Religion, identity and terrorism

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 16 2005, 05:30am hrs
With global attention riveted on the whys and what-ifs of the horrendous London bombing, the revelation that four main suspects were all homegrown Britons rather than foreign migrants has created a wave of alarm mixed with confusion. The overall British response has been exemplary, with the government going the extra mile to nix any provocation for racial hatred, but articles such as The Enemy Within are beginning to appear in British newspapers, many of whom have a long tradition of reserve and almost indifference to matters of religion.

Even discounting for widespread despondency in the Muslim world spawned by the Iraq war, there is painful befuddlement over how could those born and apparently raised in western values choose to identify so strongly with unknown co-coreligionists thousands of miles away rather than with school friends and neighbours of another faith

In the modern context, religious identity assertion started with the Iranian revolution of 1978 and then spilled over to Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, the Balkans and a number of the worst troubled spots of the world, often very explosively. In many of these places, and irrespective of how a local struggle for rights started, both personal identity and political aspiration have been shaped by a sense of religious mandate or kinship, whether said so or not for tactical reasons, rather than defined by local roots, mutual dependency or nationhood.

Even Afghan society, with its history of strong tribal and ethnic loyalty, eventually yielded to a regressive order that commanded discipline and unity in the name of religion. In India, the rise of right-wing Sikh and Hindu formations are also part of the same trend. The fact that religious identification is increasingly prevailing over community and social bonds has become a real intellectual challenge to post-colonial liberalism. This is especially true in western countries that, unlike India, do not have a history (at least in recent times) of managing conflicts arising out of faith and religion.

But for the first time, Europe is well on its way to becoming a multi-cultural and multi-religious continent instead of being uniformly Christian. Nowhere is this more visible than in France and Germany where the Muslim population has more than doubled in the past two decades. By 2050, at least one in five Europeans will be Muslim, according to some estimates. And unlike earlier immigrants, the newer generation is more inclined to follow the turmoil in its homeland or seek a cultural space outside the usual seductive buzzwords of globalisation and free markets. Radical Muslim clerics have had a field day getting adherents, and a post-9/11 poll of British Muslims found that 44% believe attacks by Al Qaeda were justified as long as Muslims are being killed by America and its allies using American weapons.

These facts and these statistics scare a large number of people in Europe, though frank and free comments are seldom expressed in public for fear of being branded as racist or xenophobic. The post-9/11 war on terror has just compounded this tension, what with some very dubious legality, double standards and inexcusable violations of human rights by the US-led alliance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Europe remains the future battleground, as a common refrain goes.

India can both contribute to and learn from Europe, as this issue and debate evolves. In India, we still have to get our act together to build a true liberal and rule-based society, what with far too many neo-liberalism ideas being thrown about, many of which are brandished not because of a genuine belief but because they are either cool intellectual fads that raise the profile of the speaker or because of some crude political calculation. For instance, our definition and practice of secularism is rather warped, and while true secularism requires more than a little disdain for all religions, we, in fact, have chosen to be equally indulgent and overpampering. Similarly, our policies and politics promote group-think and group-rights, while the whole idea of multi-culturalism was simply as a practical and intermediate stage to assimilation and individual rights.

It is the rare public leader who has opposed multi-cultural separation because it can so easily become destructive and because it is in sharp departure from the liberal ideal that rights are universal and not particular. In fact, repeated research just tells us that chronic violence frequently appears in areas where the state has practiced identity politics and where there are few institutions promoting social integration.

Despite all the progress mankind has made in the last century, the baggage of our historical legacies along with growing inequality of every kind, economic, social or political, is helping perpetuate the idea that cultural and religious distinctions are relevant. The whole notion of identity has always been important, including the concept of race, religion, caste and language, but it was kept in the background while the world fought over the high ideals of freedom versus colonialism, or hunger versus greed. But now, this identity politics has suddenly become nastier, shriller and deeper in our veins. The horrible prospect that a 19 year-old Briton got up in the morning, did not even say goodbye to his cricketing friends or his mother, rode a train to the middle of London and then without any remorse took his own life and that of people like those that he grew up with, says a lot for the perverse and extreme aspect of this phenomenon.

The writer is editor, India Focus