A group of well-informed scholars and practitioners came together to discuss highly topical issues with an extremely engaged audience at the Notre Dame South Asia Conference in Washington DC, from May 14-15, 2019. The conference highlighted the presence of a South Asia Working Group at the University of Notre Dame, comprising scholars from several departments and schools around the campus. In keeping with the theme of “Religion, Public Policy and Development,” the conference received generous funding from the Keough School, the Kellogg Institute for International Development, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies and the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion.
The first day of the conference featured a series of academic and policy presentations. The presentations and discussions were interdisciplinary in nature, featuring scholars of Islamic Studies, history, economics, political science, and anthropology, as well as policy professionals from organizations such as the World Bank, the State Department, the Brookings Institution, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, and Chatham House.
The Role of Religion in State Policy: Education, Military Organization and Economic Planning
Mahan Mirza and Ebrahim Moosa, scholars of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, began with an extremely engaging presentation on the role of madrasas in modern education. Mirza and Moosa clarified that they were most interested in analyzing the role of madrasa scholars in setting the terms of the intellectual debates and shaping the doctrines of religious interpretation.
“Mirza and Moosa clarified that they were most interested in analyzing the role of madrasa scholars in setting the terms of the intellectual debates and shaping the doctrines of religious interpretation. “Moosa discussed the importance of South Asia in global Islam, with doctrines originating from the madrasas of the Deobandi school, the Barelvi school and the Salafi school all having become global influences, spread via the South Asian diaspora to places as diverse as South Africa, East Africa and the United Kingdom. Mirza and Moosa also discussed their work, which has involved introducing a greater discussion of scientific and humanistic traditions into madrasa curriculums in South Asia as part of their “Contending Modernities” project. “Simply introducing science without humanistic training can be problematic,” said Moosa, a point that some policy makers often overlook in their zeal to introduce secular learning to religious institutions. Furthermore, the scholars highlighted the importance of using existing traditions as part of the project. For instance, humanistic ideas may be introduced using examples from Persian poetry, rather than examples from Western literature, such as Shakespeare. Mirza reflected that such an elicitive, integrative approach which values madrasas for themselves is likely to be a better way to engage with such institutions, especially when compared to previous approaches that have instrumentalized madrasas or used them for purely transactional purposes. Moosa reflected on his own experiences of madrasa education and concluded that, “Madrasas flourish because they fill a specific need and serve the aspirations of the Muslim communities.”
Tara Beteille, a Senior Economist at the World Bank who helped author the World Development Report 2018 on Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, provided a wider perspective on madrasa education. She highlighted three major findings from a recently completed survey of schooling in Pakistan. Many children are enrolled in both regular schools and madrasas, suggesting that madrasas fill a specific social or education role and are not meant as a replacement of secular schooling. In fact, madrasa enrollment in Pakistan has remained constant since 2004, while the biggest increase in nation-wide enrollment has been in private schools (often of varied quality), indicative of a larger failure of public schooling systems in the country. Finally, Beteille emphasized that there is no evidence that madrasas are a “breeding ground for terror,” despite how they are sometimes characterized in the media. However, given that most madrasas are privately financed, there is less mandate for the state to influence policies regarding other potential harms in these institutions, such as policies regarding allegations of sexual abuse.
Amit Ahuja, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara, presented a paper entitled “Gods of Small Things: Religious Practice in the Indian Army,” in which he considers the question of how professional militaries comprising religious soldiers engage with religion. Matters of faith are inescapable in these contexts. As he summarized, “Professional soldiers are by definition engaged in matters of killing and death, and all religions have a lot to say about these.” Ahuja found that the Indian army has consciously shaped religious practices and beliefs to meet institutional needs. Based on interviews with numerous army officers, soldiers and religious teachers, as well as observations of 11 single-faith and multi-faith units belonging to different regiments, Ahuja provided many examples of such institutional shaping. Far from trying to distance themselves from religion, all army units in the Indian Army have weekly prayer meetings, the army funds and maintains most of the shrines soldiers pray in, and hires many religious teachers who are trained to preach in multi-faith environments. Every regiment has specific regimental deities that soldiers pray to, and many regiments even adopt their own fallen soldiers as regimental deities. All regiments also have specific religious traditions and rituals that are adapted to army life (e.g. regiment-specific greetings and religious battle cries) that are markedly different from the traditions of the places where the soldiers come from. Most importantly, commanding officers are required to fully participate in the religious practices of the regiments they command, regardless of their personal faith.
“In his discussion of the paper, Joshua White, of the Brookings Institution, questioned whether civilian leaders in India had mixed views of increased military cohesion, and whether the Indian army views Islam as ‘different’ from other religions, as the U.S. military does.”
Ahuja felt that such co-optation of religious practices at the individual and regimental level was critical in building group cohesion in an environment where individuals rely on other group members to such an extent that their lives literally depend on mutual trust. He opined that such a strategy likely increased institutional loyalty despite a history of religious conflict in the country. In his discussion of the paper, Joshua White, of the Brookings Institution, questioned whether civilian leaders in India had mixed views of increased military cohesion, and whether the Indian army views Islam as “different” from other religions, as the U.S. military does. Other participants also raised questions concerning the project’s overall contribution to academic debate, and concerning how Pakistan is portrayed to Indian army soldiers.
