Religion, traditionalism and liberalism in oriental societies
Democracy and liberalism seem to have a bright chance of survival in the orient in some workable form with the exception being the regions of West Asia, North Africa and Pakistan-Afghanistan. For these later regions, the jury is still out and the chances of survivability of any liberal idea would depend more on the internal socio-political variables, writes Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury
IT IS, by now, amply clear that modernity has not quite solved the problem of philosophical and ideological conflicts amongst human societies although, according to some intellectuals at least, the spectrum of intellectual thoughts have reached the era of post-modernism. That debate aside, to get back to the former assertion and its rationale, it can be said that the development of events that have taken place or, in other words, a lack of real-time development in intellectual progression of a big part of Oriental societies has brought about this frustration.
Liberal democracy even after so many years of its journey on the surface of the earth has not found a consistent and sustainable place in Oriental societies. Many social scientists often argue about social and historical predicaments for the flourish of liberal democracy in these societies and elaborated on those in scholarly pieces. Many neo-liberal Western thinkers forward the idea of accommodating societal institutions of the Oriental societies like religions in their almost raw forms, caste, community identity and community norms, etc in the universal understanding of liberalism as culture-specific phenomena. The fact of the matter is, for example in case of an orthodox form of a religion, such acceptance may not necessarily solve the issue of religion challenging the fundamentals of liberalism, e.g. individual freedom, democracy, secularism, tolerance, freedom of expression, etc. Religious fundamentalism in the West, South and Southeast Asia, North Africa and even some part of sub-Saharan Africa, caste and religio-cultural Hindu nationalism in India, tribalism/biradari in Pakistan-Afghanistan, ethnic/tribal identities in the Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, militant tribalism/sectarianism in West Asia, etc are the most commonly observed sub-identity spectres within each national identity.
Secularism faces a complex challenge in this reality as the issue is not the simple state-individual interface. The main issue is the over-assertive identity and/or faith. Broadly, there are two kind of scenarios; one is faith-based identity, often trans-national, which poses greater challenge to conventional concept of sovereignty, e.g. worldwide Catholic community, Muslim ummah, radical Zionism, etc; the other is less informed by faith and more informed by one or more identity threads like common ancestry, endogamous community, common language/culture, etc. Caste, tribe, ethnicity, linguistic group, etc fall in this category. The scenarios also overlap, e.g. we can see that there are conscious linguistic, ethnic or even racial divisions within faith-based identity. Again sectarianism, e.g. Sunni-Shia, Catholic-Protestant, within religious communities is sometimes very strong.
Strong communal concept based on faith automatically invokes the corollary expression and intervention of faith in the public space and goes on to impose strict control over the concerned community, within which there are dissidents and liberals as well, or being the dominant community attempts to impose own communal and theocratic worldview on others and thereby evoke conflict and cause distortion to the supposedly ideal liberal condition. We see the vindication of this, e.g. Islamic fundamentalism in many Oriental regions or societies. The second one is a lesser harmful, yet causes considerable hindrance to the flourish of individual freedom through its arbitrary tools of control. In this case also, the community, e.g. caste in India, tribe in parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, in some Southeast Asian, African and also some Arab countries, attempts to stand between the interface of the state and the individual and therefore, the essential liberal postulation of ‘social contract’ doesn’t play out in the way it is perceived to be. The entire idea of constructing a modern political unit with free individuals with freedom of choice under the umbrella of a Weberian rational-bureaucratic state, i.e. modern state, falls flat. Instead, what we get is a complex and changing, for good or for worse, amalgamation of modernity and primitive traditionalism.
Again the answer to the very question ‘what should ideally be in the Oriental societies’ isn’t an easy one, given the fact that there were no indigenous Europe-like social change in the direction of modernity, which gave the West some alternative ideals like individual liberty, private-public distinction, rationality and reason as the ultimate arbitrator of human affairs. So-called divinely ordained religions were permanently pushed to the sidelines in the West in this process, if not completely eliminated. But, the Orient is a different story altogether. Imported modernity is a partial success there. People now have some awareness of the modern ideas like democracy, secularism and the utilities of modern political institutions yet could not get rid of the old societal institutions. The problem is acute in the Islamic world for the very orthodox nature of the dominant interpretation of religion and it is dictating every sphere of life. In other cases, like the mixed-race society of India, the caste or tribal Africa, it is less about faith and more about the community identity and community norms. In both the cases, identity or faith or both have been politicised adding to the problem. The softer nature of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taosim, Shintoism, etc has largely spared East Asia from these dilemmas and embracing modernity in much of its entirety was easier for them.
