And in the rest of the world: Religion gets political

Apr 29, 2017 04.00PM |

IF RUNNING a country is like building a house of cards, then perhaps there is one card that is more crucial than the others: Religion.

Few other forces have the kind of power religion does – that can either uplift the masses or stir hate. In dealing with this, governments tend to take a tough stance. We saw this play out in Singapore, when an Imam was fined $4,000 and repatriated for making offensive remarks about Christians and Jews.

Many of the world’s biggest countries try to keep religion in check through warnings and restrictions, according to a report released by the Pew Research Centre on Apr 13. But where there is fear, others see opportunity – some politicians are using religion as their trump card in the road to power.

And the past month has brought us no shortage of instances where the ‘R’ word changed the way politicians govern and people vote.

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1. Jakarta, Indonesia: In Anies vs. Ahok, hardliners triumph

Newly-elected Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan addresses worshippers at a mosque. Image from Mr Anies Baswedan’s Facebook page.

In a tight race for the governor of Jakarta, the once-popular incumbent Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or ‘Ahok’, lost his seat to contender Mr Anies Baswedan. Being a Christian politician in a Muslim-majority country had already put Mr Basuki in a precarious position – receiving constant fire from hardliners against his leadership.

And the hate campaign eventually tipped his tightrope over, when Mr Basuki found himself before a judge, accused of blaspheming Islam. The damage was too great, and the votes swung in favour of Mr Anies, a moderate Muslim who has met with hardline Islamists.

The election has been widely regarded as a litmus test for pluralism in Indonesia, which till recently, has been regarded a role model for religious tolerance. But a growing conservative movement in the establishment may upset this.

According to the Setara Institute, which monitors civil freedoms in the country, acts of religious intolerance rose by nearly 15 per cent from 2015 to 2016. Over half of the cases implicated government and military officials.


2. Paris, France: Once taboo, religion is now a talking point

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Image by Flickr user Global Panorama. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The French have had a grand tradition of keeping religion strictly personal, and well away from the political arena. But in this year’s presidential election, there are new kids on the block – and new rules to play by.

Far right candidate Marine Le Pen has brought religion to the front and center of the debate stage, with her extreme views against Islam, Judaism and other minority religions. Ms Le Pen has compared Muslim prayers to the Nazi invasion, while her aides are accused of Holocaust denial.

Meanwhile, main contender Emmanuel Macron has issued a rallying cry for secularism – except that his voice is barely as loud as the rhetoric of Ms Le Pen. With the ongoing refugee crisis and spate of terrorist attacks across Europe, far-right views on religion are more popular than ever.

Whether France will face the same outcome as Jakarta remains to be seen.


3. Moscow, Russia: Ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Constitutional Court of Russia. Image by Савин А. С. from Wikimedia Commons.

“The supreme court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Ms Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Religious freedom in Russia is questionable and with the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses (April 20), hopes of religious freedom in Russia continue to fall short. Claiming more than 170,000 adherents in Russia, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a restorationist Christian denomination with beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity, including a denial of the Holy Trinity.

Russia’s supreme court has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group. The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.

Days after the imposition of the ban, Russia was labelled a “country of particular concern” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). It is the first time that Russia has been designated among the highest tier of violators of religious freedom. It joins 15 other countries, including Iran, Syria, Nigeria, Burma and China.


4. Beijing, China: Warning against “foreign infiltration” through religion

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image by Flickr user Michel Temer. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Communist party members must adhere to Marxist principles and remain “staunchly atheist”, President Xi Jinping insisted on Apr 24. It appears that China is clamping down on religious freedom in the country. To justify the clampdown, Mr Xi emphasised that China must be on guard against foreign infiltration through religion and stop “extremists” spreading their ideology.

The ruling Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but it keeps a tight rein on religious activities and allows only officially recognized religious institutions to operate. The Chinese government is increasingly concerned about the perceived growing influence by Islamists in the Xinjiang region. Officials there have tightened enforcement of regulations banning overt signs of religious observance, like veils or beards. Separately, some Chinese Christians say that authorities are limiting their activities and taking down crosses on churches in coastal Zhejiang province.

China has historically followed ancient religions like Buddhism and Taoism for about 2,000 years, according to China’s State Council. But the country’s belief systems have become increasingly diverse. According to a map published by Reuters in 2015, based on information from Professor Fanggang Yang, the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, China’s monotheistic religions, including Islam and Christianity, are beginning to occupy a significant proportion of the country.

Breakdown of Religion in China. Image by Reuters.


5. Ankara, Turkey: Religion propels Erdogan to victory

A 2016 pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul, Turkey. Image by Flickr user Mike Norton. CC BY 2.0.

On Apr 17, a slim majority of Turks granted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broad powers, including the autonomy to choose the majority of senior judges and absolute discretion in dismissing Parliament. The role of the Prime Minister will also be removed.

And for many Turks who voted in favour of the president, religion was a key factor. Since the end of World War I, Turkey has been a constitutionally secular state, meaning that even though 99 per cent of residents are Muslim, there is no official state religion. However, this has left some rural voters disillusioned, especially by rules that forbade women working in the civil service and military from wearing headscarves.

President Erdogan, the political protege of a former Islamist politician, lifted the headscarf restrictions, and has since taken the country in a different direction. Last year, the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate declared that it would be “illicit” for Muslims to celebrate the Western new year. Rules on alcohol consumption have also been tightened, a move that would have been unthinkable up till recently.

With the result, President Erdogan may remain in power till 2029.


Featured image by Flickr user Ben McLeod. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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