Saturday, December 3, 2016

Too liberal an outlook is resulting in a backlash because people want culturally rootedness, identity and traditions

Professor David Gushee argues that a liberal outlook that does not give importance to people's attachment to their country and/or  religion is perhaps resulting in a backlash. The signs of this backlash are Trump, Brexit and various type of religious fundamentalisms. 
One of the most important developments in global politics and religion is the triumph of “thick” over “thin.” By that I mean the triumph of politicians and religious leaders who offer strong rather than weak national identity platforms, passionate rather than becalmed articulations of loyalty, particularist rather than universalist policy visions.

He contends that it is difficult for universalism and liberalism (thin) to inspire people as much as nationalism and religion (thick) and this has been deomntrated by the events happening around the world. President Putin, President Erdogan and now President-elect are the proofs:
One of the most striking things Donald Trump regularly said during the election campaign was that without border enforcement, “you don’t have a country.” 
Perhaps what he meant to apply to one policy issue has broader application, wider resonance. People want to “have a country” that still means something, so they choose country over Europe, country over global trade deals, country over international norms, country over inclusivity ethics. It’s a thick, local, particularist identity and loyalty. 
And in religion, “you don’t have a religion” without doctrinal borders, without behavioral expectations, without clear identity demarcations over against those of other religions and no religion.

Professor Gushee's recipe for avoiding future Trumps and religious fundamentalisms is coming up with a different type of religion and nationalism, not liberalism. He is following his own advice:

These days as I prepare to preach weekly sermons in a post-Southern Baptist church outside Atlanta, I am trying to offer a non-fundamentalist but still thick account of Christian theology and practice. Here, I am seeking to say, we teach a religion with substance, a religion worth devoting your life to, a religion with biblical rooting, doctrinal solidity, and ethical-communal expectations. So far, so good.
The same thing will need to happen at the national political level. If we don’t like Donald Trump’s version of thick American nationalism and national loyalty, we must offer an equally thick but more compelling alternative. We must articulate and demonstrate why our understanding of what it means to be American, of the core values of American democracy, and of best public policies, are superior to the alternative on display — within the terms of a thick American identity and loyalty.
Because thick beats thin every time.
Is Professor Gushee's argument valid? Maybe religion and nationalism are so potent (thick) because we socialise and indoctrinate every child with religion and nationalism. If we teach liberalism and universalism from age four, then maybe liberalism also becomes thick?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Music Concerts: Tussle between Reformist Government and Conservative Judiciary

President Rouhani's government has been struggling to keep its promises. Not only the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement have been slow to materialize, the judiciary, revolutionary guards and other levers of government controlled by the hard conservatives have also stymied all attempts to allow a more open cultural space. President's Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati has faced resistance from hardliners from day one. Ali is certainly not an outsider as he is the son of Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of both the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council. Heading both these bodies at the same time makes Ayatollah Jannati the third most powerful political player (after Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani) in Iran. Ali Jannati views are, however, very moderate as compared to his father and aspire to lessen religious restrictions imposed on Iranian society and culture. In January 2014, he said to Al Jazeera:

President Hassan Rouhani is making more room for freedom of the press for the publishing sector and the film industry and we are trying to create a more open atmosphere for artists...Certainly there are elements inside Iran who are opposed to any kind of talks with the West, I believe that after signing of the agreement and considering the broad support that the people of Iran have given the president, these elements have retreated to a great extent.

The latest controversy in this Iranian culture war is about holding of concerts which the hardliners oppose. The reformists, on the other hand, consider them an innocuous entertainment or a way to revive Iranian music and culture. Minister Jannati has tried to walk a fine line and, unsurprisingly, no one is happy. Rohollah Faghihi writes in Al-Monitor:

During the past decade, concerts have rarely made waves, but ever since Rouhani took office, concert organizers have repeatedly faced obstruction and consequent cancellation. To avoid concert cancellations, which damage Rouhani’s approval ratings, the administration has issued a circular to prevent other state bodies such as the judiciary and the police from calling them off. The circular states that police are not allowed to stop concerts. Jannati has said that based on the new law, singers are to request permission to hold a concert from the Ministry of Culture, while the police are only to deal with traffic around the venue. In response, the deputy head of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, ordered police to continue “dealing with ethical and misbehavior anomalies in places, including concert venues.”

