Religion as Protest: Religion in Power: By Chandra Muzaffar


It is important to begin with a clarification. The topic does not imply in any way that religion is only about protest and power. There is no denying that religion is far more complex and comprehensive than that. It embodies so many other dimensions of life. It speaks to death and the hereafter. For the great founders of the different faiths, religion was in the ultimate analysis a profound experience of the Eternal, of the Divine.
In my presentation today, I shall first look at religion as protest, religion in power, in the past. Since one needs a cut-off point, the past is that long, long epoch in history before 1945, that is, before nation-states emerged in much of Asia and Africa partly through ‘religion as protest’ and, in some instances, managed to install ‘religion in power’. I shall then examine these two aspects of religion in relation to the present or the period after 1945. I shall conclude with some reflections on the topic which will attempt to link the past, the present and the future.

In a sense, Gautama Siddartha’s, the Buddha’s, teachings constituted a protest against the prevailing Hindu caste system. “It is not your birth” he proclaimed, “but your deeds that determine whether you are noble or ignoble”. His denunciation of the greed that grows out of attachment was also a response to the materialism of the elites of his time.
When we move from Buddhism as protest to Buddhism in power, we realize that there were good and bad Buddhist kingdoms in the past. But the one that stands out is the rule of Asoka. He made loving-kindness, one of the essential attributes of Buddhism, the basis of his just and enlightened governance. His generosity towards the poor and his myriad deeds of charity are legendary. Asoka also adopted an accommodative and tolerant attitude towards the different religious sects that comprised his kingdom. As is well known, he renounced violence and war and committed himself to peace as the primary goal of the state.
Jesus was also deeply concerned about the exploitation and oppression that characterized his time and place. His action against the unscrupulous money-lenders in the Temple was emblematic of this concern. Other symbolic acts such as dividing in a fair and equitable manner fish and loaves of bread among the people also helped to convey the message that justice and compassion for the poor was of paramount importance. Indeed, Jesus’ mission of love was in itself a noble form of protest against the prevailing ethos of selfishness and avarice.
Early Christian communities around the Mediterranean reflected some of the values associated with Jesus’ mission. According to some sources, these communities were extraordinarily egalitarian and had neither slaves nor servants. However, after Christianity was absorbed by the Roman Empire and became its official religion in the time of the Emperor Constantine, it assumed the characteristics of empire --- of dominant power and control over peoples and cultures. Constantinian Christianity eventually became the ideological inspiration for the crusades and for the colonization of foreign territories. This shows that Christianity as a nascent community was very different from Christianity as the structure and ideology of power.
We move on to the Prophet Muhammad. There is no need to emphasize that he inveighed against the corruption and the abuse of power of the Meccan elites and was a staunch champion of equality and justice. It was partly because he exposed their lack of compassion for the poor and needy and denounced their obsession with the continuous accumulation of wealth that he incurred their wrath and was subjected to such harsh persecution.
Unlike most other prophets and sages in history, Muhammad not only protested against injustice. He succeeded in creating a state of sorts and in exercising power and authority. He encouraged different religious groups and sects to cooperate with one another; alleviated the condition of the poor through zakat, a wealth tax; and emancipated women from some severe misogynistic practices. The Prophet, true to his mission and his message, sought to translate the sublime principle of Tawhid, the Oneness of God, into social practice by trying to establish a bond among all human beings irrespective of gender, class and religion.
Some of the caliphs who ruled the emerging Muslim state immediately after Muhammad also exercised power with a deep sense of responsibility and directed their energies towards delivering justice to the weak and disadvantaged. The first of these --- Abu Bakr --- for instance was conscious of, and committed to, the rights of the people. The second, Umar Ibn Khatab, adhered to the principle of accountability and translated equality into a living ethic. Then there was the fourth caliph, Ali Ibn Talib, whose dedication to integrity in public life and whose espousal of freedom made him one of the truly illustrious leaders of all time. Even after these early caliphs there were a number of remarkable rulers, like Sallehuddin al-Ayoubi, who strove to uphold the tenets of justice and good governance for the well-being of their people.
However, there were also caliphs and Sultans who abused their power, who were utterly cruel and callous. Some were religious bigots who were antagonistic to people of other faiths. Others wallowed in opulence and extravagance.
From this brief overview of protest and power in three religions, it appears that just as protest is a constant theme in all of them, the exercise of power also manifests certain affinities. In all religious traditions there are good and bad rulers; examples of competent and incompetent governance. Attachment to religion per se does not guarantee that one would be upright in one’s actual conduct as a ruler.

