Religious Identity and Conflict in the Middle East

The Arab Spring reignited a debate within the Middle East and in academic circles about the universality of human rights and their compatibility, or incompatibility, with culture and religion. Although the Arab Spring was marked by the rise of Political Islam movements, it also opened the door  to discussions on topics that had long been taboo, such as sectarianism, racism and gender equality in the Arab world.

Religion has dominated politics in the Middle East for centuries, and plays a significant role in the lives of individuals: their rights, opportunities and social status are all impacted by it.

Constitutions, laws, education systems and even art and sport are viewed through the lens of religion, and every effort is made to ensure that these elements of society comply with religious norms and symbolism.

Sectarianism remains a powerful political, social and cultural force, and the source of most conflicts in the Middle East. Many of the current conflicts in the region have deep historical roots – most notably the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shi’a division.

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A ‘New’ India? From a Secular to a Hindu Nation.

Orissa September 2009

These women and their families are among several who share a single tent in a displacement camp housing 45 Catholic families. These families had been accommodated in five separate places since being displaced by the communal violence in August 2008. Kandhamal District, Orissa. Marcus Perkins/CSW 2009.

Rising religious intolerance is increasingly visible; be it from ghar wapis (Hindu home coming ceremonies) of religious minorities to the open incitement of hate against Muslims and Christians by senior government officials; from mob lynchings over beef consumption to attacks on places of worship; and from the distortion of historical facts in text books to the murder of renowned rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi, who questioned certain Hindu practices in their writings.

The debate about the religious intolerance sweeping India is mainstream and has drawn international news coverage as India’s distinguished scientists, rationalists, actors, academics, and historians have voiced their concerns. Some have even returned their national awards in protest, including scientists, who unlike artists are not routinely engaged in public cultural critique and protest.

A Historically Secular State

One year after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, declaring in its preamble the universality of the innate nature of human dignity, the Constitution of India was written in 1949.

The founding fathers envisioned an India where freedom of conscience would be respected by all citizens and that every Indian would live freely and without fear according to their conscience, exercising the choice to adhere to a religion or not.

The Constitution in its 42nd amendment established India as a secular state. In India, religion was intended to be kept separate from the body politic, although today the reality on the ground is starkly different as communal and religious politics are being used to polarise society.

The influence of Hindutva nationalist ideology

At the centre of this polarisation is the Hindutva ideology, which was coined by V.D Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist leader who propagated an exclusionary political ideology and promoted religious nationalism of “majoritarianism”. The aim: to make India a Hindu ‘rasthra’ (nation).

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