I write not only to present a case study in the threat to democracy from religious tension, not only to engage Americans in an informed dialogue about India, but also to defuse the inaccurate and unhelpful assumption that Islam is a global monolith bent on violence. When people talk of the “clash of civilizations,” or opine that Islam is not compatible with democracy, I find that (quite apart from their omission of Turkey and Lebanon) they typically know little about South Asia. (“South Asia” is the term usually used to refer to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and sometimes Indonesia and Malaysia; it is distinct from “Southeast Asia,” the term that refers to Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, etc. One sign of this general ignorance: My c.v. mentions that I am a member of my university’s Committee on Southern Asian Studies. When I am introduced for lectures, it is very common that the introducer changes this to “Southeast Asian Studies,” as if it was always fine to substitute a familiar term for an unfamiliar one.) Few know, for example, that Bangladesh is a thriving, if poor, Muslim-majority democracy (about 85% Muslim), with democratic self-government, two energetic women who lead the two major parties, a strongly pro-woman official policy, and a constitution that protects fundamental rights very strongly, similar to India’s constitution. Its national anthem, “Amar Sonar Bangla” (“My Golden Bengal”) is a song written by Hindu Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. As Amartya Sen says, “This must be very confusing to those who see the contemporary world as a ‘clash of civilizations’ – with ‘the Muslim civilization,’ ‘the Hindu civilization,’ and ‘the Western civilization,’ each forcefully confronting the others.” (Amartya Sen, “Tagore and His India,” The New York Review of Books June 26, 1997, 55-63.)
Few know that the Muslims of Bangladesh and the 12% or so of India’s citizens who are Muslims have virtually no ties to international Islamic radicalism or to terrorist organizations, relatively few political or organizational ties even to Pakistan. (The struggle over Kashmir is an exception, but it is not related to the events that are my focus.) India is the third largest Muslim country n the world, with more Muslims than Bangladesh and nearly as many as Pakistan. Muslims in India are by and large a hard-working impoverished minority, who have lived alongside Hindus for centuries and who today strongly support and participate in democratic self-governance at all levels. A recent study has also shown that they strongly support education for girls (more strongly on the whole than the Hindu population). (Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon, Unequal Citizens: Muslim Women in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)). Islamic fundamentalism has no grip in India, despite discrimination and even persecution; it is to be hoped that, despite events like Gujarat, this good record will continue. The wise decision to include Muslims in prominent positions in the new government is a hopeful sign for the future. (For example, Muslim feminist Syeda Hameed, whose organization first took down testimony of women raped in Gujarat, currently holds a seat on the Planning Commission; Muslim political scientist Zoya Hasan has been put in charge of the rewriting of school textbooks to remove errors introduced by Hindu extremists eager to portray all of India’s suffering as caused by Muslims.)
In the case of India, the threat to democracy comes not at all from Muslims, or any “clash” between European and non-European civilizations, but from something much more sadly familiar: from a romantic European conception of nationalism, based on ideas of blood, soil, purity, and the Volksgeist. The founders of the Hindu right in the 1920’s and 1930’s were enamored of European romantic models of nationhood. They greatly admired the early fascist versions of these ideas that they found in both Italy and Germany. They made these ideas popular in India, and worked hard to make them take root, through highly effective grassroots organization prominently featuring programs for young boys. Their ideas were appealing in India for some of the same reasons they were so appealing in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s: because people who see themselves as having been humiliated and emasculated by conquest easily turn to thoughts of purity and a cleansing by violence to wipe away the stain. Hindus in India have internalized a historical narrative according to which they are a pure and peaceful civilization who have been conquered again and again: in the Middle Ages by Muslim invaders, in recent times by the British.
This narrative is simple, but it certainly contains some truth. The painful experience of colonial subjugation, together with the racism that accompanied it, left many Hindus in India vulnerable to a simplification of truth and to the refuge offered by romantic/fascist European ideas of blood and purity. Instead of looking at a “clash of civilizations” here, Europeans and Americans, looking at India, should see the reflected face of their own ugly history, made the more malign by the anger that accompanies the repudiation of longstanding colonial domination. The appeal of these ideas was enhanced by the failure of liberal/pluralist leaders, after the deaths of Tagore and Gandhi, to mount an effective program of grassroots mobilization that would link the intense emotions of religion and patriotism to a program of cooperation and mutual respect.
