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July 12, 2019

Faith and civil society


July 12, 2019

In my previous article in these pages (July 8, 2019), I discussed the paradox of collective freedom in faith-based communities. The article led to a heated debate around the existential challenges of faith-based communities and their apparent disdain towards dissent and critical thinking.

I received feedback via email – a mix of appreciation and admonishment for writing an article at great cost of social exclusion. I am grateful to everyone who wrote to me with concrete suggestions for broadening the debate on faith-based communities by acknowledging the achievements of such communities in promoting human development in Pakistan. However, such attributions can separately be dealt with in a social development and civil society debate.

I have written dozens of articles on civil society in these pages over the last three years with the objective to make a distinction between civil society and faith-based segregation of social cohesion. Civil society promotes citizenship and therefore is political in nature. The existence of faith-based communities is the indication of a weak civil society and the inability to cement together people within a state as citizens with duties and rights. While faith-based communities preach submission to the state, civil society must promote downward accountability with the democratic participation of citizens. At times, faith-based communities become advocates of state brutality because of their submissiveness as well as the persecution of movements for political reforms within.

Some critics of my previous article were of the view that I could have added some examples and a concrete way forward rather than theorizing the whole issue. A large number of students from various universities also wrote seeking clarity on some obfuscated parts of the article. All this enthusiasm helped a great deal to understand some new dimensions of the debate which the article could not cover, like the processes of downward accountability and interconnectedness of economic self-reliance and freedom etc.

Let me confess that the article could not cover all the socioeconomic and political dimensions of culture and faith and manipulation by the elite of introvert faith-based communities. To me a newspaper opinion piece can best be judged by its ingenuity of thought, relevance and ability to offer a new perspective for further debate. I think the part of the objective was met to a great extend as the article generated a very constructive debate, barring a few emotional outbursts from the custodians of a certain faith.

In this article, I will focus on some additional aspects of faith-based communities like their tendency to homogenize the diverse culture and belief system. The significance of indigenous knowledge, local wisdom, cultural practices and interconnectedness of faith and tradition play a key role in determining the outlook of a community in transition. The scale, depth and intensity of conflict within a community is also determined by the imposition of homogeneity rather than practising heterogeneity. In order to overcome such conflicts, communities generally form institutions as intermediaries between diverse interests, subcultures and beliefs.

Notwithstanding their religious outlook, the strategists of faith communities use modern metaphors, symbolism and discourse for spiritual solace. Religious myths and institutional rationality go side by side with a widening gap of worldviews which ultimately leads to internal strife and divisions. Modern institutions require rational practices with spiritual aspirations for the continuation of communal identity. This paradoxical situation of institutional rationality and mythological affiliation to faith gives birth to irreversible conflict and cleavage between diverse groups.

Small faith-based communities strive to establish their political legitimacy by acting as good followers of state ideology; and they preach obedience and submission to the state. In doing so, the elite class of faith-based communities seeks privileges and economic and political benefits from state institutions. Faith-based communities are not necessarily a homogenous group of people with a singular view of communal life; they exist in a volatile world of political, cultural and economic life beyond their immediate domain of communal life. They live in a state whose ideology may also be at great variance to their belief system and hence they shy away from mainstream politics. With all their obedience to the state, these communities stay away from politics and expel or exclude those members of the community who are vocal on political issues.

In such communities, the idea of citizenship can never be promoted and hence they remain aloof from the mainstream political life. This they do at a huge social cost for the young aspirants of politics in faith-based communities in Pakistan because they have no space due to their liminal status within the community and in national politics. In these communities, the political economy of communal solidarity is cemented through faith which provides a veneer to the benign exploitation of common members of the faith community by the elite. Economic control comes with cultural and spiritual subjugation of the common members of the community which becomes a source of perpetual tension leading to disintegration of a community into subgroups

The paradox of freedom as a collective expression in a heterogeneous faith based community overrides the marginal voices in favour of the ideas of dominant group within. The domination and supremacy of one group within the community is reflected in the communal rituals, practices and art etc. However, the domination and struggle for absolute power leads to conflicting situations and violent outbursts if not mediated in a timely manner.

This is where the institutions work as a mediating mechanism to sublimate the accumulated anger of the weaker by diffusing the locus of power from individuals to structures. The institutions also provide platforms for the weaker ones to vent out the anger without aggression against powerful individuals. Institutions can mediate the conflict but they cannot resolve it unless the agency of the weaker one acts to transform the structures of material control and ideological hegemony.

Constraints and parameters defined through institutional ethics confine the role of individuals to systemic discipline, with little space for creative self-expression of the inner being of an individual. In essence, the institutions set the domain of the scared and profane of communal life without harming the interests of powerful groups who control institutions through their strong nexus of wealth and proximity to the lords of faith.

Institutional rationality contradicts the superstitious adherence to living deities and gods but faith and reason go side by side in the larger political economy of the ongoing struggle for dominance and control. When faith-based communities grow in size, they evolve into larger transnational networks to create a domain of interests across nations. In the age of globalization, faith-based communities strive to establish transnational solidarity by imposing adherence to the dominant narrative of faith and practices.

In the process of homogenization of faith, rituals and communal practices the peripheral groups lose their centuries’ old cultural grandeur to some exotic worldview. This transition is not without pain and tremors of change but it also gives birth to a nostalgia for lost glory and for the ‘golden age’. This reversion to past magnificence reduces the possibility of progressive transformation, and communal solidarity is dissipated without creating a better world. The aspiration of collective freedom becomes a battleground of competing supremacies of material and intellectual dominance over communal affairs. The struggle for freedom turns into introversion, censorship and control while the community become less and less tolerant of dissent. The disintegration of a relatively large faith-based community gives birth to small communities but the conflict re-emerges amongst the subgroups for dominance.

The vicious cycle goes on and the only viable option is to promote the idea of citizenship as an overarching principle for leading a well-connected and conscious life. Faith-based communities are not an alternate to civil society and at times they unleash the tyranny of an ‘uncivil society’.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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