Majorities with Minority Mentalities

There is a phrase that's often used to describe Islamic activists in Indonesia, that they are a "majority with a minority mentality." (I think the term comes from FW Wertheim, but I'm not sure if he actually coined the phrase.) Maybe "activists" isn't the word I'm looking for, maybe something more like Muslims with a consciously Muslim identity. Whatever. The point is, it's an evocative phrase that makes a lot of sense. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim in addition to being the world's largest Muslim country, and it's a country where piety is taken very seriously by both Muslims and non-Muslims. There is an argument out there that Indonesian Islam "doesn't count"–it's taken from a misreading of Geertz's The Religion of Java combined with a certain Mecca/Medina-centrism in the Arab world–but I largely dismis this. Nevertheless, despite being a dominant majority, the mentality among many Indonesian Muslims has been similar to that of a minority: that their aspirations are being neglected, that they face systematic discrimination, that they have no proper political (or even, really, social) representation, etc. This was particularly the case under the Sukarno and Soeharto, about whom Wertheim was writing. So this leads to the peculiar outcome of a numerically dominant majority couching its political strategies in the language of an oppressed minority. To give but one example from today's political scene, there is lots of concern by Muslim groups that the presence of Ahmadiyah (a tiny sect that most Muslims consider deviationist) threatens Indonesian Islam, so some action must be taken agains it.

Political scientists are trained to look for patterns and similarities across countries and contexts. And I think that the concept of a majority with a minority mentality actually fits the case of American political Christianity very well. I mean this in the following sense: as a political project, Christianity in the United States relies on the idea that Christians are repressed or under fire in some fashion. This despite the fact that the United States is probably the most pious advanced industrial economy in the world, one in which even hippy-progressive Ithaca has dozens of churches of every denomination. I could go on. But still the rhetoric we hear is that in America Christians and their rights are under assault. I think that this commercial sums it up perfectly.

Hat Tip: DSP

Note the framing of the issue of gay marriage here as not giving rights to a group that has been denied them, but rather taking rights from a group that has always enjoyed them.

The point of this is that I think we see a common strategy here. Numerically dominant groups must couch their demands in terms that make themselves seem small or at risk in order to mobilize their supporters for their cause. I think that this is consistent with what we know about collective action and social movements and the types of conditions that make them most effective. I also wonder if there's a subtle strategy of creating social cleavages (which is what the "us versus them" mentality is) in order to force groups to align on an issue in a way that a minimum winning coalition is formed. Political scientists can call this endogenous cleavage formation. This is a different perspective on how identities are shaped than that of Daniel Posner. He argues that multiple identities exist in any society (religion, race, culture, language, etc.), and the one that is politically salient is the one that allows for a minimum winning coalition to form. I suggest that when one identity is not minimum-winning (as numerically dominant religious majorities are in Indonesia and the United States) then the identity is itself shaped or reconstituted in a way that makes it minimum-winning.

NB: Nothing here should be read as being against either Islam or Christianity. I am concerned here not with religion as an abstract concept, a way of life, or whatever. Rather, I am interested in understanding how groups who wish to use religion to achieve political power do it, or put otherwise, in the choice of strategies among numerically dominant religious groups trying to advance a platform via political means.

Posted in Politics
One comment on “Majorities with Minority Mentalities
  1. […] The way around this is to insert some sort of caveat into whatever you write that says “I am not making any sort of normative claim about…” or “of course, interpretations of Islam vary, and I do not wish to be construed as claiming that all Indonesians…” or “even a low-probability event is still something that is worth understanding…” Or something like that. Sound familiar? […]

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