Using Religion To Build A Nation – Analysis


Secular countries in the developing world are using religion to knit their constituent peoples into a nation. Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are recent examples. Why is this so?

While developed countries in the West have knit their diverse peoples into a nation on the basis of “citizenship” and not ethnicity or religion, in many parts of the developing world, countries are increasingly using religion and/or ethnicity to knit their constituent peoples into a nation.

Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are recent examples. In Indonesia it is Wahhabi Islam, in India it is Hinduism or more precisely Hindutwa (politicized Hinduism), in Sri Lanka it is Sinhala-Buddhism and in Myanmar it is Bamar-Buddhism.

A White-Christian country like the UK is able to elect a Hindu Indian, Rishi Sunak, as its Prime Minister because, over time, Britain has defined itself on the basis of “citizenship” rather than ethnicity or religion. Developing nations, on the contrary, have not been able to do that because they are still nascent countries having emerged only in the last 75 years.

With their boundaries drawn by the erstwhile colonial powers and being populated by people partly brought from outside, these countries are diverse in composition and find it hard to gel as a nation. They were together under the thralldom of the colonial power, but have tended to split upon the removal of the colonial lid. 

In Myanmar the tribal communities and Muslims have problems with the Bamar-Buddhist majority. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils have been having issues with the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. A Hindu-Muslim split is evident in India. 

The problem of nation-building has been accentuated by the adoption of democracy with universal adult franchise. This has vested power in ethnic/religious majorities and the relegation of minorities to subordinate status. Efforts of the majorities to use their numerical preponderance to exercise legitimate power is challenged by the minorities who claim equality as a democratic right. The clash has created disunity. 

Developing nations feel a dire need to build a nation out of the variety of peoples’ populating them to become “nation-states” in the comity of nations and also to defend themselves from external and internal threats to their existence. One way to resolve the conflicts caused by diversity is to develop a consensus on using only citizenship as the criterion for nationhood as in the advanced democracies. The other way is to force the minorities to accept the democratic right of the majority to determine the markers of nationhood. Developing nations have tended to use the latter route as it considered democratic, realistic and suitable to them.  

The other reason for opting for an indigenous model of nationalism is the failure of the Western model inherited by the developing countries. An imperfect adoption of the Western model has given rise to misuse, corruption and immorality. This has led to a demand that it be jettisoned lock stock and barrel in favor of a traditional model based on religion and its moral values, which is also better understood and appreciated by the masses.  

Developing nations tend to believe that Western-style democracy based on individual rights, secularism and universal human rights are divisive and unsuited because a nascent State has to get united first before individual rights are granted and diversity is recognized.  Hence the moves to centralize.

Latest Moves in Indonesia 

A process of national unification through Islamization is going on in Indonesia now. On December 6, the Indonesian parliament passed a new restrictive Criminal Code that, among other things, punishes sex or even live-in relationships out of wedlock. The code applies not only to citizens but also foreigners visiting Indonesia. It bans homosexuality and expands the blasphemy law to cover all recognized religions viz., Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Criticism of State institutions is also prohibited. These moral strictures are mostly rooted in Islam. 

Islamization is considered necessary to forge unity in Indonesia because traditional Indonesian Islam is too diverse both in content and practice to be an agency of national unity. It is based on local, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and practices. The Indonesian Islamists have therefore adopted the puritanical Arabian Wahhabi/Salafi Islam.  

Indonesian Islamists accuse the country’s post-independence leaders of promoting an alien Western model of nation-building based on secularism, the concept of citizenship, democracy, freedom of thought and action and individual rights. These were encapsulated in Sukarno’s 1945 concept of Pancasila. But this liberal secular model is thought to be unsuited to a developing country that is struggling to develop its own unique personality based on indigenous values. The Western model is seen as a divisive one. 

Another aim of Islamization in Indonesia (and other developing countries) is to establish new norms of public life. It is believed that the  existing norms have only spawned corruption and misrule by an exploitative secular (un-Islamic) elite. 

Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono, writing in New York Times dated April 15, 2019, noted that Joko Widodo (Jowi), the Muslim President of Indonesia, drew trenchant criticism because he was seen to be markedly pro-Chinese Christian. He had earlier helped shelter Chinese Christians during deadly rioting. Upon winning the Presidency in 2014, “Jowi” filled his cabinet with women, and banned a radical Islamic group that called for Islamic law in place of democracy. 

But in 2019, Jowi saw the writing on the wall – the rising tide of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam. He started rubbing shoulders with Muslim preachers and even went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  And for his Vice-Presidential running mate, he chose Ma’ruf Amin of the Ulema Council, which had issued fatwas against homosexuality, hip-gyrating dancing and premarital sex. 

Meanwhile, due to the powerful rhetoric of Islamist organizations, Indonesians were adopting overt signs of Arab-style religiosity with women wearing the flowing back robes and face veils and men sporting long beards, Women dropped Sanskritic names and adopted Arabic names.  

Bureaucrats, steeped in austere Wahhabism, drew converts from their staff. Hundreds of Indonesians joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and hundreds of thousands more endorsed the ISIS on social media. 

Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono quote Din Wahid, a theologian at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, who said: ” Salafi ideology has penetrated urban and rural, civil servants and villagers. They see corruption all around them and say that it is only Shariah and restoring a caliphate that will be able to fix society.”

Prabowo Subianto, Jowi’s opponent  in the 2019 Presidential race, was touting Salafism.  He hailed Jihad and vowed to welcome home from self-imposed exile Rizieq Shihab, the head of the Islamic Defenders Front, which gained notoriety for attacking nightclubs in Jakarta and calling for Shariah law. 

Saudi influence is unmistakable in Indonesia. The most influential Saudi investment in Indonesia is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic, known by the Indonesian acronym, Lipia, which has a number of branches in Indonesia. In Lipia classes are segregated by gender. The university has produced renowned Islamic scholars as well as Islamic militants.

Though democracy as a concept is rejected by the Islamic radicals, in practice they use it to good effect. They use elections to propagate their thoughts and also gain positions of power. Though the Islamic outfits do not fight elections, they shape the ideology of political parties and also the government. They are the real power behind the State.

The building of Indonesia as a nation-state on a non-communal, secular basis, is not on the cards, though the country, with the single largest Muslim population in the world, is emerging as a major economic player in the highly-integrated South East Asian region.  

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

3 thoughts on “Using Religion To Build A Nation – Analysis

  • December 9, 2022 at 5:49 am

    An article devoid of balanced perspective or even a smudge of nuance. India had a revered president in Dr.Abdul Kalam, has had multiple cricket captains and consistently tolerates more than reported share of so called citizenship rights evinced by super racist countries.

  • December 11, 2022 at 5:53 am

    Few authors have a set theme to write on For or Against. A hindu , Rishi Sunak, as the Prime Minister of UK but NOT by choice! First it was Boris Johnson, then came in  Liz Truss and finally left with no one to take the challenge to lead Rishi Sunak was accepted having been rejected twice earlier. If Britain had a choice Rishi Sunak a hindu would never have been allowed to become the Prime Minister of UK. India has had Presidents,Vice Presidents,Governors, Heads of its Defence forces and other depatments from other religions other than Hindus.In case developing countries are using their majority religion to knit their people into a nation what is wrong?

    • December 19, 2022 at 3:16 pm

      In India also choice was by ruling party, not by people. even India’s constitution with secularism as feature was not voted by universal franchise.

      Constitution was put by Nehru & Co. He did it deliberately ignoring the rights of non-muslims & non-South Asians ethnic Muslims, like Pathans & Baloch. These people were for united India and basically supporter Congress. Nehru & Co. betrayed these people and left them to wolves while protecting Muslim league supporters who choose to stay in India.


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