Religion has always been a universal phenomenon. As missionaries followed empire builders and soldiers to Africa, priests and monks followed Columbus to the Americas. Islam was spread throughout most of India by the Moghuls. Politics and religion were tightly intertwined since many kings were installed by the church and thus enjoyed the Almighty’s favor. This was put to an end by the French revolution, which also introduced the idea of secularism and the separation of religion and state. Under this system, the people exercised their political power by voting, and the rulers were either confined to a ceremonial function or were entirely eliminated.
As a foundation for state governance in Europe during the 20th century, religion was in fierce confrontation with a number of political philosophies. Churches were frequently shut down or changed over to other use, and clergy were pressured to stop preaching. Around 1990, when communism lost its status as a major political force, this era came to an end. The development of Arab nationalism/socialism, which saw a number of secular states form in the Middle East under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a significant factor in the time after World War II.
How Islam is reshaping Middle East in contemporary times
Muslim-majority states in the Middle East are still torn between competing interpretations of their Islamic roots after decades of horrific fighting, bad governance, rising sectarianism, and economic depression. Powers with regional dominance aspirations and their use of religion as a political weapon, a tendency that shows no signs of abating, exacerbate sectarian theological divisions throughout the region. It is common to incorrectly portray the relationship between Islam and the West as a collision of civilizations when, in fact, both are experiencing intra-civilizational conflicts. The House of Islam is struggling with many identity crises, whether it be moderate or radical, radical or reformist.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, three of the most significant regional powers, have all recently established foreign policy frameworks that, in one way or another, make significant use of religion. The “neo-Ottoman” vision of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Turkey’s cross-regional aspirations draws on traditional Shia discourses of dispossession; Iran uses these discourses to position itself as the geopolitical center of “resistance culture”; and, most recently, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made the intriguing announcement that the Kingdom would be returning to its pre-1979 tradition of “moderate Islam” as part of his pursuit of Vision 2030, a sweeping package of economic and social reforms.
Although the long-running conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has sectarian overtones, it is mostly a traditional geopolitical rivalry that has recently turned into a struggle for survival. Therefore, it is not strange that both sides of the fight openly present the struggle in existential terms. Up until de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman made a U-turn toward “moderation,” Saudi Arabia’s backing for rigid interpretations of Islam and its desire to contain Iran went hand in hand. Regardless of how anti-Shia the Saudi rulers actually were, using strong and resonant religious language to indicate sectarianism was effective in gaining support within the country and throughout the Muslim world, particularly in South Asia.
The West is seeing levels of political unrest not seen since the end of the Cold War as a result of a mix of challenges to international security, the economic slump that has followed the financial crisis of 2008, and worries about the impact of immigration on domestic stability. In this situation, the extreme extremes of the political spectrum have come to dominate political discourse on important subjects. Even if domestic political dysfunction disproportionately affects the silent majority, without its voice, well-functioning democratic regimes cannot be restored. Western civilization is in risk of losing its sense of common values around ideas like the rule of law, democracy, liberty, and human rights, according to the development of far-right populist movements in the U.S. and Europe, which is both a symptom and a cause of this issue.
Western nations are becoming more skeptical of democratic institutions and even the worth of democracy itself. In contrast to countries like China, whose autocratic nature allows for their governments to have a comparable degree of decision-making efficiency, many Western nations have dysfunctional politics. Declining support for democracy is a self-fulfilling prophecy since it makes democratic institutions less responsive and hence less desirable. Growing populist and nationalist sentiments in the West are anticipated to intensify, causing politics to become more domestic in nature rather than favoring international collaboration. Countries in the Muslim world, once leaning towards the West may no longer view the West as a trustworthy guarantor of stability as a result of its political turmoil and rising apathy in world affairs and turning towards multipolar actors like China and Russia.
