Monday, December 12, 2016

Indonesia: Ahok's trial and religious right resurgence

Indonesia is not only a Muslim-majority country (MMC) but the biggest MMC in the world. However, in the 1940s, after getting independence from Netherlands, its elite decided to  adopt secular Pancasila nationalism and ignored the demands for an Islamic state. The multiethnic, multireligious, and multilinguistic diversity of the Indonesian nation surely played a part in this decision. Since then, the hardliners in the religious right have been trying to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia but without much success (See the comparison of India and Indonesia). In 2014 elections, the religious right again tried to eke out a victory and to increase the role of Islam in state affairs but they were soundly beaten (See Indonesian Elections: A Victory for Pancasila Nationalism).

Currently, the religious right is again resurging in Indonesia as Jakarta's governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Chinese nickname Ahok) faces blasphemy charges. Ahok became governor of Jakarta after the previous governor Jokowi won the 2014 Indonesian presidential election. Ahok, a popular deputy governor, took charge of Jakarta governorship in November 2014. Well ahead of his rivals, Ahok was due to be re-elected as Jakarta's governor in February 2017, despite his double-minority status (a Christian Chinese in a Muslim-majority Javanese country). Ahok was expected to win around 40% of the votes polled. Ahok was such a strong candidate that the opposition parties initially tried to put up a single candidate to defeat him but failed to do so. One group (PKS and Gerindra) then nominated former culture and education minister Anies Baswedana, who had fought against these two parties in the 2014 elections (See The profiles of the Jakarta election contenders: Ahok, Agus, Anies).

Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Ahok (left) after the latter's swearing in as governor on November 19, 2014 (Source: Indonesian President cancels Australia trip after violent protests)

But then something happened on 30th September that completely changed the scenario. Ahok in a rally accused the Islamic hardliners of using the following quranic verse Al-Maida 51 to deceive voters:

"O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people." (Al-Maida 51)

The verse, according to many religious scholars, is for a specific context and Prophet Muhammad had many Christian and Jewish allies during his lifetime. However, Indonesian hardliners were not letting Ahok get away and accused Ahok of insulting Quran/Islam:

Ahok provoked the ire of hardliners after he cited the Al Maidah 51 verse from the Qur’an during a campaign visit to the Thousand Islands in September. He said the verse had been used to deceive voters and justify the assertion that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. The governor later apologised, saying it was not his intention to cause any offence.
However, an edited version of those comments was subsequently circulated online, changed in a way to make the governor’s comments appear more offensive, angering hardliners further. As a Christian, and the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Ahok is somewhat of an anomaly in Indonesia’s political scene. The capital’s willingness to be led by a man who represents a double minority has in the past been hailed a symbol of progress and pluralism, the latter a virtue enshrined in the Indonesian constitution.
In a country where 90% of its more than 240 million people follow Islam, the national motto is, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or unity in diversity. (See Jakarta's Christian governor to face blasphemy trial over Islam insult claim)

Initially, Indonesian government led by Ahok's friend and former boss President Jokowi did not pay much attention to the blasphemy accusations but later religious groups managed to gather more than a hundred thousand protesters in Jakarta twice on November 4th (around 100,000-150,000) and December 2nd (around 200,000) forcing government on the backfoot. The government decided to charge Ahok under the blasphemy law and President Jokowi assured that he would be neutral. President Jokowi even joined the protesters in Friday prayers on December 2nd. Counter-protest rallies, organized by the Indonesian military, on November 30th across the country, affirmed the unity and diversity of Indonesia and may have helped government ignore more extreme demands of the protesters, like arresting Ahok.

Source: Jakarta protests: Muslims turn out in force against Christian governor Ahok

Ahok's trial is set to begin in December. Irrespective of the result of the trial, it is clear that religious forces, which were soundly defeated in 2014, are now resurgent and emboldened. Some have suggested that the whole idea of focusing on the 55 seconds of more than hundred minutes long Ahok's speech was to defeat Ahok and lessen the chances of an unbeatable Jokowi-Ahok presidential ticket in 2019 (See Commentary: Indonesia's Democracy Making Progress in Reverse).

There is no doubt that besides religious prejudice, racism and Ahok's aggressive personality has also contributed to the success of protest rallies:
Ahok has never been afraid of ruffling feathers. He is loathed as much as he is loved, with his policy of evicting slum dwellers angering the urban poor and his plans for the reclamation of Jakarta Bay attacked by environmentalists.
His political rivals have successfully exploited anger over the alleged blasphemy comments to undermine both Ahok and his ally, President Joko. Ahok is now behind the other gubernatorial candidates in some polls.
There is also little doubt racism is at play. Only around 1 to 4 percent of Indonesia's 250 million people are ethnic Chinese, but their economic success has caused resentment to bubble away for centuries. Ahok has been described as both a "Chinese bastard" and "the Chinese Infidel". (See Verdict in Ahok blasphemy trial likely to put Indonesia's democracy in the dock)

Friday, December 9, 2016

It's not conservatism,religion or racism, only regular, common nationalism?

