The idea of secularism, the separation of faith and state, is something that can be considered a modern idea. If we go back far enough, religion and politics have always been intertwined, where Pharaohs and ancient political figures were considered Gods, where Abrahamic texts illustrate a time when the separation of religion and politics was unheard of. Despite human history being deeply entrenched with politics and religion going hand in hand, this doesn’t necessitate that it works.

The Rise of Hindutva in India

Indian politics has never been void of religion; historically, during the time of early state formations, Indian kings sought the knowledge of the Vedas, relayed to them by Brahmin priests. Each decision made by these political heads of states could not go ahead without the consultation and confirmation of Brahmin priests. The formation of Hindutva, Hindu nationalism, lay in the hands of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. In 1922, he conceptualised Hindu nationalism based on the premise that those who didn’t accept the Indian subcontinent as the land of utmost importance, could not therefore prioritise it and had no place within it. This meant Muslims, who looked to Mecca as their holy land, were considered “invaders”, as well as other religions that placed value in any other land that was not India.

The RSS

In 1925, influenced by Savarkar’s writings, K. B. Hedgewar, a fellow Brahmin, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or “National Volunteer Corps,” the mothership of Hindu nationalism, devoted to preserving and restoring Hindu identity in India, particularly through the establishment of a Hindu state. Its aim: to unify India’s “disparate Hindus”. Three years later, the RSS swore in its first 99 volunteers before an effigy of Hanuman. It modelled its basic organisational unit, the shakha, on a traditional Hindu gymnasium used to train wrestlers. A shakha typically consists of 50-100 males instructed in self-defence and indoctrinated with the group’s distinctive worldview. By the late 1930s, the RSS counted about 60,000 volunteers. The RSS claims to be the biggest NGO in the world.

The BJP

Over the years, the RSS have exerted their influence throughout the nation, this has been through the creation of the “Sangh Parivaar '', a collective of affiliated organisations, from India’s largest workers union, to its largest student union. Their biggest and most successful branch however, has been the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The most prominent RSS offshoot, the BJP was created in 1980. The RSS and the BJP are unified by its goal to unify Hindus across the nation in order to strengthen Bharat. The belief is that India is vulnerable, susceptible to division as it was during the lead up to the Mughal empire as well as during partition, the solution, according to the BJP, is turning India into a Hindustan for Hindus, and only Hindus.

The BJP runs on a platform of Hindu nationalism and pushes for the banning of cow slaughter, meat being eaten, as well as reclaiming Kashmir as fully Indian. In 1996, the first election since the1993 riots, the BJP won a majority of seats in the parliament for the first time in the 11th Lok Sabha elections. The BJP continued to gain popularity at national and state levels. The state of Gujarat is where Narendra Modi took office as the chief minister in 2001. The previous RSS member, ex-minister and current Prime Minister’s “impoverished and low caste” background rendered him an inspirational figure to many. The RSS, the Shiv Sena, and VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) remain closely tied. It’s important to note, members from all three Hindutva organisations can be later seen becoming key figures of the BJP.

Religion Used For Policy

“First, there is the territorial notion of India, which emphasises the fact that the land between the Indus River to the west, the Himalaya Mountains to the north, and the seas to the south and east comprise India’s sacred geography”. - Diana L. Eck, India: A Sacred Geography (New York: Harmony, 2012).

The territorial idea of India, the cultural idea of India and the religious idea of India, are the three dominant themes the BJP have successfully conceptualised, segwaying them to success and furthermore, allowing their conflation of religion and politics to be a part of mainstream politics in India, with vim. These concepts are all fully ingrained in religious extremism.

“Hindu nationalism blends territorial unity with Hindutva, or the belief that India is fundamentally a polity by, for, and of the majority Hindu community.”

The idea of India’s “sacred geography” is integral to BJP policy, it explains the BJP’s push to seize Kashmir, it’s interest in Indian Union territories in the South (Lakshadweep), and it’s earnest efforts to win West Bengal in the polls. The fight for these states and territories, that do not fall in line with the BJP’s idea of “cultural India”, nor do they prescribe to Hinduism, is the biggest example of religious extremism being heavily involved in policy. Meat bans in states with a Muslim majority, nationalism through the lens of Hindutva becoming core curriculum in schools, and introducing laws that disproportionately affects the livelihoods of Sikh farmers in Panjab is using the political as a means of religion and cultural “correction”.

Taliban Rule in Afghanistan

Unlike India, before the rise of “political Islam” in the Middle East, politics in Afghanistan was based on a secular model. Even during Afghanistan’s monarchy, religion wasn’t a key part of its political structure. It was only in 1978, when the founding member of the Afghan Communist Party, Nur Mohammad Taraki took control of the country as president, we begin to see Islam play a role in politics in Afghanistan. The president at the time as well as Babrak Kamal (Deputy Prime Minister) stated independence from the Soviet Union, and announced that policy would be based on Islamic principles and Afghan nationalism. In the same year, “conservative Islamic” leaders, objecting to the Soviet backed government in charge, formed the Mujahadeen.

