By Chandra Muzaffar
(Paper prepared for the International Workshop on “ Religion and Global Citizenship” organized by the Arizona State University, USA and the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya, Malaysia from 2 to 4 August 2015 at Pullman Hotel, Kuala Lumpur)
This is not the best time to examine the interface between religion and global citizenship. Within almost every religious community, there are groups whose words and deeds subvert the very essence of global citizenship which is respect for the other as an equal citizen of the global community. These groups not only subscribe to a narrow, bigoted, exclusive view of their religion but often marginalize those whom they regard as outside their ken and sometimes even seek to eliminate them.
The Perversions of Religion
One of the most notorious of these groups at this point in time is ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham) or IS ( the Islamic State) or to use its Arabic name, Da’eesh ( ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah).For the purpose of this study, we are not concerned with the history and evolution of Da’eesh, a subject on which a lot has been written.(1)Our focus will be upon its ideas and its activities and how they contradict notions of global citizenship.
Da’eesh has indulged in collective massacres and individual beheadings in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria. Shias have been its principal target but this violent, brutal group has also killed fellow Sunnis apart from Christians, Yazidis and other minorities without mercy. It has forced Christians and Yazidis to convert to Islam or face death.(2) Da’eesh has also destroyed the places of worship of Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazidis and others. In this regard, it is somewhat strange that this barbaric group that has no respect for religious diversity has not been known to destroy Jewish synagogues though there are synagogues in Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq and in Aleppo in Syria. Da’eesh has also desisted from murdering Jews resident in areas that are now under its illegal jurisdiction.(3)
Because of its ability to capture vast tracts of territory in both Syria and Iraq, Da’eesh has acquired a certain aura in militant circles within the Muslim world. Militant groups in Libya and parts of Northern Nigeria and West Africa have now pledged allegiance to Da’eesh. This includes the infamous Boko Haram of Nigeria. There are other militant groups, some of which are rivals of Da’eesh that are also active and well-organized on the ground. One of them is Jabhat al-Nusra which operates mainly in Syria. The Taliban is another militant movement which from the nineties has been a formidable force in Afghanistan and now has its tentacles in Pakistan as well. It was associated at a certain point to Al-Qaeda which emerged from the armed campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the eighties and has affiliates in a number of countries in West Asia and North Africa (WANA), other parts of the African continent, various Asian countries and even in Europe and North America. In Southeast Asia for instance, Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf are purportedly linked to Al-Qaeda.
While there are marked differences among these militant groups in both ideology and tactics, there are perhaps two characteristics that they share to a greater or lesser degree. One, as it should be obvious, they are doggedly determined to pursue their goal, whatever it may be, through violence. This fanatical attachment to violence which would tantamount to the ruthless elimination of the other means that these militant groups have no inkling of an all-embracing vision of citizenship, whether national or global, that cherishes diversity. Two, each of these groups subscribes to a view of Islam which is self-righteous, exclusive, dogmatic and bigoted. There is no tolerance at all for dissent or differences of opinion in their understanding of the religion.Here again, they adhere to a position which is the antithesis of citizenship which by its very nature celebrates diverse perspectives on reality as an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of each and every individual that constitutes the collective.
Turning now to groups that are often seen as part of the Christian Right, there are perhaps at least two tendencies that are antithetical to global citizenship. Proselytization is integral to the work of these groups. It involves targeting non-Christians. The message of Christ, so to speak, is brought to them sometimes in an aggressive manner to persuade them to abandon the religion they had inherited and embrace the new faith. A recent study has shown that in the context of multi-religious Malaysia it is Buddhists, Hindus, animists and other minorities that are subjected to this proselytization mainly because the Malaysian Constitution prohibits the dissemination of other religious doctrines among the Muslim majority. Nonetheless, Christian Right preachers continue to try to spread their version of Christianity among Muslims through subtle ways. Prophecies “are routinely made over Malaysia by evangelicals. And the message is always the same: Malaysia is a divinely-chosen part of God’s plan to defeat the powers of darkness — and in particular Islam. James Goll, founder of the Encounter Network, had this to say in 2009:
“…the Islamic veil is going to be torn in two in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. …Even though the Lord could choose a nation that could appear to be less volatile like Singapore, the Lord is going to put His finger down for a militant reason in Malaysia. There is a fertile field called desperation that is in Malaysia….
“And so I just call forth that the hand of the Lord will come down upon Malaysia… Laws are going to change in this land. The Lord has ….a great surprise for Malaysia… A spiritual invasion….
“….Singapore has the strategic place in the middle of it all….Singapore will be ….an apostolic strategizing center for the purpose of bringing breakthrough. There will be a HOLY ALLIANCE….between the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia.
