Identity politics reaches G20

In a first of its kind event, Indonesia, hosting the G20 Summit this time, prefaced it by organising a global meeting of religious and intellectual leaders called R20 – short for G20 Religious Forum – in Bali purportedly to decry radicalism and extremism and ‘promote moderate Islam’ and to help ensure that in the 21st century, religion becomes part of ‘global solutions rather than problems’.

In keeping with the origin of R20 as an adjunct of G20 that focused on climate change issues, the Bali meet on November 2-3 was also called ‘Spiritual Ecology Movement’ to which leaders of all faiths were invited for joining in the efforts to solve global economic, political and humanitarian problems including poverty, Covid-19 and the ongoing Russian-Ukraine war.

R20 was jointly sponsored by Nahdlatul Ulama, the leading Islamic organisation of Indonesia, and the Mecca-based Rabitae Alame Islami (Muslim World League). Incidentally, the well-known Nadwatul Ulema Darul Uloom in India was also largely funded by Saudi Arabia.

The invitees included leaders of Catholic church, Anglican denomination, World Evangelical Forum, Chief Rabbi of UK as also the RSS from India, which is known to be the world’s largest Hindu cultural organisation. The preamble of R20 spelt out that the forum will mobilise diverse religious, political and economic leaders from G20 Member States and elsewhere throughout the world, to ‘prevent the weaponisation of identity, curtail the spread of communal hatred, promote respect among the diverse peoples and cultures and work for a world order upholding the equal rights and dignity of every human being’.

Nahdlatul Ulama, said to be the world’s largest Muslim organisation, spearheaded the idea of R20 as the ‘first inter-faith communication group in the history of the world’s most powerful economies’, in collaboration with Muslim World League headquartered at Mecca.

Together they represent the predominant part of Sunni Islam covering all the sects – from Hanafi to Hanbali – and seek guidance and support from Saudi Arabia which leads the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) too.

Ever since the rise of Islamic radicals such as Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS subsequent to the victory of Afghan Jehad against the Soviet army – that led to the collapse of USSR as a superpower – there has been an escalation of conflict within the Muslim world between the radicals who consider US-led West as their prime enemy and the Saudi-led fundamentalists who believe in the Islamic State but who also want to be on the right side of the US politically.

R20 marked the centennial anniversary of Nahdlatul Ulama whose chief, Yahya Khalil Thaqouf, invited Shaykh Mohammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of Muslim World League, to be the Chairman of the R20 conference. The whole show helped demonstrate unity of the Muslim world and assert the credence of Islam as a religion of peace in a world currently getting destabilised because of the global terror unleashed by radicals.

Saudi Arabia, though subscribing to the extreme puritanical line of Ahle Hadis, has been at the receiving end of violence of Islamic radicals because of its traditional closeness to the US. R20 thus had a political message too for the G20 summit led by the world’s most developed countries.

President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, in his inaugural address emphasised that ‘unity in difference’ is what had brought together Indonesians as one nation despite the country’s multiple religions, languages and tribes and added that ‘activities in mosques, churches and temples are needed for national unity’.

Al Issa, Secretary General of Muslim World League, envisaged R20 as a forum for building bridges ‘between East and West’ and establishing peace and declared that the ‘text of Islam refuted clash of civilisations’.

Yahya Thaqouf, chief of Nahdlatul Ulama, stressed that the G20’s R20 initiative stemmed from the faithful’s sincere concern for the future of humanity and hoped that it would make important contributions to the global efforts to solve multifarious problems.

Sheikh Muftah Al Akhyaar, Chairman of the Indonesian Scholars Council, wanted R20 to present religious values as a solution to global conflicts and help build a global civilisation based on respect for human rights and human dignity of all.

It may be mentioned that the Muslim World League, which is represented in the UN as an observer member for economic and social council, works for defining Islam and explaining its pure values as revealed in the Holy Quran and Sunnah, pays special attention to Muslim minorities and their issues and utilises the Hajj season for interaction with Muslim scholars and chiefs of Muslim organisations for the purpose of ‘elevating the status of Muslims in the world and safeguarding the identity of Muslim societies’.

The Mecca Declaration of 2019 had called for addressing the practices of ‘injustice, aggression and racist slogans’ and favoured a civilised dialogue to reach just and comprehensive peace. The Muslim World League has warned against diversity being turned into ‘fear, hatred and conflict’. It has since established a Council for Southeast Asia under its umbrella to promote ‘tolerance and respect for the rights of others’.

In his valedictory address at the R20 handover ceremony on November 3 – India is the host of the G20 summit next year – Ram Madhav, Member, RSS Karyakarini Samiti, praised Indonesia for organising a meet that brought together ‘God the heavenly, Allah the merciful, Bhagwan the omnipresent and Buddha the enlightened’ to bless the mankind and guide it through the turbulent times ahead.

Pointing out that R20 was held in a province of Indonesia with 83.5 per cent Hind majority in a country with over 86 per cent Muslim population, he declared that there cannot be a better country than India – a mosaic of religions and the mothership of spiritualism – to carry the Bali mission forward.

Referring to the fact of India having the second largest Muslim population in the world, Ram Madhav stated upfront that far from the baseless propaganda about persecution, India ‘has always sheltered the persecuted’ and installed Muslims as Presidents, Vice Presidents and Chief Justices.

He summarised India’s concerns in today’s world when he said that ‘not just the traditional challenges of hatred, disharmony, terror and war, but also the new age challenges like climate change, healthcare crises, overpowering technologies and woke social ideologies are posing a serious threat to mankind in the 21st century’.

In a pithy comment on what divides the world in the name of religion, Ram Madhav stated that while R20 discussed about the concept of ‘One God’, Hindu philosophy talks of the concept of ‘Only God’ and believes that whatever exists is divine, that this entire creation is manifestation of God and that since divinity is all pervading, there should be little scope for conflict and hatred.

He did well to implicitly tag the issues of ‘exclusivism’ and claim of ‘superiority’ over other religions that have surfaced because of the stand of Islamic fundamentalists.

The final communique of R20 issued on behalf of the religious leaders of member countries and elsewhere expressed deep concerns over global challenges such as environmental degradation, natural and man-made disasters, poverty, unemployment, displaced persons, extremism and terrorism and held that the situation has been rendered more difficult because of rivalry among major powers, resurgence of identity-based conflict world wide and erosion of public commitment to ethical and spiritual values.

It declared its resolve, among other things, to develop concrete initiatives for building bridges between nations and civilisations, prevent the political weaponisation of identity, curtail the spread of communal hatred, safeguard human beings from violence and suffering precipitated by conflict and foster the emergence of a truly just world order founded upon respect for equal rights and dignity of every human being.

All of this is unexceptionable and it is expected that the Islamic states would begin by putting all their citizens, regardless of faith, on the same footing, giving everybody freedom of worship and in fact treating all religions at par with their own – beyond of course presenting the universally applicable precepts of morality and human values embodied in Islam.

The pull of exclusivism originating from the claims of a religion of being the only ‘perfect’ faith and that too the ‘last one’ – since Prophet Mohammad was the ‘Khatimul Anbia’ – has to be understood.

In today’s world, a democratic secular state – deemed to be the best system of governance – has to rest on ‘one man one vote’, equal opportunities to all as well as the same protection of law for everybody and avoidance of putting a religious stamp on the state.

India is the perfect example of a state that has secularism built into its Constitution. India’s approach to domestic governance and international relations reflects this outlook. India opts for bilateral relations that brought in mutual gains for both security and development and adhered to the cause of global peace.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already released the logo for the G20 Summit of 2023 to be held in India. India has to steer the mission of R20 forward and ensure that beyond the advocacy of moral values prescribed by various faiths, there is no projection of religion in international politics as such because that would tend to divide rather than unite the world community.

Also, considering that in recent times an anti-India narrative has been built by forces within and outside the country about ‘majoritarianism’, ‘authoritarianism’ and safety of minorities and that Pakistan with its closeness to Saudi Arabia and influence on OIC has charged Modi government with following the ‘Hindutva’ agenda and putting the Muslim minority in jeopardy, India has to check any attempt of the Pak sympathisers in R20 to use the forum for running down this country on the pretext of advocacy of human rights and preservation of communal harmony.

G20 in Bali, meanwhile, has done well to focus on post-pandemic recovery and the energy and food security impacted by Ukraine- Russia military confrontation. Prime Minister Modi too gave special attention to the global problems in keeping with the rise of India as a major world power under his leadership and in particular stressed the importance of bridging the digital gap in the world.

The summit reiterated the call for a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine-Russia conflict through diplomacy and dialogue and endorsed Prime Minister Modi’s stand that ‘this must not be the era of war’.

(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)

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