When we turn to the present we also begin to see certain patterns in the role of religion both as a conduit of protest and as an instrument of power. Again, we shall provide brief overviews, this time of five religions.
In the case of Hinduism, for instance, Gandhian movements advocating non-violence, peace and other such universal ideals have played some role or other in Indian public life since Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. They have been part of various protests against corruption, consumerism and environmental degradation. But no Gandhian movement per se has succeeded to capture power either at the state or federal level in India, though Gandhians have won seats in both state assemblies and the federal parliament. Contrast this with the Hindutva movement, the movement that expresses a narrow, chauvinistic form of Hindu nationalism. Starting with a handful of seats in parliament in the mid-eighties, the political incarnation of this movement, the Bharatiyya Janata Party ( BJP) succeeded in coming to power at the federal level in the late nineties in coalition with a number of other smaller parties. The BJP and the Hindutva movement not only seek to re-write the history of India to emphasize its Hindu character but also want to restore Hindu pride by re-building Hindu temples which they claim were destroyed by Muslim rulers in past centuries. On the whole, they tend to be antagonistic towards Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities in India.
As with Hinduism, there are any number of Buddhist groups that adopt a universal, inclusive approach to their religion and give priority to dialogues and joint cooperative endeavours with peoples of other faiths. On conspicuous consumption, unbridled capitalism, social greed and the persistence of abject poverty, Buddhist groups in various parts of the world have spoken up. Some of the most notable Buddhists who have contributed to the development of an engaged Buddhism since the second world war would be Ambedkar from India, Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka, Thich Nhat Hanh from Vietnam and Buddhadasa and Sulak Sivaraksa from Thailand.
At the same time however there are Buddhist protest groups that are exclusive, sometimes even chauvinistic in their orientation. The Heritage Party in Sri Lanka is an example of this. It has adopted an extremely antagonistic, belligerent attitude towards the Tamil minority and is opposed to any peace settlement with the Tamils that will compromise its notion of a pure Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan identity.
While both progressive, engaged Buddhists on the one hand and the Heritage Party on the other are part of the larger protest movement within contemporary Buddhism, there are perhaps only two states that claim to be Buddhist, albeit from different perspectives. The Buddhist credentials of the Sri Lankan government will not stand up to scrutiny partly because of its militaristic approach to the Tamil problem. The other Buddhist state, Bhutan, is, in a sense, more justified in using the Buddhist label because it seeks to define development and progress from a different angle, compared to almost every other nation on earth! Instead of using the conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as its measure, Bhutan’s yardstick for progress is its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. Ensuring the happiness of its people through environmental protection, judicious resource management, health care programmes and a holistic approach to education with the emphasis upon character building, Bhutan argues, is in harmony with Buddhist teachings. And yet there are gross iniquities in this small Himalayan state --- the inevitable consequence of a political and social structure that is starkly feudal. Bhutan’s feudalism negates the egalitarian spirit of Buddhism.
Among religious Jews too there are at least two types of protesters --- a situation that is not dissimilar to what obtains within Hindu and Buddhist protest movements. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a sense brings to the fore these two divergent tendencies. There are religious Jews including rabbis who espouse the cause of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, existing side by side with Israel. Indeed, an orthodox Jewish group, the Neturei Karta , is of the view that the state of Israel itself constitutes a transgression of the teachings of the Torah. It is not only illegal but also morally illegitimate. At the other end of the spectrum are religious Jews who justify the annexation of Palestinian land and the continued occupation of Palestinian territory in scriptural terms. Some go even further and suggest that the expulsion or elimination of the Palestinian population is necessary to create a religiously and ethnically exclusive Jewish state.
