Religious Right Elbows Way Onto World's Political Stages

From India to Israel, conservative mores challenge US diplomacy

Religion is increasingly being injected into key elections around the globe.

In recent months, conservative religious parties in Turkey, India, and Israel have scored significant electoral victories or gains - raising questions about the changing social nature of these countries and presenting the United States with new diplomatic challenges.

"It is clear there is a return to religion," says Douglas Johnston of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and author of "Religion: The Missing Element in Statecraft." "When secular governments fail to meet the needs of their populace, religious messages fill the vacuum."

Consider the case of India. The country's domestic politics have been largely secular since since India's founding, but in the wake of May elections a Hindu nationalist became prime minister for 13 days before his ruling coalition collapsed. The coalition of current Indian leader H.D. Deve Gowda remains shaky, and the country could yet swing back toward a government defined by its religious attachment.

In Turkey, a NATO ally and devoutly secular for 73 years, an Islamic political party won the most seats in the parliament in December and is now trying to form a new government. In Israel in the May 29 elections, religious parties made strong gains in the parliament - and may control several important ministries, such as interior and education.

Then there is Russia: While religion doesn't have the overt political power it does in other countries, appeals to Russian spirituality are rising. The main challenger to President Boris Yeltsin in Sunday's elections, Gennady Zyuganov, is a Communist who incorporates a strong blend of patriotism and Russian Orthodox language and values in his campaign. He refers to the "chosenness" of the Russian people and casts anti-Western sentiments in spiritual terms.

These new strains of religion, which are often cloaked in national ideology, have come to the voting booth so quickly that Western diplomats are still unsure how to react to them. The big question is: Will the new changes bring moderate or extremist behavior?

A more hard-line Russia, for example, might consider use of force in the Baltics. India's nationalists vow to develop atomic weapons. No one is sure if an Islamic Turkey would have sided with the Gulf war coalition in 1991 - or what its attitude would be toward the country's membership in NATO.

"From Russia to Turkey, the effects are going to be profound, affecting every aspect of our relations," says one former high-ranking State Department official. "Even if Zyuganov just does well, that's significant. We may not be able to count on votes in the UN. We may have less influence in human rights and economic assistance. What's the Islamic angle on NATO? Nobody has thought about this stuff."

In part, the message of religious-oriented politicians in all these countries is one of liberation. They share an antipathy to what is seen as the spiritually impoverished secularism of their governments. The end of the cold war, for example, may have settled the debate over Marxist versus free-market approaches. But in many states the often missionary dream of prosperity promoted by the West has been delayed; a consumer model, often imposed by a harsh regime, is seen as not offering enough of a meaningful answer for a world and a future that leaves many people fearful and uncertain.

Amid poverty and corruption in some countries, religious political platforms may offer comforting moral certainties, a more defined identity, and convenient scapegoats, experts say.

The United States has some echoes of the religious trend. Attempts by the religious right to identify America as a "Christian nation" and to bring prayer to public schools are examples.

Religiosity is a political issue elsewhere, too. Four years ago in Algeria, an Islamic party won the national elections, but was blocked from taking power by the military-led regime. In Bosnia, the dominant Muslim party of Alija Izetbegovic has taken on strong Islamic rhetoric - partly to answer the new nationalism of their Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat neighbors.

"This trend is coming as a great surprise to those who put utter confidence in market approaches," says Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School, an expert on religious movements. "More of these kinds of election results are going to emerge, given the failure of the market to live up to its advertising. Religion ... is seen as a defense, a way to define communal and traditional boundaries."

Israeli pollsters were caught off guard May 29 when Orthodox parties rose from 16 to 24 seats in the Knesset. In a parliament where 61 seats are a majority, the increase makes them a new player. While different, the parties oppose a secular Israel, which they see as hedonistic and unfaithful to Judaism. Their Orthodox vision would end work and bus service on the Sabbath, for example, and toughen religious standards by which to claim a Jewish identity.

Russia on the eve of national elections is getting a strong dose of Mr. Zyuganov's message, which blends patriotism and Russian Orthodox ideals. "The Russian campaign seems rather like the vote in Israel," says Edward Keenan, a Russian expert at Harvard. "People reacting against punk rock and ostentatious living. You have the new beautiful people speaking English, wearing short skirts, traveling. But the rest are standing in the shadows, watching."

The meteoric rise of the Islamic Welfare Party (or Refah) in Turkey may be the most significant, though ignored, event, experts say. The Islamists, somewhat anti-Western and who advocate Turkey as an Islamic state, helped bring down a secular coalition government last week. Party leader Necmettin Erbakan was then given a chance to form a government. Welfare's anticorruption message has been gaining since 1991. The party now controls Istanbul, the capital, Ankara, and much of the countryside - creating challenges for Western officials used to a secular Turkey.

Mr. Erbakan told a newspaper Friday that "the West learned everything it knows from the Muslims." Should he gain power, Erbakan is expected to have a tough time dealing with the powerful Turkish Army, especially in trying to block a new Israeli-Turkish military agreement formed this spring.

Nor is the rise of political religion a phenomenon only among the poor or uneducated. In India, the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won the most seats in elections in May, is a party of the wealthy business class in the Hindu north. The party went from two seats in the parliament in 1984 to 186 last month.

The rise in religious political strength does not simply reflect the fundamentalism of the 1980s reborn, experts say, though it draws from it. The latest expression of conservative religion is more sophisticated. The religious message is often created by political elites who appeal to popular sentiments, including prejudice. The new political parties feature savvy, media-oriented professional consultants using the latest Western technology and political strategies.

Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph of the University of Chicago argue that the latest orthodox push appeals to "ancient hatreds" and differences among peoples not out of pure religious conviction - but often as a means of achieving power. Referring to the rise of the BJP in India, they argue that BJP's anti-Muslim pro-Hindu push, which led to the destruction of the Ayodha mosque in 1992, was "crafted ... in print and electronic media, in textbooks and advertising...."

Likewise, the Communist campaign in Russia this year has promoted a subtle anti-Semitism. Writing of Zyuganov's religio-nationalist ideology, author David Remnick says the candidate's "romantic, Slavophile vision of Russians as a people apart - a people with a superior sense of spirituality, with an innate belief in the collective over the individual, with a mission in the world to battle the West - is an ideology that is bound to have consequences."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Religious Right Elbows Way Onto World's Political Stages
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today