Commentary / World

Religion, intolerance and political blowback

by Ramesh Thakur

Across the democratic world — the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and India — identity politics is reshaping electoral contests as cultural nationalists push back against perceived excesses of social progressives. Because of the lazy abandon with which they have been used as tools for silencing dissent and stifling policy debate, charges of Islamophobia and homophobia have lost some of their stigma. The intellectual, cultural and political elites have underestimated people’s ability to cut through the sophistry of the discourse to the underlying double standards and hypocrisy. Yet liberals refuse to accept any responsibility for the perverse consequence of the rise of the populist right.

On May 18, the proudly Pentecostal Christian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was unexpectedly returned to power in Australia. On May 23, the proudly Hindu Narendra Modi was returned to power in India with an increased majority that exceeded most expectations. After the elections, while Australian Labor Party parliamentarians acknowledged that a swing against them in crucial faith-based communities had contributed to their defeat, Modi noted that “secularism” had lost electoral appeal.

A human interest story about one individual can crystallize growing disquiet about the direction of society and politics. In India the long march to today’s political dominance by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was boosted in 1985 with the landmark Shah Bano case.

In Australia the dispute of Israel Folau with rugby administrators peaked during the election campaign and is headed to the courts. Bano’s court-adjudicated individual rights were snuffed out in a blatant act of pandering to religious obscurantists. Folau’s right to religious freedom was crushed by administrators keen to appease a major sponsor whose CEO is gay.

The rise of aggressive Hindu religiosity is an angry reaction to decades of perceived appeasement by Congress of its Muslim vote bank. “Sickularist,” “pseudo-secularist” and “minorityism” are among the epithets hurled by the army of online trolls at anyone who calls out Modi for inaction on attacks on Muslims. India’s 70 percent Hindu majority came to believe that during six decades of rule, the Congress Party tried to make them feel ashamed and uncomfortable for believing in and practising Hinduism. Okay to be Muslim, but not Hindu.

Many Australians came to a similar conclusion about Labor’s attitude toward Christians. Folau became a powerful symbol of elite contempt for their faith — OK to be gay, but not Christian — and a lightning rod for political retribution.

After 14 years of marriage, Shah Bano’s husband Mohammed Ahmad Khan took a younger second wife. He lived with both for some years before throwing Bano and her five children out, paid a modest maintenance for some time and then stopped it in 1978. When she took him to court, he responded with the traditional unilateral Islamic divorce decree by a male and said she was now a ward of her original family, no longer his responsibility. The Islamic councils backed him, but the judicial system found for her all the way to the top court in April 1985.

Panicked at the prospect of losing Muslim votes, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi used his three-quarters parliamentary majority to rush a retroactive constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court judgment and strip Bano of alimony rights. The BJP rode the rising tide of grievance to increase parliamentary seats from two to 85 in the 1989 election. Party leader Lal Krishna Advani acknowledged in 1990 that the Bano case was “a watershed event” in mobilizing Hindu sentiment. The BJP has not looked back since and the case is still occasionally referenced in public discourse.

In 2015, the Catholic archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, had to defend himself against a complaint to Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner that internal church publications described same-sex unions as contrary to its teachings. On Aug. 30, 2017, Sydney-based writer Benjamin Law tweeted: “Sometimes find myself wondering if I’d hate-f—- all the anti-gay MPs in parliament if it meant they got the homophobia out of their system.” He faced no social media pile-on. During the same-sex marriage referendum, Sydney University student Connor Parissis hurled expletive-laden hate speech at Christian students distributing free lunch. In the 2019 election he was a Green candidate for a Sydney seat, notwithstanding the party’s pledge to toughen laws and punishments against hate speech.

A rugby star in a sports-mad country, Folau’s Instagram post should have been ignored: “Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters: Hell awaits. Repent! Only Jesus Saves.” He was channeling standard Christian theology from St. Paul, that those who commit sin must either repent or risk going to hell. He did not call for any penalties for them in this life nor refuse to play alongside any unrepentant teammates. With that long list of disqualifying attributes, the country could not field a competitive team.

In response Rugby Australia tore up his 4 million Australian dollar multiyear contract, citing a serious breach of its code of conduct. Australians don’t take kindly to seeing a gentleman of unblemished moral character punished for professing faith in the Bible. In an online survey for The Australian, 89 percent of 21,700 respondents said Folau’s contract should not have been terminated.

Rugby Australia could simply have said Folau was expressing his personal beliefs outside the workplace that did not reflect rugby values. An online comment summed it up succinctly: “Imagine getting upset at someone for claiming the God you don’t believe in, said in a book you don’t read, that unless you repent of the sin you don’t care about, you will go to a place you don’t think exists.”

The controversy had an impact on the election. Concerns about religious freedoms tipped the scales in some tight individual contests. Eight of the 10 seats with the biggest share of voters declaring a religious belief recorded swings against Labor. They account for up to 20 percent of voters in seven marginal seats in Queensland. In 2007, the very visibly practising Anglican Labor leader Kevin Rudd won six of these seats. This year Labor failed to win one.

Before the election, Labor rejected calls for a religious freedom commissioner, instead pledging to create a new LGBTIQ commissioner. Upon victory, Morrison promised to enshrine new religious freedom protections. Instead of a new law to protect against existing laws, Martyn Iles of the Australian Christian Lobby has suggested a Restoration of Freedoms Act.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He comes from a Hindu family but is not religious.