Sunday, May 05, 2013

A meditation on "religion" and "the rules"

A friend, a Chinese American whose family has been in the United States for many generations, once proposed to me that the Chinese just don't have any religion. This seemed like a very broad generalization from a less than unimpeachable source -- there are an awful lot of Chinese and he'd barely visited the place.

Still I think he meant something like what Brent Nongbri writes about in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.
My father grew up in the Khasi Hills of northeastern India. The Khasi language is today spoken by roughly one million people, mostly in the state of Meghalaya. When I was in college and just becoming aware of the complexity of studying religion, it occurred to me one day that I had no idea what the Khasi word for "religion" was. I owned a small Khasi-English dictionary, but it did not provide English-to-Khasi definitions. … a few years later, the topic came up in a conversation with my father, and I asked him about the Khasi term for "religion." He replied that it was ka niam. By this time I was a graduate student in religious studies, and I was curious to learn more about this word. I dug out my little dictionary and looked it up. I found it could also simply mean "customs," that is to say, not necessarily anything particularly or especially religious. More intriguing, though, was the asterisk beside the word that directed me to a short note at the bottom of the page. It turned out that niam was in fact not an indigenous Khasi term at all but a loan-word from the Bengali niyama, meaning "rules" or "duties." My father's language, it seems, had no native word for "religion."
Nongbri sets out to show that the way we commonly use "religion" is an artifact of European adjustments to the splintering of medieval Christendom into a multiplicity of warring nation-state Christianities; the most effective way to stop the bloodshed between rival sects was to confine "religion" to a personal, private sphere. What mattered was not what individuals thought was "true," but what made for law-abiding citizens in the public realm under a regime of law. That is, "religion" ceased to be synonymous with society's core operating principles, "the rules." Because this occurred concurrent with European discovery of and colonial domination around the world, we overlaid our concept of "religion" on peoples and their social structures where it is not necessarily a good fit.
…This projection provided the basis for the framework of World Religions that currently dominates both academic and popular discussions of religion: the world is divided among people of different and often competing beliefs about how to obtain salvation, and these beliefs should ideally, according to influential figures like Locke, be privately held, spiritual, and nonpolitical. It was only with this particular set of circumstances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the concept of religion as we know it began to coalesce.

… Because of the pervasive use of the word "religion" in the cultures of the modern Western world (the "we" here), we already intuitively know what "religion" is before we even try to define it: religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition might be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christianocentric, and even a bit flippant; it is all these things, but it is also highly accurate in reflecting the uses of the term in modern languages. Every attempted definition of "religion" that I have seen has implicitly had this criterion at its base. Most of the debates about whether this or that "-ism" (Confucianism, Marxism, etc.) is "really a religion" boil down to the question of whether or not they are sufficiently similar to modern Protestant Christianity. This situation should not be surprising given the history of the category of religion.
***
These acute observations came to mind as I listened to a devastating account by Mobeen Azhar on the BBC of the religious "cleansing" being suffered by the half million Pakistani Hazara Shias Muslims at the hands of some Pakistani Sunni Muslims. A series of a devastating bombings have killed hundreds , robbing this long established Central Asian segment of the population of Pakistan's Balochistan state of any security. Children ask their parents "will we be martyrs?" Young people attempt to emigrate and often die in the process.

Azhar interviewed Sunni politicians campaigning in the May 11 elections about what should be done about the atrocities against the Hazara.
Salafi-inspired groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and its sister organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba have terrorised Pakistan's Shia community for years.These groups have been banned by the Pakistani government but the organisation has re-branded itself as Ahle Sunnah Wal Jamaat. The party is now fielding candidates in general elections due this month on a specifically anti-Shia platform.

Senior party member and National Assembly candidate Mohamed Fayyaz denies that the organisation is involved in attacks on Hazara Shias. "Just because someone said they are from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, what proof is there that it was someone from our group? We don't want to murder Shias. We want them to be declared non-Muslim in the National Assembly. That is what we're working towards."
Clearly for Mr. Fayyaz, the Hazara's "religion" is a vital threat to "the rules." And Mr. Fayyaz' attitude is a threat to the life and limb of the Hazaras. This sort of "religion" is a threat to the peace of communities. It will require leadership from within the affected communities to come to some sort of agreement to co-exist to end the bloodshed; this may, or may not, come from the same sort of accommodation that led to the invention of the European idea of "religion."

1 comment:

Chris said...

"Imagine no religion, it's easy if you try"

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