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Religion is the new politics — but Britain's secular politicians just don't get it

Increasingly, not to understand faith is not to understand the world

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

Aren’t Buddhist monks adorable?  They meditate for days without needing to go to the toilet. They talk to each other in ‘grasshopper’ haikus. Their pot bellies are full of wholesome vegetarian fare. Your package tour to Southeast Asia isn’t complete without a sprinkling of them begging politely in the markets. Hollywood stars hire them for beachfront weddings because they’re so cute.

Apart from the ones who are terrorists.

In Burma, Buddhism has turned nasty, thanks to a gang of monks who call themselves the ‘969’, after the nine virtues of Buddha, the six elements of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the clergy. The 969 are consumed with hatred for Burma’s Muslims, who make up 4 per cent of the population. Nearly 200,000 have been driven from their homes. For Burmese Muslims, the numbers 969 — which jump out at them from gaily coloured stickers in shops and taxis — are as menacing as the swastika for Jews. In March, Buddhists set fire to an Islamic boarding school in central Burma. Twenty-four students and teachers were killed; a boy was decapitated; police stood by while onlookers applauded.

Sound familiar? In February, Boko Haram gunmen shot or incinerated 59 pupils at a boarding school in north-east Nigeria. The press reported it, but this was before the kidnap of the schoolgirls inflamed Twitter, so no one paid much attention.

Boko Haram are members of the ‘religion of peace’, as anti-Islamist campaigners remind us sarcastically. But the people who raze Muslim villages in Burma belong to a faith that really is associated with peace. So what’s going on? Sayadaw Wirathu, the venomous preacher who leads the 969 monks, calls himself ‘the Burmese bin Laden’. Here’s the verdict of Time magazine: ‘Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.’ There speaks the sorrowful voice of liberalism — still piously attached to the notion that the true message of all religions is ‘peace’.

It would be simpler and more accurate to say that religion has made a startling comeback around the globe. Religion in general, that is — including, but not confined to, the nasty stuff (torching of dormitories, bombs on the Tube, stoning of adulterers, Giles Fraser’s sermons etc). In fact, in many respects, religion has become the new politics.

In dozens of countries, disputes that we may think of as ethnic, political or economic are now unmistakably religious in character: everything from squabbles over school textbooks in New Delhi to throat-slitting in Syria. We see this most clearly in the Middle East, where national boundaries are dissolving and reforming along religious lines. Our inability to recognise religion means, for example, that we plotted an invasion of Iraq in 2003 without realising that we’d be blowing the lid off a Sunni vs Shia civil war.

Even in Britain, our politicians keep being surprised when religion bursts back into the public debate. We now know that state schools — secular ones, not faith schools — in Birmingham were infiltrated by radical Muslims to the point where they were turning into madrasas. This was made possible by the gullibility of politicians and civil servants with regard to Islam — in particular, their belief that ‘moderate Muslims’ can easily be distinguished from Islamists. But it also reflects our ignorance of faith in general: the school inspectors, blind to religion, didn’t know what to look for in Birmingham.

Over the years Britain has, by some measures, become the least religious country in the developed world. Our overwhelmingly secular outlook means that we struggle to understand international affairs. The Foreign Office seems to live in world clearly marked with political borders, where power lies in the government ministries and police stations. But the jihadis know that to control a chunk of Nigeria they impose Sharia law — more effective than a coup. They’re playing old power games with new, religious rules. Also, we instinctively divide ‘faith traditions’ into fundamentalists versus democrats — a crude, naïve and dangerous dichotomy.

Back to Burma. It’s not just sociopathic monks who harass Muslims. So does the state of Rakhine, which since last year has forbidden Muslim couples to have more than two children. You’d expect Aung San Suu Kyi to have something to say about that. Not so. When she appeared on the Today programme, the Nobel laureate and Oxford graduate (third-class honours) sidestepped questions about anti-Muslim persecution.

The pattern of religious violence reinforced by civil laws is becoming a familiar one. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks elated by the crushing of the Hindu Tamils are leading attacks on coastal towns with Muslim populations. Meanwhile, the government is setting up a Buddhist Publications Regulatory Board to ban writings that are ‘in violation of Buddhism, its philosophy or traditions’. According to the Indian journalist Vishal Arora, Buddhist extremism is ‘fast spreading its tentacles in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, as newspapers report violent attacks on religious minorities and shrill demands to ban blasphemy’.

Arora provides some vital context: Islamist militants, he writes, have been waging war against Shias, Ahmadis, Jews, Christians, and secular governments across the world. Now Buddhists have been added to the list: in Indonesia and India, Islamists have started bombing their places of worship. It’s not quite a world war of religion. But at times, in certain places, it does start to resemble one.

