In South Asia, we currently see anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar (alongside fears of its spread to the broader category of non-Rohingya Muslims), and the ongoing rise of Hindu nationalism and its project of making Muslims second-class citizens in India.
I worry deeply about these movements and their frequently lethal and profoundly undemocratic consequences; their politics are very distinctly not mine.
But I also think Western analysis (especially press coverage) of these movements sometimes misses a key aspect of how they see themselves – as defensive projects provoked by expansionistic, proselytizing religions while being subjected to the hypocrisy and double standards of bien-pensant elites. The Myanmar case has been particularly striking – the anguished cries of Western elites about Aung San Suu Kyi do not appear to have any resonance in contemporary Myanmar. Similarly, hand-wringing about Narendra Modi and decades of condemnation of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka have had a distinctly limited influence on these movements. We need to better understand why.
This is an admittedly impressionistic, overly simplified summary of what I take to be key elements of the threat perceptions of these movements. Christianity and Islam are seen as offensive, aggressive forces that tend to take and seize land that once belonged to indigenous religions. They then demand an unearned indigeneity, asserting their total claim to the conquered territory. Non-proselytizing religions like Hinduism and Buddhism find themselves ever more squeezed and restricted, unable to take back what was rightfully theirs. This is, for instance, part of the Hindu right’s narrative on Kashmir – rather than a Muslim territory that needs to be in some way accommodated as special and different, they frame it as a formerly Hindu territory seized and colonized by Islam.
This fear of permanent loss was perceived as coming from both Islam and Christianity, but has diminished toward the latter since de-colonization (though paranoia about conversion and missionary activities endures). Islam has taken on the role of most insidious enemy, with the shadow of past invasions and perceived demographic subversion operating powerfully in the rhetoric of these movements. Yet they believe that concerns about Muslim expansion are dismissed as Islamophobia by culturally (if not religiously) Christian Westerners and their local Anglophile allies (this is how the Indian National Congress, and especially Nehru, are portrayed), who they see instead retreat to wishy-washy talk of syncreticism and voluntary conversation rather than confronting historical realities of Islamic expansionism. This has particular resonance in the context of India, where Muslim conquests were followed by Christian colonization.
Fear – no matter how exaggerated or inaccurate – about birthrates and migration combine with the sons of the soil dynamics I identified in the previous paragraph (which, ironically enough, also applies to the Muslim Malay majority of Malaysia) to drive a fierce reaction against what is perceived as an existential threat – “the Muslims” will spread, procreate, and never go “home.” In this narrative, though Muslims can always go to the many majority-Muslim countries in the world, there is, by contrast, nowhere for the Sinhalese or the Bamar or Hindus to go in the face of this tide. Better to stand and fight, angry editorials in the New York Times or The Hindu or not. Indeed, there is deep resentment of press coverage because they believe that coverage of Islam are driven by “minority appeasement” (a favorite Sangh Parivar phrase) for fear that Muslims will raise havoc, while the Hindu nationalists are relegated to the un-nuanced status of lumpen mob and Rakhine Buddhists to hate-filled genocidaires. Against the claim of many that Islamophobia dominates media coverage, these movements see a craven press relentlessly biasing its coverage toward Muslims.
To go out even further on a speculative limb, this is one of the reasons that many in India’s Hindu right so enthusiastically admire Israel. It is the state of a non-proselytizing religion that is nevertheless willing – and able – to unapologetically take back land seen as stolen from it, in the process denaturalizing the Muslim nature of the land in question. There is no scraping and bowing to the hypocrisies of the West or an intrinsically expansionistic Muslim world; instead, they see assertion, strength, and unity. As Jaffrelot has argued in great detail, there is a powerful strand of emulation in the Hindu nationalist movement, and we see it here too.
This does not mean analysts need to accept any of these claims, to discount the blood and terror that these movements have so often spread, or to believe they are not frequently just a cynical shield for the exercise of power. Rather than an oppressed minority, these movements have often acted in reality as a springboard for majoritarian dominance. Moreover, these dynamics are not unique to these movements – the same language that extremist Sinhalese Buddhists now hurl against Muslims has also been deployed against Tamils.
But not taking these perceptions seriously – especially the belief that Buddhism and Hinduism have a kind of “cap” on their numbers while Islam and Christianity can always add to their ranks through proselytization – as a political force will continue to lead to the analytical gaps and misfires that we have seen in many assessments of the politics of Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka. These are ambitious political projects with goals of political hegemony, fueled by a narrative of fundamentally defensive victimization from without. And they aren’t going away anytime soon, I suspect.