Mashhad has led the Iranian major cities in concert cancellations. Many Iranians think Mashhad as the religious capital of Iran because of the mausoleum the eighth Shiite imam Imam Reza, the only mausoleum of a Shiite Imam in Iran (others consider Qom because of its seminaries, Ayatollahs, and the mausoleum of Imam Reza's sister, Fatemeh Masomeh). Jannati was not happy and said on August 8 after the latest cancellations, 'This will be costly for the judiciary...We should talk with high-ranking officials in the judicial system to resolve the issue. It is not possible for a province not to act under the law. A province is not a separate island.' The Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli supported Ali and wrote a letter to the Judiciary questioning the cessation of all music concerts in Mashhad. Addressing the Chief of Judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani on August 7, he argued, 'We cannot prejudge the intentions [of musicians] and base decisions on the possibility that something will go wrong during all concerts. That would not be right.' 

These arguments led to a serious rebuttal from the hardliners and the Judiciary. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardline Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and representative of the Iranian Supreme Leader, compared the sanctity of Rome and Mashhad and said on August 12, 'We should know that we live in the city where Imam Reza is buried. It is not possible to hold concerts in the city of Imam Reza, and we shouldn’t argue with people and some narrow-minded officials regarding this. If you want a concert, go live somewhere else.' Ali Jannati backed out after this comment and said that the ministry was not going to support holding concerts in Mashhad. Now, it was the turn of reformers to criticize Ali. President Rouhani, Deputy parliament Speaker Ali Motahari and the moderate newspaper Jomhuri Eslami all condemned Ali's retreat. President Rouhani said, 'As far as I am concerned, no minister should give in to any pressure...We have the Islamic parliament. If a law is going to be adopted, lawmakers will pass it.' A letter endorsed by five thousand artists and other people in the Iran's music industry was also published which called the ban on concerts in Mashhad as a 'catastrophe that sacrifices music today, and the rest of the culture and the reputation of this country tomorrow.'

It appears that the conservative hardliners have won this battle of the culture war but this may be a temporary victory. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Is Theravada Buddhism more suited to religious nationalism?

There are two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada (meaning ‘Doctrine of the Elders’) is more conservative of the two branches. It emphasizes belief in historical Buddha and the original teachings in Pali language. The Theravada Buddhism scripture is the Pali Canon, which is divided into 3 baskets (Tipitaka). Mahayana Buddhism (meaning ‘Great Vehicle’) recognizes more than one Buddha and considers other sutras, besides Pali Canon, as religious scripture. Furthermore, Mahayana Buddhism does not emphasize the learning of Pali language and local languages are used as languages of religious instruction. In Theravada, rituals are not underscored as in Mahayana. Finally, Theravada Buddhists are asked to focus on meditation and self-liberation, while Mahayana Buddhists also believe in helping other beings, besides themselves. 

In short, Theravada is the more conservative and scriptualist form of Buddhism and thus is probably more prone to religious orthodoxy than Mahayana, the Buddhism for the masses. More detailed information on differences between the two can be read here. Some experts consider Tibetan Buddhism, not part of Mahayana branch, but a separate branch called Vajrayana Buddhism. This branch is also popular is Mongolia and Bhutan.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana is considered to have the largest number of followers among the two/three branches of Buddhism. Sometimes Mahayana is called Northern Buddhism and Theravada Southern Buddhism because of their popularity in countries of East and South-East Asia respectively. Most of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos belong to the Theravada branch while Mahayana Buddhists are concentrated in China, Japan, Korea, Bhutan, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. 

During the last few decades, religious nationalism has been popular in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, leading some analysts to wonder about the elective affinity between Theravada Buddhism and religious nationalism. Following are the arguments given to support this thesis:
  • Theravada Buddhism is more conservative and scriptualist than Mahayana Buddhism;
  • Monks have a higher status in Theravada Buddhism which makes them wary of minority religions’ appearance/expansion and thus more ready to collaborate with political powers; 
  • Most of the countries giving special status to Buddhism in state affairs are majority Theravada Buddhist;
  • All three Buddhist countries (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand) where religious nationalism has recently gained popularity are Theravada-majority countries. (See Connecting the Dots on Buddhist Fundamentalism)
I have written about Buddhist religious nationalism in Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar and also about Buddhist fundamentalism. And I find the above thesis problematic: 
  • Scriptualistism has never been a necessary condition for religious nationalism. For example, Hinduism, which is not scriptualist, has been used as the basis of Hindutva nationalism;
  • Conservatism can be linked to religious nationalism but before one does that, one has to define conservatism. Religious traditions can be conservative in one way but liberal in another;
  • The power of religious clergy given in the scriptures or in theology also has no relationship with religious nationalism. Quran, for example, does not even recognize a separate Muslim clergy but still Islam has been used for promoting religious nationalism;
  • There are five countries in the world that give special status to Buddhism in their constitutions. These are Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Bhutan. The majority religion of first four countries is Theravada Buddhism but majority religion in Bhutan in Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism. Diluting the argument further is Laos, where the majority of the people are Theravada Buddhists, but it does not give any special status to Buddhism in its constitution.
  • One might argue that a contested political environment (a struggling democracy/dictatorship) might be more susceptible to the use of religious nationalism. Religious nationalism is rising in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand not because of them being Theravada- majority countries but because of the fragility of their political set-up. Compare the fragility of their political set-up with the political stability in Mahayana/Vajrayana-majority countries, such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

My argument is that any religion can be used for supporting religious nationalism. To gauge the susceptibility of a country to religious nationalism, one has to study the history of that country, not the history of its majority religion. Hence, to explain religious nationalism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, it would be more useful to analyze the emergence of these countries in the last hundred years than to focus on the characteristics of different branches of Buddhism.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

India: Contest between Secular and Hindu Nationalism or between Developmental and Cultural Nationalism

Quoting Rabindranath Tagore (India has never had a real sense of nationalism), Amalendu Misra argues that there are many Indian nationalisms, not one. In his article, India has never had a single dominant nationalism – and it won’t any time soon, he writes that previously there was fight between two types of nationalisms, rightwing religious (Hindutva) nationalism and leftist secular (civic) nationalism but now the situation is different:
Interestingly, contemporary India is plagued by a miasma of voices who cannot agree on a unifying national identity. Indian nationalism has become a dog’s breakfast; it feels as if every day, a new group demands that the national imagination be reorganised according to its own vision and logic.
He gives examples of martial nationalism, cyber-nationalism, Marxism, and backward” castes' reactionary nationalism, etc. He concludes:
All the while, their sophisticated pundit and politician counterparts wage their dogfights over nationalism on live TV while cloaking themselves in one ideological colour or the other, all in the name of Indian identity. This all seems to vindicate Tagore’s original claim: the nature of Indian nationalism has never been a settled matter, and it doesn’t look set to organise itself any time soon.
It seems that Misra is not distinguishing between state and popular nationalism. At the popular level, there are always numerous types of nationalisms. In all countries, different ethnic, religious, economic and linguistic groups and classes disagree on what defines their nation. When pundits and politicians are talking about Indian nationalism, they are focusing on state nationalism. What kind of nationalism is or will be propagated by the Indian state? In India today, the fight appears to be clearly between religious and secular nationalisms. Or is it not?

For Radhika Desai, focusing on only the cultural aspects of nationalism and ignoring the economic aspects, is a reductionist approach. So, for her, religious and secular nationalisms present only a partial picture of the reality. She identifies two types of nationalism, developmental and cultural. She argues that nationalisms did not decline in the third quarter of the 20th century; they underwent went a transformation, from developmental nationalism to cultural nationalism. She explains the change in an article:

As the world entered the second half of the 20th century, nation-states could be divided according to whether they attempted to restrain (under social democratic regimes), eliminate (under communist ones) or harness (under developmentalist ones) the power of capital in the interest of wider groups. Japan’s ‘miracle’ years, Nehru’s, Nasser’s and Soekarno’s devel¬opmentalism, as well as Mao’s communism, stood in sharp contrast to the market-driven, capital-friendly regimes that replaced them two or more decades later and to the colonial and fascist ones which had preceded them. 

Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Soekarno & Tito at Bandung, 1961 (Source: R. Desai's article)

Developmental regimes featured distinct developmental nationalisms. In Asia, they emerged in anti-imperialist struggles. Popular mobilisations (or minimally, as in Sri Lanka, the requirements of popular legitimacy) required these nationalisms to attempt to construct political economies of development by promoting productivity and relative equality, although accomplishment varied among the resulting capitalist developmental or communist states. While the cultural politics of these nationalisms certainly featured some more or less uncritical celebration of the ‘national culture’, developmental nationalisms typically adopted a critical stance towards important aspects of the inherited culture, as for example, the critical view of caste in Indian nationalism, or the criticism of the imperial and Confucian heritage in China. In the developmental vision, national cultures were to evolve in more scientific, rational and progressive, even internationalist, directions. In short, developmental nationalisms looked forward to brighter national futures as modern egalitarian cultures and polities and as economies of generalised prosperity in a comity of nations: they typically promised a better tomorrow. 
Rather than declining in the last quarter of the 20th century, nationalisms seemed to acquire greater force, and not just in reaction to ‘globalisation’. And their nature changed. The cultural nationalisms that displaced the earlier developmental nationalisms had different names in different nations— ‘Asian values’, ‘Hindutva’, ‘Confucianism’ and ‘Nihonjinron’, for example. The cultural politics and political economy they now embodied also underwent changes and the emphasis shifted from the latter to the former. The political economy of cultural nationalisms was typically neoliberal—flagrantly unequal and not primarily concerned with increasing production or productivity so much as with the enrichment of the (expanded but still tiny) dominant middle, propertied and capitalist classes. The new nationalisms’ cultural politics—whether conceived in religious, ethnic or cultural terms— conceived culture as static, pre-given, and original although, amid the intensified commercialism and commodification of neoliberal capitalism, it was less so than ever before, and attributed to it almost magical powers of legitimation and pacification over potentially restive forsaken majorities. Thinking of cultural nationalisms as majoritarian and homogenising is easy, but also mistaken: for in the neoliberal context, cultural difference—different levels of competence in and belonging to the national culture—served to justify the economic inequalities produced by neoliberal, market-driven policies. Cultural nationalisms often took apparently multicultural and ‘tolerant’ forms as markets performed the work of privileging and marginalization more stealthily and more effectively. In contrast to the popular mobilisations on which developmental nationalisms rested, cultural nationalisms throve on the relative political disengagement and disenfranchisement which neoliberal inequalities produced. The extremist wings that cultural nationalisms had in many countries were a function of this lack of popular support. In harking back to more or less distant ‘glorious pasts’, it seemed as though what cultural nationalisms offered was not a better tomorrow, but a ‘better yesterday’. 
In a presentation on Hindutva, Desai presents the following differences between developmental nationalism, which was dominant in India in the past, to cultural nationalism (Hindutva), which is dominant now.

Indian (Developmental) Nationalism
Hindu (Cultural) Nationalism
Material gains
(share of ) Cultural glory
Better tomorrow
Better yesterday

While Desai's exposition of change from developmental to cultural nationalisms is certainly enlightening, it is difficult to accept that egalitarianism and popularity are intrinsic characteristics of developmental nationalism. One of the reasons, developmental nationalism could not survive, or remain dominant, was that it was not egalitarian and became less and less popular. It purported to be concerned about the lower classes and promised to build an inclusive society but it was elitist and mostly enriched upper classes, politicians, and bureaucrats. Conversely, one of the main reasons for the success of cultural nationalism is that it is less elitist and probably more popular now. If Nehru is the quintessential developmental nationalist and Modi is the quintessential cultural nationalist, it is clear that Nehru was much more elitist than Modi. Neo-liberalism, an important part of cultural nationalism according to Desai, is focused on this life and future, not on the next life and past. So, it is injudicious to claim that cultural nationalism is only about the past glories. Cultural nationalists certainly harp on the past but they also promise a better tomorrow. For instance, Modi's national campaign in 2014 was probably as much focused on the future as on the past.

In conclusion, the distinction between developmental and cultural nationalism is not clear and using Desai's framework muddles our understanding of Indian nationalism. I think secular and religious nationalism is a much better way to understand the changes Indian nationalism has witnessed since independence in 1947.