In the 21st century, extreme religion has a tendency to go viral. In Syria and Iraq, the shadow caliphate of Isis makes expert use of social media — attracting, as we have seen, the attention of young Welsh students who are persuaded to give their lives for a jihad against Shi’ites. When the Syrian volunteers come back to Britain, it will not be long before some of them find domestic application for their newfound skills.

Boko Haram is using the internet to recruit members in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. These movements haven’t been created by digital technology, but — to borrow Arora’s metaphors — broadband and mobiles help them ‘spread their tentacles’ and ‘connect the dots’ across borders. We may regard this as barbaric, but we ought not to call it medieval. We are witnessing a very modern phenomenon: religious extremism made possible by globalisation and by technology.

Fanatics are only part of the story, however. To understand why religion is becoming the new politics, we need to connect an extra set of dots: between extremists, their wealthy supporters, politicians, bureaucrats — and ordinary believers who tell pollsters they ‘reject violence’ but keep quiet when it’s perpetrated.

You won’t hear this on Thought for the Day, but religious violence isn’t exclusively inspired by hatred. During the Reformation, Protestant zealots invaded Catholic churches, smashing beloved statues and whitewashing precious frescoes. Modern Protestants are ashamed of these actions — but if you read Calvin you’ll find a coherent defence of iconoclasm. He believed that religious art invites man to worship the created rather than the Creator, beckoning him towards pagan demons.

The parallel with today’s Sunni Islam is uncanny. The rulers of Saudi Arabia belong to the puritan Wahhabi sect, which uses Calvin’s logic to justify smashing images. The House of Saud spends billions of pounds a year forcing Wahhabism (or its local equivalents) down the throats of Sunnis everywhere. ‘Sacred destruction’ is taking root in countries as diverse as Pakistan and Nigeria. This enforced religion is, along with oil money, a key method of establishing power. Also, it’s an insurance policy — an attempt to placate Sunni terrorists who would like to seize Mecca.

Obviously there is deep hypocrisy at work here. The bulldozing of the shrines of Shia peasants is being subsidised by fat Saudi playboys in the Dorchester. But what about the hotel’s owner, the Sultan of Brunei? He has just added flogging, amputation and stoning to his country’s penal code. Does that make him a hypocrite, like the Saudi princelings with their bourbon and whores? He seems sincere in his belief that only Sharia can preserve Brunei from western decadence.

Islamophobes will tell you: well, that’s the ‘religion of peace’ showing its true colours. Secularists, recognising that other faiths are capable of evil acts, fall back on Christopher Hitchens’s mantra: ‘Religion poisons everything.’ That was the subtitle of his book God Is Not Great, an embarrassing rant that portrayed religious believers as babies reaching for the Kool-Aid. How interesting that it should be religion that reduced Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — deep thinkers and lovely writers — to spluttering incoherence. They couldn’t make sense of its new vitality. And, if we’re honest, most of us are puzzled. Even when we’ve joined all the dots, it’s hard to explain why ancient prejudices are being customised for the 21st century not just in the basket cases of the Middle East and Africa but also in Asian nations racing towards modernity.

The new leader of India, Narendra Modi, is the first Prime Minister from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party to command a majority in parliament. He’s also a former member of the RSS, a crypto-fascist organisation that Cardinal George Alencherry, leader of India’s Syro-Malabar Catholics, blames for ‘the violence and terror of Hindu fundamentalism’. What we’re seeing in India, says the cardinal, is the progressive ‘politicisation of religion’.

Or, to put it another way, the hijacking of politics and culture by religion. This goes way beyond the hysteria (and, in some cases, deaths) caused by Danish cartoons of Mohammed. Hindus have just forced Penguin India to pulp all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s much-praised The Hindus: An Alternative History because it contains ‘heresies’. Religious censorship of school textbooks is back on the agenda — not only in India but in America, where Hindu parents from the increasingly hardline diaspora are demanding that high school courses eliminate criticism of Hinduism.

None of these developments shows religion in a good light. That’s partly because, when religion reasserts itself, it’s usually against a background of conflict. Is it to blame for that conflict? The American economist Eli Berman points out the paradox that, in our time-hungry society, it’s the time-consuming strict varieties of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that are growing fastest. Likewise Buddhism and Hinduism. Religions of total immersion create social bonds that sustain the disorientated. Unfortunately those bonds can also provide potent moral support for violence. Terrorist attacks by religious fanatics kill four times as many people per incident as those committed by political extremists.

The states where faith is reshaping politics tend to be those whose failure would be disastrous for the West. Yet — and this point can’t be stressed too often — our leaders know next to nothing about world religions, including those whose adherents have arrived on their doorstep. They’d better start learning, fast.

Damian Thompson is a music columnist for The Spectator, and the author of The Fix and Counterknowledge.

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