Usama Hasan on... Religion as a Transnational Force
10 Mar 2015
Usama Hasan speaks about understanding religion as a transnational force, how it can exacerbate conflict, and how it can promote peace.
It's important to understand that religions, major world religions, do form a transnational force with millions of followers around the world. So, Christianity and Islam have over a billion followers each around the world. One and a half to two billion people. Hinduism has around a billion people, mainly in India. This is a massive force, and it means that it transcends nations state. Because in the modern political world, a nationality state is a nation state with passports, citizens etc. And people do feel loyalty to their country, to their flag; to their national anthem. But for those who are devout or religious or perhaps not even so practicing or pious but have a strong sense of attachment to their religion, that brotherhood or sisterhood of faith transcends the national boundaries and it means that it has to be taken into account with foreign policy.
So for example when there is a religious war – and many wars have an ethnic and religious component to it – if it's between groups that are mainly Christian or Muslim, you'll find around the world, Christian majority countries often have a natural sympathy for the Christians, and similarly Muslim majority countries for the Muslims. And that can complicate matters; it often does complicate matters. You even get foreign fighters travelling to take part in these conflicts. As we are seeing now in the war in Syria and Iraq; and also Russia and Ukraine where you see people are going from different countries to fight in those wars.
So all of that needs to be taken into account. Ideally people would rise above national boundaries and even transnational ones and do what's right, have a principled stance in supporting justice and standing up for the rights of those who are wronged or oppressed. But often that doesn't work out. But certainly politicians, policy makers have to be aware of the transnational dimensions of major world religions.
The globalised world that we live in now includes religion; because of modern communication, of course, the world becomes smaller, as we say, we live in a global village. And of course human beings communicate now 24/7 all around the globe. What this means is that people with similar ideas can coordinate and network much more effectively. That has a very powerful impact on religion.
So, for example, China is one of the largest Christian nations in the world now. It has a very large population of Christians now because of missionary activity and the vacuum caused by the Communist revolution, which denied a space for religion to many people, and the propagation of religion through technology and the solidarity amongst nations. So we have, for example, organisations like the OIC, the Organisation of Islamic Countries, with about 50-odd members who try to coordinate Muslim issues if you like. And there are many other factors like that that we have to take that into account.
The idea of the 'ummah' has become incredibly politicised and tribalised.
Theological considerations can be immensely positive or immensely negative. And I think in Islam we have a good example, and to some extent in Judaism also. In Islam, in the Quran, there is the idea of the 'ummah': Muslims as one nation. And over the last hundred years or so this has been incredibly politicised and tribalised in the sense that many Muslim activists portray it in a very tribal sense, where Muslims are becoming one tribe and they have to be in opposition with or even in warfare against all the other tribes, who are now other religions. This has now resulted in very dangerous situations and has given rise to terrorist groups who differentiate only on the basis of religion.
So for example civilians in Kenya have been taken off buses and shot dead if they weren't able to say Islamic prayers or prove that they were Muslim. These kinds of horrific murders have gone on. Whereas the idea of being a nation at one with other people can actually be a very positive one because it makes you think about other people and struggle for justice for other people.
And for me as a theologian, there is a deeper level, in the Quran actually, the ultimate ummah, or nation, is humanity. Humanity is one nation, descended from a common source. And scientifically we know that human beings are a very narrow species. We are literally one race – the human race – and the idea of nationhood or nation as people, human beings, is really important. So what that means is that good Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus; people of all different faiths, because all our faiths teach justice and dignity and respect for human beings. This means that we should be concerned about human beings everywhere, wherever they are. Anybody who is struggling with being oppressed, or is a victim of injustice, should be our cause irrespective of whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist; whatever.
True faith teaches a deep appreciation of the sacred nature of humanity.