However, the Jewish state of Israel, founded upon the ideology of Zionism, is secular, though religious elements have always exercised considerable influence upon the state. As we have noted, these elements have sometimes provided religious legitimacy to government policies that oppress and subjugate the Palestinians. The state itself has seldom sought to reconcile its policy on Palestine with universal, inclusive Judaic principles and values.
Within Christian protest movements also there is a great deal of diversity. Whether it is the question of global poverty or the international debt or global warming, Christian groups in both the North and the South have adopted progressive positions. For instance, clerics and laity alike from both the Catholic and Protestant communities in Europe and North America were in the forefront of the massive global protest against the US led war on Iraq in 2003. In Latin America, in the sixties and seventies there was even a movement known as Liberation Theology whose aim it was to reinterpret core Christian ideas and the life and example of Jesus in the direction of greater justice and equality. Liberation Theology envisioned a Latin America free from US imperialism, in which the oligarchies of wealth and power would have been destroyed paving the way for classless, egalitarian societies in the continent. Similar visions informed Christian --- specifically Catholic --- communities in the Philippines and South Korea at that time.
However, as in the case of the other religions there is a downside to Christian protest. Today, it is the Christian Right who dominate religious discourse in the United States. Evangelists who are part of this trend not only subscribe to a conservative position on issues such as abortion and the evolution of life, but also endorse wholeheartedly the US led occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the US drive for global hegemony. Within the Christian Right, it is the Christian Zionists in particular who are enthusiastic supporters of the US pursuit of global dominance since they regard US power as the guarantee for the eventual triumph of Israel in the Middle East --- a triumph which will herald the return of Christ and the conversion of the whole world to Christianity! One can see how the proselytizing zeal of the Christian Right is diametrically different from the profound commitment of the Liberation Theologians of an earlier era to the struggle for social justice and human dignity.
Though the Christian Right is an influential force in American society today, it would not be fair to describe the present Bush led US Administration --- George W. Bush is part of the Christian Right --- as a Christian Right government because it accommodates various other interests which are sometimes contrary to the aspirations of the Christian Right. There is in fact no Christian Right state today just as there is no progressive Christian government. The Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez is more socialist than Christian. Perhaps the Sandinista government in Nicaragua established immediately after the 1979 Revolution with some strong Liberation Theology elements in it could have developed into a progressive Christian state if it was not subverted by the then US Administration helmed by yet another Christian Rightist, the late Ronald Reagan.
Protest movements within the Muslim world are perhaps even more varied in their orientation than in any of the other religious communities. To start with, there are groups in various parts of the world that are critical of corruption among the elites and the growing chasm between rich and poor and espouse a return to the Quran and the Sunnah, specifically to the sharia, as the panacea for all the ills that have befallen the ummah (the Muslim community). These groups like the Ikhwanul Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood) in certain Arab countries or the Jamaat Islami in Pakistan or the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) in Malaysia often operate within the existing constitutional framework, and participate in elections, if allowed to. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, and a handful of other Muslim majority countries they have become integral to the democratic process. Advocates of human rights and democratic freedoms, these parties and movements which describe themselves as ‘Islamic’ to distinguish themselves from so-called secular parties, also continue to champion the cause of an ‘Islamic State’ as the ultimate goal of their struggle. It is equally significant that almost all these parties and movements are opposed to the US led attempt to establish global hegemony and see Muslim countries and communities as the primary target of the new imperialism.
