Nepali Times
Here And There
Forget the fundos


Religion, we're told, is rising again. America's Christian fundamentalist right is said to have put George W Bush back in office. The Muslim equivalent, the Islamist movement up to and perhaps just shy of al Qaeda, is seething on Arab streets, Pakistani madrassas and Philippine jungles. Sri Lankan Buddhist fanatics are heard from each time they perceive an insult to the founder of their faith and Hindu nationalism remains powerful in India (and Nepal) despite the BJP defeat at the polls earlier this year.

So, is god making a comeback, as the authors of most of these movements and fearful secularists would have it? Well, I'd say the evidence was mixed but the answer is definitely trending 'no' or at least 'probably not'. For one thing, I'd say the Christian influence in America is overstated by a largely secular-minded media that finds the right wing, Jesus-loving Churchgoer somewhat of an alien being. In fact, the religious component of the American electorate is as diverse and divided as ever with many Catholics, mainstream Protestants and even some Evangelicals going for hapless Senator Kerry in the election.

The Christian fundos make a lot of noise and wield a lot of influence. Many of their outlandish ideas (evolution isn't true, gay marriage is 'bad', guns are good) are anathema to many of America's elite and successful people. But they are by no means a majority. The hard, church-going, literal Bible believers in America are still less than half of those who call themselves 'religious' and only around a third of the adult population, a figure that hasn't changed hugely over the years. America has prospered and lead the world in Englightenment thinking through many decades when its fundos were more numerous and noisy.

The Islamic world, we're told, is seething with hatred for all things western and secular. The plight of the Palestinians, American heavy-handedness in Iraq and repressive, corrupt Arab regimes all these things inflame mosque-goers and make it ever more likely that next Friday's prayers could bring about the revolution we're all told is coming. Well, no, actually. It's true that many Muslims have huge issues with Washington at the moment. The Iraq invasion hasn't gone down well in the souk or the bajar. And in Pakistan, you can find various bearded characters calling for jihad on a grand scale and paying tribute to Osama bin Laden in his hidey hole somewhere.

And yes, Saudi Arabia's royal family is a collection of decadent crooks who would be tossed from power in a free election that might just elect a fiery preacher or two to a free parliament, were one to exist in Riyadh. Jordan, Egypt and Syria might follow suit, given such an opportunity. But there's more than an element of anti-Muslim thinking at play if you take it further than that.

Iraqis, the most secular and aspirationally-Western people in the Arab world, don't much like President Bush at the moment. But they love America. They still do. And so do the people of Karachi, Kuala Lumpur and Damascus. If love can somehow be defined as the desire to emulate economically and politically. The Muslim world wants democracy and free-level playing field market economics. It also wants respect for Islam and various other religious things. But this is not resurgent fundamentalism, not by a long chalk.

As for the Hindus and Buddhists, I'm not much worried that their ancient faiths will post many problems to the rest of the world. Indian Hinduism in particular is thriving because it embraces modernism every chance it gets and the urbanisation of India is both reinvigorating and changing Hindu social practices for the better. Nepal, well, there's a strong case to be made for Hindu reform here. But fundamentalism, as such, isn't likely to pose much of a threat.

To all those Cassandras then, who look to the Next New Thing that endangers life as we know it, the clash of cultures or civilisations that will shake the foundations of what the Englightenment has wrought, I offer a single thought, one to ponder and pray to your individual god that I'm wrong. China. Amazing economic growth. Nearly three quarters of US non-oil imports and rising. Authoritarian politics. Deep corruption. Huge population. Environmental degradation on a grand scale. An ancient culture devastated by communism that just might be tempted by assertive nationalism.

China. Keep your eye on Beijing. Forget the fundos.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)