As John Wesley, the famous English theologian, he said, "My parish includes all people". He had this universal view of the nature of religion. And the same is true of many other great thinkers. Gandhi, Azad in India, and many others who understood that true faith teaches a deep connection between humanity and the Divine, and a deep appreciation of the sacred nature of humanity. And therefore for the value of human life and human rights and justice and equality for all human beings.
Unfortunately, those ideas of nationhood, if they are limited to just one religion or the other, can become extremely tribal and can be used to further conflict. And unfortunately I think many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists do use that to perpetuate conflict and to fight other people. Whereas the same nation can be widened and deepened to be much more inclusive, and to work together to build a better world for everyone.
It's important to understand religious diasporas around the world. They have immense power, often immense wealth. And this is another example of religion as a transnational force. So that a people's influence is not limited to the borders of a particular nation state. So for example India has a huge population; it also has a large diaspora in Europe and in the United States, and most of those Indians are Hindus. Now in Silicon Valley in the United States, for example, there are many Indian Americans. US citizens of Indian origin who are at the top of the Silicon Valley company, who have a lot of wealth, a lot of influence, and they build a lot of connections with India, for example, in business, trade, investment; in science and technology. Another example would be Jewish communities in the United States and Europe who have a strong link and affinity with Israel, in terms of financial and political lobbying they are very strong. Also Muslim groups around the world, Europe and the United States and other places, advocate strongly for Muslim causes or national causes. So for example the majority of Muslims in Britain are of South Asian origin: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. So they are very concerned about issues there.
The vast majority of French Muslims, who are about 10 per cent of the population, are of north African origin: Morocco, Tunisia, Libya. Again, they are very concerned about issues there. Algeria as well of course, being the biggest one. The majority of Muslims in Germany are of Turkish origin and they have a very strong affinity with Turkey. So I think its naïve to imagine that Britain, France, Germany, the United States are nice boxed-in nation states and everybody will behave according only to the interests of those countries. People have dual nationalities, they have multiple identities, they are entitled to have that and to have concerns about people of other races or their ethnic origins or of a different religion or a fellow religion.
Obviously nation states should promote the idea of equal citizenship for everyone, that humanity has kind of evolved towards this concept of equality for everyone, and the modern republics enshrine that idea, France and the United States especially, in their constitutions; that everyone is an equal citizen. That sometimes goes against tribal elements of what diaspora communities do. But it is very important to be aware of the financial, economic, social and political power of diasporas; they create international links and they cannot be ignored when it comes to domestic and international policy.
An example of the misuse of ideas, of religion as a transnational force is when people only think of their co-religionists as their people. So when I was younger, I was involved with fundamentalist extremist Muslim circles. And we thought of only Muslims as our people, whether in Britain – where we were – or anywhere around the world; all Muslims were my people – our people – and anyone who wasn't Muslim didn't count, they didn't matter. And that leads to extremism. It leads to xenophobia, it can lead to violence and terrorism. Because it can lead to dehumanisation of other people; they're not really worth it. This is done with extremist Christian groups as well, where unless you are a member of a particular Christian sect you are worthless because you aren't baptised and you don't believe in Christ. It's done by some Jewish groups as well who only think of Jews as 'my people'. And in fact the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has a large element to that. So you have Muslims and Jews on either side who fail to recognise the humanity of the other and are obsessed with their people – my people – being only one group in a very tribal sense.
We get the same with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims in places like India, Burma [Myanmar], and other places. A lot of conflicts, unfortunately, are fueled by this tribalism based on religion. This is often based on ethnicity, of course, and race, but it is increasingly based on religion also. And this often leads to violence. This is something that we must recognise try to stand and fight against. To use the universal teachings in all religions which promote human equality and brotherhood and are inclusive toward other religions rather than being exclusive. And therefore the inclusive nature of religion, the inclusive messages in all the major world religions, must be promoted for world coexistence and harmony and peace and working toward that. The exclusivist reading of religion where the out-group, the other, is demonised and dehumanised, really have no place in the modern world because they lead to intolerance, hatred and ultimately to violence, destruction and even genocide.
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