It is this rejection of hegemony and imperialism that links these Islamic groups to another category of Muslim groups and individuals who also function within the constitutional arena and believe in peaceful social and political change. For this category it is not the sharia that is the solution nor is the Islamic state their goal. The universal values and principles that underscore the Qur’an, they postulate, should provide the inspiration and the impetus for a holistic transformation of the social order. It is from this Qur’anic perspective that groups and individuals in the Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyyah in Indonesia, think tanks in Pakistan and India dedicated to the mission of the late Muhammad Iqbal, and some intellectual coteries in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, evaluate their governments and assess the international system. From their evaluation and analysis of contemporary challenges, it is apparent that they differ from the sharia proponents on vital questions such as the rights of women, the role of non-Muslims in society, the relationship between religion and culture and indeed, the significance of the inclusive dimension of Islam as against its exclusive dimension. It should be noted in passing that this inclusive, universal approach to Islam is gaining more and more adherents among Muslims in the diaspora, in Western Europe and North America.
There is a third type of protest movement among Muslims that is much more in the news these days than the first two categories. These are Muslims under occupation who have chosen to liberate themselves from subjugation through peaceful as well as violent means, though the latter seems to be the preferred strategy. Ideologically, some of these groups are very different from one another even if they all share the same larger objective of securing their independence and restoring their sovereignty. There is, for instance, the Taliban in Afghanistan fighting the US-NATO helmed occupation and the Hamid Karzai government that is allied to the occupation. Its understanding of, and approach towards, Islam on a whole range of issues stretching from laws pertaining to personal morality to the killing of civilians would be narrower and more dogmatic than say the position of Hamas in the Palestinian struggle or the Mahdi Army in Iraq. Hamas’ position, on sharia or women, in turn, would be more rigid than that of the Hizbullah of Lebanon. In fact, on cooperation with non-Muslims or secular groups struggling against occupation, Hizbullah is far more inclusive and universal than most other Islamic movements. What this shows is that while Islamic movements do not doubt the necessity of resorting to force in the quest for liberation, there are fundamental differences in the way in which they understand and interpret faith and ideology.
With these differences at the back of our minds, let us now turn to states that have been established in the name of Islam in recent times. Here again, one will notice that there are significant differences in their political, economic and social structures though all of them claim to be committed to the ideal of creating societies guided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Saudi Arabia for instance is a monarchy in which real power is concentrated in the hands of the royal family. Sudan is a republic in which the military remains a significant actor. Iran is also a republic with an elected president and majlis (parliament) but there is a supreme leader and a council of guardians who exercise greater authority than the elected office and institution.
Each of these Islamic states has certain achievements to its credit just as they have all failed in other respects. With the mammoth revenue from its huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has succeeded in providing for the material well-being of its citizenry. But corruption is rife in the upper echelons of society, there is hardly any popular participation in public decision-making, women’s public roles are severely restricted, and the state is subservient to Washington’s hegemony and Tel Aviv’s dictation. In the case of Sudan, in spite of continuous civil wars and tremendous pressures from the centres of power in the West, the nation has managed to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty while ensuring a degree of economic and social development. But the ruling class is authoritarian and abuse of power among public officials is not uncommon. Iran has democratized education at all levels, reduced socio-economic disparities, strengthened rural cooperatives, and most of all, protected its sovereignty and independence, in spite of concerted attempts by Washington and its allies to emasculate the nation. But unemployment and inflation remain high and religious authoritarianism threatens individual freedoms and civil liberties.

