A quick reaction to Indian Election

I wrote the following article for one of the English daily newspapers in Bangladesh. The main idea is directly borrowed from a very good post in Brown Pundits (2016) by always superb contributor Omar Ali bhai.  “Is Islam the rock on which the liberal order broke?”  https://www.brownpundits.com/2016/12/05/islam-is-rock-on-which-liberal-order/

Link to my article here.  Text follows. Just as a reminder, newspapers op-eds are not suitable place for good elaboration and defense of ideas. This is not an analysis or theorizing, just a reaction.

The rock that broke liberalism


I was watching live streaming of the India Election 2019 results on the NDTV website. Panelist after panelist was commenting on how significant were Balakot strikes in boosting BJP’s re-election prospects, and how ignorant are the liberal elites of India about the appeal of national identity among the masses.

This was NDTV, as a reminder, one of the citadels of India’s liberal elites. BJP’s triumphant re-election under Narandra Modi underscores the wave of right-wing populist nationalism sweeping across democracies of the world — Europe, Australia, Latin America, the US, Asia, maybe soon in Canada also.

With every election, every referendum taking place in established democracies, it is becoming apparent that this wave may not be just yet another right turn in the cycle of politics soon to be corrected by pivot to the left, but a fundamental shift in the people themselves.

A couple of years ago, in a South Asia focused blog I frequent, a much-admired Pakistani-American writer wrote a post posing a great question: “If and when modern humanism and liberalism crashes and burns, will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?”

His point was not that Islam single-handedly threw a powerful challenge to the liberal order, or “end of history” would have been achieved if Islam didn’t throw a wrench into the gears of civilization.

He argued that by obdurate refusal to accept the fundamental assumptions of post-enlightenment worldview, by obstinate resistance to assimilate with the mainstream when in the minority and by dogged persistence in recreating antediluvian theocracies when in majority, Muslims not only undermined the universal validity of the whole liberal project, but also sowed deep doubts about the liberal project among its previously most faithful adherents.

Muslim recalcitrance has hastened delivery of the contradictions that the liberal project was pregnant with from the beginning.

And the contradictions are huge indeed. The liberal order is prone to breakdown because it doesn’t sufficiently account for the fact that human nature itself is broken. People are not just utility or satisfaction maximizing beings. Enjoyment and suffering are intimately co-mingled.

People do not just want to reach heaven together; they want some, preferably who are somewhat different, to be confined to hell as well. Apart from the contradictions, surely undercurrents of technological and economic change, the shift in global power balance, the inevitable decay of political order, played a far more important role in undermining the liberal dominance than obstinate resistance of the followers of Islam?

However, it’s hard to deny any causative role of Islam. The emergence of right-wing, national identity politics was perhaps inevitable in India, but BJP’s astonishing dominance must be partially attributable to Pakistan’s persistent spoiling and nightmare-neighbour role? Right-wing majoritarians everywhere are scapegoating Muslims as the principal other; morality of their methods can be questioned, but the success cannot.

Moreover, I would argue that Islam has not undermined the liberal order by sowing doubts within liberal ranks or exposing its contradiction, it has weakened liberalism by emboldening and consolidating the enemies of liberalism in established democracies which were scattered and disheartened after the bloodbath of WWII and subsequent emergence of liberal world order.

Stubborn defense of group identity by Muslims of the world has made upholding group identity respectable for all groups, majority or minority, powerful or weak. In the age of mass politics, group identities like religion or nation have more elements in common than in difference. If Muslims can be unabashedly assertive about the sanctity of their religious identity and traditions, other groups can be unapologetic about their respective identities too.

Muslims may be a small minority in most of established democracies, but they comprise nearly one-fourth of humanity, and they have a very emphatic presence in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. To people of different faiths, Muslims, regardless of their actual numbers as minority, represent the much talked-about demographic threat from the south.

Muslims, whether in majority or minority, are on the other hand deathly afraid of the political, cultural, and economic threats emanating from the leading political and ethnic groups of the world. It’s a mutual cycle of fear spiraling downwards. Muslims cheering the probable demise of a liberal world order is the height of folly.

As the world’s most powerless and disunited major group, they will continue to pay the major price of breakdown in blood and misery. Uighurs of China portend that bleak future.

In established democracies, Muslims are generally politically allied with liberal progressives, and this alliance has opened liberals up to accusation of double standards in protecting a very illiberal minority identity. Abandoning universalism and embracing identitarianism is hollowing out liberalism from within. Either the principles of liberalism apply for all groups or none at all.

25 thoughts on “A quick reaction to Indian Election”

  1. Very well-written and argued. Largely agree with everything in this article. No wonder Shafiq and Omar Ali are my favorite writers on this blog.
    Now wait for the inevitable slew of posts from Pakthings and other closet or overt Muslimo-supermacists.

    1. i’d encourage you to chill out on the name-calling. it will turn everything into a food-fight (tho perhaps that is your intent). it’s the flip-side of kabir calling everyone who disagrees with him a hindu nationalist.

      1. Fair enough. It has got quite predictable and annoying – different standards for Indians vs others, and a set lens through which some posters view Indian/ Hindu related topics.

        I don’t want a descent into name-calling. Feel free to delete the second para of the above post, or delete it entirely. Thanks

    1. agree. but it got your attention didn’t it?

      i don’t think indthings is a muslim-supremacist. his comments just remind me of a dutch atheist friend from a protestant background who just won’t concede that protestantism isn’t a more superior civilization than roman catholicism. the cultural preferences persist even after loss of belief or strong identity.