It is true that, religion, tribal/community code or norms provide the concerned communities with some source of morality and spirituality and thereby some discipline in life. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that liberalism should be imposed through a top-down push, then a natural question pops up — ‘who does it? The minority liberals in each society do not have that strength to accomplish it, the powerful bygone dictators did not dare it and the politicians cannot do it for the very nature of raw populist politics prevailing everywhere in the developing world. Neither the West wants to do it, for it will require massive effort and result in intense resistance, disorder and bloodshed in the process.
Now, what the future holds for democracy and other liberal ideals in the discussed regions facing this problem. It is most likely that caste and various religious sects would keep thriving in India and the unique Indian model of democracy accommodating all sorts of communities and even their political mobilisation would cling to some of its workable form. The all-encompassing secular model having space for all the religion and all sorts of faith including the liberals complements the Indian democracy. The African problem is mostly with the political culture and finding a formula of democratic compromise within competing tribes or ethnicities. Things are likely to proceed in the right direction, if not in a much faster pace, both for the domestic compulsion, for the seizure of conflict and due to external pressures and prospects of material reward.
The Islamic world is in and likely to continue to be in the most difficult condition. The Arab world is already on its way back to Islamism with the Islamists, somewhat moderates ones as of now, harvesting the most from the so-called Arab Spring and it seems that the West and the rest of the world would adjust accordingly to maintain some workable relations with them. But none can actually rule out the possibility of Salafist takeover if the moderate Islamists fail to deliver on to the day-to-day needs of the people. There are quite a few dynastic Sheikh family still ruling, most of them already in some sort of ad hoc Islamic way, including the al-Sauds of Saudi Arabia and also some moderately secular authoritarian regimes still clinging to power, e.g. Algeria, Yemen. But if they fall in another wave of Arab spring, the only alternatives seem to be the Islamists of whatever genre. The handful of domestic liberals, if at all, the West and the rest of the world can only hope for reasonably moderate Islamists with no external ambitions to maintain a workable relation with the rest of the world. The Salafist takeover could result in either isolation of the countries/region or renewed hostilities in the region and beyond. Options for the liberal world are limited. The best thing for them to do is to allow for the political expression of the societies whatever form it be, which otherwise would take place through the means like ‘Arab Spring’, and keep them somewhat bonded with the world system with some essential economic, trade and diplomatic link and hope and work for long term gradual positive change. The ultimate prospect of liberal democracy in that region is anybody’s guess.
For the non-Arab Muslim nations, e.g. Indonesia, Bangladesh, central Asian countries etc, less Pakistan and Afghanistan, the prospect of some kind of democracy is brighter both for increased internal awareness and external pressure. It may not be a proper liberal one like the West and some preference of dominant religion or community is very likely at least at the symbolic level. Maintaining equality and justice for the minorities, liberals and question of inclusion are and would be the biggest areas of challenge for them. Although a kind of quasi democracy is prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, societies in both the countries already seem to have gone the radical way.
Democracy and liberalism seem to have a bright chance of survival in the orient in some workable form with the exception being the regions of West Asia, North Africa and Pakistan-Afghanistan. For these later regions the jury is still out and the chances of survivability of any liberal idea would depend more on the internal socio-political variables. Again each country or group of countries has different cases. But the free world should do what they can, as discussed, with some collectiveness and synchronisation. That could be, if not the determinant, a vital catalyst for bringing about positive development in those chaotic and bewildered regions.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a freelance commentator on Oriental politics, society and security. He has recently studied political sociology and development in School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He was an army officer and UN peacekeeper before that. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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IT IS, by now, amply clear that modernity has not quite solved the problem of philosophical and ideological conflicts amongst human societies although, according to some intellectuals at least, the spectrum of intellectual thoughts have reached the era of post-modernism. That debate aside, to get back to the former assertion and its... Full story