….There will be a prophetic act that is going to happen in Malaysia that has something to do with twin towers, but it’s now going to be as twin religions of Buddhism and Islam….the Lord is going to cause two towers of idols to fall…for Jesus Christ’s sake.” (4)
Proselytization of this sort by Christian Right groups, a number of whom are Christian Zionists, breeds inter-religious suspicion and distrust. It could well become a source of tension and friction in multi-religious societies especially since the Christian Right is spreading its influence in various parts of the world. There is no need to emphasize that religious proselytization undermines global citizenship. For one of global citizenship’s oft-stated principles is respect for the religious and cultural beliefs and practices of the other without which there can be no peaceful co-existence between people of different religious and cultural affiliations.
It is not just the Christian Right’s proselytization that is a threat to global citizenship. The Christian Right in the United States of America is an enthusiastic supporter of war aimed at perpetuating US global hegemony. The US led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 in particular “fired the evangelical imagination for many reasons — not least because elements in the US Government right up to the President, sought to play up its “biblical” significance. Senators, congressmen, a Majority Leader, a Speaker of the House, Secretaries of State and their senior officers, and the President himself all portrayed the conflict as one between the Judeo-Christian world and the world of Satan, highlighting the place of the Middle East in “End Time” theology. Popular writers like Tim LaHaye exploited the perception, as did many of the movement’s pastors and theologians. Little wonder, then, that there was a marked convergence between evangelical mythology and the world institutions of military occupation — right down to the use of the torture chamber.
“The justification of torture is usually a matter of political or military expediency, with little connection to religion. In the present “War on Terror”, however, this is clearly not the case. The Americans’ own use of terror (both within and without the torture chamber) has a strongly Christian character — in its theological justification, in its political and cultural rationale, and in its detailed calibration. Over 40% of the US military’s active personnel consider themselves to be evangelical Christians, and 60% of all military chaplains are evangelical Christians. And American evangelicalism — makes for a particularly toxic view of a coloured, poor and Muslim enemy. It also provides the excuse for using torture as a weapon of Holy War.” (5)
The animosity and antagonism generated by war invariably widens the chasm between peoples making it more difficult to develop a shared notion of global citizenship. It is worse when the purpose of war is to perpetuate global hegemony. Since hegemony in essence means the control and dominance of the many by a few, the latter, expectedly, has very little understanding or empathy for the former. In fact, the latter more often than not tends to look down upon the former, because of the power that the latter exercises over the former. (6) This is why a hegemonic relationship in the international arena is least conducive for the emergence of a global citizenship based upon equality, justice and respect.
A doctrine of superiority deeply entrenched in the psyche of a people is even more stark in the case of the Jews. Jewish supremacy, it has been argued by Jewish scholars themselves such as the late Israel Shahak, is the product of perhaps three thousand years of Jewish history and Jewish religion. He shows how the Talmud and Talmudic literature legitimizes blatant discrimination against non-Jews.(7) Their influence has persisted in the contemporary era. Extremist rabbis believe that …. “A thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew’s fingernail.” (8)
It is because of such attitudes that in 2007 “ Israel’s former chief rabbi, Mordechai Elyahu called for the Israeli army to mass-murder Palestinians. In fanatical language he said: “If they don’t stop after we kill 100, then we must kill 1000. And if they don’t stop after 1000, then we must kill 10,000. If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000. Even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop.” (9)
Though such belligerency is confined to a minority, “Israel’s religious community wields considerable influence politically, in the military and society overall. Moreover, synagogues and yeshivas are popular places where people gather to discuss issues of common interest and hear the views of their rabbinical leaders.” (10)
It goes without saying that virulent hatred towards the other is a major impediment in the endeavor to develop a truly global community bound together by common citizenship. To overcome such venom — albeit within a minority — is no easy task.
Outside the so-called Abrahamic religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), within the Indic religions, specifically Hinduism and Buddhism, there are also attitudes and outlooks which are barriers to global citizenship. Hindu extremist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have for decades espoused the re-writing of Indian history to privilege Hindutva or Hinduness and the adoption of political and economic policies which favor the Hindu majority. Since the National Development Alliance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi helmed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi with a huge vote in May 2014, the push for Hindutva has become more pronounced. An RSS leader (the RSS is affiliated to the BJP) has openly asserted that India is a Hindu state and Hindutva is the identity of India. (11)
In line with this thinking, some 50 slum-dwelling Muslim families in Agra were converted to Hinduism in the middle of December 2014. Food ration cards and other financial incentives were offered as inducements. (12) Christians have also been subjected to this type of conversion. 200 Christians in the Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat were converted to Hinduism on 20 December 2014. (13)
Hindu extremists have also called for the forced sterilization of Muslims and Christians in order to control their population growth. They have also demanded that idols of Hindu gods and goddesses be placed in mosques and churches. (14) An even more alarming trend is the rise of new breakaway factions of the RSS which are more militant than their parent body. The Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), the Rashtriya Jagran Manch( National Revival Forum), the Sri Ram Sena ( Army of god Rama), the Hindu Dharam Sena ( Army for the Hindu Religion) and the Sanatan Sanstha ( Eternal Organization) would be some of the new outfits. (15) They have “launched numerous violent attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities.” (16)
Once again, we are witnessing how religious extremism and religious bigotry expressed through induced conversions and militancy are dividing a society which has an illustrious history of religious tolerance and acceptance. It is weakening the fabric of inclusivity that has helped to give meaning to citizenship in multi-religious India for so long. Imposing a religion-based notion of citizenship and identity in such a society is the surest way of destroying it.