In 1995, we saw the formation of the Taliban. The Taliban appealed to the people of Afghanistan on the basis of it’s supposed priority of maintaining peace. Afghans, tired from years of war, supported the Taliban, who also centred it’s policies on an extreme interpretation of Islam. Afghanistan went from allowing women to attend university in 1957, to women not being allowed to leave their homes alone in 1995. Religious extremism became so ingrained in policy, that it began to be enforced via public executions and amputations.

Religious extremism for Afghanistan has been catalysed by it’s continued invasion throughout time. Each time a state decided to infiltrate Afghanistan, be it the British, the USSR or the United States, there was a surge in extremism. The movement away from influenced British imperialism (Monarchy), to the idea of being the prey of a proxy war, is what led to a surge in religious politics.

As much as news and media hyper focuses on middle eastern politics and its conflation with Islam and extremism, no matter how hard this is pedalled, the fact remains that throughout history, till the present day, all faiths and regions are susceptible to extremism.

Extreme Buddhism and the 969 Movement

“According to the literature, there are still other ways of thinking about extremism. It has been suggested, for example, that the extremist “state of mind tolerates no diversity” and internalises an “ideology” delineating “a simplified monocausal interpretation of the world where you are either with them or against them”.

Ashin Wirathu, leader of the 969 movement and its successor, the Ma Ba Tha movement in Burma, is a clear example of a religion renowned for its peace, also susceptible to extremism. Wirathu and his associates have long been associated with sectarian violence against the Muslim Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in the country.

Up until the 11th Century CE, during the reign of King Anawratha, Buddhism began to become institutionalised, imposing it as state religion. Previous to this, Myanmar was home to several religions including Hinduism, Animism and Theravada Buddhism. However, Buddhism didn’t stay as the de facto religion of the nation, after Anawratha’s reign, his successors did not continue in the structural othering against other faiths

Francis Wade points out, they cultivated “a degree of communal harmony that would be unfamiliar to those watching the country today.” In fact, he adds, the “country had on the whole enjoyed a pluralistic society.”

Due to the meddling of the British and their political mistakes in the nineteenth century, Muslims and other minorities began to be seen as “colonial stooges” with an agenda to take over and silence the Buddhist Burman majority. The 1930’s saw the growth of an anti-colonial and nationalist movement. Catalysed by “an ethnic and religious chauvinism” toward “non-Bamar and non-Buddhist” minorities that “would carry well into the post-independence era, splitting the country along multiple lines and paving the way for decades of conflict.” After independence, moreover, attempts by the postcolonial military regime to designate Buddhism as the state religion were rebuffed by minority groups.

Religious extremism is brazen in Burmese policy. Laws such as the “Population Control Law”, implemented as a non coercive measure to control the population in areas considered high, combined with an exacerbation of poverty, seemed to only affect Rakhine State, home to a Muslim majority. It’s ingrained in Burmese policy that should a non-Buddhist seemingly insult Buddhism, they can face a fine or three years imprisonment. During Ramadan, Burmese military would come to Rohingya villages and force-feed them, sometimes specifically pork, throughout Rakhine state mosques are continually shut down, including Islamic children’s schools, even curfews are imposed to halt evening and congregational prayers. Such laws a plainly extreme, as they look to target Muslim and diverge from the freedom to religion and non-discrimination in Myanmar’s constitution.

“The seventh core characteristic of the religious extremist—his drive to seek political power to restructure the wider polity in line with his vision of a religiously legitimated socio-political order—is evidenced in Wirathu’s and Ma Ba Tha’s vocal support for four laws enacted by the government in May and August 2015 that, taken together, appear to represent institutionalized discrimination against Muslims”.

China and Extremism

There’s a point to be made that even secular states, that by definition do not mesh religion in their politics, are not void of implementing extremist policy based on faith.

The Chinese state’s crackdown on its Muslim minority, the Uyghur, is a testament to this. It’s efforts to suppress the Uyghur through “re-education camps” and an “anti-halal campaign”, according to them, seeks to combat terrorism and religious extremism, if that is the case, how does the force-feeding of pork, imposed on Uyghur people have any relation to supposed Islamic extremism? In actuality, the state is targeting them with the intention to marginalise them further. Uyghur people are subjected to intense surveillance and by law, when requested, are made to give DNA and biometric samples. Those with relatives in 26 ‘sensitive’ countries have reportedly been rounded up, and presently about a million or so have been detained. This unnecessary information gathering, these round-ups and series of “resettlement”, this attack on culture, all fall in-to the remit of extremism, despite the Chinese constitution including freedom to practise religion.

Whilst religious extremism has played a prevalent part in political history, throughout the globe and across all faiths, it has only shown that when religion and opinion is politicised and imposed on a state-level, it is inherently dangerous. As soon as religion becomes a basis for governmental action or policy-making, it becomes exclusive. Whether it’s used to supposedly uphold the values of a state, or whether it’s used to target a demographic of people within the state, at what point do we globally accept that religion cannot be used to justify brutality disguised as policy?

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