“Without religion, you would have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”
Nowhere is the truth of Weinberg’s insight more commonly and more globally apparent than during times of inter-community violence in one part of the world or another.
Routinely during India’s routine “communal riots,” it is seen that there are those who weapon in hand, set out to kill in the name of their religion, and, others who, despite belonging to the same religion, seek to save the hapless victims because they happen to be just good-natured human beings first.
The argument is not that individuals may not practice the tenets of a religion, but that it is only when common humanity sets religion aside that anything good gets done.
If I am writing this, it is because when the first tribal attack happened on Kashmir in 1947, it was our own Kashmiri Muslims who saved so many of us Hindus from the depredations of their co-religionist attackers.
Just as in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, many desperate Muslims found safety in Gujarati Hindu homes.
On a larger scale, often good people in great office are known to pursue vicious ends with the self-righteous sanction of some self-defined religious impulse.
Voices come to them which decree that this country or that be assaulted forthwith if the world is to be saved for some “noble” end. That those so-called “noble” ends often turn out to be crassly ignoble of course remains a truism of organized histories.
Millions, we are tutored by god’s own leaders, must die so that other millions be saved for the good life. Or else why would Hiroshima have happened? And, soon after Nagasaki, without a hint of remorse at or recognition of the meaning of the first catastrophe.
It is for such reasons that the accreted experiences of collective life and strife were to persuade humanist theorists that whereas human beings are free to have and practice religions, the one thing that the State must never have is religion. It would be so much nicer if it also had no armaments. But that is another, though a closely related, story.
That after all was the idea that was to translate into the notion of human beings as secular citizens, subject to secular laws which were made by common consent and with universal applicability.
And made by institutions which embodied the “general will” rather than some sectarian interest over which only some self-appointed closet Authority had the first and last say.
Pandit, Pope, or Mullah. Or the Dictator blessed by them, blessing them in turn.
Authority which drew its sanction from some permanently unverifiable intimacy with god. For in that scheme of things that which remains forever absent must come to be seen as having absolute sway over everything that is present or available to human determination. And through the unchallengeable agency of god’s self-appointed interlocutors.
The pity of it all is that this notion of Authority tends repeatedly to find favour with the high and mighty who fear the consequences of democracy.
And in many ivy league academies it is not unusual to find high-priests of culture who hold, breathtakingly, the view that whereas poetry must be deeply personal and private, or that literary texts ought to be read principally as coded offerings with transcendent meanings, or as inconsequentially dull or pleasurable distractions, religion we require to suffuse our collective social and political lives, and indeed, when the time comes, to kill and pillage without suffering guilt or shame. Or, indeed, doubt.
That such worthies have often been discovered, finally, to have been on the side of the fascists should be no surprise.
Which is not to say that there have not been godless atheists who have not wrought mayhem upon the world. That they did not do so under the cloak of religious sanction, or at god’s command, however, left them rather more naked to scrutiny and opprobrium than those who have killed and who kill in the name of god and religion.
How often and how conveniently they have pleaded that they may not be held responsible, since they had no axe of their own to grind, being mere agents of some divine command. Command that never is susceptible to interception, however evolved the snooping technologies of the world. No satellite thus far that could bring us the gleam in god’s hinting eye.
Even now there are those in the “Christian” world who believe that the State should essentially be driven by Biblical injunctions. Meaning of course only those injunctions which suit their class purposes: “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but never “it is as difficult for a rich man to go to heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle,” or “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or “blessed are the meek, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven,” and “lay not thy treasure upon the earth,” etc.,
Thus many in America still hold to the view that the “American Dream” has had behind it a divine sanction, especially as deriving from such exegeses of the business of Christianity as provided in the work of the theologian, John Calvin. After all, it must have seemed providential to the Puritans escaping religious persecution in Europe to find a whole “empty” continent ready and waiting for them.
As to the natives who had been there over millennia, their time had clearly come to yield the continent to god’s chosen people!
With an acumen marvelously apposite to Capitalism, Calvin was to argue that human beings could not be saved on the day of Judgement either by the “good works” they had done, or because of the “faith” they had felt, however intensely, be it. Such matters, he argued, were all “pre-determined” by god.
And, thus, whereas the homo sapien could never have any free will in matters spiritual, he was totally his own man in matters temporal. From thence you can see how Manhattan came to be.
And that, therefore, like the ‘divine right of kings’ of pre-capitalist times in Europe, the American State has a similar divine right to make or break all the laws that must govern the fallen world elsewhere.
Yet, the salutary fact remains that over some two hundred years of practicing democracy, it is hardly imaginable that America will be allowed by the American “general will” to become a theocracy. Thank god for that one certainty.
The Zionists in Israel have of course an even more ancient divine claim to make to the land of Palestine, don’t we know.
But even there, all the calumnies notwithstanding, there are enough fissures and fractures and dissensions that may not be stilled violently within the democracy they practice.