In the Buddhist majority states of Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, there are also trends which challenge an inclusive idea of citizenship. Malay Muslims in southern Thailand for a variety of reasons connected to history and the contemporary setting have never been integrated into the Thai polity. They allege that they have been marginalized and discriminated against by the mainly Buddhist Thai authorities. There isn’t sufficient respect for their distinct Malay Muslim identity. Thai Buddhist elites in southern Thailand and Bangkok have even been accused of trying to dominate and control the Malay Muslim minority. (17)
The situation in Myanmar is much more problematic. The ruling elite, linked to, and supported by, the military is perceived by governments and human rights activists in many parts of the world as adopting harsh and inhuman policies and practices towards a Muslim minority called the Rohingyas who live in Myanmar’s Rakhine province. Their Myanmar citizenship was rescinded in 1982, and they are not even recognized as an ethic minority. Worse, for more than three decades the Rohingyas have been subjected to “a government- organized, systematic campaign of mass killing, terror, torture, attempts to prevent births, forced labor, severe restrictions on physical movement, large-scale internal displacement of an estimated 140,000 people, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest, summary execution, land-grabbing and community destruction.” (18) It is this persecution, in which some Buddhist monks have played a central role by providing dubious religious and ethnic justification, (19) that has led to a mass exodus of Rohingyas to other countries in the last three decades. The Rohingya tragedy vividly illustrated by their perils in the Bay of Bengal and through the discovery of mass graves along the Thai-Malaysia border have captured media headlines the world over in recent months. (20)
The situation in Sri Lanka is nowhere near what is happening in Myanmar though it also revolves around the question of a majority preserving its identity in the face of a perceived threat from a religious minority. Since 2012, Muslims who constitute 9% of the population have been targeted in a campaign of sorts with some Buddhist monks at the core. Women wearing the hijab have been harassed. Buddhists have been discouraged from patronizing Muslim owned restaurants and shops. Mosques have been vandalized. And the Muslim insistence that products sold in shops and supermarkets carry halal labels has been interpreted as the imposition of an Islamic tenet upon the majority which is a prelude to the establishment of an “Islamic State” since the Muslim birth rate in Sri Lanka is allegedly higher than that of the Buddhists! (21)
The anti-Muslim campaign, it should be observed, has declined considerably with the defeat of former President Rajapaksa in the presidential election in January 2015. The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, has been more accommodative in his approach to relations with the minorities. Nonetheless, the complexities inherent in ethnic politics in Sri Lanka remain.
In all three countries, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, certain negative sentiments peddled by groups within the majority have impacted adversely upon the minority. They have affected the ability of these societies to forge a commitment to citizenship that transcends religious boundaries. The elites in all three countries are acutely aware of the danger that this poses to internal political and social cohesion and the price they may have to pay for it.
Looking back at groups within the five religious communities we have reflected upon and how they have used and misused religion for their respective agendas, we are struck by the following:-
1) Distortions and perversions of religious teachings manifest themselves in all religious communities.
2) When these perversions result in war and violence, hegemony and the aggrandizement of power, aggressive proselytization and induced conversion, marginalization and discrimination, they negate the principles of citizenship.
The Essence of Faith
The vast majority of scholars in the different religious traditions have always maintained that those who justify violence or hegemony or discrimination in the name of religion betray the essence of their respective faiths. We shall show why this is so. Since we are more familiar with Islam there will be more emphasis upon the religion, though we shall also allude to the other religions.
It has been said a number of times before by various Islamic scholars that Islam is totally opposed to the use of violence unless it is to combat aggression or to liberate a person or a community from oppression. In the words of the Qur’an:
“And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression — for, verily, God does not love aggressors. And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away — for oppression is even worse than killing.” (Chapter 2; verse 190-191). ( 22) This means that so much of the wanton massacres committed by Da’eesh and other such bodies have no basis in the Qur’an.
It follows from this that the Qur’an forbids the killing of a Christian or Jew or any person for that matter unless the person aggresses or oppresses. It is even more sinful to kill a fellow Muslim, whatever sect or doctrinal school he may belong to. Respect for the sanctity of human life is paramount. There are a couple of oft-quoted lines in the Qur’an that stress this, “Because of this did We ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being — unless it be (in punishment) for murder or for spreading corruption on earth — it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.(Chapter 5; verse 32) (23)
That Islam rejects senseless, mindless violence is further reinforced by the Sunnah or the way of the Prophet Muhammad. Since Da’eesh and other such groups often view the Sunnah as the primary source of guidance, it is important to emphasize that the Prophet avoided the use of violence as much as he could. The battles he was involved in were defensive and constituted a minor aspect of his life and his mission. It is mainly because he was determined to avert bloodshed that he entered a treaty with his adversaries — the Treaty of Hudaybiyah — in 628 which was not to his advantage and which angered a lot of his companions. (24) When he conquered Mecca a couple of years later, he forgave nearly all his foes and refused to take revenge on them even though that was the prevailing norm.
The Sunnah also reveals an accommodative attitude towards Jews and Christians as long as they honored the pledges and treaties they had forged with the Muslims. The Charter of Medina, for instance, formulated by the Prophet, recognized the rights and responsibilities of the Jews and placed them on the same level as the Muslims and the other tribes of Medina. The Prophet also gave a solemn pledge to the Christian monks of Najran that he would protect their rights and their monasteries and he would take to task any Muslim who harmed the Christians living there. (25)
It is not just on the question of violence and the position of non-Muslims that militants have betrayed Islam.Forcing a person to embrace Islam is also repugnant from a Qur’anic perspective. The Qur’an unequivocally warns, “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” (Chapter 2; verse 256). (26)It further adds, “Unto you, your moral law, and unto me, mine!” (Chapter 109; verse 6) (27)
Yet another aspect of the Qur’an which exposes Da’eesh’s distortion is in relation to places of worship. The Qur’an notes that “..if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, (all) monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques — in (all of) which God’s name is abundantly extolled — would surely have been destroyed (ere now).” (Chapter 22; verse 40).(28) It is a clarion call to protect places of worship.
There are many other verses connected with freedom of expression, differences of opinion, the rights of women, the nature of punishment, the types of crimes and so on which prove that what Da’eesh and other militant groups practice is the antithesis of what the Qur’an upholds and what the Prophet stood for.
It is indisputably true that the Qur’an as a whole articulates a vision of the human being and society that gravitates towards global citizenship. It acknowledges that “All mankind were once one single community; (then they began to differ) (Chapter 2; verse 213).(29). Unity within the human family — one of the essential premises upon which global citizenship rests — is not the only principle that they share. Both the Qur’an and global citizenship believe that justice should be done without discrimination. Justice should extend to even those who hate you. As the Qur’an puts it, “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is closest to being God-conscious. And remain conscious of God: verily, God is aware of all that you do” (Chapter 5; verse 8).( 30)
In similar vein, the Qur’an recognizes diversity. In several verses it eulogizes this reality. It says, “Unto every community have We appointed (different) ways of worship, which they ought to observe. Hence (O believer) do not let those (who follow ways other than thine) draw thee into disputes on this score, but summon (them all) unto thy Sustainer: for, behold, thou art indeed on the right way.( Chapter 22; verse 67). (31) Diversity, we are told, is part of the divine plan. “Unto every one of you have We appointed a (different) law and way of life. And if God had so willed He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (Chapter 5; verse 48) (32)
In yet another sense, the Qur’an embodies the spirit of global citizenship. For it sees virtues and values, and not ethnicity or religion as the ultimate measure of a person. In its words, “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all knowing, all aware (Chapter 49; verse 13) (33). God consciousness — and not religion per se — is what determines one’s worth and value. This is universalism at its zenith. It is the sort of universalism that will sustain global citizenship through time.
It should be emphasized that these noble Qur’anic precepts and pronouncements were, in various periods of history, translated into reality to a greater or lesser degree. From Melaka to Andalusia, kingdoms and empires emerged that reflected a cosmopolitan ethos that had no peers or parallels. People of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds co-existed peacefully in societies where the arts and sciences flourished.(34). Since cosmopolitanism is the very heart of global citizenship, it would not be wrong to suggest that Muslim civilization in the past had blazed the trail for multi-cultural and multi-religious harmony.
One can argue that even in the case of other religious communities, their actual teachings are at variance with what some of the bigoted and dogmatic groups in their midst are attempting to pursue. The aggressive proselytization of elements in the Christian Right for instance is not endorsed by most mainstream Catholic and Protestant Churches. There were also many Christian theologians and thinkers who were opposed to the abuse of Christianity by Christian politicians like George Bush and Tony Blair who had justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of the religion. As one of them put it, “That Christian ethics can be put to such use is perhaps the greatest indictment of Christianity …” (35).
Indeed, Christianity as exemplified in the life and suffering of Jesus is anti- imperialistic and anti-hegemonic. His teachings are critical of the dominant power of State and Empire. They present a vision of people and communities bound by love and peace. It is a vision that resonates with the ethics of global citizenship.
By the same token, the Torah is a powerful statement on behalf of universal justice and human solidarity. The gems of wisdom that flow from Amos and Isaiah are of eternal value to the entire human family. They do not seek to privilege the Jews over others.
