Religion as vessel for political change

October 02, 2007|By Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- Why am I not surprised that the latest spontaneous popular revolt against an authoritarian government - in Myanmar - has been sparked and led on the streets by religious figures? Because men and women of organized faith have regularly taken the lead in populist movements for political change throughout the world in recent decades. Myanmar should help clarify parallels in the Middle East and other regions where religious and political forces are at play simultaneously.

The people and institutions of religion are usually the last resort available to ordinary men and women who find themselves degraded by autocratic systems or foreign oppression. Prominent examples in our lifetime include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement; Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran; Bishop Desmond Tutu and the end of the South African apartheid regime; Cardinal Jaime Sin, who helped overthrow the Marcos regime in the Philippines; Hamas and Hezbollah's challenge to the Palestinian and Lebanese authorities, respectively; and the role of the Catholic Church in overthrowing repressive regimes throughout Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Each country's case has reflected unique local conditions, but always with a clear common denominator: When ordinary people are denied a means to express or redress their grievances through a participatory and accountable political system, they will turn to other means to change intolerable conditions. Some emigrate, a few take up terrorism or criminality, a few others join militias and gangs, but the overwhelming majority do none of these things. Instead, they pray for solace and strength, and then they organize and mobilize for action to change their lives for the better. Religion becomes the last resort for political change because of three critical factors inherent in the divine exercise: legitimacy, hope and change.

All three of these were on display as thousands of barefoot or sandal-clad Buddhist monks led crowds of up to 100,000 through the streets of the capital, Yangon, a few days ago. Religious leaders, along with tribal elders, enjoy the highest legitimacy among the general population in most societies around the world. Religion offers people a sense of hope and a better day ahead when people seem to be engulfed in misery and endless suffering.

Religion also provides a compelling mechanism for change by mobilizing large numbers of people who fearlessly stand up to their oppressors, and who are motivated in part by religion's inherent demand for more humane and orderly societies in this life. So it was understandably worrisome to the Myanmar regime to see hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women take to the streets behind their beloved monks, just as it was heartening to the rest of the world that would like to see the end of such dictatorships. Not surprisingly, the military regime has cracked down on leading monasteries in and around the capital, having already imprisoned or exiled civilian democracy activists.

Myanmar offers a valuable opportunity for observers around the world to recognize more clearly the complex but important relationship among four forces that often get hopelessly confused: individual identity, political ideology, religious values and national condition.

When religious figures lead hundreds of thousands of people in the street to challenge unjust orders and autocratic regimes - whether in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s, Tehran in the 1970s, East Berlin in the 1980s, Manila in the 1990s, or Myanmar in the 2000s - we should understand this as a rare convergence among the forces of personal identity, politics, religion and nationhood.

In all of these cases - with the possible exception of Iran - the religious forces that came to the fore to lead the battle against dictatorships subsequently receded to the spiritual and personal realm, after a new and more equitable political order had been established. The goal is political and national transformation, not creating a religious society.

Myanmar today should help us appreciate the critical difference between religious and political forces at play in any society. When you see thousands of religious leaders and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people on the street acting in a daring, slightly irrational manner, look for the political, social and economic discontent in their lives that is manifested in religious symbolism.

Rami G. Khouri is a syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.

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