May 30, 2007

A tiny problem with our entire Islamism vs. Secularism debate

Came across this bittersweet little gem in the New Age Xtra:

SHARIATULLAH was angry. As he slowly tended his right shoulder blade with his shaking left hand, his silent stare at the traffic police officer who had lurched at him with the stick was that of fury... Shariatullah was now adamant to know of his fault. Even a week back it was okay to turn left at the junction onto the main road. Each question he asked was followed by another blow of the police officer. As the traffic had started to get chaotic, the officer retreated, and Shariatullah sat down on the footpath a few yards from the junction keeping his rickshaw by his side. ‘I have no problem in following the rules. But this cannot be Allah’r bichar [justice of Allah]. They make up new ones every other day. Do they know what they want? When will they stop?’

It serves as an intro to Dhaka's essentially unplanned nature, but I'm not interested in that at the moment. I'd just like to point out two things, the first socio-political the second socio-literary:

1) The man's invocation of Divine Law against the abuses of Temporal Law. How would militant secularists who also want justice deal with this? (If you're only interested in the removal of religion from the public sphere even at the cost of justice, get thee behind me Hitchens!)

More specifically, how would the "militantly secular" (click on the article: it's THEIR term) gentlemen, suspicious of every bearded man and (non-bearded) madrassah, quoted in this article deal with this situation? Let me quote the freedom fighter Shahriar Kabir from the article:

"We wanted a secular democracy," he said. "Three million people were killed during the Liberation War. If we now have to accept Islam as the basis of politics to run the country, then what was wrong with Pakistan?"

Wow! I can't even begin describe the confusion of communalism, religion-based politics and religiosity inherent in that sentence.

2) Does anyone else think that the name Shariatullah is especially appropriate for someone who just invoked the rightness of the law of God? Not the first instance of magical reality that I've noticed in Dhaka. Not the first by a long way! Reminded me of Marquez's assertion as he accepted his Nobel Prize:

"I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters...Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

In other words, not even "magic realism" can adequately capture our magical reality.

I really hope they used his real name.


Nazmul said...

You are being dishonest with your main theme by creating the strawman of some imaginary "militant secular gentlemen"

What is your defination of militancy?

Did people blasted 68 bombs in the name of religions in all district of BD? killed judges in the name of religion? killed innocent people in Ramna Batmul, Movie theaters in the name of religions?
Participated in genocide, progroms, rapes in the name of religion?

When was the last time "militant secular" gentleman blasted bombs in biswa ijtema, in jumma prayer in a milad-mahfil, or killed the khatib of Baitul Mokarrom?

A Police offcer beating up a poor rikshawalla makes him a corrupt, arrogant, brutal police officer, that's all, not a symbol for Secularism.


asif said...


My "dishonesty" is actually sheer incompetence. I failed to make clear that it was a quote from the article I linked to. I'll get onto that as soon as I finish my comment. My definition of militancy is the same as yours. Though it can be used to mean "extreme" rather than "violent", I don't use it in the first sense to avoid confusion.

Unfortunately you are talking a false position on the issue of the policeman. As an enforcer of civil law, which all truly secular people want to see in force in Bangladesh, he IS a symbol of secularism. So are judges and courts: any wonder they were targets?

To say, "A Police offcer beating up a poor rikshawalla makes him a corrupt, arrogant, brutal police officer" is a cop-out of the worst kind. On a par with Jamaat supporters who say that JMB are the bad apples and not all Islam-ponthi people should be judged by their actions.

M said...

Asif, I'm new to your blog, and I haven't even read this post (or any others!) or even your entire comment save for the last sentence in the comment above, so please pardon me if I sound like I'm farting through the wrong windpipe.