Mark Movsesian makes an interesting argument about events happening in 2016. He argues that local politics were important but what we saw is the rise of nationalistic anti-global movement (See The New Nationalism).

One can easily perceive nationalism’s role in the politics of 2016. Repeatedly, the side advocating a recovery of sovereignty from supranational bodies and a limit on immigration prevailed. In the Brexit campaign, the “Leave” supporters argued that Britain must take back control from EU bureaucrats and assert authority over its borders. Here, Trump famously called for withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and for renegotiation of other free-trade agreements, including NAFTA; for a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants; and for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

Conservatism, racism and religion were contributing factors but cannot explain the movement:

To be sure, traditional conservatism played a role in these developments—but only an indirect one. Although the Right, broadly defined, achieved victories in the United States and Europe, what we think of as “movement conservatism” did not. In Britain, the leaders of the Conservatives opposed Brexit; in America, many conservatives opposed Trump. In France, the Republican Party has worked hard to distance itself from the National Front, which it views as an embarrassment. In Italy, the Five Star Movement declares itself non-aligned and draws votes from both the Left and the Right. 
Nor did Christian conservatism triumph in 2016. True, the majority of British Christians wanted their country out of the European Union and the majority of American Christians voted for Trump (the members of some denominations by wide margins). But both the Brexit campaign and the American election downplayed religious themes. Trump did not make Christian values a centerpiece of his agenda. Many Christians who supported him did so from a fear of what a Hillary Clinton administration would mean for their religious freedom rather than a belief that Trump shared their values. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen strongly supports secularism. For an express appeal to Catholic values, one must turn instead to the Republican Party’s candidate, Fran├žois Fillon. 
In short, although traditional conservatism has been on the winning side in recent political contests, it has been a junior partner in a larger project: the revival of nationalism.

Movsesian argues that this rise of nationalism does not necessarily mean that liberalism has been rejected. It is the liberalism tied with globalism that is rejected by many

The resurgence of nationalism upsets the conventional wisdom, which for some time has predicted the eclipse of the nation-state and the triumph of global, free market liberalism. Even Francis Fukuyama, who originated the idea of “the End of History” in 1989, has begun to reconsider. (Access to his article in the Financial Times is best from this link.) Why was the conventional wisdom wrong? Many observers argue that the financial rewards of global liberalism have been poorly distributed, with benefits going to a small number of elites within each country. Global liberalism may look great to cosmopolitans in New York and Los Angeles, who enjoy cheaper goods and services and higher returns on their investments, but to many in Middle America, who have lost well-paying factory jobs, and whose communities have been decimated by unemployment and other social ills, the advantages are harder to discern.
The lagging fortunes of what used to be called the working class are only part of the story, though, and not the most important part. As Fukuyama acknowledges, many well-educated Americans with reasonable professional prospects, who could expect to benefit from global liberalism, also supported Trump. For these Americans, too, the new world order of multiculturalism and ever-freer trade seemed lacking.
Does that mean these Americans reject liberalism itself? Maybe. Political scientist Yashca Mounk points to some worrying trends. But not necessarily—they may just want a liberalism tied to a coherent national community. Liberalism is not simply an abstract set of propositions; it is a tradition embedded in a particular political culture. Ultimately, it depends on a shared identity beyond markets and human rights, on a cultural and social unity that transcends cheaper prices and due process of law. A global liberalism divorced from local communities is a pale substitute for the deeper sources of belonging to which people naturally turn when they face a crisis. That, more than anything else, is the key political lesson of 2016.

The question I would like to ask Movsesian is about the basis of this new nationalism. Okay, it is anti-global and anti-immigrant but why? Is it economic nationalism or racial nationalism or religious nationalism or a combination of all of them. Secondly, nationalism is inherently divisive so a 'national' liberalism may not be benign in the end.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Is Persian Identity rising again in Iran?

The tussle between the Islamic/Shiite identity and the Persian ethnolinguistic identity has been a constant theme in the modern Iranian politics (See blogpost Iranian 'Persian-National' Identity). Sometimes, one type of identity becomes so powerful that it seems that the other type has been completely evanesced. However, soon the apparently evanesced identity reappears and dominates the political scene, making the once primary identity vanish. For instance, the Persian identity remained dominant during the reigns of Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah and the Islamic identity was on the fringe and mostly invisible but, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic identity became the paramount identity and Persian identity was nowhere to be seen.