If we reflected upon the roles played by the five different religious communities as conduits of protest and as instruments of power, we would be able to draw certain tentative conclusions. Whatever the religious community, there is a great deal of heterogeneity in the protest movements that have emerged. The ‘conservative’ and the ‘progressive’, the ‘exclusive’ and the ‘inclusive’, the ‘parochial’ and the ‘universal’ are some of the many trends and tendencies that characterize these protest movements. Why there are such varied trends and tendencies, it is not difficult to explain. Since every religious philosophy contains ideas which can be described as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, ‘exclusive’ or ‘inclusive’, ‘parochial’ or ‘universal’, there will always be articulators of the faith who will choose to emphasize this or that dimension of their belief system. Most of us are not capable of --- or are not inclined to --- viewing a belief-system in its totality. Besides, human beings often tend to give prominence to those aspects of a religion that reflect their own interests or their own inclinations. Circumstance and the personality of the individual who is at the helm of a protest movement also help to shape its thrust and direction. It is partly because Lebanon is multi-religious that the mainly Shiite Hizbullah especially under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah has sought to reach out to not only the Sunnis but also the Christians. Since Afghanistan is much more mono-religious, the Taliban feels that there is no need to understand ‘the religious other’. By the same token, if Palestine was not the victim of aggression, annexation and oppression, would Hamas give so much importance to those verses in the Qur’an that call upon Muslims to fight aggression and oppression?
Some of the reasons that explain the different orientations of various protest movements also account for the different types of states that have crystallized under the same religious rubric. Of these reasons, the interests of the ruling class or of the influential strata of society appear to be the most important. If the Saudi version of an Islamic state preserves and protects feudalism, it is because it is in the interests of the ruling class to do so. If the Iranian notion of an Islamic state bestows paramount significance upon a religious elite, it is because that elite controls the levers of power. One can be absolutely certain that if Bush established a Christian state it would be totally different from Chavez’s version. The former would want to perpetuate the interests of capital while the latter would seek to redistribute wealth and opportunities. Their different orientations would be mirrored in what each of them would emphasise or not emphasise from the vast reservoir of Christian teachings.
Even in the past, needless to say, vested interests, the failure to understand the fundamental spiritual and moral message in each religion from a holistic perspective, surrounding circumstances and the ideological or intellectual propensities of a leader, had coloured and conditioned both protest movements and states that spoke in the name of a particular religion. Though we have not discussed in this presentation the protest movements that evolved in past centuries, after the time of the founder of each faith, we can rest assured that they assumed diverse forms, just like the protest movements of the present period in history. Negative protest --- protest that violated the essence of the message of the religion on caring for the weak or being kind to the stranger --- was as pervasive as positive protest --- the protest concerned with oppression and tyranny. We have seen how in the past, in the experience of every religion, there were outstanding instances of good governance and tragic cases of bad governance. Very often --- if we may labour the point --- it was the ability of the ruler and his clique or class to transcend their own interests and serve the people with sincerity and honesty that determined the success or failure of the state.
If this is how religion as a conduit of protest and as an instrument of power was in the past, and is in the present, how will it be in the future? The chances are that those who act on behalf of religion will continue to manifest characteristics that are both positive and negative. Their articulation of protest may be beneficial or destructive from the standpoint of the people. Their exercise of power may be good or bad. As we have noted, adherence to a religion, attachment to a faith, in itself does not guarantee virtuous behaviour especially when one is power. There is no need to repeat that every now and then men and women who are religious in the conventional sense succumb to the temptations that power has to offer. Of course, this is also true of those who are not affiliated to any religion. Nonetheless, we have come to expect those who are religious to be more moral in their conduct when in power than those who are not.
Are we justified in expecting this? Or, is religion more moral ‘as protest’ than ‘in power’?

(Chandra Muzaffar is a leading Malaysian intellectual. He is associated with the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, and also runs the Just World Trust in Kuala Lumpur. He can be contacted on For details about the Just World Trust, see

You May Also Like


Another feather in the cap of treatment as HIV prevention. By SHOBHA SHUKLA

Results of a phase 3 PURPOSE 1 HIV prevention study done among adolescent girls and young women in South Africa and Uganda show that there were no


If the Dalai Lama wants control only over civilian element of the State in Greater-Tibet. By Hem Raj Jain

India should know the divide & confusion - [Tibetans want only more autonomy whereas US-Congress delegation is interested in  “


Before signing bipartisan-Tibet-Bill, PrezBiden ought to know it is merely a token exercise. By Hem Raj Jain

 Tibet Bill is classic example of “Muddai Sust Gavah Chust” (Petitioner is lazy / disinterested but witnesses are serious / alert

"Trial of Pakistani Christian Nation" By Nazir S Bhatti

On demand of our readers, I have decided to release E-Book version of "Trial of Pakistani Christian Nation" on website of PCP which can also be viewed on website of Pakistan Christian Congress . You can read chapter wise by clicking tab on left handside of PDF format of E-Book. ,