Over the past two decades a wave of religious nationalism has swept the world. Supremacist, and even genocidal movements have wrested power in almost a score of countries. Their agendas include the subjugation, expulsion or elimination of religious or ethnic minorities; along with the destruction of democratic traditions and their replacement by authoritarian, religio-supremacist regimes.
Countries ranging from Turkey, India, Hungary, Israel, Poland, China, Burma, Iran, Serbia and Russia are now governed by leaders who have either renounced democratic pluralism or sabotaged a delicate status quo, which had permitted religious majorities and minorities to co-exist.
Even nations with longstanding secular traditions and separation of church and state, like the US, have been subject to a wave of Christo-supremacism accompanied by virulent white nationalism. Donald Trump (despite his moral peccadillos) was enthusiastically endorsed by the Christian evangelical movement. Scores of pastors regularly visited the White House to offer prayers and support. Evangelical preachers accompanied Jared Kushner to Israel to dedicate the Jerusalem embassy. They view the Holy Land as a key to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They also reject church-state separation and demand that America be governed by “Biblical law” or Christian theological dogma. Evangelicals offered Trump the votes he needed to win the 2016 election. On a state level, legislatures throughout the country have implemented laws enshrining religious values on issues ranging from marriage equality to contraception to abortion.
When Turkey’s AKP Party came to power, its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan espoused a politics that integrated democracy and religion. He argued that Islam could inform the country’s politics and co-exist peacefully with it. But as his rule continued and the country was beset by financial crisis and ethnic conflict, he retreated from democracy and reverted to an autocratic Islamism, which eschewed any hint of democracy. He built grand palaces, assumed the grandiose vision of Ottoman rule, and stamped out dissent within the country’s Islamist movement. His bellicosity has led to the suppression of free speech, artistic freedom, and free press; along with long prison terms for violators. His is yet another example of the mess religion makes of a country when it is mobilized on behalf of political power.
Hungary’s ‘illiberal democracy
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, as a college student was an ardent democrat. He even studied at Oxford University as a Soros Scholar in 1990. As he entered politics, he transformed into a demagogue who rode to power on the coattails of xenophobia, and hatred of the Muslim refugees then “invading” Europe. He invoked nostalgia for the fascist, anti-Semitic Iron Cross movement of the World War II era. He also espoused an ideology combining white nativism and Christo supremacy. Over time, he has co-opted or outlawed a free press and stifled any political opposition. He has driven civil society groups from Hungary. His political campaigns have even employed anti-Semitic tropes, painting former mentor, George Soros as an evil financier infecting Hungary with the “virus of democracy.” Orban has championed what he calls “illiberal democracy,” an absurd creature that went extinct even before it was born.
India and Hindutva nationalism
Though India was born amidst a wave of religious hatred and genocide, its founders embraced democratic traditions and religious tolerance. The specter of Hindu-Muslim massacres of 1947-48 roiled in the background. But a secular political tradition ruled for half a century.
The rise of the BJP, with its Hindu-supremacist beliefs (coined as “Hindutva”), gradually eroded that liberal tradition. Current prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made his mark in national politics as the provincial governor of Gujarat, amidst massive riots leading to the murder of 1,000 local Muslims. As blood ran in the streets, he permitted Hindu thugs to roam the streets killing Muslims wherever they could find them.
He rode his tacit endorsement of Hindu supremacy to leadership of BJP and eventually the premiership. During his rule, the country has progressively limited Muslim rights and installed Hinduism as a national religion. In Jammu and Kashmir, India’s Occupation of Muslim majority provinces has led to martial law, repression, and murder of political leaders.
Israeli leaders like Bibi Netanyahu have looked to states like India for inspiration as they pursue a vision of nationalist Judeo-supremacy. Just as India has gradually snuffed out the notion of religious tolerance on behalf of its brand of Hindu-supremacy, Israel has devised not only a 50-year Occupation of nearly 3-million Palestinians, it has also built an apartheid system within its own “borders” (such as they are). Israel’s view of its Palestinian citizens echoes India’s view of its Muslim minority.
It is no accident that Israel is India’s largest foreign weapons supplier to the tune of billions in annual sales. Both are engaged in wars against Muslims which require development or purchase of enormous amounts of weapons.
Israel was conceived via the nationalist-Zionist vision of Theodor Herzl as a homeland for Jews. It was for much of that time a secular movement. While it always battled with the Palestinian minority based on a conflicting set of national identities, it wasn’t until the aftermath of the 1967 war that the conflict became a religious one as well. Both secular and Orthodox Israeli Jews embraced the notion that Israeli conquest of the West Bank and its Biblical holy sites was a precursor to messianic redemption. That in turn led to the Greater Israel movement and the beginning of the massive settlement enterprise.
Over time, the settlers came to dominate Israeli political discourse, which became laced with a toxic form of Judeo-supremacism, This ideology fuels Israel’s theft of land, expulsion of its Palestinian residents, and murder of tens of thousands of Palestinians (since 1948). It even led to the derogation of Israel’s Palestinian citizens via the Nation-State law, which enshrined Jewish supremacy in the country’s Basic Laws. Israeli Jews have infused a nationalist battle for political power with a sense of divine purpose. It is a toxic brewem>Myanmar and Rohingya Genocideince its independence in 1947, Myanmar has been ruled mostly by military dictatorships. But only in the past decade have radical Buddhist monks advocated forced expulsions and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority. It has been in effect stateless within Myanmar as the Burmese consider Rohingya to be migrant interlopers who arrived from outside. As a result, it has been relatively easy for the Buddhist extremists to paint them as alien and dangerous.
The military junta took advantage of this to rally an otherwise restive population to the cause of religious barbarism. This has resulted in nearly 1-million Rohingya being burned out of their villages, murdered, pillaged and raped into fleeing for refuge in Bangladesh.
Putin’s embrace of Russian Orthodoxy
Rejecting the anti-religious views of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin, when he came to power, saw the Russian Orthodox Church as a key partner in establishing his legitimacy. Understanding the deep spiritual ties between the Church and the Russian people, he cultivated close relations with church leaders and offered it special status:
The leader of about 100 million faithful, Kirill, 75, has staked the fortunes of his branch of Orthodox Christianity on a close and mutually beneficial alliance with Mr. Putin, offering him spiritual cover while his church — and possibly he himself — receives vast resources in return from the Kremlin, allowing him to extend his influence in the Orthodox world.
The Church’s sense of its own destiny as a religious counter-point to Rome, coincided with Putin’s sense of Russia’s destiny to be a great power once more.. Kirill and his Church have embraced the war in Ukraine and rallied support for it among the believers.
China and the Uighurs
China has engaged in a reverse process, stamping out two rebellions by religious minorities in Tibet and Xinjaing. In both cases, it used military force to subjugate a previously autonomous region. After which it worked assiduously to co-opt traditional, independent religious figures. It appointed state-approved ones and drove rivals into exile or submission.
In violation of international law, it introduced millions of non-Tibetan, non-Uighurs in order to sabotage any cohesive resistance to Communist Chinese rule. In Xinjaing, it has stamped out Islam and driven Muslim believers underground. A massive surveillance and intelligence apparatus root out those who practice their religion. Over a million Uighurs suspected of harboring sympathy for their native traditions have been imprisoned in concentration camps.
The failure of democracy in the face of radical religious nationalism
Advocates for democracy and tolerance have been slow to respond, which has only emboldened the religious supremacists. When the former has responded, their efforts have been largely ineffectual. They ignore the warning signs and when they are finally prepared to react, it is often too late to stop the takeover of nations and their democratic institutions. In countries with shorter traditions of secularism and separation between politics and religion, it has been easier to erode them.
Once religious nationalist extremists have taken power, it is difficult, if not impossible to dislodge them. Their authoritarian dogma suppresses opposition and dismantles independent media and civil society. Unless the states facing these assaults mount vigorous resistance, they will find themselves imprisoned by a tyrannical theocracy.
Religion and nationalism
The attraction of religion for nationalists involves a heightened sense of devotion to the cause fueled by spiritual belief. A politician whose agenda is devoid of religious trappings becomes a mere mortal, whose policies may wear on the electorate over time, leading to defeat. But a leader and movement fueled by religious devotion is much more powerful. A secular leader is merely human. But someone who believes that God has blessed his religion and its destiny, becomes almost unstoppable. This constitutes the poison of religious nationalism.
In some cases, it’s difficult to determine whether nationalists embrace religion purely as a tool to gain political power; or whether nationalism and religion are fused into a single overall political system. But one thing unites almost all of these countries: religion becomes a path to political power, tyranny, and even genocide.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.