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The politicisation of religion and the silence of the 'good'

Publication Date : 26-06-2014


For reasons which should be obvious, the Western media are currently focused sharply on the near civil war in Iraq and on the continuing intra-state turmoil in Syria.

Given the negative impact political and military developments in these states could have on Western economic and strategic interests, it should not come as a surprise if this section of the world media is thus engrossed.

The war of the sects in Iraq, in particular, seems to be of prime importance to the Western media, while the observer cannot escape the impression that the humanitarian crises in these situations are not getting the attention they deserve.

Whether it be Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, civilian suffering is of daunting proportions in these ‘trouble spots’ and the Western media owe it to the viewers and readers of the world to remain focused on this all-important dimension of the conflicts concerned.

These considerations underscore the need for unbiased, balanced reporting of events and issues in the ‘Killing Fields’ of the developing world and it is highly regrettable that the latter is not in a position to report and comment on its problems and concerns through media channels over which it exercises complete control and ownership.

Al Jazeera makes up somewhat for this deficiency but, ideally, the developing world ought to collectively own such means of communication. This is a task for the Non-Alligned Movement and G77+China, to name just two suitable developing countries’ forums.

What adds to the salience of these issues is the tendency on the part of the Western media to generally stereotypically and sensationally represent happenings in the developing countries.

True enough, the Shia-Sunni polarity is a reality in the Islamic world and is central to the current politico-military convulsions in Iraq and Syria, but it also confirms the view held by the less informed of the West and outside that ‘tribal’ bloodshed is rife in the developing world.

However, the role played by the West in spurring identity conflicts in the Third World is conveniently ignored by the Western media.

It is the numerous ‘capitalisms’ spawned by the West, including ‘casino capitalism’, which have triggered and sustained religious extremism and identity politics in the developing countries, but hardly any time is devoted by the Western media to this issue.

It is ‘market capitalism’ which in considerable measure eroded the norms and values of traditional societies, but these and connected questions are hardly enquired into by the Western media.

Instead, the realities of the Third World are interpreted stereotypically and simplistically in stark black and white terms.

The fact is that there are no ongoing ‘religious’ or ‘tribal wars’ in the Middle East, in the strict sense of those terms.

These are characterisations of convenience resorted to by the Western media and other opinion-making sections, which would like to see these developments in simplistic and misleading categories.

In the case of the media, seeing things in this light enables them to sell their products with relative ease to a sensation-prone readership or audience.

But the truth of the matter is far more complex and requires acute discernment to unravel. Religion is politicised by some disadvantaged sections for the purpose of rectifying perceived power imbalances and relations with other groups in a polity.

In the case of Iraq, following the installation in power of a mainly Shiite political leadership, with US backing, following the US-led Western invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sunnis have come to see themselves as disempowered.

The Sunnis’ identity as a separate sect in Islam comes to be accentuated in this struggle by the Sunnis to put right their power imbalance with the Shiites.

The ‘distinctiveness’ of sects comes to be emphasised in these seeming religious conflicts but what is actually sought, at bottom, is equitable political power.

Even Jihad or ‘holy war’, in general, which is closely associated with the Al-qaeda and the Taliban, needs to be seen as an adverse reaction by some sections of conservative, religious opinion to the erosion of their traditional way of life by Western culture, consumerism and materialism.

Giving this reaction an entirely religious complexion would be somewhat misleading because the armed reaction is prompted in the main by a sense of vulnerability and helplessness against forces which are seen as invasive and destructive of a cherished way of life, which, in turn, is seen as independent and self-sufficient.

Religion comes to cloak this drive to preserve a preferred way of life and cultural identity. Among other things, it helps in mobilising people behind a ‘cause’.

However, the use of religious rhetoric and slogans by the groups concerned has given rise to the misleading impression that violence is being religiously sanctioned.

This impression needs to be effaced and it would prove effective if the ‘moral majority’ comes forward to proclaim that Islam as such has no links with armed militancy.

Thus far, the moderates have kept largely silent and the undisturbed occupation of centre stage by the militant minority has enabled a number of controversial opinions to be expressed about the faith.

The ‘silent’ and peaceful majority has no choice but to break its silence and put the record straight on Islam.

Seen against the above backdrop, one would be justified in saying that it is the drive for power which underlies the misuse of religion by militant groups in even Sri Lanka.

We had a disquieting display of majoritarian chauvinism in the South of Sri Lanka recently and it goes without saying that even in the case of this country, the ‘moral majority’ needs to speak out and occupy centre stage in the politics of Sri Lanka.

If the peace-abiding majority allows itself to be crowded out by the militant minority, Sri Lanka would degenerate into an ethnically sharply polarised polity once again.

Reverting to Iraq, the US is doing right by calling on the Maliki administration to put in place an inclusive government which would provide substantial power for the Sunnis.

But is an attempt being made to shut the barn door after the horse has bolted? This is the poser the US would need to confront.

The impression one gets is that armed hostilities in both Iraq and Syria have intensified to such proportions that bringing the opposing parties to the negotiating table would prove an onerous challenge.

Attitudes have steadily hardened over the months amid the runaway violence that talking peace might prove a difficult proposition.

Yet, the ‘silent majority’ could play a role here by voicing against violence and attempting some bridge-building between the foes. It should also ensure the continuous alienation of the wider public from the armed groups.


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