Links between religions and nationalism shape world politics

Religious nationalism is now sparking conflict in Asia, in addition to the Middle East, Russia and the United States.

The religious culture in Asia is broad and diverse. Throughout history, religious traditions have inspired political rhetoric.

“In Asia, the phenomenon typically has to do with nationalism among religious minorities,” states Tiina Airaksinen, docent of Asian studies.

“On the other hand, India’s Hindu nationalism is governmental nationalism generated by the majority.”

Many countries in Asia gained independence during or after the Second World War, leading to a rise in political nationalism emphasising the nation-state in ways depending on the leaders, majority parties and systems of governments in each country.

“It seems that each country and each religion in Asia has its own, flexible kind of nationalism,” Airaksinen muses.

Even Buddhism, commonly thought of as a religion valuing peace, life, humanity and human dignity, has extreme forms which embrace racism and religious nationalism.

Traditionally, religious communities in Asia have had few conflicts. The concept of religion is different from that of the West: a person may practice different religions in different areas of life.

During the past few decades, however, governmental disputes justified with religion have escalated, and open conflict is a possibility in many areas. However, there is little talk of Asian religious nationalism in the Finnish media.

“It seems remote, without direct connection to us. The events that make it to the news tend to be bloody crises and individual atrocities,” Airaksinen describes.

Conservatism connects the Kremlin to the church

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country’s social and political life has gradually increased in prominence.

“The Russian Orthodox Church is an attractive partner for Putin’s government,” describes  Kaarina Aitamurto, senior researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute.

The two institutions share the idea of Russia as a protector of traditional values and the Christian faith. Airavirta points out that there are many factions within the Church:

“There are several groups which are close to the Church and which claim to represent it, but which have social opinions not shared by Church leadership. Some of these groups have become increasingly militaristic during the 2010s.”

During the past few years, Church representatives and the inner circle of the Russian Orthodox community have been involved in several cases of cultural censorship.

Trump and the hopes of the Christian right

Markku Ruotsila, docent of North American church history, says that religion permeates the public realm in the United States.

“The separation of church and state as well as regulations on religious freedom have created a broad market for religions in the country. Religions compete for members and funding by offering as many things as possible, which are as interesting as possible to as many people as possible.”

According to Ruotsila, the impact of religion on the presidential election is indisputable. The “rust-belt”, a group of traditionally industry-focused states, have usually voted for the Democrats. Now they went for Trump, albeit with a very narrow margin.

“Preliminary analysis indicates that the change came almost entirely from born-again Protestants and Catholic voters.”

These voters may have had serious doubts regarding Trump’s personal life, but the policy he promised regarding the issues which interest the born-again constituents was exactly aligned with their wishes and lobbying efforts, which have been ongoing for decades.

In the longer term, however, the political cache of the Christian right will decline. Different forms of Latin Catholicism are on the rise, as is the disorganised field of the religious left and spiritual atheists.

The rifts in the field of religion run deep.

“There is no interest in compromise. For example, the Republicans and the Christian right are trying to ban all abortions, while the Democrats and the religious left want the right to abortion expanded and the costs covered from public funding,” Ruotsila summarises.

Are there solutions for the Middle East?

According to Hannu Juusola, professor of Middle Eastern studies, the past few decades have been characterised by people identifying with their religions and religion becoming increasingly political.

When trying to resolve conflicts, we cannot overlook the disputes surrounding holy sites.

“We should ensure that all groups can access holy sites. Often it would also be sensible to try to separate disputes over holy matters from concrete political problems.”

Political movements which emphasise a secular identity are still weak.

Political and religious leaders should commit to a rhetoric which does not politicise religious identities.

“Most countries in the Middle East have political movements that emphasise a secular identity and citizenship, but they are still weak. However, there is potential for grass-roots level religious dialogue,” Juusola believes.

“It will be difficult to stop tension in the short term, as the spiral has been so strong. In our increasingly fragmented, global and uncontrollable world, identity conflicts like these will continue to be a major issue for a long time.”


Religions on the stages of world politics

The Finnish Society for the Study of Religions and the University of Helsinki’s discipline of the study of religions will organise a one-day seminar on 31 March 2017 with the title “Religions on the stages of world politics”. The day will feature expert presentations on the connections between religion and politics around the world as well as a concluding panel discussion. The opening speech will be delivered by Member of Parliament Pekka Haavisto.

A detailed programme can be found on the University’s event calendar.