During the last decade, it appears the Persian identity is gradually rising again. Former President Ahmadinejad was the first one from the top elite of the Islamic regime to acknowledge/lay claim on the Persian identity (See blogpost Afraid of Ahmadinejad). For the first time after the Revolution, Ahmadinejad loaned the famed Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum and exhibited it in Iran. His advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei even linked Cyrus with the prophets of Islam, drawing severe censure from the conservative circles.

Recently, there is more evidence of the growing influence of the Persian identity in Iran. During recent years, more and more Iranians are visiting the Tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae on October 29, the internationally designated day of Cyrus the Great. In October 2016, there was an unprecedented traffic jam near Pasargadae as thousands of Iranians tried to reach the tomb and President Rouhani also joined the celebrations via Instagram:

The number of people who showed up at Pasargadae was surprising. The event fell on a Friday, which is a weekend in Iran, and reportedly saw a traffic jam in a 30- to 40-kilometer (19- to 25-mile) radius on the roads leading to the tomb. Those who had witnessed similar get-togethers say they had never seen such a large gathering. The locals, including those dwelling in the nearby Pasargadae village, were also quite amazed by the sheer number of visitors. Reports say people started gathering in the area, especially around the Tomb of Cyrus, from as early as the evening before and that there was heavy traffic on roads to the site. As such, the main entrance to Pasargadae was closed the night before, with no more cars allowed to enter. On Oct. 28, social media users shared widely circulated videos and pictures of the gathering of Cyrus devotees, showing some of them shouting slogans praising the Achaemenid king.
President Hassan Rouhani even published a picture of himself next to the nearby Achaemenid capital of Persepolis on his Instagram page, with the caption: “Persepolis is one of the invaluable and unique remains of the ancient history of this land, which demonstrates the antiquity of the civilization, the ingenuity, the wisdom, and the management skills of the great people of Iran, as well as their monotheism.” (See ‘Cyrus the Great’ enters Iranian politics)

Source: The rise of nationalist fervour in Iran

Not surprisingly, this gathering was criticized by the conservatives. Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani, one of the most senior clerics, said on October 30th: 

"People rose and brought about the revolution and allowed the emergence of a true Islamic system. The shah used to say, ‘O Cyrus, sleep in peace as we are awake.’ Now, a group of people have gathered around the Tomb of Cyrus and they are circumambulating it and have taken their handkerchiefs out and cry [as they do for Shiite Imam Hussein]. In the time of Imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini, too, a group of people started commemorating Cyrus. The imam [Khomeini] said that these people have gathered and are crying because we have brought Islam to this country.” He added, “These are the same [people]; they are counter-revolutionaries. I am amazed that these people get together around the Tomb of Cyrus, shouting the same slogans for him that we shout in support of the supreme leader, and yet we are sitting here, alive and well, and just watching this...Who in power has been so negligent to allow these people to gather? We are in a revolutionary and Islamic country, and this revolution is the continuation of the actions of the prophet and the imams, and their point was to create a perfect populace."(See ‘Cyrus the Great’ enters Iranian politics)

After this statement, the local officials sprung into action and some organizers of the gathering were arrested. However,  Rohollah Faghihi (See What Iranian clerics really think of Cyrus the Great) argues that it would be wrong to think that conservatives are united in disowning Cyrus. Many Iranian clerics consider Cyrus, the Great, Dhul Qarnayn, an ancient king praised in Quran:

In verses 83 and 98 of the chapter Kahf, the Quran narrates a story revolving around an individual named Dhul-Qarnayn, who is praised as a believer and ruler: “Indeed, we established him upon the earth, and we gave him to everything a way.” Allameh Muhammad Hossein Tabatabai, one of the most prominent thinkers of philosophy and contemporary Shiite Islam, cautiously identifies Cyrus as Dhul-Qarnayn in his 20-volume work of Quranic exigesis, the "Tafsir al-Mizan." Other scholars engaged in Quranic exigesis, such as Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi — one of the most senior clerics in Qom — have also described Cyrus as Dhul-Qarnayn.

Faghihi also quotes an anonymous Shiite scholar:

In an interview with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, a Shiite scholar and cleric who has been teaching at the Qom seminary for the past two decades said, “Islam doesn’t seek to take away national pride from people. What is currently happening is a political issue.” He added, “The seminary and religion do not dismiss Cyrus and the ancient history of Iran at all. Some who are expressing their opposition to Cyrus aren’t speaking on behalf of the whole seminary. I should say that even those who have voiced their opposition regarding this issue do not hold an opinion against Cyrus. For instance, Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani criticized the tears the crowd there [in Pasargadae on Oct. 28] shed, not Cyrus himself.”

