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What’s behind the rise of religious politics?

Religious institutions bring together elites and religious actors which can foment political change, the authors suggest

Mumbai: Religion influences politics everywhere, but in some societies such as India, religion has also become enmeshed with politics. What is the reason for this difference in religion’s influence across societies? According to Samuel Bazzi of Boston University, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick of Harvard University, and Benjamin Marx of Sciences Po, the answer lies in the role played by religious institutions. In a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper, the authors analyse the effects of Islamic institutions on politics in Indonesia. They specifically focus on the role of the waqf, an Islamic charitable trust and a widely adopted institution across Muslim societies, and an important policy change made more than 50 years ago.

In 1960, the Indonesian government introduced land reforms to transfer land from rural land-owning elite to the landless. However, religious land (land owned by waqf) was exempt from the reform. In response, large landowners transferred significant amount of land to waqf endowments and, in doing so, deepened the alliance between religious actors and rural elites.

Also read: The institutional foundations of religious politics: Evidence from Indonesia

The authors show that areas that were targeted for land reform have larger waqf land and a stronger presence of Islamic institutions (such as mosques and madrasas). Using elections and socioeconomic data, the authors show that, decades later, these areas have provided greater support to hardline Islamist parties in elections and have more extensive local Islamic law (sharia).

The authors conclude that religious institutions such as the waqf bring together elites and religious groups to influence law and policy. More generally, these institutions provide stability and secrecy to individuals, making them ideal venues for political activism and for fomenting opposition to the state.

The authors conclude that ‘specific religious institutions can nurture support for political activism by religious actors, and in doing so, shape the nature and the success of religious politics’ in a country.

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