Monday, November 10, 2008

A passion for death or life? October 19, 2008

The persistent attacks of terror on Indian cities by Islamist fundamentalists and on Christians in Orissa by Hindu fundamentalists have spread fear, re-opened old wounds, and polarized us. India’s economic rise is threatened as much by religious fanatics as by the global financial meltdown. This raises an insistent question: Will our 21st century be the story of an India turning middle class or will it get derailed by religious wars?

I have always believed that India would relentlessly march towards a modern, capitalist and democratic future; and terrorist attacks are a noisy, tragic, but ultimately futile sideshow. Islamism and Hindu extremism are a barely disguised form of tyranny, which will eventually lose their appeal. Even fundamentalists will get absorbed in finding good jobs, decent homes, and good schools for their kids. Since the attractions of peace are greater than of war, commerce will replace conquest as the route to achievement. History is on my side. In the past two centuries, the combination of democracy and market capitalism has triumphed over feudalism, monarchy, theocracy, fascism and communism. Europe, the home of religious wars, is now tolerant, and irreligious. There are today 120 genuine democracies versus only 10 a hundred years ago.

Since 9/11, Americans have also been debating the future of capitalist democracy. Many believe that Islam is incompatible with modern democratic values. Samuel Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilizations, argues that future conflicts will not be between nation states but religious civilisations, and he predicts that Islamism will form an alliance with China to bring down the West. Francis Fukuyama rebuts this in The End of History. After communism’s fall, he predicts most countries will become capitalist democracies and the world will be at peace. But people, he feels, need more than shopping malls to satisfy their thymos--the human need for spirited achievement, which religion and wars fulfilled in the past. This explains the amazing religious revival in America, which Philip Jenkins has documented in The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity. He describes a new, vigorous, missionary Christianity that is increasingly assertive. The question is whether aggressive conversions by this new Christianity is producing the current backlash from Hindu extremists, who are behaving no better than Islamist terrorists.

For all its seductiveness, I never did buy the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory. Radical Islam or jihadism is political rather than religious. Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden employ dangerous ideas of violence that are not Islamic but resemble anarchist ideologies of Europe. They resonate with Arab and European Muslims because of their deeper alienation with the West. In India, we have reacted to terrorism more maturely than the U.S. Indians are more relaxed than paranoid Americans, and this must dishearten terrorists. Our security agencies have not shown the same competence, however. Our government has also failed to assert the primacy of the citizen over the group, and stop pandering to religious and caste identities. Religion is a double edged sword----while it gives meaning to our confused, uncertain private lives, it also creates an exclusive identity, and this asserts itself publicly before long. In a competitive democracy secular politics does not spring automatically. It took centuries in the West to persuade politicians to eradicate religion from political rhetoric. The Islamic world is still struggling with this problem.

It may seem odd to say this at a moment that capitalism has been humbled, but I still believe that secular, democratic, capitalist India will prevail in the end. Just as we have rejected socialism and central planning as the path to prosperity, so will our plural, secular democracy ultimately defeat political Islam and political Hinduism.


Mahesh said...


Towards the end of post, the argument became sort of weak...

As you mentioned, Religion is a double edged sword and inflicts great damage, if controlled by the wrong hand. A weak economic prospect is concerning because, It makes people susceptible to polarization(Eg: MNS yielding Marathi activism)

My concern is returning to normalcy based on secular, democratic, republic principles is painfully slow. The damage is also quiet deep when fanatics are at their worst..

Hope we do our best at taking preventive measures than being hopeful of finding a cure.

Celebrating Life...

Devesh Tiwari said...

Religion??? Isn't religion a Slap on reason.

Raj said...

Love your posts.
If you have time go through to get a totally new evidence-based and well researched and perspective on the Islamist ideology.
Sometimes we are sheilded from sad core truths in politically correct democratic public discourses.

-Raj the Humanist

Vibhor Mathur said...


Nice post Sir.

Hope you will like the following post.