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Authority, Autonomy
And Religious Conflict

By Sarbeswar Sahoo

20 March, 2007
Countercurrents.org

On our way back from Fateh Sagar Lake to Seva Mandir (Rajasthan), where we worked as volunteers, we had some wonderful religious discussions with Janneke and Marjolaine – the former from the Netherlands and the later from France. Clearing their queries and curiosities about the complex cultural customs and traditions of Indian pluralism, Pankaj (from TISS) and I made some efforts as the students of social sciences. While making a point on the rising religious conflicts and intolerance in the present day society, an important point came to the discussion which forms the foundation of ‘communal/ ethnic conflict’ and ‘clash of religious identity’ through out the world.

Since 9/11, Islam has been portrayed as the evil and held responsible for the rising religious conflicts and terrorist activities everywhere. Mahmood Mamdani, a Columbia political theorist, in his book on Good Muslims and Bad Muslims, debunks the orthodox idea that the modern and secular Muslims as good and the traditional and religious Muslims as bad. However, the point here is neither about good Muslims and bad Muslims, nor about good religion and bad religion; it is about how and when religion become communal. The answers to this question are authority, politicization and labeling. Religion and politics nexus is well known to all, and we also know pretty well about who labels whom as communal and intolerant. However, the question of ‘authority’ and its role in politicizing religion still remains hidden from the agenda and is yet unexplored. It is not the ordinary people who politicize religion and label other religion as the evil monster. It is the ‘people in power’ (not only those in politics) who enjoy the legitimate right (by virtue of their position) to misinterpret, miscommunicate and manipulate the popular will against one another. No religion is bad.

Politicization of religion by the people in authority is one of the important reasons of religious conflict in many parts of the world. The “intensity of the politicization” is higher in monotheistic religious traditions due to the centralization of their authority. The “choice of opting out” (freedom) in these traditions is very much unlikely not because of the strict regulations of the religion but because of the existence of an authoritarian religious monarch. In contrast, the polytheistic traditions like Hinduism which have no single authority structure are plural in culture, practice and belief. It becomes impossible to ‘organize’ the whole community for a petty political agenda. The plurality of structure (various castes and sub-castes), belief and ideology are the raison d'être of less politicization in Hindu tradition. There is no dominant way of thinking, and no absolute authority to guide the Hindu religion. However, this does not mean that Hinduism is good; the introduction of authority structure and the entry of various organizations who claim (in fact self-proclaimed) to be the representatives of Hindus have caused many violent conflicts and have also threatened the long-standing secular and syncretic cultural traditions of Indian society. Their exclusivist definition of Hinduism has created a “sense of suspicion and fear” among the people from other religious communities. Their loyalty is questioned and religion is (mis)interpreted as intolerant. This sense of suspicion never existed before; religious communities were marked by their harmonious and syncretic living. “Community living” instead of “communal living” used to be the foundation of social life. This hostility appeared in communities when representation of religion was made through religious or political authorities. That means people relinquished their liberty, freedom and autonomy to the authorities who now guide them on religious affairs. And the authorities in power have got the legitimate right to interpret, misinterpret and manipulate religious issues for their petty political gain. Monotheistic religion is more likely to have centralization in authority; and polytheistic religion is more likely to give autonomy to the people. This does not mean monotheistic religious groups, like Islam and Christianity, should start believing in many Gods, but to find out an alternative that could give the masses more autonomy in religious affairs and could create Weberian “disenchantment” with the “traditional/charismatic authority” structure in a modern world where “democratic rationality” has become the order of the day.

One of the latest examples of this is the controversy between the Hindus and the Muslims on the singing of Vande Mataram in schools on September 7, 2006 which resulted in the exchange of hostile ideas, arguments and counter-arguments between the self-proclaimed leaders of both the communities. This became a political issue around which the authorities tried to widen their legitimacy among the masses. No one really bothered about the public opinion. What the people exactly want? Do they really have any problem with this? On the contrary, the public also never bothered about the controversy in their social life (as they know this is another political manipulation). Another aspect of this debate is that religion no longer remains confined to the private life of the people; it has come to the political market/ public space searching a suitable offer (in terms of political profit) being traded by the authorities. This politicization and publicization of religion by authorities are the reasons of mistrust and growing violence in society. The state, which was founded on the principles of secularism and religious neutrality, has now started interpreting and propagating religious relevance for the communities. Similarly in the Western context, Christianity and its propagator – the political state, have been restricting individual’s personal preferences and choices related birth, death, abortion and sexual preferences. This is where the legitimacy of the authorities in power needs to be questioned for not to interfere in private affairs and religious life.

As our experience says, where the ordinary people are autonomous to decide and where there is a strong influence of the public opinion (not the opinion of the people having authority) on the affairs of social life, conflict finds very little scope to express itself. Thus, autonomy would provide the foundation for acknowledging cultural differences, respecting social pluralism and accommodating the other/unknown without urging for their assimilation. Let religions be autonomous from their authorities.
Authority, Autonomy and Religious Conflict

Sarbeswar Sahoo is a Ph.D Candidate, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore; sarbeswar@nus.edu.sg

 

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