A century of religion

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Three well-known politicians are helping to transform the 21st century into one of religion, writes Ahmed Mustafa


It is hard to argue against the unfortunate portrayal of the Gaza war as a “religious” war between militant Islamist groups and Jewish fanatics in the Israeli government.

Despite the fact that it is about the legitimate Palestinian resistance to occupation, genocide, and ethnic-cleansing, Israel has managed to spread a narrative supported by the Western media and even some Arab media outlets as well.

At its core, the Palestinian issue is not religious, even though the occupiers base their aggression on convoluted religious notions galvanised by the Zionist Movement in the early 20th century. The Palestinian resistance from the beginning was mainly secular, including the main components of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), namely the Fatah Movement and even the left-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

The rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad by the end of the last century gave the Israelis a pretext to claim the existence of a religious conflict. This coincided with the rise of Islamist militancy in the region, strengthened by the Western-sponsored and Gulf-financed mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Muslim Brotherhood was a main recruiter for this militant movement that led to Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), and other groups.

At the end of the Cold War, it seemed that major ideologies had become irrelevant, and religious demagoguery filled the vacuum. Meanwhile, the traditional political scene deteriorated, and the shift towards the far-right in the West became a dominant trend. This was a suitable habitat for cult-like interpretations of religious fundamentalism to thrive and to create a separation from basic human principles of tolerance, compassion, and positive morality.

One of the main factors emboldening this trend was the opportunism of politicians in appeasing radicals and the existence of a xenophobic electorate. Some politicians went as far as to adopt racist slogans and bring extremism into mainstream politics.

In our region, some governments tried to outdo the Brotherhood and Salafi movements by adopting politico-religious slogans. While this was supposed to curb the influence of fundamentalists and extremists among the masses, it ultimately helped to push the message of the religious fanatics. Despite the fact that they do not intend to do so, some political leaders in our region claiming to fight religious fanaticism are passively spreading its messages rather than eradicating what they claim they object to.

Elsewhere, there have been those who have knowingly manipulated religious extremism for their personal benefit. Among them we can point to three leaders who are still active in today’s political sphere. Whether they have meant to do so or not, they are feeding the trend of transforming this century into a “century of religion.” They include Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Narendra Modi in India, and Donald Trump in the US.

Netanyahu is the most prominent in the present context, and he has used religious extremist parties to form governments in Israel over the past decade. One of these passed a new basic law in 2018 that reinforced the religious basis of the country. It states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” It also establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language and establishes “Jewish settlements as a national value” and mandates that the state “will labour to encourage and promote their establishment and development.”

Far-right religious parties welcomed the new basic law in Israel, but critics saw it as racist and as a “legalisation of Apartheid.” Netanyahu himself might not be a religious person, but he knows how to exploit religious fanaticism in the political scene and to make it work for his own personal benefit.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, who has been in power for two terms and is about to secure a third term in the upcoming Indian elections, is a similar case. He himself might not be a die-hard Hindu, but he has played on the radical wing of his Bharatiya Janata Party. This is aligned with right-wing politics and has close ideological and organisational links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh paramilitary organisation. Modi’s government recently passed a law alienating the Indian Muslim population that some critics consider to be a racist move.

Most recently, and perhaps most influentially among those mentioned, Donald Trump was the leader of the only post-Cold War superpower until January 2021. He is now seeking a second term as US president despite the controversy surrounding his first term. In his previous election campaign, Trump gathered an odd combination of Evangelical Christians and racist White Supremacist groups as his support base.

The Evangelicals might look like just another sect of Protestantism Christianity, but they are also closely aligned to the Zionist Movement that many Jews consider to be not Jewish almost in the same way that most mainstream Muslims see Salafi-Jihadism as not Islamic. Last month, one Evangelical-linked TV broadcast in the US called on its viewers to vote for Trump in the elections later this year as “he is a gift from God.”

Trump himself might not be that religious, and he probably understands as much about faith as he does about the Chinese language. But like Netanyahu and Modi, he is intelligently exploiting what he has at his disposal.

If the year ends with these three men in power, along with other far-right leaders elsewhere in the world, humanity will end the first quarter of the present century on the verge of a new “religious” era. This will not be the benevolent type of religion either, as we will risk slipping into a phase of anarchy and chaos instigated by fundamentalism and violent extremism.  


The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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