Nikhil Menon, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, discussed the “highly unorthodox marriage” between liberal democracy and Soviet-inspired economic planning during India’s first decade of independence in his paper “Holy Men, Worldly Job: Hindu Ascetics and Five Year Plans in Nehruvian India.” While there exists considerable discussion about the increasing prominence of religious figures in India’s politics, Menon noted that the government invited religious figures to participate in the outreach and dissemination of the five-year economic plans as early as the 1950s. In fact, the Indian state sponsored the establishment of voluntary organizations like the Bharat Sadhu Samaaj (Indian Society of Ascetics), and Prime Minister Nehru gave a speech to this organization despite his misgivings about the involvement of religious figures in government programs. In making his point, Menon shared a series of political cartoons with the audience and wondered whether outreach by way of religious figures may have provided greater legitimacy to the government’s economic plans while ultimately hindering the establishment of state secularism.
The discussant for Menon’s paper was Jean Duff, from the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. She asked whether there were positive effects of this partnership between government and religious figures, and how one could evaluate the potential costs to secularism. After all, the broader question of the best way to incorporate faith-based actors into development programs or humanitarian assistance is still being debated today, with UNICEF currently re-evaluating how to make such engagement most effective. Other members from the audience urged Menon to consider issues such as the existence of several different religious organizations and several different political parties, and the nature of the relationship between these entities. Questions were also raised about the role of religious organizations in nation-building and whether today’s religio-political linkages in India would be different if events had unfolded differently in the 1950s. Menon characterized the whole interaction as “enjoyable and stimulating.”
Who Speaks for Islam? The State and Sufism in Pakistan
The link between religion and political processes in Pakistan was explored by Farzana Shaikh, of Chatham House. In her talk entitled “National Identity and the Politics of Sufism in Pakistan,” Shaikh charted the changing relationship of the Pakistani state with Sufism, which centers around personal faith, a direct and personal connection to God, and a spiritual connection to local saints. Early reformers like Syed Ahmed Khan proposed putting sharia at the center of Sufism and relegating the saints to the sidelines, and Sufism was thought by many to be antithetical to “rational” Islam. Mohammad Ali Jinnah also was reluctant to engage deeply with Sufism, but did court local Sufi leaders for political support. This negative view of Sufism was changed by later leaders of Pakistan, with Ayub Khan nationalizing Sufi shrines and recasting Sufi saints as leaders of development. Zia-ul-Haq, however, chose to strengthen the Sunni ulema to counter the influence of Sufi saints and Shia landlords. Benazir Bhutto attempted to project Sufism as a modernizing and democratizing force, a trend continued by modern Sufi leaders like Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri who has prominently denounced jihadist violence. It remains to be seen how Imran Khan, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan will shape state policy towards Sufism.
Shaikh’s discussant, Christine Fair of Georgetown University, highlighted some apparent contradictions in the policies of the Pakistani state towards religion. For instance, the state actively supported Deobandi groups in the past – groups that are now attacking government figures for allegedly supporting blasphemy – but also gave support to the opposing Lashkar-e-Taiba group. Was this part of a deliberate policy of divide-and-rule? Audience members asked whether developments in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) were similar to, or different from, those in Pakistan and what solutions Pakistan could implement to counter the rise of extremist religious groups. Shaikh concluded by highlighting that the issue of “who speaks for Islam in Pakistan,” an explicitly Islamic state, is an ongoing debate that the Pakistani state and society continue to grapple with; in her view, this debate cannot be resolved, is tearing the social fabric apart, and may demand a new constitutional settlement if religion and politics are to peacefully coexist in Pakistan.
Muslims in India: Representation and Violence
Gilles Verniers, of Ashoka University, presented a variety of descriptive statistics on the representation of Muslims in India’s public institutions, a country in which Muslims are the largest religious minority. Despite constituting 14.2 percent of the total population, Muslims comprise less than 4 percent of national legislators, police officers, Indian Administrative Service officers and judges. Moreover, some of these trends in descriptive representation show a decline in Muslim presence over time. For instance, the 2019 general elections for the national parliament featured only 8 percent Muslim candidates, a decline from the 10 percent recorded in the 2014 elections. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has virtually no Muslim candidates, explains only part of this decline and overall low representation. Verniers also highlighted the fact that, despite their limited presence in India’s legislature, the Lok Sabha, Muslim representatives ask a disproportionate high number of questions, suggesting that they are active participants in an institution often chided for the lack of debate and engagement that occurs between its members.
“Despite constituting 14.2 percent of the total population, Muslims comprise less than 4 percent of national legislators, police officers, Indian Administrative Service officers and judges.”
Discussant Nilesh Fernando, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, suggested that what was perhaps most disturbing about the data Verniers presented was not the recent decline in Muslim descriptive representation in Indian public institutions, but the persistently low numbers since independence. He also urged Verniers to clarify the claim he is making: is this about bias against religious minorities or is it about the changing role of the state and representation? Fernando also noted that there is Muslim over-representation in other aspects of public life in India, particularly in film and sport, and this should be considered alongside any claim of bias. Audience members discussed the possible partition-related origins of Muslim under-representation in India and a variety of potential institutional solutions. Audience members also noted the extremely limited presence of Muslim political parties in India and considered what a “distinctly Muslim political platform” might look like.