      1. There’s some truth to this.

        I also think my slight Muslim-leanings can appear quite dramatic in the context of a blog which is decidedly not that.

        I’m active on a couple modernist-Islamist blogs as well, and believe me, the consternation I invoke here is quite tame in comparison.

          1. Critiquing Islam on this blog seems like punching down. Everyone is already doing it, and probably going a bit overboard if anything. I add nothing of value by agreeing with everyone. At times I probably veer too far the other way, subconsciously trying to “balance” it out, which Razib has astutely noted makes me say dumb things occasionally.

        1. I don’t know that your leanings are slight…as I said earlier, I don’t think you’ve had a nice word to say about Hinduism since I’ve known you, and you’re on a blog with a disproportionately Hindu audience.

          1. what would your perception of my views be? honestly. i don’t have any experience with hinduism except for indian americans, which as you know is almost no experience.

            i’m kind of curious about visiting a hindu temple and such for purely cultural reasons, at some point. but i have zero emotional pull or push. it’s all very detached from my background despite my ‘hindu face’ 😉

          2. I see you as a generally heterodox commentator willing to interrogate things rather than just accepting them, which means you become mildly “pro-Hindu” by default when media and academia are ceaselessly anti-Hindu.

          3. As you allude to, this blog is full of Hindus saying nice things about Hinduism/Hindus. It doesn’t need me to do so as well.

            Similarly, when commenting on Islamist blogs, my positions are typically always contrary to the popular consensus (to the point of being called an Uncle-Tom and threatened with violence).

            That’s the point of discussion imo, pitting opposing viewpoints against each other to reach nearer to truth. I know I’ve had to rethink positions I’ve previously held after some heated discussions I’ve had here.

  2. Critiquing Islam on this blog seems like punching down.

    i dislike the punching down/punching up narrative.

    rather, on this blog there’s not much reason for me to express my islamo-skepticism when that’s pretty common in the audience, and zach is in full pedophile prophet mode.

    that being said, judging by your comments it is hard to not conclude you have a dim view of hinduism, though perhaps not necessarily of ‘indic culture’ (which you don’t see as synonymous with hinduism).

    1. Dim view of Hindus perhaps, I don’t know enough about Hinduism to have a strong opinion one way or another.

      I’d also modify it to North-Indian Hindus. The South-Indians I’ve met in real life and online have largely been quite reasonable.

  3. which means you become mildly “pro-Hindu” by default when media and academia are ceaselessly anti-Hindu.

    well, it’s like the ‘anti-jihad’ movement. they say a lot of stupid things about islam which just aren’t true. some of the commenters here do the same thing. so yeah.

    unless it’s stalinism or nazism most of the extreme depictions of movements are reductive and biased.

  4. Everyone should chill out a bit. Few thoughts

    1. Hinduism is not critiqued as much as Islam (on the blog as well worldwide) , for the same reason Buddhism is not critiqued as much as Hinduism (Urgency of danger).

    2. To be culturally sympathetic to something even when you are religiously not attached is sub conscious bias we all carry . Lot of folks here from hindu background could be religious agnostic , need not mean we dont sometimes defend Hinduism. For other folks it could be region/language/ethnicity (multicultural on the front, but Telegu/Bengali etc subconsciously )

    1. Well Hinduism doesn’t get critiqued so much as it gets ignored and only brought up in the context of a lynch mob. In the Western media at least.

      “need not mean we dont sometimes defend Hinduism”

      Tbh, I wish I didn’t have to defend Hinduism, and I could go back to getting drunk and listening to Fall Out Boy. But that’s not dharma.

  5. Regarding the following two excerpts from the article:

    Moreover, I would argue that Islam has not undermined the liberal order by sowing doubts within liberal ranks or exposing its contradiction, it has weakened liberalism by…


    …this alliance has opened liberals up to accusation of double standards in protecting a very illiberal minority identity. Abandoning universalism and embracing identitarianism is hollowing out liberalism from within…

    I could be misreading it, but the latter excerpt reads like refuting the former.

    1. Yes, you are right that the two statements are somewhat contradictory. I meant to write that Muslims have weakened the liberal order mainly by strengthening the enemies not exposing contradiction and hypocrisy within liberal ranks. However, both issues can go together. There is no contradiction between the two causes, merely in my way of stating the relative importance of causes here in this hastily written piece.

  6. I’m not sure about the thesis, at least to me Muslims seem too marginal to have had much effect on national psyches. A bigger reason why identinarism is pushing out liberalism is the cratering of wage growth and boost in asset values since the 08 financial crisis. Liberalism seems to be delivering very unequal fruits and identify politics doesn’t carry socialism’s legacy of failure, giving new space to a new movement. Muslims become an obvious target since they are usually poorer and competing with host populations for welfare provision.

    1. \to me Muslims seem too marginal to have had much effect on national psyches. \

      In terms of military or economic power Muslims are marginal. OTOH, Muslims are anything but marginal in the cultural demands they make on host societies hurting the core values of many societies. Britain (and many countries) prides itself on freedom of thought, expression and freedom to criticize and lampoon any figure from the past or present. Yet when 1000s of Muslims march in the streets of Britain burning a book or demanding death for it’s author , an acclimated British novelist , people do think here is something seriously wrong.

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