In the Boston Review:
WA: Religion in South Asia has been characterized by extremism and intolerance: the Taliban in Pakistan, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the continued prominence of Narendra Modi in India. What should the role of religion be in a purportedly democratic modern South Asia, and can religious extremism be removed from the political theater?
PM: I don’t think so. Your question assumes that religion in modern democracy is an anachronism, one that progressive secularization will eventually mitigate. But this is an idealized view of modern democracy and secularism, not even validated by the United States, where religion plays such a major role in politics. The problem is that religion becomes a basis for identity and community in electoral politics when other forms of association—trade unions, for instance, or peasant groups, or empowered local governments—are weak or nonexistent. So there will always be politicians making appeals to religious solidarity, and there will also be extremists seeking to channel militant disaffection, whether among the poor or, as in Modi’s case, among those in the middle class that consider the poor and religious minorities a nuisance.
The question is whether those opposed to extremists can creatively deploy South Asia’s religious and spiritual traditions in their quest for social and economic justice. The question arises because the old Western language of politics, too identified with the hypocrisy and venality of local elites, doesn’t seem persuasive anymore, even in the West itself. And the old binaries of secularism versus religion or democracy versus theocracy don’t clarify much. We need a fresh vocabulary to both describe our political dilemmas and to seek solutions to them.