In the final presentation, Lakshmi Iyer of the University of Notre Dame presented ongoing research on the rates of Hindu-Muslim violence in India. She presented an update to the widely cited Varshney-Wilkinson database on Hindu-Muslim violence. Compared to the period of 1980-1995, the overall rate of Hindu-Muslim violence was lower in the period of 1996-2010. However, unlike other violent crimes such as murders and armed robberies, which have shown a steady decline in India after 1990, religious violence does not show such a steady time trend. Furthermore, states and districts that saw the most violence in the earlier period continue to do so in the later period. Iyer also showed the results of econometric analysis that found rainfall shortages to be only inconsistently associated with rises in religious conflict, suggesting that these events may not be driven purely by economic considerations.
Jane Menon, of the US Department of State, served as Iyer’s discussant. Menon noted that, many years ago, she was involved as a research assistant in compiling the Varshney-Wilkinson database and provided guidance on how to resolve problems associated with articles that ambiguously report a violent incident. She also suggested alternative methods of analysis that might bolster Iyer’s analysis of the relationship between rainfall patterns and communal violence. Audience comments focused on extremely helpful suggestions on further data collection about religious violence, particularly with a view to examining trends in the years after 2010, and further analyses that could be conducted with these data.
“In the final presentation, Lakshmi Iyer of the University of Notre Dame presented ongoing research on the rates of Hindu-Muslim violence in India. She presented an update to the widely cited Varshney-Wilkinson database on Hindu-Muslim violence. “
The first day of the conference was notable for featuring a productive and collegial atmosphere of interdisciplinary cooperation. Most speakers presented works in progress, and acknowledged that the feedback received was extremely useful and would likely result in better final products. Several discussions ran over time, and were continued with great enthusiasm over coffee breaks, lunch and dinner.
Panel Discussions: The Rohingya Crisis and Religion in South Asian Elections
The second day of the conference featured two public panel discussions. The first panel focused on the Rohingya crisis, which has seen 1.2 million members of the Muslim Rohingya community of Myanmar seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. Rahul Oka described the historical roots of the current conflict, and the process of “scapegoating” of the Rohingya community that is analogous to previous ethnic conflicts, including those in Congo, Rwanda, Kenya and twentieth century Europe. The gradual process of stripping the Rohingya of their rights and citizenship was also described by Mahbub Hassan Saleh, Deputy Mission Chief at the Bangladesh Embassy. He emphasized that the issue was not a bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, but an issue of international concern, especially with the United Nations having recommended the prosecution of Myanmar military officials for genocide and crimes against humanity. Madhav Joshi emphasized that any sustainable solution to the crisis must address the root cause, namely the widespread and long-running conflict in Myanmar involving the government forces and 23 different armed groups. An additional factor making this crisis even more difficult is the geography of the region, a point emphasized by Kathleena Mumford, a geographer at the U.S. State Department. She added that a geograpical analysis of the conflict would consider physical factors, resource constraints, environmental issues as well as the intangible “sense of place.” Audience questions focused on the role of religious groups as part of solving this crisis, and whether the world can learn from historical parallels to these events. The panel was moderated by Keough School faculty member Julia Kowalski.
The second panel began with the conference organizer Susan Ostermann describing the hitherto limited role of religion in Nepal’s elections. However, she cautioned that since the country is home to several religious minorities, this should not be taken for granted. She also noted that rising economic inequalities across religious groups must be managed wisely.
“The panelists were asked numerous questions by the audience, including questions on the role of NGOs in bringing religious harmony, and on how religious education should coexist with electoral politics and the potential for cross-border transmission of extremist religious views within the region.”Farzana Shaikh of Chatham House described the tussle between traditional political parties and more extremist organizations for the support of the so-called “moderate voter” in Pakistan. Islamic parties did not obtain a high share of votes in the 2018 national election, and this is partially attributable to a large degree of appropriation of the Islamist agenda by mainstream parties. It remains to be seen whether the moderate voter will respond more to religious issues or issues related to development outcomes and public services. Mahbub Hassan Saleh described the trend in Bangladesh to be, in his words, mostly positive, with extremist Islamic parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami being banned since 2013, and no former Jamaat candidates being elected to the national parliament in the 2018 election. Devesh Kapur said that while Muslim parties had a very small presence in India’s elections, there exists a huge heterogeneity of religious practices within each religion. In fact, identity politics in India revolve around three axes – region, caste and religion – all of which are potentially divisive. He said that more research and policy attention must focus on ongoing questions such as the role of urbanization, the independent judiciary and social media in the politicization of religion. The panelists were asked numerous questions by the audience, including questions on the role of NGOs in bringing religious harmony, and on how religious education should coexist with electoral politics and the potential for cross-border transmission of extremist religious views within the region. The panel was moderated by conference co-organizer Lakshmi Iyer.