MARK JUERGENSMEYER, professor of sociology and global studies, University of California, specialises on religion and politics. He has done extensive research on the politics of the Khalistan movement in Punjab. He tells Aditi Phadnis about the connections between religion, politics, violence and globalisation.
Aditi Phadnis |Business-standard.com | New Delhi, December 3, 2016
You have spent several years in India studying the Khalistani movement in Punjab. You have also studied the ISIS and the theme of religious violence, religion and politics. What do India and Punjab look like to you today?
Religion and politics are what I have studied my entire adult life. I spent several years in Delhi and Punjab, studying the way religion and politics have been intertwined here in India. With the rise of the Khalistani movement in the 1980s, I got interested in this phenomenon. It was more than academic curiosity: I have lived in Punjab and I know and love Punjab and Punjabis. For me, it was disturbing to see how this awful spiral of violence developed, particularly between young Jat Sikh men and the Indian state. It was the rejection of the notion of secularism and nationalism. I found this rejection not only in India but also around the world. So for me, it became part of a wider project: looking at the rise of religious nationalism or transnationalism in different parts of the world.
What I discovered was that it is related to the idea of globalisation, a kind of undermining of the covenants of a secular nation state, around which people across the world had organised their political lives. It is interesting to see in this period that Enlightenment’s greatest product, the idea of a secular nation state, should be under siege and be seen as a corrupt system, something that doesn’t touch the hearts and souls of people. Religious nationalism in that way is an alternative politics. One of my Sikh activist friends told me in the 1980s that politics can be beautiful as long as it is religious! That is a characteristic of a lot of the movements and activism around the world. In its extreme form it becomes religious violence and terrorism. But there is also a moral or social critique that is embodied in this: the failure of a secular nation state and the fear of globalisation.
Right now I am working on a project on how jihadi movements come to an end, looking in particular at ISIS. I have spent some time in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, interviewing refugees of ISIS, trying to understand what it is like to live under the ISIS regime and understand who follows ISIS: Who are the supporters? What is this movement all about? We think we know about it because of its extremism and its ideology. But why would an average, normal person be attracted to such a movement? That’s what I was trying to figure out.
In Khalistani politics, too, they were just ordinary guys who overnight became, not exactly terrorists, but Sikhs in a way that you didn’t understand them any more. Then equally abruptly, you didn’t hear about them any more. The movement seemed to come to an end. But has it really come to an end? There are many who warn that the embers are still alive….
Yes, I think that is possible. Even though the movement has been defeated or lessened, the cause of the movement is still there. It is specific to Punjab. I am not saying all these movements are the same. In the case of Punjab you have young Sikh agricultural men, who feel that their heritage has been taken from them: The privileged life they had in the past has been undercut by forces of urbanisation and a changing economy that doesn’t make their livelihood and their future seem bright at all.
Over the last few days I have been talking to people from Punjab; they speak about the demoralisation of the youth. On the one hand there is someone who wants to leave, go to Britain or Canada or wherever; they are leaving behind drug abuse, alcoholism, a dark future….
So the notion of exit….
The notion of exit. And behind all of that is the notion that the secular state, as the protector, has failed them — the state as a protector or social order and social good that people have come to take for granted as their inheritance. The secular state has somehow failed. This is a failure that is endemic in an era of globalisation. It was certainly part of the politics of the US election recently, where many working-class people found that the secular state had let them down. And they blamed it on multiculturalism. So they reached out for a strong man who they thought would protect them, who would stand tough and stand for “Make America great again”.
This was the theme that emerged in the politics of Khalistan in the 1980s.
You mentioned your visit to Iraq and your study of ISIS and how it might end….
In order to understand how ISIS might end, I began with a study of how it originated. ISIS grew out of the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, which produced a huge instability in the social system. Hussein was a dictator and was not loved much by the people. But secular Sunni domination in a country that was 60 per cent Shia, 20 per cent Sunni Arabs and 20 per cent Kurdish was a funny kind of amalgam.
After the fall of Hussein, I was in Iraq months after, talking to the leaders in the Sunni areas, and they said they were frightened. They said they hated Huseein because he was a secularist and because they were Islamic “activists”.
What they feared was that this notion of democracy that George W Bush was talking about meant a Shia privilege: because democracy works only in a homogenous society, as the British discovered in India! You need to protect the minorities.
There is a creeping belief that the Indian state has given up on the Muslims here. It is happening slowly. But one manifestation of it is the number of young men, who are ready to join ISIS. There wasn’t a single Indian involved in 9/11 or Al Qaeda. How do you see this new feeling of alienation among the Indian Muslims?
That is true around the world where immigrant communities particularly, Muslim immigrants, themselves feel they are not fully welcome. The Paris attacks were, after all, conducted by young North African Muslims. Most of them lived in Belgium. That country, in particular, is an inhospitable place for young immigrants — they are seen as foreigners and treated with no respect. So it is easy to see how young people with a sense of pride would react to humiliation… respond to disrespect through violence. In the United States, fortunately, the hostility to Trump is not too deep because American society is more used to multiculturalism.
But in India it is slightly different: because Muslims have been part of India so much that it is impossible to think of them as anything other than Indian….
Jews were very much part of Germany before Hitler! This kind of ethnic identity can arise suddenly. It can become divisive in a way that it has never been before.