By Yusuf Choudhry
April 25, 2014
Can Muslims reconcile with the true spirit of secularism?
Let me say that I am a firm believer in Intelligent Design, and that a Supreme Force created all of mankind whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, or Buddhist. Question is, did God separate us, or did we separate ourselves?
The annals of history point to the latter. Imagine Noah today if he had to make a choice about who to take aboard the ark. The point is, we humans, in our thirst for control, have shaped divinity to our liking. Anyone who does not agree with us is the other side. That would still be okay if we could at least co-exist just like every other thing in nature does. The worst thing that God ever gave man is the power to think, which has been used forever to raid and destroy others who may not think alike.
When there was no organised religion, they did it with force, but then they developed an easier way. Convince the masses with facts or fictions about God, and lead them into doing the things. Check out history and you will see this happening in every religion there has been.
The question is, how does one reconcile it with the modern society’s needs? Again, history would show that as humans advanced economically, there arose the necessity of reconciliation and religion as perpetuated by the upper echelons of the feudal class started taking a backseat. People developed liberalism and tolerance. The Western world lead this evolution of thoughts because it went through religious persecution of the worst sort in the wake of the Roman Catholic Church.
The rest of the world also saw its benefits and started emulating. In the Islamic world, the renaissance started with Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria from the mid 1940s to the 1970s, where visionary leaders like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Habib Bourguiba, and Gamal Abdel Nasser led the revolution of thoughts towards a secular society shedding the dominance of religion as preached under the earlier Islamic orthodoxy.
This was not an easy process, because many Muslims believed in the inseparability of religion and statecraft. To bring the semblance of a secular society, separate rules had to be enacted for different religious sects governing physical life according to their religious beliefs particularly in such areas as marriage, divorce, laws of inheritance, freedom of worship, etc. Many Muslim majority countries that followed them embraced secularism with the same multiplicity of laws and rules.
This worked well for a while and everybody was happy – all except the deeply entrenched Islamists who considered all that to be quite sacrilegious. Their opposition, however, was muted and confined to the conservative layers of the rural society and not really impacting the core of politics and statecraft emanating from the more educated urbanites.
Then resurgence took place of the old thinking that religion should be at the centre of public life, not the fringe. Two essential forces brought this about. One was the arrogance of power and corruption that infected the ruling class, and brought miseries and injustice to the rest exemplified by the monarchy in Iran.
Religion is like opium, it tends to ease the pain, but at the same time, the more you have of it the more you want. Radicalisation of Islam perhaps can be traced to this more than any other cause. The other factor was a growth of unconstrained Islamism promoted by the followers of Abdul Wahab in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 provided the initial push that radicalised a whole nation in a very short time. The force of Wahhabism permeated more subtly through religious schools and the infusion of money into the rural society. The great economic liberator of many poor Muslim countries, and employment in the more orthodox Islamic countries of the Middle East also worked as a catalyst very much under the radar of secularists.
Bangladesh has been a victim on both side of the religious divide. The people, by and large, have been conservative but not conservative extremes. This played into the hands of the Pakistanis who painted the secular people as anti-Islamist. When the country emerged from the civil war, it retained its character and made space for secularism to grow.
But somehow, the suspicion towards India drew people more towards Islam candidly abated by Saudi influence. Money poured in to support Islamic ideology of the more extreme variety through the madrasas and charities plus offers of jobs in the Middle East. The ignominious end of the Awami League regime in 1975 gave its opponents the opportunity of using Islam as a political weapon.
Starting with Khondokar Mushtaq Ahmed who declared the country to be an Islamic Republic, followed by Ziaur Rahman to some extent, and then Ershad, the country went through a quiet insurgence of Islam. The later tenure of Khaleda Zia further reinforced the Islamists’ rise. The current AL government, although it resorted back to constitutional secularism of the early 1970s, did it with a wary eye towards the growing force of the Islamists in the country.
The question now is: Where do the people of Bangladesh want to head in the future? Do they want to stay with the liberal Islam of the past, or adopt the more conservative theology of the Middle East? A tough question, which I do not believe has been candidly asked yet. It is time for the people to make a choice which will at least settle the fight between the extreme right and the extreme left.
Of course, the people also have a third choice. Could a Muslim democracy be conceived in the true spirit of secularism where individuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, could choose between Sharia law and the civil code for their rights and privileges?
Could the Islamists live with that? Before one answers that question, consider a quote from Sandra Day O’Connor: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”