The Monday editions of Sightings, which I write, usually focus on “public religion” in the United States, while Thursday’s postings, written by various contributors, frequently “go global.” Through the years, however, I have learned that treating American religion in isolation skews perspectives, because my battered majority faith—Protestant Christianity—is prospering outside the North Atlantic zones, in many parts of the Southern world. Similarly, as anyone who tries to make sense of domestic politics can point out, politics here is in no small measure often shaped by “everywhere else.” Think: “Benghazi, ” “Israel-Palestine,” “Russia-Ukraine.”
This week the Asian sub-continent dominates the prime-time media as headlines point to India’s general elections which were held over the weekend. The landslide victory of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party attracts and forces attention in ways that are both overdue and urgent.
In the late 1980s I was first jostled to pay attention to the regions of the world that provide context. The American Historical Association held a plenary on “Fundamentalism,” and scheduled a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian (the undersigned) to speak on movements called Fundamentalist in our three spheres of religion and geography. The schedulers wisely asked my colleague Wendy Doniger to comment on all three. I recall that, at first, she was puzzled over the assignment. Why invite an expert on India and Hinduism? It had threatened to be hard to speak of Fundamentalism in such orbits.
But, on second thought Doniger found much to say, and taught us to enlarge our definitions and scope. When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences chartered The Fundamentalism Project, with myself and R. Scott Appleby to head it, we promoted local and global studies, which resulted in five fat volumes (University of Chicago Press). Reading up now on the history of Modi’s BJP Party, I find that we gave it some attention in all five volumes, but our inquiries remained marginal until the Hindu-Muslim eruptions in 2002. We had pondered why the BJP and RSR (a kind of kin/rival political party in India) were formed in 1925, at about the same time that American Protestant Fundamentalism took name and shape, and just before the Muslim Brotherhood organized in Egypt in 1928. Around the world, pan-religiously, something was happening in the varied encounters with modernities that led many to find refuge in “hardline religion.”
So the Indian headlines last weekend deserved broad coverage, properly stressing the economic basis for the massive electoral choice for Modi and the BJP. But the editors of major newspapers also had to deal with the religious question. The New York Times (May 17, 2014) headline on Gardiner Harris’s story went right to the point: “For Nation’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory.” Harris quotes imams and other Muslim leaders who spell out why they have reason to fear, but he also reports that economic urgencies may keep the BJP from taking hardline actions against the 15% of the Indian population that is Muslim.
In the Wall Street Journal (May 17-18 2014), Geeta Anand and Gordon Fairclough’s story has the headline “India Rising,” emphasizing the economic dimensions of the Modi campaign, victory, and promise. The authors devote only two lines on two full pages to religion, referencing an election in 1996.
Can Modi and responsible Indians keep religious passions quiet enough that the BJP experiment will have a chance? American leaders and the larger population may join India’s Muslims, in heeding “Caution” lights.
Sources and Further Reading:
Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms Observed. The Fundamentalism Project, Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education. The Fundamentalism Project, Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance. The Fundamentalism Project, Vol. 3. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements. The Fundamentalism Project, Vol . 4. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms Comprehended. The Fundamentalism Project, Vol. 5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Harris, Gardiner. “For India’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory.” The New York Times, May 16, 2014, Asia Pacific. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/world/asia/india-muslims-modi.html?_r=0.
Anand, Geeta and Gordon Fairclough. “India Rising.” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2014, Streaming Coverage: Latest Headlines. http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-534365/.
Bengali, Shashank. “Indian Muslims wary of man poised to take reins.” The Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2014, World / Asia. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-india-elections-20140514-story.html#page=1.
Daniel, Frank Jack and Manoj Kumar. “As riot-hit Indian region votes, religious divide favors Hindu leader.” Reuters, April 10, 2014, U.S. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/10/us-india-election-muzaffarnagar-idusbrea390bm20140410.
Photo Credit: arindambarnejee / Shutterstock. Rally in support of Narendra Modi in Varanasi, India, April 24, 2014.
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Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.