Recently, we have witnessed waves of protests in India against controversial statements by two politicians from the country's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about the Prophet Muhammad, which were deemed as offensive and insulting. The BJP suspended Nupur Sharma, spokesperson for the party, and expelled Naveen Jindal, another BJP politician, on June 5.
On the other hand, Sharma and Jindal also withdrew their statements and made public apologies. The reaction to the incidents has spiraled beyond India’s borders. Saudi Arabia issued a strong statement of condemnation. Kuwait, Iran and Qatar summoned India's ambassadors to their respective countries to convey their protests. Several other Muslim-majority countries followed suit and not to be missed, Indonesia raised an objection with the Indian Embassy.
Several mass protests took place in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within India itself, demonstrations sprung up in various cities after Friday prayers on June 10. Riots also broke out, and police reportedly arrested a number of protesters (Outlook India, June 10, 2022). In Jakarta, protesters rallied outside the Indian Embassy demanding the Indian government’s public apology. Sharma reportedly received rape and murder threats.
Learning from previous events from various parts of the world, controversies involving religious issues have been proven to easily break geographical boundaries.
The controversial remarks made by Sharma and Jindal were not an isolated incident. We need to pay attention to at least three things to understand the context more thoroughly.
First, religion-based conflicts and violence in India has historical roots. In India, political divisions based on religion can be traced back to the British colonial period, which eventually ended up with the partition of India in 1947. The British colony was divided into India, which was dominated by Hindus, and Pakistan, which was inhabited by a Muslim majority.
Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims periodically emerged in the decades following the separation. The major ones include conflict in Gujarat (1969, 2002), violence in Bhagalpur (1989), riots in Kashmir (1989), the Mumbai terror bombings (2008) and the Delhi riots (2020). It can be said that the memory of the history of conflict and violence still haunts the social and political realities of India today.
Second, the exploitation of identity politics is a very dangerous trigger for conflict. Whether we realize it or not, the historical background above is the basis for social grouping, which is often the basis of political constituencies. The BJP, to which Sharma and Jindal belonged, is a nationalist party that voices the aspirations of the Hindu majority. Thus, you can imagine how strongly attached BJP politicians are to Hindu sentiments.
When BJP politicians need constituent support, this sectarian sentiment becomes their most powerful weapon. Politicians take advantage of this religious identity without considering the consequences. On the other hand, the memory of conflict and inter-religious violence has reignited in the public consciousness of Indian Muslims. As a result, the cycle of hatred and interreligious tension revolves again and again.
Third, discriminatory public policies against religious minorities remain prevalent in India. Although in its constitution, India mandates a secular state, treats all religions equally and guarantees freedom of diversity, several derivative regulations still reflect Hindu majoritarianism. The United States Department of State's International Religious Freedom Report for 2021 shows that 10 of India's 28 states enforce laws restricting religious conversion and impose penalties against so-called forced religious conversion. The regulations are often used to repress religious minorities on charges of trying to force conversions.
This has an impact not only on Muslims. In the period of January-June 2021, at least 29 Christians were detained due to such accusations. In addition, a number of states have also implemented laws prohibiting the slaughter of cows, which Hindus view as sacred. This regulation is often used to fine and imprison religious minorities.
It is important to understand that those discriminatory regulations are not a problem for India alone, but for many countries, especially those that still suffer from religious majoritarian bias. The Pew Research Center (2019) stated that at least 41 out of 198 countries (21 percent) still enforce discriminatory laws against religions and religious adherents. Those include 17 countries in Asia Pacific, 11 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, three countries in Europe and two countries in the Americas.
Indonesia is also identified in this research. Despite some important progress in the last five years such as the recognition of local beliefs in formal identification documents, Indonesia still maintains some discriminatory regulations against religious minorities.
The Wahid Foundation’s A Decade Report on Freedom of Religion and Belief (2020) identified at least 88 discriminatory regulations reflecting majoritarian attitudes. In many ways, not only in Indonesia or in India, discriminatory laws have always been used to support the politics of identity frequently favored by politicians to win votes.
Mark Juergensmeyer (2016), a professor of religious studies at the University of California, states that religion has always been global in nature. Traditions, practices and religious communities have always moved beyond geographic boundaries. As a result, religion has always been part of the global community, and on the other hand, assimilated or confronted with local traditions and communities.
It is important for us to realize the trans-boundary nature of religion so that we are able to break the cycle of hatred and tension in the name of religion. Religious discrimination in one country or region may result in retaliatory discrimination in another country or region. This lesson from India should make us, as part of a peace-loving religious community, more serious in our efforts to end the cycle of hatred.
First, we need to constantly urge all religious communities in our country and in the world to stop exploiting religious sentiments for political gain, regardless of religion. This politicization of religion has proven to be very dangerous for the sustainability of our multi-religious and multi-identity society. Second, we must stop the religious-based hate narratives from spreading further. Even though sometimes our intention of directly quoting the hate statement is only to deliver news, it will still contribute to the spread of the narrative. We must not be trapped in the “hate spin”, the playback of hate narratives through its various frames.
Third, we need to continue to fight for justice and equal treatment for all identities at the structural level seriously. The fourth president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, set an example for us by abolishing Presidential Instruction No. 14/1967, which was previously often used as a tool to discriminate against Chinese traditions and beliefs in Indonesia.
This bold action at the structural level to create justice and equality for all identities needs not only to be carried out in Indonesia or India, but in all parts of the world that still harbor one of the main sources of global conflict: identity-based discrimination.
The writer is Mujtaba Hamdi, the executive director of Wahid Foundation and lecturer at Nahdlatul Ulama Indonesia University
This article was published in thejakartapost.com with the title "Beware of identity politics of identity and the danger of majoritarianism". Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2022/06/23/beware-of-identity-politics-of-identity-and-the-danger-of-majoritarianism.html.