BACKGROUNDER |ETHNO-RELIGIOUS NATIONALISM: MANIPULATING A SEARCH FOR A COMMON IDENTITY
Along with communist totalitarianism and Islamism, religious nationalism is among the greatest threats to religious freedom and peaceful religious co-existence in our world today. Religious minorities in numerous countries – such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Bhutan, and Nepal, among others – increasingly face severe marginalisation and active persecution by many of their own fellow citizens, with the rise of religious majoritarian populist movements (see the country reports).
In a world ever-more shaped by a spiritually empty global consumerist culture, many people are thirsty for richer and deeper forms of identity and community. Ethno-religious nationalism is one attempt to provide robust forms of belonging in a world of enormous flux. It proposes that individual identity in part derives from, and is elevated by, the belonging to a great nation defined by a unique confluence of religion, race, language and territory. Such movements appear to be seeing their biggest growth in Asia. As the country reports indicate, ethno-religious nationalist movements are burgeoning in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Sri Lanka, as well as mainly Malay-Muslim Malaysia and Bengali-Muslim Bangladesh.
The party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which swept back into power with a landslide victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections – crafted a renewed appeal to a decades-old movement of Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism is the world’s largest movement of religious nationalism, and is centered on an essentially ethno-religious identity that enjoys its most fervent support in the conservative “cow belt” of central and northern India. As in many countries with strong movements of religious nationalism, the institutional bulwark of Hindu nationalism is a network of non-state actors that enjoys growing resonance and influence among the Indian populace. In a strong indicator of its growing mass appeal, the BJP with its Hindutva philosophy – which promotes the creation of a powerful Hindu state – won nearly 40% of the vote in 2019.
If the accelerating trend toward virulent ethno-religious nationalism is not stopped or slowed, catastrophic consequences are inevitable. The many Asian countries (but also other populist governments in the world) that are in the grip of ethno-religious nationalism are experiencing a combination of democratic backsliding and growing religious repression. For example, as indicated in the country reports, democracies such as India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, that have been the most profoundly shaped by ethno-religious nationalism, are increasingly becoming “hybrid” autocratic-democratic regimes combining regular elections with severe restrictions on basic constitutional rights such as religious freedom. Pakistan is another example. Long in the clutch of a weaponised religious-nationalist identity, and for some time firmly within the orbit of China, Pakistan is a textbook case of a religiously majoritarian “electoral autocracy”.
What we may now be witnessing is what South Asia scholar Farahnaz Ispahani terms the “Pakistanization” of Asia, in which exclusivist majoritarian identities join forces with increasingly authoritarian states to permanently make religious minorities second-class citizens, if not disenfranchising or destroying them entirely. What remains uncertain is how many more countries will decide that this kind of regime represents an attractive and workable political model. But what is clear is that a combination of ethno-religious nationalism and authoritarian governance is profoundly incompatible with a robust religious freedom for all citizens, regardless of creed, caste, or race.
 “India election results 2019: Narendra Modi secures landslide win”, BBC News, 23rd May 2019; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48347081
 “Referring to concerns about the ‘Pakistanization’ of the region of South Asia”, Dr. Farahnaz Ispahani, 18th July 2019; https://twitter.com/RFInstitute/status/1151639626442035201