Are things going to change soon? Is there a coming together of the two Iranian identities? Not likely. Clerics consider nationalism as unislamic/Western import and the advocates of Persian ethnolinguistic identity consider clerics and their rule un-Iranian:

Like many other pious Muslims, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, viewed the concept of nationalism as un-Islamic. He thought nationalism was in opposition to the concept of ummah (Muslim worldwide community), which fundamentally rejects borders that divide Muslim societies. He asserted that “nationalism is designed by the plotters to create discord among the Muslims and it is being propagated by the agents of imperialism.”
Ayatollah Khomeini further remarked that “the plan of the great powers and their affiliates in the Muslim countries is to separate and divide the various strata of Muslims, whom God, the Blessed and Exalted, has declared brothers. … Those who, in the name of nationalism, factionalism, etc., create schism and disunity among Muslims are armies of Satan, opponents of the Holy Quran, and helping agents of the superpowers.”
Additionally, the conservatives view nationalism – essentially a secular movement that advocates separation of state and religion – as a serious threat to the foundation of the state’s ideology, which is based on the guardianship of the Islamic jurists. During the 28 October gathering, one of the slogans chanted was “freedom of thought cannot take place with beards,” a reference to the figures in power. (See The rise of nationalist fervour in Iran)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Make America White and Christian Again

Mirren Gidda of Newsweek, like many others, tried to answer the question, 'How did Trump win?' The answer might come as a shock; many Americans, living in one of the most secular and diverse countries, want to make America a white, Christian country.

There were many things going against Trump and the prospect of him winning the US presidency was so farfetched that it was considered funny. He had no political or military experience and the twice-divorced billionaire, who had lived an irreligious life, was vying to get the nomination of the Republican Party which is largely dependent on evangelicals for its recent successes. Furthermore, non-White and women voters made a majority of the American electorate and Trump managed to keep offending these two groups during the whole campaign. Finally, he had little grasp of the complex political and economic issues that America, and the world, faced and his ignorance was exposed.

But still Donald Trump won and he did not win by attracting the poor, most of whom voted for Clinton:
Trump voters tended to be older (53 percent of people aged 45 and over voted for him), well-off and white. According to the exit polls, 58 percent of all white voters chose Trump at the voting booth, while just 21 percent of non-white voters cast their ballots for the Republican nominee.
The biggest issue for Trump voters—ahead of foreign policy, the economy or terrorism—was immigration, exit polls showed, with 84 percent of Trump voters saying that the government should deport undocumented migrants rather than give them the chance to apply for legal status.
Analysts say Trump’s success among white voters is partly attributable to his tapping into concerns about immigration and a feeling among many voters that the U.S. should be a white, Christian country. “It’s like everything he said hit the right nationalistic buttons,” says Allyson Shortle, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma...
According to Shortle, research shows that religious nationalism features particularly heavily among Trump’s supporters. It is part of the reason, she says, that Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. played so well. It appealed to “this narrow vision of a Christian America,” Shortle says.

Trump's attraction was thus partly religious and partly racial. Two of his signature policies were building a wall to put an end to immigration from Mexico and denying Muslims entry into the US. Scholars argue that Trump tapped into white, Christian nationalism that many Americans believe in, although few would openly say so:
“Some people think about it as an ideology, a movement, or an attitude—but some research, including my own, views nationalism as part of a person’s social identity,” writes Kathleen Powers, assistant professor in the department of international affairs at the University of Georgia, in an email to Newsweek . “When people identify with a nationality, they have an idea about what defines the prototypical or archetypal group member. In short, they carry a picture of what it means to be an American.
“That prototypical American,” Powers adds, “might be defined in relatively inclusive terms, like a person who respects political institutions, or in more exclusive terms, like someone who is part of a Judeo-Christian religion, speaks English, or is a member of a certain racial group. Certainly, some people define the prototypical American as white, Christian, and/or born in the U.S.”
And if that’s your conception of what it is to be an American, Powers writes, then anyone who deviates from the norm is either not a true American, or is a poor version of one.
What figures prominently in how ordinary citizens define what it is to be an American, Shortle says, is the notion of the U.S. and its peoples as a Christian nation. (The Pilgrim Fathers, who founded what came to be the United States of America, were Christian dissenters fleeing religious persecution in Europe.)
Even today, religious nationalism remains strong among a significant proportion of U.S. citizens. On September 29, a poll of 4,000 Americans—which Shortle helped organize—found that 43 percent of respondents thought that the abundant natural resources in the U.S. were a sign that God wanted America to lead the rest of the world. Sixty percent of those surveyed believed that the U.S. holds a special place in God’s plan. (Not all of the people polled were Christian or even religious).