It is because there is such a tradition in Jewish history that one finds a number of Jewish scholars and activists today who not only demonstrate genuine understanding of the plight of the Palestinians but are also prepared to risk stigmatization and demonization from their own people as they defend truth and justice. Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Marc Ellis would be among them. Ellis, for instance, clearly takes the side of Jews “who have struggled within and against empire for a more just future. And that struggle has been linked so intimately with history and with God that the world has experienced a deep calling, previously unknown in history, to worship a God and to embrace a covenant that has justice at its center.” (36)
Turning to Hinduism, it is only too obvious that the bigotry and the dogmatism of some of those fanatics who claim to speak on its behalf contradict the spirit of harmony and universality that one finds in so many of the religion’s great scriptures. The unity of the human family and indeed of creation in its entirety is a theme that runs through some of these spiritual texts. This is why at the philosophical level the Vedas – the divine teachings associated with the Hindu Faith — constitute a rich source of ideas for nurturing global citizenship. (37)
The same can be said for Buddhism. It is worth repeating here that the extreme positions adopted by some Buddhist monks in Myanmar or Sri Lanka have no basis in the religion. Buddhism both in letter and spirit is truly universal embracing the whole of creation. The liberation and engaged spirituality that some contemporary Buddhist scholars and activists are committed to is not confined to Buddhists as such. It is a goal that is meant for humanity as a whole.(38)
From our reflections on the actual values and principles embodied in the five religions, we have every reason to believe that there is nothing in their essential teachings that lend even an iota of legitimacy to some of the violence, bigotry and hatred spread in the name of faith in recent times. On the contrary, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism properly understood and interpreted have the capacity and the ability to forge ties of amity and empathy among their adherents.
Are the adherents of the different religions then dialoguing with one another? Are they working together at all? In the last 30 to 40 years, there have been a great deal of inter-faith dialogues. (39) There is perhaps greater awareness today of the values that the followers of different religions share in common — values such as love and kindness, compassion and mercy, humility and modesty — than at any other time in the past. More than awareness, there are so many examples of people of different faiths doing good together, from providing free medical assistance to the poor regardless of religious affiliation to planting trees to protect the environment. It is a pity that inter-faith work of this sort is seldom highlighted in the popular media. If inter-faith reflections and activities are given more prominence it would undoubtedly have a salutary impact upon global citizenship. The media would rather sensationalize inter-religious violence since that attracts people — so it seems — and increases media revenue!
While more media support would help the inter-faith cause and strengthen global citizenship, advocates of both should perhaps also review their communication strategies. It is not enough to merely forefront shared values among the different religions. Whenever the fanatics and the bigots distort religion for their own ends, they should be exposed and demolished through persuasive arguments. There should be constant combat.Their ad-hoc, piecemeal manipulation of text and their failure to distinguish the contextual from the perennial in relation to prescriptions and injunctions should be fought with vigor. By attacking them through the new media in particular, we would be undermining their standing among their followers and showing the latter that there is an alternative way of understanding faith which is in consonance with the essence of one’s religion.
Combating narrow, superficial interpretations of religion will not be easy. Partly because of the appeal of simplistic religious explanations, superficial interpretations may hold sway over a segment of the populace. Besides, the rhetoric of the bigots, whatever their religious affiliation, is often wrapped in the language of identity. They project themselves as the genuine protectors of the community’s religious identity and its religious dignity. This allures a portion of the masses whose notion of religious identity is intimately linked to forms and symbols that distinguish one religious community from another.
Identity, it must be emphasized, is not just inter-community. Even within a religious community, sectarian identity can become a major cause of violence and bloodshed. The Sunni-Shia conflict which has torn asunder Muslim communities in certain parts of the world in recent years is a tragic example of sectarian violence borne of bigoted notions of identity fostered by narrow-minded religious elites. (40)
When the champions of religious identity are also religious figures of some standing in society, the ideas they articulate are more easily accepted and absorbed by the people. In almost every religious community, what these religious figures tell their flock about matters of faith and identity are often swallowed unquestioningly as the invincible truth.This is what reinforces the power and position of Muslim religious elites, whether Sunni or Shia, or Christian and Hindu priests or Buddhist monks or Jewish rabbis within their respective communities. A sacral aura envelops their authority. (41)
There is no denying that superficial notions of identity and simplistic interpretations of belief, on the one hand, and uncritical acceptance of them, on the other, have been partly responsible for thwarting the emergence of an inclusive, universal, enlightened understanding of religion. But if such superficial, simplistic approaches to the different religions have persisted it is also because of forces outside religion per se.It is these forces we should now analyze if we seek to create a global environment that is more conducive to the triumph of global citizenship.
Formidable Forces Without
We have already alluded to some of these forces in this paper. The drive towards global hegemony is undoubtedly one of the major reasons why bigoted and dogmatic ideas on religion continue to command some influence. It is because of their anger and unhappiness with US led hegemony and how it has impacted upon Islam and Muslim countries that a number of Muslim groups have resorted to violence as a way of countering this formidable challenge. (42) The majority of those who are inclined towards violence, as we have seen, also espouse ideas about law, state, women, non-Muslims and other related subjects which betray the essence of the Islamic faith. It is significant that almost every militant group in the Muslim world adopts an adversarial stance towards US helmed hegemony. In fact, it is because of hegemony that some of them came into being in the first instance.
