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Religion has a powerful hold on the nationalist imagination. Many a nationalist struggle has come to be inflected, even appropriated, by religious discourses and authority figures. At the same time, the rise of nationalism and the emergence of nation-states have also produced nationalizing effects on religious communities. Either way, it is clear religious identity and conceptions of nationhood cannot be understood divorced from the social, cultural, and historical contexts of societies and their interactions with power. This contention is premised on the view that “nationalism is a field of debates about the symbol of the nation, and national identity is a relational process enacted in social dramas and ‘events’ as well as in everyday practices.” It is bearing this in mind that the following proposition is made: in Southeast Asia, the role of religion in political conflicts and contestations is best understood in the context of national identity formation and contestation that continues to define much of post-independence politics in the region.
Before proceeding to see how this plays out in the study of religious conflicts in several cases drawn from Southeast Asia, it is necessary to first consider the theoretical literature in terms of the political aspects of religion and the religious impulses of nationalism. Towards that end, this chapter will introduce and discuss the current literature and debates that define the fields of religious conflict and nationalism studies, and how they intersect and speak to each other, before making its case for a view of religious nationalism that accounts for the dynamic and intimate relationship between the notions of religious faith, identity, rights, and belonging.
Until recently, scholarly study of religion – whether in its monotheistic or polytheistic forms – as a sociological phenomenon had been for the most part relegated to the backwaters of social sciences. With the emergence of modernization and rationalist theory as dominant paradigms in the field after the Second World War, interest in religion as a phenomenon that impacted on social, political, and economic developments diminished considerably. Consequently, its study was largely confined to the disciplines of theology and religious studies.
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