Stunning mini-revolutions have erupted in recent months in two of the world’s largest Muslim countries. The first shock came in Indonesia, where a little-known group of activists led a mass protest against the Christian governor of Jakarta. Accused of disrespecting the Prophet, the governor, a close ally of the country’s president Joko Widodo, is now in prison. In Pakistan in late November, another pop-up political outfit besieged the capital city Islamabad, forcing the government to concede to all their demands, which included the harsh implementation of blasphemy laws.
Neither country suffers from a scarcity of laws aimed at detractors of the Prophet. And persecution of Muslim minorities, such as the Ahmadi, has been intensifying in recent years in Indonesia as well as Pakistan. A police bodyguard who assassinated the governor of Punjab in 2011 for the latter’s opposition to blasphemy laws, and “westernized” lifestyle, became an instant hero, showered with rose petals by lawyers in court. What’s new and more disturbing is growing support for anti-blasphemy activists among a population believed to be largely moderate. What explains this widespread popularity of the politics of outrage?
It’s not hard to blame political opportunists, such as the Pakistani army, which has a long record of nurturing Islamists and is again seeking to consolidate its power. The Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan has sidled closer to Islamic hardliners in recent days. Indonesia’s secular military-business elites were also quick to realign themselves with anti-blasphemy activists.
It‘s easy, too, to finger “radical Islam,” and its international sponsors, such as Saudi Arabia, for the exponential rise in intolerance. But what then explains the Hindu nationalist vigilantes who currently rampage across India, proscribing whatever “offends” their sentiments?
A fuller explanation lies in the momentous socioeconomic shifts in Pakistan and Indonesia: the dramatic reduction of poverty in the previous two decades and a great expansion in the size of the aspiring urban middle class.
In our age of accelerating communications, much larger populations in Asia and Africa desire prosperity, equality and dignity. And many more people experience faster social mobility than before. But this also means that these ambulant individuals soon collide with social, economic and cultural disparities.
Old feudal, business and professional classes have visibly expanded their disproportionate privileges, which include assets abroad, superior education and consumer indulgences. Those making the arduous rural-urban transition for the first time without adequate social and professional networks, the right accent in English or glamorous Instagram feeds can thus feel cruelly marginalized. They expect to be rewarded for their talent and hard work in a meritocracy. Instead, they find themselves cowed by the entrenched power of dynasty, or inherited advantages.
Such sharp class divisions offer near-perfect growth conditions for the tumor of ressentiment -- one that political opportunists from the right, in the absence of any progressive politics, are best placed to nurture. And they do so, yet again, by redirecting the frustrations of social mobility against scapegoats: religious and ethnic minorities, or blasphemers among a “liberal” elite.
It’s in this context of aggravated social and economic inequality and undeclared class war that some very unlikely class warriors have emerged. In India, the corporate-backed Narendra Modi presents himself as a champion of the hard-working “neo-middle class” against India’s decadent, minority-pampering dynasts. In Pakistan, Imran Khan, a darling of London’s jet-set, routinely works up his young Pakistani supporters through denunciations of “westoxified” and “bloodthirsty” liberals.
The neo-nativists may seem hypocritical to their critics. However, they offer to many people a deeply gratifying substitute for actual political, social and economic power: the language of moral opprobrium, which is weaponized through anti-blasphemy legislation. For many lowly strivers and stragglers, laws aimed at the godless, the dissolute and the traitorous have a visceral appeal.
Of course, the self-styled defenders of the Prophet’s honor aren’t the best advertisements for Islamic virtue and dignity. Both Khan and the Indonesian rabble-rouser Rizieq Shihab have been accused of sending lewd text messages to women. But their plastic haloes aren’t dented, largely because their neo-middle class fans are not wholly or exclusively motivated by religious principle.
Rather, their aspirations are diverse and seemingly contradictory. Many upwardly mobile people wish to assume a showy Muslim identity even as they pursue the secular totems of success. With their headscarves and long beards (and iPhones), they want to be seen as individuals moving forward confidently in the modern world. They may not indulge for long in a fundamentally disruptive politics of blasphemy. For now, however, it represents an aggressive will to power of a rising -- and thwarted -- class against an old elite.
By Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.