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largeIn 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.

22 Responses to “Secularism and Islam: The myth and the reality”

  1. Arman

    Thanks for the article. This article is one step ahead of what an oridnary Muslim think about Islam. But there is an underlying truth in Islam supported by Quran. ISLAM CAN NOT BE SECULAR. Most of us never read the Quran and do not know that it talked about Jihad against infidels more than 400 times. So, those who are selling Islam as a religion of peace are only saying it because that better fits with any religion but that is not the fact.

    • Dr.Kishaloy Sur

      You are absolutely correct. That’s why as a Non-Muslim I’m afraid that secularism in Muslim majority countries will never be a reality!

  2. Dr Kishaloy Sur

    Well written. But some compromise of conflicting concept is inevitable. As a Non-Muslim’s point of view (as a minority) the reality don’t support that secularism in a ‘true sense’ possible in a Muslim majority Bangladesh or any-other country in the world. I feel very sorry for that, even-though we fraught in 1971, for a secular state but it was an incomplete revolution! And killing of the Father-of-The-Nation at 1975, we again revert back to Pakistani ‘two-nation’ ideology as proposed by Jinnah during division of India on 1947 based on Hindu & Muslims are two nation! Flawed concept but worked well.

  3. Mostafiz

    I have been delighted reading the comments.
    However, I want to say regretfully that, I have found nothing positive in any media about SAUDI ARABIA & IRAN !

  4. moeen

    I would like a similar articel from Mr. Jyoti regarding secularimsm in India, the role of BJP as political force there, and the plight of Kasmiries ( vicitm of one of the worst human rights violations of or time) regardless of which party has been ruling India for decades.

    Also, would you please ponder upon the following statement and opine how secular it is: “for you your religioin and for me my religion”. And then, may be google it to find out which book it came from……

    • Sixth Sense

      “Lakum Dinukum Waliyadin”

      The verse quoted above has nothing to do with war theory.It is most secular than any other written or spoken words.The writer should do better if he continued to confine himself with his war theories.
      Many thanks,moeen.

  5. Anonymous

    Please learn proper history unlike hearing it from critics without studying. Learn about Sharia before finding difference with so called constitution among non Muslims and Muslims

  6. Ali

    After reading the article and responses to it, I must say that it is quite surprising how hung up on religion some of these people are. I found the article to be beneficial and thought provoking.

    I am not sure if the writer would bother to address these absurd claims in the comments section. But let me try to address some of them.

    Israel and Vatican are not the same sort of state. Vatican is barely a state. only a person who has no understanding of how a state functions would suggest that it is a state. as for Israel, we are having a conversation about Islam and secularism, not Judaism and secularism. as a Muslim I would like to have that conversation without some guy sprouting out Israel angrily. So I hope the author of the article understands that these people are pretending to be thoughtful but really are the demagogues.

    I did not think the author was arguing atheism. if he did, it is within his right to do so. Islam is inclusive only to the point of monotheistic values. If you are not a monotheist you are not within that inclusiveness. Also there are more than few passages in the Quran where it talks about death and punishment for offending Islam. I am just pointing out the hole in the theory of inclusiveness.

    Lastly, I am not sure where some of you are living, but Islamic countries are the topmost offenders of human rights. So if that is the case, then obviously the state sanctioned Islam is not working. I think as Muslims we need to stop pretending everything is fine. So stop making ridiculous statements for the status quo. This is a good article because it pushes people’s buttons to think about their own religious belief and its interaction with the state. I did not take any offense to this because the arguments are backed up. I could not say the same thing about the comments section.

    • Alam

      Dear Mr Ali,
      Thanks for your observation and broader outlook on a article presented apparently from positive spirit to accommodate all citizens of the state more or less under a common law irrespective of any religion and its believers (secularism)!

      The state, in the strict sense, does not contain any heart and mind to uphold any spiritual value except well being of its citizens administered through its machinery within the geographical location. And thereby state does not own and have any religion (secularism).

      Even from the contradictory views and references of Islam and its net effects in various countries in administering Islamic Shariah,may well justify that individual religious values and its promotion should remain outside state interference.

      Effectively, STATE is an institution and not a theology of any religion ….Islam and its spirit/values do not limit to any state,it can be practiced any where in the world without undermining values of other religion ” Lakum Dinukum Waliadin”.

      “ALMIGHTY ALLAH remains with the creative person”.

    • Mahfooz


      Please do not be so surprised at ‘how hung up on religion some of these people are’. These people who are ‘hung up on religion’ in your language are called pious or devout, in any religion, in English per any standard dictionary.

      You have much to be ‘surprised’, as these pious people look at this world in a different light than is apparent to the atheists and the godless. For the pious, there are divine set of laws that transcends anything that man may create. They live and die by them – in any religion.

      I pray that such people keep surprising you till you meet your end. Then only you will know the truth, as truth by divine revelations have apparently no significance for you and people like you who keep being surprised, ad infinitum!


  7. Talukder

    The flaw in your analysis stems from the following reasons:
    1. You obviously do not believe that Sharia is a viable choice
    2. You conveniently overlook the misuse of secularism which you yourself claimed to be frequent in history.
    3. Flaws of the pan-Islamic legislature is vastly more highlighted in media,both local and western, of which Islamists have very less control

  8. Mahfooz

    This piece is just a theoretical exposition with little connection with reality obtaining in the 21st Century, an essay fit for a grad student writing in favour of secularism. For example much has been made of the society and government of Saudi Arabia but nothing, not a word, has been addressed to Israel and the Vatican, the only two theocratic states in the world today and how these states are functioning in the modern world. By theocratic it is meant that any Jew and Roman Catholic are entitled to be citizens of these two countries. Israel is considered by all and sundry in the Western World as democratic. So the hypothesis that democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive is not borne out by present day reality. To say that being secular is not being ‘godless’ is not true either. In the Western world, the separation of the State and the Church has increasingly brought about atheistic propensities among the adherents such that a recent survey indicate atheism as the third biggest ‘belief system’ in the world today, after Christianity and Islam. Islam provides full protection to the minorities. Any persecution or indiscrimination against the minority communities is prohibited in an Islamic society. But persecution of a particular group or community has little to do with religion. The Nazis were not religious. Yet they inflicted the horrors of holocaust on the Jews. The modern Indian State is secular by constitutional provision. Yet communal riots are common occurrences there when Muslims in the main are persecuted, killed, their houses burnt and crimes against humanity is committed against them. Thus secularism is not the solution to social problems, faith, in particular Islamic principles are.

    I do hope the writer will address the subject with an unbiased view point. The current article is just too much one sided affair in favour of a godlessness and atheism.

  9. Ahmed Ziauddin

    Stopped reading after this absurd statement: “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.”

  10. mijan-UK

    Major misunderstood is ISLAM NOT SECULARISM..Secularism is not even working in the West..Islam protects all humanity in the world and benefits in the hereafter..secular Muslim country is like committing shirk..Jamaat-e-Islami does not own Islam..Islam is for all humanity..Islam is misunderstood not Secularism..wake up Muslim journalists! Know Islam in proper way instead of misleading it..Bangladesh’s solution is Islam..from these corrupters..!!


    • Mozammel Haque

      An exact idea in the exact matter. It is not right to claim secularism with any faith and its population.
      The majority enjoy a benefit according to the system of democracy.
      This applies for any faith.
      So the minority should develop a sense of discipline to live with the majority and in India Sonaton versus Islam, in Europe and America Christianity versus Islam and Islam versus others in Bangladesh,Iran,Pakistan Indonesia.
      The basic teaching of any faith is living with discipline.

  11. Mohammed gaosul Azam

    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.

  12. Golam Arshad

    Jyoti: Islam is inclusive, stems from MONOTHEISM in the Abrahamic tradition. I am not a scholar in Islam, and understandably your are NOT either. The world “SECULAR” means, “not connected with religious or spiritual matters”. A Muslim vows on Kalimah Tayabah, an oath of supreme allegiance to the Only Supreme Creator, Almighty Allah, and NONE but ALLAH. Therefore, in a simplistic notion, A Muslim can never be SECULAR in western connotation of being SECULAR. It is equally ad aged to : JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY, negating the premise of SECULARISM. Islam promotes, TOLERANCE, BROTHERHOOD and embraces INCLUSIVENESS in all facets of day to day LIFE. Unfortunately, because of vested interest, and political ramifications, like and in Christianity and Judaism, nudged into the morass of extremists galore of political aggrandizement. Do you agree? Good job!!

    • Mahfooz

      I agree with the view points of Mr. Arshad. If Islam was intolerant, the majority of the people of India could not remain Hindus after 800 years of Islamic rule. Same would have happened in Bengal with many, many centuries of rule under the Bengal Sultanates and the Moghuls. You only have to look at Spain where an intolerant, bigoted Christian Kingdom committed genocide and eliminated all Muslims of Andalusia, who built a most advanced civilization in the peninsula of Spain. Or, Goa for that matter bears testimony to the oppressive nature of Portuguese rule that eliminated all other religions other than Roman Catholicism. Nothing of this sort ever happened under Islamic rule anywhere in the world.

      It is true that Islam is a complete code of life that includes both personal and social aspects. Thus secularism per se is not compatible with the basic principles of Islam. Attempts to create a ‘secular Islam’ or a true secular rule in a Muslim majority country is sure to backfire causing only social upheavals and breach of peace. One has to look at present day Egypt to note that the ‘Islamist’ Islamic Brotherhood is in power by dint of popular vote even after being banned and persecuted for over 100 years. A silent revolution is taking place in Turkey after Kamal Pasha removed all signs of Islam, even caps and beards, from the society. Yet Islamic ideology is coming back by popular choice.

      Any attempt to secularize this deeply religious country by the so-called intellectuals and liberals whose influence is limited to ‘talk shows’, print media and Dhaka bases seminars will not succeed. Bangladesh will continue to honour Islamic principles by the deep rooted faith that the people keep safe in their hearts. No atheism and godlessness will succeed here even if disguised under the insidious garb of secularism.



      • Mahfooz

        Mr. Arshad,

        Thanks very much.

        Islamic thoughts, studies and even practices are popularly and erroneously associated in this country with the largely ignorant ‘kath mollas’. Few people know that men like Nobel Laureate Prf Abdus Salam was deeply religious and found no conflict with Islam and science [ref Sublime Science, by Prof A.Salam] . I would strongly recommend readings from modern Islamic scholars such as Prof Tariq Ramadan, Head of Islamic Studies, Oxford University.

        Knowldege is power.

        Today, we the Muslims must be armed with sufficient knowledge of politics, economics, history, anthropology, comparative theology and even psychology to counter the popular anti-Islamic and pro-secular/atheistic propaganda. We must counter them with solid logic and historical facts.

        I am a Muslim by choice.

        I offer no apology for being a Muslim, who do not subscribe to secularism as understood in the West but scarcely understood here. Belief in Islam does not make one communal; neither may a secularist be free from communalism, which has little to do with religion but is based on tribal and group loyalties.

        Inshallah, we shall succeed.

        Zazallah Khair


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