I think your last sentence in the comment above is derogatory, contemptible and potentially very offensive. I don't approve of JIB, but I certainly cannot denigrate JIB supporters for suggesting that actions of the JMB do not represent Islam. We should not be ashamed - Muslims - to admit that Al-Qaeda is wrong, wrong, wrong and does NOT represent Islam. Islam is borne out of its scripture, its teachings, its history (some dark I agree), but not merely from its followers. A Harvard Professor's actions cannot lead the world to condemn Harvard for his activities. Stereotyping and boxing from isolated negatives is simplistic and regrettable.

At least I think so.

asif said...

m totally agreed: You ARE new to my blog :).

By "Islam-ponthi"/"Islamists", I mean political parties who use Islamic imagery, symbols and languages. By no means do I equate them with Islam/Muslim. You can check my other entries.

JIB supporters do not simply say that JMB does not represent Islam (a statement I wholeheartedly agree with). They also say that their own inflaming rhetoric, their own modes of inclusionary thought have had nothing to do with the rise of JMB and the appeal of its message. That last is not true. I repeat: what I meant was that JIB should not say these are "stray" Islamists when they did not even believe their existence before the bomb attacks.

Just my personal opinion, since we're on the subject: I don't think JI (B,I or P) are Islamic at all. Nor are they totally non-communal, in which case they are a "Muslim" party -like the Muslim League of yore - rather than a purely Islamist one.

JIB:JMB does not equal Muslims:AQ, my friend. Neither quantitatively nor qualitatively. Muslims are diverse. Hope you enjoy the blog and keep reading.

asif said...

And by "inclusionary", I do mean the opposite: "exclusionary" :$.

nazmul said...


Given that you were merely quoting “Militant Secularist” from the article, I take back my “dishonest” comment; however, question still remains whether you believe in the validity or spirit of that particular phrase.
To me, this is a false concept intentionally created and used by religious zealots to confuse the debate. It’s an attempt to paint the zealots and the secularist with the same paint to equalize their actions and share of the blame. If you accuse the fundamentalist of being militant they will try to defend themselves by saying, “hey why are you ONLY accusing us as being militant, look at the secularists they are just as bad they are equally militant”. Again this is nothing but A BALD FACE LIE. Secularist may be just as passionate for their cause but by no means their action involves the violence, killings, and evils shown by the religious bigots.

Asif mentioned, “Unfortunately you are talking a false position on the issue of the policeman. As an enforcer of civil law, which all truly secular people want to see in force in Bangladesh, he IS a symbol of secularism?”

Wrong, A police man merely IS a symbol of B’Deshi CIVIL LAW and ORDER; but that DOES NOT make him a symbol of SECULARISM; Lets stretch your logic a little bit; You say a policeman is a enforcer of civil law fair enough, now lets go up the ladder- ASP, SP, AIG, IG etc and soon we will reach the home minister, prime minister and president who ultimately represents/enforces the CIVIL LAW of the nation. But does that automatically make them symbols of Secularism as well? ZIA was president once and hence WAS the “Dharok & Bahok of CIVIL LAW, but can we say he WAS a symbol of SECULARISM? (I hope you remember he added bismillah to the constitution). How about Ershad (started national religion) or Khaleda Zia (formed pact with communal party). See all of them are the “Dharok and Bahok” of the constitution and hence the upholder of CIVIL LAW but none of them ever represented SECULARISM.

We can apply the same scenarios even to other nations, in India when BJP was in power, either Adhvani or then BJP home minister was the top man who represented the CIVIL law, but that surely did not make him the symbol for SECULARISM.

So again a police man is police man NOT the symbol of SECULARISM. (And whether most police man in BD even represents the LAW is questionable, but that’s a separate issue).

Also to pretend that the law of BD is secular is a false advertisement in itself. Remember that the constitution has “Bismillah” in t, but no “OM Bhogoban” or “Holy Buddah” or “Holy Jesus” and has only one religion proclaimed as national religion. So when, even the top law of nation does not truly reflect SECULARISM (I prefer separation of church and state), then to think a Policeman is THE symbol of secularism is a bit naïve in my humble opinion.

