentalist, when he banned poets in his authoritarian ‘Republic’. Most asceticism, a characteristic of fundamentalism – whether of the cave, the monastery, or the mosque – suppresses the innocent and moderate joys of life. To that extent it leads to a poverty of the human spirit, and that takes away from the legitimate creative happiness of life. In an age of rising liberal democracy, censorship too needs to be liberal.
One could well ask where lies true spirituality and true science and true art in this contemporary cauldron of spirit and matter, of culture and bread, of tolerance and intolerance, of the ethnic and the universal? Even in a more restricted field, what is happening to what was perceived as religion itself, which was once holistic to all human life.
When Einstein, the father of modern science said, ‘The most wonderful thing we can experience is the mysterious,’ the artificial curtain between the spiritual and the material, between the secular and the sacred was lifted, and not by a priest or a philosopher but by a scientist. That remark also sprang from the two roots of spirituality, the complex nature of God’s creation, and true human humility. What was hitherto regarded as the natural has become the supernatural. Science has moved into the divine artist’s handiwork, with its baffling complexities from the dna molecule to nebulae.
After four billion years of the earth’s evolution, after only two or three millennia of man’s religion, we are making a revolutionary re-entry into man’s mind with all the sciences finding Einstein’s spiritual mystery in the creative, evolutionary universe; with the expanding inter-faith religious movement; with the new spirituality of Gaia, once the Greek goddess of the earth, now the scientific self-regulating force of the earth; and with millions of individuals crossing part boundaries of church, temple, mosque and synagogue, seeking their own paths to a kind of spiritual fulfillment in an age of atomic turmoil everywhere, all the time. It is also a time, this entry into the next century and the next millennium, when the old power to control and govern is giving way to freedoms – new ways to allow, to empower, to liberate child and adult, men and women, East and West. New truths are emerging from the souls of men. One thing is clear. There is no single, simple truth: no single prophet of the word. As the poet, Robert Browning wrote in Paraclesus:
‘And to know rather consists in opening out a way, Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape.’
Will the 21st century see the beginnings of that ‘escape’ of ‘imprisoned splendour’, Einstein-like? Or will our fundamentalisms repeat the history of the past two millennia with the politicization of religion (and power), in place of true individual and group spirituality, creative and joyful art, and with science and technology raising the quality of life? One would hope that science, spirituality and art go together in the explorations of man’s consciousness in the 21st century.