A further reason for writing these posts and my book, then, is to argue for the need for more complicated and individualized models of religious violence. When we are dealing with a complex and variegated world, simplistic thesis such as the “clash of civilizations” idea are not at all helpful. What we call “Western civilization” contains many incompatible ingredients, as we easily see if we survey the history of the twentieth century, with its aspiration to universal human rights and its descent into horrific cruelty. (When asked by a British journalist what he thought of “Western civilization,” Gandhi said, “I think it would be a very good idea.”) Even the normative ideas embedded in “Western civilization” are highly heterogeneous; they include liberalism, fascism, Marxism, various different religious conceptions, and many others.
The category “non-Western” is still less helpful; I am inclined to think it an utterly useless category. The nations of Asia and Africa have little in common with one another as a group. They do not share a common history or common political, philosophical, or religious values. All, moreover, are internally heterogeneous, containing religious plurality and other struggles, for example struggles for women’s equality or the equality of other marginalized groups. To the extent that some religions appear in various parts of Asia and Africa, these diffused religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) also turn up in the “West”, as, of course, do the Western ideas of Marxism, which have had enormous influence on the history of Asia and Africa. Speaking in terms of “West” and “non-West” often leads to crude errors: we forget that modern mathematics, which played a key role in the European Enlightenment, had its origins in Arab culture; we forget that Christianity had its origins in a part of the world that nowadays is treated as “non-Western.” We forget that the roots of ideas of human equality, democracy, and human rights existed in many different cultures and that their full development in “our own” is a very recent matter. We forget that ideas of religious toleration and equal respect were well known in India by the time of Ashoka’s empire, in the second century B. C., a very long time before they were known in Europe. (Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism from Hinduism, wrote eloquently of the important of respect between the different religions; he said that by denigrating another person’s religion a person degrades his own.)
Thinking in terms of a “clash of civilizations” also leads us to ignore the interpenetration and mutual influence among cultures that has been a fact of human life throughout history, wherever human beings encounter one another. We give ourselves credit for ideas of human rights and human equality, ignoring the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr., deliberately modeled the civil rights movement on Gandhi’s ideas. (Gandhi, in turn, he tells us, profited from the influences of Ruskin and Tolstoy.) We think of progressive education as a native American plant, forgetting that John Dewey’s experiments in progressive education were in conversation with the reforms of Friedrich Froebel in Germany (the founder of the “kindergarten”) and the more comprehensive reforms of Tagore in India.
In talking about India it is not enough to avoid the misleading West/non-West dichotomy. It is also important not to employ a simple model of a single “civilization”, ignoring both internal diversity and cultural borrowing. There is probably no nation more internally diverse than India: seventeen official languages, over three hundred languages that are actually spoken, major religious groups including Hindus (with many different regional cults), Muslims, Christians (Protestant and Catholic, and each of these stemming from several different European origins), Parsis, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, a small number of Jews. Regional differences are immense; some regions, especially in the South, had for centuries more interaction with other parts of South and Southeast Asia (and with Europe) than with the rest of what is now called India.
It is also futile, and usually not terribly important, to separate the British elements of “Indian culture” from the rest of what is Indian. By now India has creatively appropriated the colonial culture and intertwined it with its own traditions. Indian English is different from British and American English – still fully intelligible, but a distinct dialect. It would make no sense at this point (although elements of the Hindu right disagree) to displace English on the grounds of its colonial origin. It is a lingua franca in a nation of linguistic and cultural differences, and Indian English is a wonderfully rich, supple, and expressive literary, legal, and political language. Nobody could read an Indian novel in English, or an Indian Supreme Court opinion, and deny that Indians have made this instrument their own in ways that give reason for pride, not shame and repudiation. The British were appalling tyrants, exploiters, and racists. But their culture is now part of Indian culture for better or for worse – and often for better on both sides, in the sense that independent India has greatly improved many of the elements (legal, literary, and artistic) that it has borrowed.