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How Religious Freedom Helps the Poor

Rebecca Shah, April 28, 2014

A few minutes’ drive from Bangalore’s international airport live Shanu Munisa and her husband, Imtiaz. Shanu and Imtiaz are Dalits (outcastes) who live in Razak Palaya, a predominantly Muslim village and one of the poorest communities in north Bangalore. Sitting in their half-finished hut, I asked Shanu, “Where do you think God is?” Looking up from the floor, Shanu replied, “He is here,” placing her hand on her chest. I asked her how she knew that God was with her. Shanu asked me to look outside and beyond the debris and towards a small shrine, or a darga as it is called, which was situated about one hundred feet away from the village gate. “When I am sad, or when I worry about food, my home, or my children, I go to the darga to talk to God and I bring home a gulab [rose]. I know God is with me because just as the fragrance of the rose fills my hut, I can feel God’s presence with me.”
Religion is no panacea, but aspects of religion can activate certain practices and partnerships among its adherents that can motivate and encourage economic development. If modern economics continues to yield an understanding of human development that ignores the role of religion, governments and development institutions will persist in acting as “one-eyed giants” who “analyze, prescribe, and act as if man could live by bread alone, as if human destiny could be stripped to its material dimensions alone” (“Development Experts: The One-Eyed Giants” in World Development). According to human development theorist Denis Goulet, development is more human and fuller when people are called to “be more” rather than simply to “have more.” There can be “authentic development” only when there is a “societal openness to the deepest levels of mystery and transcendence,” and when this yearning for mystery and transcendence is recognized and satisfied.

By ignoring religion, most development practitioners and academics fail to take into account that the lack of respect, social isolation, indignity, and stigma that the poor face are not a result of their economic deprivation, but are more likely to be a function of their religious identity, ethnic and minority identity, and in particular the ways in which these various identities are perceived by people around them. Muslims in India are labeled as “anti-national” or “terrorist” while Christians are regarded as secular and liberal “westerners” and as those who receive vast sums of foreign money.

Economist Glen Loury suggests that there is a tacit association in people’s minds of “laziness,” “dangerousness,” or “untrustworthiness” as being intrinsic to certain religious or ethnic minority groups, when actually those disadvantages are a product of the ways in which people perceive, treat, and interact with the group. Because of the perception of Indian Muslims as disloyal and dangerous—deficiencies that are regarded as deeply cultural and which absolves society from any responsibility to do something for them—Muslims are less likely to reside in multi-community neighborhoods. This is more pronounced in communally sensitive towns and cities like Ahmedabad, Ayodhya, or parts of Bangalore. For the very poor Dalit Muslims these ghettos often lack basic water and sanitation services, modern English-medium school, and access to good government or reasonably priced and good quality health facilities. Such deficiencies in basic services can perpetuate their underdevelopment and backward status. Moreover, in two Templeton Foundation and RIHA funded studies of poor micro entrepreneurs in Bangalore, India, we found that less 30% of our Muslim clients owned a house in the urban and more developed section of North Bangalore compared to 50% of Christian and 75% for Hindu clients, respectively.

The negative impact of religious repression on development can persist indefinitely through its influence on the ways in which people see themselves. A person’s identity is shaped by interacting with people within a community rather than an assertion of his/her own values and experience. People who are pessimistic about themselves and their circumstances and who see their social isolation as part of their negative collective identity, as part of what defines them as a people, are less willing or able to take risks to improve their lives and tend to participate in socially destructive and (often physically) harmful activities. Such behavior can sustain and reinforce the group’s isolation from the mainstream, which in turn feeds their abandonment and leads to further destructive behavior.

Freedom to practice one’s faith and be a person of faith can be instrumental in enabling the poor to achieve some modicum of social and economic freedom, but is also constitutive of their identities and sense of well being. Religious faith can open a closed and hopeless situation of persistent poverty to a transcendent reality and transcendent resources. The poor are no longer alone in their situation, however desperate it might be. In cases where the poor are trapped in a cycle of poverty and where it might be easier to give up than to make an effort to try to change, religiously motivated hope might be what is needed to push people out of apathy and fear and to motivate them to transform their lives.

While material deprivations and social structures might limit what Shanu can achieve or who she can be, it is her beliefs—what she understands to be meaningful and what moves her at the deepest level—that will shape how she views herself and her circumstances and will ultimately determine her actions and behavior. Increasingly in India, there is growing social and clerical pressure to restrict Muslims from visiting dargas and shame or even coerce them into a far more “orthodox” Sunni form of Islam. For Shanu, the freedom to be able to walk out of her debris-ridden environment, to give her zakat during Ramadan, and to visit a darga and bring home a gulab fulfills a vital need for her to have communion with the transcendent. This transcendent dimension of Shanu is what she values and is what defines her as a person.
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