• February 23, 2024

Pious greed

We have read much about the confluence of religion and politics, militancy and politics, and why even military and militancy. But one topic flying under the radar and hovering almost beyond the edge of sight is the collusion between the business class and religion. This might be the most important factor yet to define the contours of our reality.

Have you ever wondered why in every polity where an overwhelming majority is usually moderate bordering on liberal, conservatism keeps winning? Why is it that despite a lot of evidence to prove that the clergy of each nation usually ends up undermining its national interest, states and institutions seem helpless before its onslaught? Need evidence?

Just imagine if a bunch of people with nothing to do with religion, living in a compound mostly built on state-owned land in Islamabad was to declare autonomy, hoist the flag of the country’s known enemies, hold citizens hostage and unleash violence on the streets. How do you think the state would treat it? Needless to say that they would be uprooted and brought to the book in no time. Now, remember we are not judging the state right now. The purpose of these lines is to highlight the paradox we call religious politics in this country. The Red Mosque lot is still relevant despite its showdown with the state a decade and a half ago. Likewise, of the three major sit-ins that paralysed the federal capital two were totally led by religious groups and one partly by one of them. We saw how little resistance they encountered. And in all of this, the sympathies of the vernacular media mostly remained with them. Likewise, the Waco Siege in Texas instantly became a religious right talking point despite mainly being a law enforcement issue.

Bearing in mind countless similar examples from around the world you are compelled to wonder if the game is so rigged that the religious right can never lose. Perhaps it has something to do with how religious identities have shaped over the years in each of these countries. That is one explanation although, as we will see later, not a comprehensive one.

In India, Akshaya Mukul’s brilliant book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India tells us the tale of an affluent Indian trading class vying to assert its identity and driven by devotional sentiment laid the foundation of the country’s religious right. Likewise, during Faizabad dharna, you might have heard accounts of Rawalpindi’s trading class bringing food and supplies to the protesters. But while these examples show you the sympathies among traders for such causes this is not what I mean by the confluence of the religious right and the business interests. These sympathies underscore the symptoms and not the cause. The traders of any country, hailing mostly from the middle class, only represent the dominant narrative instead of setting it. To see who sets the narrative you will have to cast a wider net for the bigger fish.

The regular readers of this space would remember a book I mentioned in one of my pieces. Kurt Andersen, the American writer and the host of the Peabody-winning public radio programme Studio 360, wrote Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. A breathtakingly original tour-de-force, it is a vivid survey of American history that brings key nodal points to light that while making the country unique also contributed to all the ongoing weirdness in the nation today. The use of religion as a grift finds a special mention. Time and again countless men and women conned the unsuspecting, the simpletons, and the gullible out of their wealth. But that too is not the comprehensive explanation we are looking for. A more recent book by the author at least launches you in that direction.

Andersen’s Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America is less impressive in scope than the previous volume but it instinctively, if unwittingly, touches the nub of the gist of the problem. Instigated by a personal epiphany where the author realised how little the fashion sense had changed between 1987 and 2007 he dove deep into the inner workings of the American economy and re-emerged with one word — nostalgia. Nostalgia not just as the visceral sensation that haunts us all occasionally but the distress caused by the change that compels you to long for a pristine if make-belief past, simpler times, which in turn can be exploited by big businesses.

The radical transformations of the 1960s were too distressing for many. The liberal policies back then were taking America in a more equitable direction when sensing the onset of a cultural shock morphing into nostalgia, the economic right led by Milton Friedman and Lewis Powell pounced. Popular TV series in the 1970s were all set in the 1950s. Nostalgia as a construct led to Reagan’s economic policies resulting in permanent exploitation by the rich and ossification of inequality as an accepted reality of the society. Religious right also banks on guilt, cultural shock, and fear of social change.

In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild does a sterling job of unmasking the unholy alliance between the clergy and corporate greed. So much toxic waste is dumped in Louisiana’s waters that the locals do not eat the red parts of the fish and yet the population remains deeply conservative wedded to the Republican party’s pro-rich policies. How? Through the indoctrination of the right-wing punditry. For the poor the kingdom of heaven, for the rich and the religious elite everything on earth. Collusion to manufacture consent in plain sight.

Then you should not be surprised when you hear about the collusion between Modi’s BJP, Ambanis and Adani. In his recent column, Jawed Naqvi saheb brought up an interesting opposition slogan: “India is ruled by four men from one state. Two are selling the country. The other two are buying it.” All four are from Gujarat and religion is their favourite weapon to addle your brains and manufacture consent. Likewise, why be shocked when you learn that a renowned property tycoon sheltered the Red Mosque people from the consequences of their actions?

In a world where the rich get richer and the poor do not realise that things are being taken from them, religious manipulation works like a charm. And because the rich have money this collusion sets the agenda which eventually envelops the state institutions. Because we all are primed to do what is easy, not what is right.

Let me now break the tension by bringing up a laughable episode of karmic humour. Remember I once mentioned how India under influence of its corporate elite kept pushing for the suspension of patents on Covid vaccines and when it did not get its way conspiracy theories about alleged chips in the vaccines exploded in the world. India is known for its influence campaigns and all of this had Ajit Doval’s fingerprints on them. A few days back a man rammed into Doval’s high-security residence and claimed that he did it because he was being controlled remotely through a chip in his body. Yeah, life comes at you fast. But you haven’t heard the funniest bit. They actually scanned his body for the non-existent chip!

Published in The Express Tribune, February 19th, 2022.

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