Given the potent power of Muslim opposition to hegemony, hegemonic forces, it is paradoxical, have decided to manipulate Muslim militant groups in order to perpetuate their hegemony. Thus, militant groups are created and sustained by the American hegemon for its own agenda as it happened in the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation of their land in the eighties, right in the midst of the Cold War. Al-Qaeda, to put it bluntly, is, to a great extent, a product of CIA machinations. After the end of the Afghan resistance, Al-Qaeda has continued its terror activities in various parts of the world. It emerged in Iraq during the years of the Anglo-American occupation of that country and became the rallying-point of Sunni opposition to a Shia dominated government in Baghdad. It had the support of the occupying powers since the aim was to curb Iranian influence in Iraq via its Shia kin. When opposition to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria began to develop in 2011, Sunni militants, linked to Al-Qaeda, backed directly and indirectly by the US and its allies, usurped the uprising and soon, the Al-Qaeda appendage morphed into Da’eesh. Since Da’eesh was fighting Assad who together with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran constitutes the resistance in WANA to US and Israeli hegemony, US leaders were prepared to close an eye to the terrible atrocities perpetrated by Da’eesh. Terrorist groups elsewhere are also tolerated as long as they serve hegemonic interests. (43)
It is not just hegemony’s link to terrorism that is disturbing. The US and Britain have also tolerated, even protected, the ideology that runs parallel with the terrorism associated with Da’eesh, Al Qaeda and other similar outfits. The bigoted and dogmatic perspectives on various dimensions of Islam that these groups subscribe to — which we have alluded to — often described as Wahabism have not been subjected to criticism or condemnation by US or British elites. Since countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar — the former in particular has a deep bond with Wahabism — are close allies of the US and Britain, one wonders why there has been no attempt to persuade these feudal monarchies to undertake serious reforms which would bring them closer to the universal, inclusive essence of Islam.(44)
Hegemony is intertwined with terrorism and bigotry in yet another sense. We have shown how elements in the Christian Right endorse totally any action by the hegemon to fight terror which more often than not is a camouflage to achieve its agenda — its agenda of controlling oil or strategic routes or enhancing Israel’s power in WANA. (45) By backing hegemony and its agenda, the Christian Right is buttressing one of those forces that impedes the growth of a more enlightened understanding of not only Christianity but also Islam. As we have noted, the hegemonic agenda widens the gap separating Christians from Muslims and imperils any endeavor to nurture a global citizenship.
In the interest of inter-religious harmony and global citizenship, hegemony will have to end. And indeed, now more than at any other time in the last 250 years, there are clear signs to indicate that the power and dominance of the US and the West as a whole is in irreversible decline. The US is no longer in a position to impose its will upon the world whether it is in the military sphere or in the economic arena. What is more significant, the ascendancy of China as a new locus of global economic power and the rise of a number of other states and regions signal the inevitable shift from a unipolar world to a multi-polar world. (46) A multi-polar world will mean not only greater dispersal and diffusion of power at the global level but also a more equitable and balanced international order.(47) Only within such an order can global citizenship achieve its real purpose.
Apart from global hegemony, developments within the nation-state have also contributed towards the strengthening of extremist tendencies. When a government is autocratic and/or oppressive and suppresses its own people, certain groups in society out of anger and frustration resort to violence in order to register their protest and to bring about change. This has happened in all sorts of societies, of whatever religious or ethnic hue, over many decades. Often, the elite in such societies also tends to be corrupt partly because the general public, including the media, and the institutions of state such as the judiciary are in no position to check the elite abuse of power. (48) They have neither the freedom nor the latitude to play their rightful roles. When corruption becomes so blatant and so pervasive, some dissidents in some societies may turn to violence to remedy the situation. Autocratic, corrupt states may also exhibit yet another dysfunctional feature. The chasm between the rich and poor may be widening at an alarming rate exacerbating angst and anger among large sections of the populace. Here again, a minority may, out of desperation, decide that there is no other way but to take up arms against the State.
Confronted by a State which has failed its citizenry in these and other ways, certain dissidents with a religious orientation may be persuaded that the only real solution is a return to religion by which they mean a State that adheres strictly to narrowly defined religious dogma expressed through prescriptions, prohibitions and punishments interpreted in a conservative, retrogressive manner. For these dissidents and their supporters, such a religious State would be the panacea for all the ills of society. (49) This is how the religious ideal gains popularity in societies burdened with a multitude of problems created to a great extent by the acts of commission and omission of the elites themselves.
Nonetheless, as in the case of global hegemony, changes are occurring to states in various parts of the world. There are more democratic states observing greater accountability in Latin America, Africa and Asia today than 40 years ago. Taking Asia as an example, in the eighties South Korea embraced democratic governance while the Philippines returned to democratic rule after a stint with dictatorship. Indonesia moved towards a vibrant democracy from the nineties onwards while both Malaysia and Singapore witnessed more democratic dissent in the first two decades of the 21st century. It is true that is some of these states the gap between the ‘have-a-lot’ and the ‘have-a-little’ has become more severe but at the same time there is increasing awareness of the pitfalls of contemporary capitalism and the need to devise alternative strategies of growth with equity. (50)
There is a third formidable force outside religious doctrine and practice that also generates certain trends within religion that should concern us. Civilization as a whole has become more materialistic; more consumer-oriented, both religious and secular groups tell us. People are more individualistic. There is more selfishness and greed today than ever before. The family unit had broken down in so many societies. There is very little sense of community not only in the West but also in a number of Asian societies.
