For many of us, the religion we were born into is a matter of spiritual solace, religious expression, and community participation. Most of us run our everyday lives without too much confusion between the spiritual and the secular. We follow rules for both seamlessly, not particularly worried about how religion will apply to our everyday decisions that help run our lives – both personal and professional.
There is a clear separation in our lives between the two. This attitude of personal religion and spirituality, as distinct from the laws and rules that govern everyday life, exists across socio-economic divisions and communities.
The second archetype is the orthodox and observant. They are extremely devout and run their lives as per the rules recommended by their religion. This could be Hindus checking a panchang before undertaking an important job; or staying vegetarian on certain days; or abstaining from meat altogether. For observant and orthodox Jews, it could be the strict Sabbath rules. For orthodox Christians, it could be a focus on birth control and abstinence; and for orthodox and observant Muslims, this could be prayers five times a day; abstinence from alcohol or embracing a certain kind of attire. This group also understands that you do not need to stop at a traffic signal and wonder what God would say about crossing the road.
There is a third type – and they spiritually can fall under either of the two types mentioned above. But where they are different is that they believe in the political manifestation of their faith. That religion is not just something that is responsible for our spiritual lives, but also our temporal lives. They believe that their nations should be run by the rules advocated by religion. We see the extreme forms of manifestation in Iran and Afghanistan. In the United States, you see this in action, as states governed by fundamentalist Christian factions limit the rights of women over their own bodies and force them to have babies by banning abortion. And in India, you see this when a state like Uttar Pradesh bans the consumption of meat because one part of a community has religious objections to meat. Each is different in terms of impact on the communities – and yet, all three restrict the rights of non-believers, and believers alike.
In the post-World War II era, as nations moved to Independence and self-determination, the first group gained ground the world over. If you look at Nasser, Tito, Nehru, Sukarno – the tallest leaders of the post-colonial world – they all tried to separate the governance of the spiritual from the governance of everyday life. Even Pakistan – although it was carved out as a nation for Muslims, had secular laws, till much later. But in the last 40 years or so, there has been a backlash from the forces that believe in political religion.
Be it the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini and the establishment of Sharia law; or the takeover of the Republican Party by Christian fundamentalists in the USA and the assault on women’s rights; or the Islamisation of Pakistan under Zia; or indeed the growth of the Hindutva movement – you have movements across the world, where organised groups are trying to impose a homogenous view of faith on heterogeneous people.
Religion and rights often contradict each other. Religions were revealed many millennia ago and whatever was recommended may have been both revolutionary and modern in their time. But do we really want to be governed by those laws? The problem often is that given the number of variants and strands of religion and the various interpretations of religious texts – whose version of religion rules? And the answer is: those who can raise the most funds and those who are able to cause most violence – and often, the two are linked.
In India, the warning signs are all there. Areas that go completely vegetarian or alcohol-free – impacting the lives and businesses or even the diets of those who don’t believe in this. The burning of books considered unacceptable by some branch or another of the larger Hindutva Movement. The banning of minorities from certain kinds of economic activity.
The tendency to look at these as fringe activities is high, and the propensity to take legal action against such groups is low. And this emboldens the groups. There is a price to be paid for allowing religious fundamentalists into political decision-making. And that is a price almost always borne by women and minorities. We need to look at the USA and see how religious fundamentalists are going to force women to have babies, because their holy book – written centuries ago – said this. And we need to prevent that future from being visited on us. We need to speak up against religious fundamentalists dictating how we run our lives before it is too late.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker