Authority, Autonomy, and Religious Conflict

By Sarbeswar Sahoo, published on countercurrents.org, 20 March, 2007

Excerpts: On our way back from Fateh Sagar Lake to Seva Mandir (Rajasthan), where we worked as volunteers, we had some wonderful religious discussions with Janneke and Marjolaine – the former from the Netherlands and the later from France. Clearing their queries and curiosities about the complex cultural customs and traditions of Indian pluralism, Pankaj (from TISS) and I made some efforts as the students of social sciences. While making a point on the rising religious conflicts and intolerance in the present day society, an important point came to the discussion which forms the foundation of ‘communal/ ethnic conflict’ and ‘clash of religious identity’ through out the world.

Since 9/11, Islam has been portrayed as the evil and held responsible for the rising religious conflicts and terrorist activities everywhere. Mahmood Mamdani, a Columbia political theorist, in his book on Good Muslims and Bad Muslims, debunks the orthodox idea that the modern and secular Muslims as good and the traditional and religious Muslims as bad. However, the point here is neither about good Muslims and bad Muslims, nor about good religion and bad religion; it is about how and when religion become communal.

The answers to this question are authority, politicization and labeling. Religion and politics nexus is well known to all, and we also know pretty well about who labels whom as communal and intolerant. However, the question of ‘authority’ and its role in politicizing religion still remains hidden from the agenda and is yet unexplored. It is not the ordinary people who politicize religion and label other religion as the evil monster. It is the ‘people in power’ (not only those in politics) who enjoy the legitimate right (by virtue of their position) to misinterpret, miscommunicate and manipulate the popular will against one another. No religion is bad …

… As our experience says, where the ordinary people are autonomous to decide and where there is a strong influence of the public opinion (not the opinion of the people having authority) on the affairs of social life, conflict finds very little scope to express itself. Thus, autonomy would provide the foundation for acknowledging cultural differences, respecting social pluralism and accommodating the other/unknown without urging for their assimilation. Let religions be autonomous from their authorities. (Sarbeswar Sahoo is a Ph.D Candidate, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore).

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