Discussion and implications

The findings reported in Table 2 and discussed above identify two possible trends about the relationship between religiosity and modernity. The first trend indicated by all countries except Malaysia is that the HDI is negatively related to the intensity of religiosity. This trend is consistent with the relationship posited by the sociological theories of Parson, Berger and others as discussed in the introductory section of this paper. The second trend characterises Malaysia where the level of modernity is positively related to the intensity of religiosity. One plausible reason for this may be that Malaysia’s demography is different from other countries. About 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population consists of the Muslim Malays and the rest of them are non-Muslims, mostly of Chinese origin. The Chinese are also economically much more prosperous compared with the Malays. This economic disparity may be a factor in producing the higher HDI score for Malaysia.

Another plausible explanation for this second trend may be that ethnic diversity and economic disparities between the Malays and non-Malays in Malaysia may be a significant factor in this relationship. Malays, unlike other ethnic groups, use Islam as the defining feature of their ethnic identity. One consequence of that may be a greater level of religious consciousness among them which is reflected in their higher religiosity. These are offered only as plausible explanations and more focused research is required to satisfactorily explain the Malaysian situation.

The relationship between religiosity and blasphemous attitudes is positive and consistent with sociological theory. But here again there is the interesting case of Iran, which warrants a brief commentary. Iran is an Islamic Republic and it is the only country among the Muslim countries examined in this paper in which religion performs an overarching function in the affairs of the state and society. Under such circumstances one may have expected that both the level of religiosity and the intensity of blasphemous attitudes would be stronger than indicated by the data in Table 2. A possible explanation of this unexpected finding may be that the institutional configurations play a critical role in shaping the public influences of religious institutions and patterns of personal religiosity.

As I have argued elsewhere, there are institutional configurations in which religion is fused with the state, and public trust in religious institutions tends to decline which may also influence the expressions of religiosity at the individual level.[21] In other words, the existence of an Islamic state, as is the case in Iran, can have a depressing impact on religiosity at the individual level. The converse may also be true. The existence of a secular state in which religion and state occupy separate and distinct spaces may produce a high level of personal religiosity. This may happen when the religious institutions act as a mobiliser of resistance against the state that is authoritarian and lacks political legitimacy. In other words, as suggested by Luhmann, when religion plays a strong applied role in a modern society its public influence increases, which may also produce a higher level of personal religious commitment at the individual level.[22]

There is another sociological implication of the strong relationship between the level of religiosity and blasphemy in a Muslim society. According to Gellner, in Muslim society strong religiosity is conducive to reinforcing Islamic communalism rather than civil society.[23] This view is highly contested among scholars of Islam and Muslim society. For example Lewis, Pipes, and Huntington hold similar views to Gellner.[24] But other scholars, like Ibrahim, Kamali, Norris and Inglehart, and Hefner, strongly contest the view that Islam and civil society are incompatible.[25]

As suggested by Gellner, if the core of civil society is the idea of institutional and ideological pluralism that prevents the central institutions of the state from establishing monopoly over power and truth in society, then it can be argued that religious traditionalism (as reflected by strong religiosity) can act as an impediment to the functioning of a robust civil society.[26] One can argue that persecutions of religious minorities for blasphemy and other deviations from traditional religious beliefs are indicative of a relatively weak civil society in Pakistan. Similarly, in Iran the enforcement of laws relating to women’s dress code as well as pressure to conform to a particular reading of the sacred texts is also an infringement of civil liberty and human rights.

It can also be argued that if an important condition for the existence of civil society is that there should be an independent public sphere which is relatively autonomous of the state and whose legitimacy is normatively protected then the historical as well as contemporary variants of Muslim societies display elements of these conditions. The most visible representation of this is the position of the ulama (Islamic scholars and teachers) and their access to the mambers (pulpit) to influence public opinion on a wide variety of issues; this influence is universally acknowledged. The importance of mambers in propagating and legitimising political ideas, de-legitimising others, and mobilising support is part of Islamic history. In recent history the fortunes of, and survival of, political leaders have been strongly influenced by the activities of the ulama through mambers in Pakistan, Indonesia, Palestine, Malaysia, Lebanon, and Algeria and is now evident in the developments taking place in the American-British occupied Iraq.

The ulama can also influence the state policies through their access to the market (bazaar). It can, therefore, be argued that elements of religious ideology in Islam can also underpin the existence of an independent and strong civil society of a particular type. It is through these mechanisms that in Iran, notwithstanding the theocratic nature of the state and conservatism of the ruling Islamic party, there have been remarkable developments which have opened up space for political activism from professional bodies, women’s organisations and from the reformist elements from within the Shiite Islamic clergy and the ruling party. Similar developments have taken place in Indonesia in the post-Suharto era.

To conclude, in this paper I have argued that conditions of modernity play a significant role in shaping the role of religion in modern society. It is conducive to increasing secularisation as well as revitalising the role of religion. Using empirical evidence I have explored the relationship between modernity, religiosity and blasphemy in several Muslim countries and in Australia. The paper has also explored the sociological implications of prevailing religious traditionalism in Muslim countries and in particular its implications for the functioning of a robust civil society.[27]