2007-07-10

The problem with Moslems in the world’s largest democracy

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by Neil Godfrey

The second largest Muslim population in the world lives in the world’s largest democracy, India. How democratic? Professor Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at Chicago University, explains the success of Indian democracy:

Yes, I think the founding fathers set up a political structure that’s very stable, that is very wisely designed, so political structure is part of it. They also guaranteed a free press and all the institutions that make it possible for voters to really feel empowered, such as local village councils, which was one of Gandhi’s big ideas. So you know, it’s a very successful democracy. It has higher voter turnouts by far than the US.

But there is a problem. India’s Muslims are not violent enough. They haven’t produced a raft of international terrorists. They just want to live at peace with their Hindu neighbours. They don’t even want to overthrow their nation’s democratic government and institute Sharia law for all. And they are the second largest conglomeration of Muslims after Indonesia.

So what has gone wrong? Why do Indian Muslims make a complete mockery of what many self-respecting westerners all know: that the Muslim faith is a violent religion, instilling intolerant murderous intents in most of its adherents, with a lurking intent to take over whatever government they live under in order to spread their medieval barbarism?

But it gets worse. For a short time the Indian Muslim population was being put in their place, under control, through discrimination and even, sometimes, violent bloody persecution. This was when the BJP, the “neo-con” nationalist Hindu party of India, was in power (1998-2004). But then the Indian voters, far from being impressed by seeing the Muslim population get their come-uppance, kicked the BJP out.

So what gives? Could it possibly be that intolerance, bigotry and violence, whether religious or otherwise, is a consequence of something more than one’s religious adherence? Is it possible that in all major religions followers can find both positive and negative dogmas, and that there is rarely a simple explanation why the good or bad will dominate in any particular region or time? Recall Christianity has both practiced and condemned slavery and racism, war and oppression of women and children, capitalism and socialism, according to the time and society in which it found itself. Could it be similar with Islam?

One clue may be found in Robert Pape’s Dying to Win. His comprehensive study of suicide bombing attacks since the 1980’s establishes that such terrorist movements are spawned in countries whose governments support a particular historical way of dealing with Muslim nations and peoples, and in particular give both moral and material support to the leading actors of ongoing imperialist and exploitative ventures against people’s who happen to be mostly Muslim. The control cases that support this show the same sorts of terrorist activities in Lebanon and Sri Lanka where the perpetrators are non-Muslim but who nevertheless face imperial oppression.

Someone once did a study of the Gospel of Mark’s story of the exorcism of Legion that argued the possibility that what was then interpreted as demon possession was in fact a mental condition caused by Roman imperial oppression. People’s identities are tied in with our larger family grouping, such as our nation or tribe. When that larger entity, such as a whole people, is shamed, humiliated, treated as subservient, then it affects all who identify with that oppressed people. Ghassan Hage (Against Paranoid Nationalism) speaks of real life being so unbearable that some will prefer to exchange it for the symbolic life that will survive them in the hearts and minds of those they leave behind — leave behind, that is, through exercising the only power they can against their oppressors by suicidally taking an eye or even more than one for the many eyes they have seen lost around them.

India’s Muslims do not live under a government that supports those nations exercising belligerence and revenge against masses of innocents in order to achieve specific “self-interest” or “self-defence” goals. Apart from the brief flirtation with the BJP India has a proud history of neutrality and support for (not exploitation of) Third World nations.

Could it be, then, that India’s Muslims as a whole do not feel the same national psychic humiliation of living in a nation that is party to the oppression of their broader religious brotherhood or community?

Instead, they live in a democracy of which they can feel proud, and in which they feel empowered. Does that make the difference?

The Hindu extremists who attacked the Muslims during the rule of the BJP learned their violent ways from “exchange programs” in the 1930’s with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. There are similar extremist or fundamentalists in the US, primarily from among the Southern Baptist states. Anatol Lieven (America, Right or Wrong) has drawn certain parallels between some of these groups and the fascist and nazi groups in Europe in the 1920’s — idealistic, intolerant, promising a great future but only by replacing “degeneracy” with “purity”, highly moral, conservative, and only a few suspecting the depths to which such attitudes would inevitably drive them once in power. As Chris Hitchens (God is Not Great) reminds us, religious groups may come across as obsequiously demanding now, but we don’t have to look far abroad or into the past to recall what they are/were like when the do/did have the power.

(Thought: Those who follow international diplomatic news will be aware of current U.S. led attempts to bring India into a pro-Western anti-Chinese alliance of nations. If that does happen, it will be interesting to see to what extent the Indian government supports that grouping and its long term consequences for Muslim-Hindu relations in India.)

I highly recommend a transcript (or even podcast if you’re quick enough) of an interview with Martha Nussbaum (quoted above) and the comparisons drawn there between the two largest democracies, India and the United States, and their respective experiences of religious fundamentalism in the context of democracy, with particular reference to attitudes to Muslim (or their non fundamentalist) populations. Check it out here — on Radio National’s program (Australian), The Religion Report. (The above citation is taken from the transcript there.)

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