Role of religion in other spheres
The phenomenon of states using religion in foreign policy is not just present in the Muslim world. There are many instances of governments now using religion as a lens through which to pursue geopolitical ambitions. The Russian Orthodox Church’s global influence has been used by the Kremlin to increase support for its policies in Ukraine. Hindutva, a type of Hindu nationalist ideology, is mobilized by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its outreach to Indian diaspora populations around the world. Furthermore, Israel has developed relationships with conservative evangelical Christians in the US in an effort to position the Jewish state as the rightful steward of a shared Judeo-Christian legacy. There are plenty of more comparable cases.
Hindutva in geopolitics
Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took office in 2014, the term “Hindutva” has been actively discussed throughout the world. The phrase is used to define a unique political ideology based on Indian religion that first appeared at the turn of the 20th century. Such religion-based nationalism was resisted by the Indian National Congress, which controlled India for the first part of the 20th century. Religion, the defense of traditional values and culture, and opposition to western liberalism are the three pillars of Hindutva. There are interwoven ideological and geopolitical aspects to it. The defense of India’s distinctiveness, culture, and traditional faiths, which are thought to constitute the foundation of identity, comes first.
It is observed that Muslim and Western influences are harmful to Indians. Support for traditional Hindu beliefs and social institutions, including a caste system reform, coexists with support for social justice. As a result, Christians and Muslims are always seen as second-class people in this concept of Indian Space.
Surprisingly, Hindutva’s fundamental ideology may appear to favor cordial relations with Israel to an outsider. Judaism, Hinduism, and Indo-European religions are in fact the least similar to one another. However, there are some things that unite them.
Connections between BJP and Israel have grown more obvious as a result of the fact that the Muslim has traditionally been a symbol of the other, in relation to which political identity was established for adherents of Hindutva ideology. Zionists must confront the Islamic world because they are political Hindus. In addition to not being Muslim or Christian, the state’s foundation is its own national religious tradition, which appeals to Hindutva adherents. The BJP made an effort to retain strong relations with Israel during the Cold War, in contrast to the Congress, which has consistently backed Palestine. India has become Israel’s top customer for military hardware, and Israel is currently India’s second-largest arms supplier.
South Asian dilemma and what is foreseen in the days to come
The South Asian polity is distinctly situated on religious fault lines. Before it was split up into various country states, South Asia shared a common political history. The British government that oversaw modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka was a major influence on the region’s politics. Bhutan and Nepal both resembled British protectorates, notwithstanding the absence of the Raj in Nepal. The Maldives continued to be a minor player in this area. Following the establishment of nation-states, regional politics started to shift away from civic nationalism and toward religious nationalism. The root of Hindu-Muslim conflict lies when the fracture of British India began. As put by Shashi Tharoor, an Indian parliamentarian: “The colonial project of ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule) fomented religious antagonisms to facilitate continued imperial rule and reached its tragic culmination in 1947.”
The introduction of Islam in South Asia was rigorous through Persian/Iranic and Turkic roots, despite the advent of the religion taking place in the Arabia. Thus, all the three major power players of the Middle East have soft influence in the region. During the height of the Cold War, Wahabist or Extremist version of Islam was dominant in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the aid of the West in its struggle against Communism. The extremist tentacles spread much havoc in the region, and still stands strong despite multi-pronged assault against by the South Asian countries.
Except for Pakistan, all of the southern Asian nations were non-aligned. Joining a major power or alliance and looking for outside backing was a means for Pakistan, which had a lack of identity and regarded itself as obtaining its independence from India, to achieve parity with a much larger India. Despite significant changes in the international landscape since the conclusion of the Cold War, this still represents a Pakistani necessity.
With US pullout from Afghanistan, increased Turkish involvement in the Muslim majority countries in South Asia and assertive China at the door of South Asia, South Asia is emerging as the next flash point of cold war between the West and Russia-China bloc. As China is not seeking to involve with religious fault lines for spreading influence, the West will seek to aggravate the religious fault lines to counter China in the South Asia. A clash within dormant extreme Islamist view and an active extremist Hindutva will only jeopardize the relative stability in the region.