Religious Rhetoric in Politics: Competition versus Alignment

Mohamed Salihin Subhan, University of British Columbia


Authoritarianism and Resistance: Dynamics between Government and Society


Why and how do governments use religious rhetoric? In this paper, I argue that governments use religious rhetoric in response to potential electoral threat from religious political actors, and that the nature of religious rhetoric usage depends on the perceived level of electoral threat. Political incumbents use competitive religious rhetoric when faced with low electoral threat from Islamists and aligning religious rhetoric when faced with high electoral threat from Islamists. I explore the above research question and formulate the framework of religious rhetoric usage through a historical comparison of two government administrations in Malaysia. Specifically, I compare the use of Islamic rhetoric in the Mahathir Mohamed administration (1981–2003) and the Najib Razak administration (2009–2018). I argue that the difference in the use of Islamic rhetoric by the Prime Ministers across the two administrations can be attributed to the difference in perceived Islamist electoral threat at different points in time. I identify three factors that influence the relative electoral threat of Islamists to political incumbents: 1) the political strength of the incumbent; 2) support for Islamists; and 3) the competitiveness of religious markets. The ways in which political incumbents respond to the growing political strength of Islamists have implications for the status of democracy and the political and social rights of religious minorities. As the salience of religion in the politics of these societies grow stronger, the effect of religious rhetoric on political mobilization is likely to deepen polarization among religious cleavages in plural societies.

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CCSEAS Conference 2021 |