Obama's two-term presidency would certainly make you fearful of the catastrophic times ahead. The son of a black Muslim becoming President of the Republic could have been the last straw. 

Image result for trump evangelicals

Professor Gorski, one of the most preeminent scholars of nationalism, agrees but claims that Trumpism is a secular religious nationalism (it seems like an oxymoron but let's read Professor Gorski):

There are various interpretations of Trumpism on offer. Reading it as fascism explains its appeal to the white nationalists of the “alt-right.” Reading it as populism explains its appeal to a white working class fed up with the “Washington establishment.” And reading it as authoritarianism explains its appeal to voters with authoritarian personalities. These interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but they do not explain Trump’s appeal to evangelicals qua evangelicals.
So, let me propose a different interpretation. On this reading, Trumpism is a secular form of religious nationalism. By “religious nationalism,” I mean a form of nationalism that makes religious identity the litmus test of national belonging. By “a secular form of religious nationalism,” I mean one that strips religious identity of its ethical content and transcendental reference. In Trumpism, religion functions mainly as a marker of ethnicity.

Gorski argues that devoid of any ethical dimension, bloody conquest and violent apocalypse, has been the basic recipe for this secular religious nationalism, which is also referred by its more innocuous-sounding name 'American Exceptionalism.' Trump does not use the religious rhetoric like many other US Presidents but the idea is similar:

Trump does not allude to the Tribulation or the Second Coming in the way that old school religious nationalists like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson did. But Trump does portray the contemporary world as an apocalyptic hellscape. There are no demons or angels, no monsters or dragons. Just “real Americans” threatened by hordes of Syrian refugees, gangs of Muslim terrorists, and swarms of Mexican rapists. Trump’s apocalypse is a secular one.
With Christ out of the picture, the role of Messiah is open again. He claims that he and he alone has the power to cast these monstrous minions back into their respective pits, as long as his followers put their faith in him. “Believe me folks,” he often says, “I will do it.” I will deliver you from evil, I will redeem you from poverty, and I will lift you up again above all races. American will “win” again. In Trumpism, the Second Coming of Christ becomes the First Term of the Donald.
Gorski argues that it's Christianism, not Christianity (perhaps similar to what Islam is to Islamism) and that's why it is not the most pious, but the most political, Christians that are attracted to Trump:

Reading Trumpism as a secular version of religious nationalism not only explains why so many evangelicals rallied to Trump, it also sheds light on which evangelicals did so. Not the more pious of the evangelical masses, as it turns out, nor the more theologically astute of its leaders. During the spring of 2016, opinion polls turned up a fascinating finding: an inverse relationship between church attendance and support for Trump. As for Graham Jr. and Falwell Jr., they are political leaders, not thought leaders.
In short, the affinity is not really between Trump and Christianity—it’s between Trumpism and Christianism. By Christianism, I mean Christianity as a political identity denuded of ethical content. Trumpism is a Christianist version of political theology.
Professor Gorski's explanation is interesting but I would like to ask if Trump did not act like a Christian and did not talk like a Christian then how can we accuse him of being a (secular) religious nationalist. Many political leaders claim that they will bring heaven on earth and without them there would be apocalyptic hellscape so are all of them religious nationalists, even if they persecute religious nationalists and abhor religion? If this is so, almost every political leader, atleast in the developing world, is either a religious nationalist or a secular religious nationalist.

Is Christian nationalism increasing in America? According to a West Virginia University study reported in Huffpost, Christian nationalism was decreasing in America in 2014:

In their study, Whitehead and researcher Christopher Scheitle of West Virginia University analyzed more than 3,000 responses to questions on the qualities of being an American and patriotism from the 1996, 2004 and 2014 waves of the General Social Survey.
They presented their findings at the recent joint annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Religious Research Association in Atlanta.
Consider how the ties between religion and nationalism can change dramatically in different time periods:
  • In 1996, some 38 percent of respondents said being a Christian was very important to being an American. 
  • In 2004, just three years after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and a year after the invasion of Iraq, nearly half, or 48 percent, of Americans, attributed the same significance to being a Christian. 
  • In 2014, a period of relative calm, the percentage dropped to one-third.

So, what happened in 2016? How did a liberal America vote for a person who denigrated women and racial/religious minorities during the whole election campaign? Is Christian nationalism still declining or it increased after 2014? Did fear of the ISIS, home-grown/lone-wolf terrorism and migration again linked Christianity with nationalism?