That such democracy is most of the time not to be made available to Arab Israelis is of course another matter. What is to the point here is that the critiques of official dogmas which exist in that State among the Jewish media and intelligentsia, extending sometimes to bold, radical opposition, is not subject to the fear of the loss of limb and life on behalf of the state.
In India, likewise, there are those who wish still to convert the secular nation-state into a Hindu Rashtra. Never a day passes when in some part or the other of the country we do not hear from them, in lesser or greater degree of barbarism. Now vandalizing churches, now demolishing mosques, now chasing and roughing up women in pubs, or art galleries and inimical cultural activists, now going for wholesale loot, burn, and kill pogroms.
Yet, the fact remains that the organized political force which represents that view fails to get the electoral endorsement of some 70% of Hindus. And more especially, thanks to a secular Constitution and to secular institutions of State, their’s remains an unrealizable project, because unauthorized by state ideology for now.
And thanks in large measure also to the fact that the armed forces in India have no religious axes to grind.
The fact of India’s secular Constitution always puts the Hindutva brigade in the wrong, and lends legitimacy to the exertions of those who seek to foil the totalitarian-racist agenda of Hindutva.
In an earlier column on the issue (The Pakistan Problem, ZNet, April 08, 2009) I had argued that, after all the micro-level analyses of the situation in that embroiled country, the fundamental source of what is happening there resides in the Pakistani State’s ambiguity about itself. An ambiguity, for example, which does not bedevil Saudi Arabia or Iran who remain full-bloodedly Islamic.
To wit, does the legitimacy of the State in Pakistan derive from secular and egalitarian principles of citizenship and a secular regime of laws and institutions, or must it in turn still seek legitimation from a theocratic idea which supersedes what mere legislators decree?
It should be obvious that the victory of secular parties in recent Pakistani general elections notwithstanding, the question remains a moot one. Or else why would the world be witness to the extraordinary occurrence of a whole swathe of territory being officially allowed to practice Islamic Sharia dispensations rather than the systems of justice available in metropolitan Pakistan?
It is to be doubted whether even a majority, single-party BJP government at the centre in Delhi would formally say to Narendra Modi in Gujarat, “go, you are now free to institute a Hindu Rashtra in Gujarat, delinked from the secular Constitution of India,” although such may remain its nefarious, subterranean goal. But that is in large measure due to the fact that the Constitution of the Indian Republic is unambiguously secular in the first place.
Just to recall that in Pakistan the Hudood laws brought on the books during the Zia-ul-Haq regime, chiefly to render women disenfranchised chattel, have not exactly disappeared from those books.
And, having tasted blood in the Swat valley of the North West Frontier Province, the Taliban cleric, Sufi Mohammed, has gone on to make a more fundamental proposition—one that informs the anxiety of this column and the earlier column I wrote.
Succintly, the Sufi has postulated that democracy is an un-Islamic system (HT, April, 20).
And thereby hangs the tale to which I think attention requires to be drawn with more honesty and rigour than seems either available or palatable.
Put simply, it was my argument in the previous column that this is precisely the postulation that all those in and out of governance in Pakistan who stand by democracy need to confront.
To put the matter sharply: having successfully defeated a dictatorship, are they now willing to lose out to theocracy?
It was also another part of the same argument that this confrontation cannot be engaged in or won if the battle is joined on the turf laid out by those who hold that Pakistan being an “Islamic Republic” must self-evidently abide by Islamic Fiqh (jurisprudence) rather than by such tenets of law and citizenship that derive from the Enlightenment.
And the fact that Pakistan does formally continue to be an “Islamic Republic” only must lend strength and legitimacy to the Taliban argument rather than to the exertions of those among Pakistan’s rights groups and westernized elites who seek a destiny of “modernity” for their country. Not just in technological terms, but as principles of social and legal behaviour, and of State policy.
Needless to say, the attempt to meet the Taliban argument half-way, as it were, bears as little logic or promise of success in Pakistan as for us in India to grant with any modicum of compromise the perception that India is essentially a Hindu nation.
The difference is that Pakistan seemingly teeters on the edge of a paradigm shift. Sooner than later, that shift will have to happen, one way or another. It may not be able to linger too long in the area of ambiguity.
Depending on what option it chooses, there cannot but be consequences. Should it choose to go over with full scope and honesty to Islamic statehood, we may have losers of one kind. But should it choose to strive for a secular statehood, the losers may be of another kind.
And, depending on who loses and who wins, the consequences for Pakistan, the sub-continent, and the world in general will not but be also suitably momentous.
As things are shaping, it seems less and less likely that Pakistan can procrastinate forever, or find answers merely in a discourse of accommodation, however adroitly articulated. Or, indeed, deflect the problematic by foregrounding its enmity with India as its primary antagonism.
In the final analysis, Islamism and democracy may indeed find themselves at irreconcilable loggerheads, as the good Sufi Mohammed suggests. Religion, we submit may bring solace to the individual soul; it only brings disaster to nations and states when it is made their chief informing principle.