Secularism has failed: new religious wars require fresh solution

opinion June 06, 2017 01:00

By Imtiyaz Yusuf
Special to The Nation

Fresh wars of religion powered by the new ideology of religious nationalism are destroying peaceful coexistence for citizens globally.



This new ideological virus first emerged in the 1920s in the form of Christian fundamentalism, before being adopted in the Middle East by Muslim parties and monarchies as a bulwark against Arab socialists. The fundamentalism gained momentum with India’s Khalistan movement and achieved political success with Islamist regimes in Iran and Pakistan. Now, religious fundamentalism has mutated again – into xenophobic religious nationalisms seen in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, France, Germany, the United States and more. 

The new religious nationalist wars differ from the Christian European wars of religion of 1524-1648 following the Protestant Reformation. Those battles ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and a secularism which separated religion from politics and spread via colonialism to become the global model for nation-states.

The current religious wars, meanwhile, are grounded in an ideology of religious xenophobia and mythological superiority. This is new disease was absent in pre-colonial religious perspectives, which favoured coexistence, tolerance and trade – exemplified by the ancient Silk Route reaching from Japan to the Mediterranean. 

The new wars of religion are rooted in secularism’s banishment of religions from the public sphere. Under secularism, it was hoped that religions would disappear, but suppression instead resulted in their manipulation to further the political agendas of ethnic majorities. 

Hence the popular theory that religion is the cause of all wars is a historical fallacy, as shown by thousands of examples of peaceful interreligious cooperation in the past. Yet in the modern age, religions have been used to demonise minority citizens by spreading imagined fear that their relatively small numbers will grow quickly to overwhelm the majority. Such fears are scientifically false and demographically implausible.

History post-1945 witnessed a wave of nation-building that birthed still unresolved nationalist conflicts in Kashmir, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Kurdistan, southern Thailand and southern Philippines. In every case the rebels do not aspire to establish religious states. Instead these conflicts are unresolved political remnants of the modern age of nationalism and thus require political solutions.

The post-Cold War religious nationalisms have created unforeseen headaches for policymakers for which no textbook solutions are available. They are led by nationalists with communal religious agendas, who have entered the corridors of power in Israel, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the US. The phenomenon of mainstream secular nationalism has turned religious. This hybrid “new normal” needs to be analysed and understood if we are to prevent it from destroying the concept, practice and respect for universal citizenship – the foundation of a modern inclusive and pluralist state. 

At stake is no less than the future of cosmopolitan Asia, which is being undermined by the rise of religio-nationalist movements and the impact of immense commercial materialism. Neither social theorists nor religious clerics are equipped to offer solutions for this challenge. What’s needed is an interdisciplinary approach. 

Current policy tackles the rise of religious nationalisms and attending violence as a security issue. This is insufficient and ignores the Buddhist teaching that the solution to suffering lies in finding its cause.

Southeast Asia is caught between a geopolitical contest of superpowers, and also ethnicised Christian, Muslim and Buddhist populations who are becoming infected with violent religious nationalism that is pitting citizens against one another. This endangers the future of the region, which is an increasingly important global economic hub thanks to well-trained human resources and good infrastructure. The Asean group of nations survived the Cold War; they cannot afford to destroy themselves through internal religious nationalisms. 

The rise of religious nationalism is a great threat to citizenship, which states must counter through education if they want to forestall a violent future. Current tech-focused education and daily life shaped by social media lacks the depth needed to address ethnic demonisation and phobias. Curricula must be revised to include humanist content as an antidote to rising parochialism, interreligious ignorance, intolerance and resultant violence. Our predecessors sacrificed and even died for the cause of freedom and development, to leave this generation a more peaceful world. We should not bequeath a violent future for our children.

What is the way out? The secularists must learn to accommodate religion in the public sphere while the religious leaders must help balance the public role of religion with spirituality. Meanwhile all religious leaders should condemn acts of violence perpetuated by their own members. Protecting the rights of the citizens, not self-interested groups, is a national priority. 

 Globalisation demands respect for diversity, democracy and securing the essential needs of every human being. The new religious nationalist wars are a dangerous sign we are entering a post-secular world. Its roots lie not in religion but in the impact of a secular world on the religious. The old European religious wars led to secularism, development and fundamentalisms. The secularist and religious fundamentalisms have run their course. The urgent task now at hand is to find a fresh humanism for a globalised world – one that is not merely a commercial enterprise or reactive defence against terrorism but builds an inclusive civilisation that upholds freedom, compassion, justice and reason. That vision is encapsulated by the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore: 

“Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” 

Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is director of Mahidol University’s Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding.