In the last few weeks, Jamaat-backed organizations have attacked police officers left and right. The government has suggested that these attacks are pre-planned, with the goal of generally de-stabilizing society. While the evidence on the ground suggests that there is more to these attacks than just mob-reaction to police brutality, it is not yet clear what these activists are trying to accomplish. And they are being roundly condemned from all quarters. Jamaat, Bangladesh’s most prominent Islamist party has seen its influence dwindle as the country has moved towards secular democracy. Its historic attachment to Pakistan has not helped its image. Nor has the fact that much of its top brass is in jail charged with war crimes. In this context, the recent attacks on police look like a misguided attempt to capture public attention.
But could Jamaat-e-Islami capture public attention in more positive way? Can an Islamist party like Jamaat survive as a viable partner in a secular democracy? And, more importantly, can a country with nearly 170 million Muslims be secular without forgoing its religious values?
A secular state is one in which there is a pronounced and deliberate neutrality concerning religion. While religion may continue to play a prominent role in personal lives of its citizens, the public sphere remains free of overt religious ideology. In a secular country, the government neither favours nor punishes any specific religion nor does it favour religion generally (that is to say, non-theism is okay too). While this definition may seem obvious to people living in secular societies, it is less obvious to people living in Islamic societies or those that are dominated by a single religion. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran routinely purport to be the promoters of “Islamic values” which too often result in state sanctioned discrimination — against women, minorities, foreign workers and anyone who falls out of favour with the government.
It is worth noting that these pan-Islamic states have adopted local orthodoxy masquerading as ‘universal’ Islam. And sometimes these states actively seek to negate secular universal ideas with the assistance of Islamic rhetoric. The best example of this phenomenon is Saudi Arabia: it signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) but added a reservation stating that it did not consider itself bound by any part of the convention that may conflict with “the norms of Islamic law.” Unfortunately, even scholars of Islam cannot seem to agree on what these “norms of Islamic law” are as these laws have evolved not only within Islamic societies but also non-Islamic societies. But it is clear that Saudi Arabia does not consider itself bound by any terms that it finds troublesome — be they anti-Islamic or merely anti-discriminatory.
The government sanctioned “values of Islam” present all sorts of obstacles for other aspects of life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For example, Saudi authorities suggest that the Internet needs to be heavily censored and monitored because the Quran strongly recommends it. The censors rely on a passage in the Quran about resisting sexual temptation (12: 33-34). However, this same passage also implies that God will protect those who seek his help. Even Muslims can agree that the Saudi censors appear to be overstepping their bounds — as it is God’s job, not the government’s, to safeguard the spiritual health of humans.
But creating a secular public sphere in a majority Muslim country is not an easy task. In the 1920s, Kemal Ataturk used the criminal code and strict police enforcement to ban the hijab and the fez and to relegate religious observation to the private sphere. Today, governments are unlikely to take such extreme and obviously discriminatory steps. The secularization of the public sphere should be an organic process. As inconvenient as it may be, a government doesn’t get to choose to follow the rule of law when it is politically expedient. It must also do so when it is politically unpopular. These views of due process is one of the cornerstones of a secular democracy and a government that is supposedly the vanguard of a progressing secular democracy should understand the birthing pains of a democracy.
One of the major misunderstandings secularism had to contend with is the notion that it is incompatible with Islam and Islamic nations. That sort of critique stem from a general lack of understanding of Islamic history and turning a blind eye to the long intellectual traditions that existed before the collapse of the caliphate and Ottoman Empire. This sort of critique is not only prevalent within fundamentalist Islamic political organization but also western political right who have used this misconception to create a general condition of phobia and paranoia concerning Islam within western societies. But historical evidence suggests a long strand of secularist thought.
In the eighth century, the Mutazilites, founded by the philosopher al-Kindi, emerged in the Arab world. A group of scientists, philosophers and poets, they opposed legalistic dogma based solely on the Shari’a and thought religion should be separate from state governance. The most well known Mutazilites were Ibn Sina and al-Farabi, the first Islamic-Hellenistic philosophers who incorporated and infused Aristotelian metaphysics into their philosophy. The Mutazilites argued that it was possible to act morally with the use of rational thought alone and that legal dogma is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to promote values. They rejected the necessity to incorporate state functions into religion. In as much as they espoused the separation of state and religion, they were secularists as far as the public sphere was concerned.
In contrast, the Ashraites, who generally rejected rationalist philosophy, also rejected the separation of state and religion. They argued that the human mind is incapable of comprehending nature and God’s will. The Asharites pushed the institutions of the ever-expanding Caliphate toward the institutions of religion. Mathematicians like al-Ghazali, Faqr-al-din Razi, and fourteenth century historian and sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, all advocated the view that religion should be institutionalized through the vehicle of the state. They favoured combining state functions with religious philosophy.
Scholars like Abdul Wahab al-Effendi, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Hamza Yusuf, Abdul Hakim Murad, Javed Ghamdi, have considered the utility of secularism in Islam and reached the conclusion that secularism is the only way to reach progress in an increasingly connected and globalized society. The efficacy of secularism is fully understood within the works of these scholars, but they also rejected the secularism of Ataturk, which by any modern measure is a severe form of cultural subjugation through the means of the state. Secularism as a pragmatic and at times organic process to progress liberal ideas like equality, rights of women, rights of minorities is something that all these scholars agree on even though they come from all spectrums of the Islamic faith. The adoption and incorporation of ‘public reason’ (in a Rawl-ian sense) has become one of the most important proclamations to defend secularism in Islamic societies that has traditionally been weary of secularism due to the severe abuse of secularist despots and causal conservatism stemming from it.
Lastly, one of the most common misconceptions about secularism is that it is viewed as anti-religious when it really is ‘religion neutral’. It protects the rights of Muslims in a non-Muslim society and it protects rights of non-Muslims in a Muslim society. It is quite conducive to the growth of personal religion where the relationship of morality is between the individual and God, not the individual and the state. Despite its obvious benefits it induces hysteria among a lot of fundamentalists because they don’t profit from a citizenry that is unwilling to make public decisions based on reactionary understanding of Islamic history. It is easy to sell the boogey man of secularism to garner support for various dubious causes which not only borders on dangerous but at times anti-Islamic. Nothing scares us more than the loss of our identity and when that fear is used to reject progress under some vague notion of state sanctioned morality (be it in the form of banning of YouTube or closing down sufi mosques), both Islam and the U’mmah lose. And that is a cost we should be unwilling to pay not only as a society but also as individuals. Democracy cannot survive without secularism and secularism cannot survive without democracy. The sooner we accept that fact the better off we will be.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a war theorist and a visiting researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development, Harvard University.