For many religious groups, the solution once again is to return to religion. We should, they argue, re-assert religious principles and precepts. We should faithfully adhere to religious practices and rituals. We should make religion a way of life. To do this, they are convinced, we have to eliminate secularism. Some advocates of this approach— without much understanding of secularism — have chosen the path of militancy. They have made secular governments and secular elites their cardinal enemies. Overthrowing such elites through force of arms is their goal. This is one of the reasons why Muslim groups from different parts of the world have gone to Syria to participate in the violent ouster of the avowedly secular Assad government. Needless to say, such an aim and the motive behind it, are inimical to the fostering of global citizenship with its respect for diverse forms of governance.
Leaving aside their superficial critique of secularism and their penchant for violence in achieving political change, our religious groups, like some of their secular counterparts, are right about the crisis of civilization. They are right about individualism and the decline of family and community; about excessive elite consumption; about the institutionalization of greed and avarice. (51) The good news is more and more people all over the world are becoming conscious of the importance of restraining elite consumption and greed. (52) This consciousness is developing as a consequence of the massive global environmental crisis which has revealed to human beings everywhere the grave danger of unlimited exploitation of limited material resources by a few at the expense of the many. All our religious philosophies, it is worth emphasizing over and over again, are deeply committed to the protection of the environment as a fundamental spiritual-moral ethic. (53)
We have tried to show that there are powerful forces outside the conventional boundaries of religion that have a profound impact upon the way religion is understood and practiced by its followers. To put it conversely, if we had nation-states that were honest and accountable and focused upon the equitable distribution of wealth; if we had a multi-polar world that was just and egalitarian; if we had a civilization that nurtured and nourished balanced individuals, families and communities girded with universal spiritual and moral values such as giving, sharing and caring, it is quite conceivable that religious bigotry and religious extremism would have no constituency. In such an environment, the true meaning of faith will shine through in the deeds of each and every human being.
And what would be the true meaning of faith? A significant segment of the human family would be deeply conscious of God, a consciousness reflected in the human being’s self-awareness of her role as a vicegerent placed on earth for a brief period of time to fulfil the divine trust of ensuring that justice is upheld at all times and the dignity of the whole of creation is protected and enhanced. That trust would transcend all other loyalties to kith and kin, to community and culture, to region and religion, to religious teacher and political leader and most of all, to oneself. It is a trust one would be challenged to fulfil every day of one’s transient life.
It is this trust rooted in God Consciousness that connects human beings everywhere. It makes us one. It is our ultimate identity, beyond all other identities.
It is this human identity as vicegerent anchored in God Consciousness that could well become the spiritual-moral foundation of Global Citizenship.
1) Among the writings I am familiar with are Henry Francis Espiritu, “The ISIS Described by the US Media as a “Sunni Muslim Militia” is “Made in America.” It has Nothing to Do with Sunni Islam” JUST Commentary, http://issuu.com/justinternational/docs/may ,May 2015, and Manzoor Alam, “ Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): An Objective Analysis” http://www.just-international.org/articles/ideology-of-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-syria-isis-an-objective-analysis/ 8 April 2014, My own article on the subject is entitled, “The Truth about the IS”, http://www.just-international.org/mediastatement/the-truth-about-the-is/ 29 August 2014
2) Espiritu Ibid
3) Espiritu Ibid
4) See Iain Buchanan Sang Nila Utama and the Lion of Judah Dominionism and Christian Zionism in Malaysia e-book http://issuu.com/justebooks/docs/sang_nila_utama_and_the_lion_of_jud pp 79-80.
5) Iain Buchanan The Armies of God A Study in Militant Christianity ( Penang, Malaysia: Citizens International, 2010) p.111
6) The relationship between power, religion and hegemony is discussed in my “ Encounters Between Religions and Civilizations: The Power Dimension” Global Ethic or Global hegemony? Reflections on Religion, Human Dignity and Civilisational Interaction ( London: ASEAN Academic Press, 2005)
7) Israel Shahak Jewish History, Jewish Religion The Weight of Three Thousand Years ( London: Pluto Press, 1994)
8) See Stephen Lendman “ Religious Fundamentalism in Israel” Countercurrents.org http://www.countercurrents.org/lendman120809.htm 12 August 2009.
9) Lendman Ibid
10) Lendman Ibid
11) John Dayal “Documenting Hate and Communal Violence Under The Modi Regime” Countercurrents.org, http://www.countercurrents.org/dayal210315.htm 21 March 2015.
12) See The Star (Malaysia) 22 December 2014.
13) The Star Ibid
14) See, “ Hindu Extremist Leader Calls for Christians to Be Forcefully Sterilized to Control Population; Demands Hindu Gods Placed in Churches” The Christian Post 15 July 2015
15) Vishal Arora, “New, More Dangerous Hindu Extremist Groups Emerge in India” https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2009/10-October/11124/ 29 October 2009.
16) Arora Ibid
17) For a fuller analysis see my paper entitled, “Politics in the Bay of Bengal: Curbing Violence; Enhancing Harmony” presented at the Conference on Buddhist-Muslim Tensions in the Bay of Bengal. Organized by the Center for Asian Research, Arizona State University, USA, 8 and 9 October 2014.
18) Conference on Buddhist-Muslim Tensions … Ibid. The quote is from the well-known scholar-activist from Myanmar, Maung Zarni.
19) Conference … Ibid. In my paper, I refer specifically to the role of the Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu.
20) The issue is elaborated in Hassanal Noor Rashid, “ The Rohingyas— Stop Persecution: End the Exodus.” JUST Commentary http://issuu.com/justinternational/docs/june June 2015.
21) This is discussed in my paper at the Conference on Buddhist-Muslim Tensions Op.cit
22) See The Message of the Qur’an Translated and Explained by: Muhammad Assad Gibraltar: DAR AL-ANDALUS, 1980).
24) For some analysis see my At the Crossroads A Malaysian Reflects on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Selangor, Malaysia: Bakti Ehsanmurni, 2005) especially, “ A Non-Violent Struggle — The Alternative to Suicide Bombing?”
25) For details see Muhammad Husein Haykal, The Life of Muhammad translated from the 8th edition by Ismail Al Faruqi ( Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust)
26) The Message of the Qur’an Op.cit
27) The Message Ibid.
28) The Message Ibid.
29) The Message Ibid
30) The Message Ibid
31) The Message Ibid
32) The Message Ibid
33) The Message Ibid
34) An outstanding example of this was Andalusia in Medieval Spain See Maria Rosa Menocal The Ornament of the World How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain ( Boston United States of America: Little, Brown and Company, 2002).
35) Michael Northcott, An Angel Directs The Storm Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004) p. 13.
36) Marc H. Ellis Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation (3rd Edition) (Texas, USA: Baylor University Press, 2004) p.233.
37) For some insights see Swami Prabhavananda Vedic Religion and Philosophy ( Madras, India: Sri Ramakrishna Math n.d)
38) See Engaged Buddhism Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King ( New York, USA: State University of New York Press, 1996)
39) For a comprehensive overview of interfaith work see Sandy and Jael Bharat A Global Guide to Interfaith Reflections from around the world ( United Kingdom: Winchester, 2007)
40) Efforts to reduce Sunni-Shia conflicts have been pursued through various channels. One such channel is the Amman Message. See my “ Uphold the Amman Message” www.just-international.org/mediastatement/uphold-the-Amman-Message 23 December 2013
41) The role of religious elites is evaluated in my Exploring Religion in our Time ( Penang, Malaysia: Universiti Sains Malaysia Press, 2011)
42) The question of Muslim violence is analyzed in my Muslims Dialogue, Terror ( Petaling Jaya, Selangor: International Movement for a Just World(JUST), 2003)
43) For a detailed analysis see my “The Global War on Terror — and the Prawn behind the Stone” in A World in Crisis: Is there a Cure? http://issuu.com/juste-books/docs/world_in_crisis_is_there_a_cure
44) The serious shortcomings in the Saudi system which demand reform are spelt out in “ 7 Shocking Facts About Saudi Arabia Under ‘Modernizing’ Reign of King Abdullah” JUST Commentary http://issuu.com/justinternational/docs/february February 2015.
45) A number of essays in my Hegemony, Justice; Peace (Shah Alam, Malaysia: International Movement for a Just World, 2008) discuss the real agenda of the hegemon.
46) See Pepe Escobar “How China and Russia are Running Rings Around Washington” Countercurrents.org http://www.countercurrents.org/escobar230715.htm 23 July 2015.
47) This is the thrust of my “The Decline of US Helmed Global Hegemony: The Emergence of a More Equitable Pattern of International Relations? A World in Crisis http://issuu.com/juste-books/docs/world_in_crisis_is_there_a_cure Op.cit
48) This point is made in my Muslims Today: Changes Within; Challenges Without (Islamabad: Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue, International Islamic University, 2010)
49) Muslims Today Ibid
50) A couple of essays in my Rights, Religion and Reform (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002) focus on this.
51) See Subverting Greed Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy edited by Paul Knitter and Chandra Muzaffar ( USA: Orbis Books, 2002)
52) See Alan Durning How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992)
53) This is clearly elucidated in C.G. Weeramantry Tread Lightly on the Earth Religion, The Environment And The Human Future ( Sri Lanka: Stamford Lake (Pvt) Ltd, 2009)
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar was Professor of, and Director at, the Centre for Civilizational Dialogue, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, from 1997 to 1999 and later, Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang from 2007 to 2012.
He now concentrates on NGO work.
27 July 2015.