To answer your query “So are judges and courts: any wonder they were targets?” who the hell knows. The day I will find any rational behind the acts of these blind insane fools, I guess probably will be the time for me to check in to some insane asylum as well.

asif said...

Nazmul my friend,

Now that you have discarded the irrelevancy of analysing the word “militant”, we can have a real conversation. No, I don’t believe in the “spirit” of that term as defined by you. Neither does the author of the article convey that “spirit”. As you may have noticed while reading the piece: I ASK those who believe in secular politics to take a stand on the rickshawalla issue. Their militancy or lack of it really has little to do with it

Here is the (militant) secularist’s dilemma: justice demands you take the rickshawala’s side. Now regardless of whether the policeman is a symbol of secularism (more on that later) or not, the rickshawalla invokes religious language and metaphor to express his desire for justice. This is the very definition of an Islamist tactic. Now, if you were a secularist (and I assume you are, correct me if I’m wrong), whose side would you take?

You have indeed stretched my logic into mere sophism I’m afraid. Perhaps there is a communication gap at work here: from what I gather, for you “the secular” seems to denote an ideal end-state in which religion and politics are separate. For me, “secular” denotes all that is free from religious origin. Such as our civil law. That civil law is after all, the basis of the Western definition of secular law. That civil law is why, despite such symbols as the Church of England and “In God We Trust”, we call the U.K. and U.S. secular. Despite Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim and “state religion” (what a farce!), our law remains secular. Moreover, our law can be amended by a parliament elected by citizens regardless of religion, not the clergy or the believers solely. Thus, secular. As an upholder of this sort of law, the policeman is A symbol of secularism (nowhere have I claimed THE symbol).I’m afraid that even Zia and Advani may just have compromised themselves into being secular by this definition, even if they did work hard to undo the very system they enjoyed. Tsk tsk!

As a secularist, you’d do well to look into the substance of laws rather than into meaningless symbols such as “Bismillah” or “In God We Trust” etc. etc. For instance, if you had pointed at the Vested Property Act that discriminates against Hindus (re-instituted post-‘71 by the Awami League and since repealed), I would have lent you more credence. But that is a matter more of inequality and majoritarianism and less of secularism. Just as adding “Om” or “Holy Jesus” is not going to make us any more secular, but simply make us all more equal. And I’d be unconditionally for such a move to add them into our constitution.

Furthermore, you’d do even better to come up with a measurable definition of what secular constitutes, other than to say “Oh our current laws are not secular yet”. Secularism is not an end-state to everyone. For a lot of people, our laws are secular because they are instituted, ratified and prone to change by elected officials. If you can tell us at what point (hopefully indexed) we will succeed in becoming a secular polity, that would be a big step. As I said, mere tinkering with words such as “state religion” is not going to help.

Lastly, it’s very, very easy to say that the “Other” is not rational. Given that you have little knowledge of what goes on in another person’s head, what information they have etc etc. it is wiser to assume rationality than otherwise. What I was trying to highlight in my post was the failure of secular law to provide consistent rules with proportional rewards and punishments. Given this failure, a resort to violence - religious or otherwise - might become the rational option.

M said...

Interesting perspective, but I must respectfully disagree with a few fragments. I agree that the JIB is exclusionary and certainly has an agenda of their own that no doubt could have fanned the rise of the JMB flames. That said, I don't think this is a necessary consequence borne of causality. Of late, there have been plenty of terrorist activity the world over for the JMB to muster inspiration -- I'm not aware of any proven cases that have mapped the modus operandi of the JIB and the JMB to nail the link you allude to. That they denied the existence of the JMB is regrettable for sure, but I don't see the relevance to the discussion at hand.

I admit that my analogy was a weak one, perhaps this will make my point clearer -- JIB:JMB is to Princeton professor of radical sociology: Harvard professor of radical sociology. If the Harvard professor had published the offensive report, one cannot hold his Princeton uni counterpart to be necessarily sharing his views.

I endorse your view on the JIB not being a "Muslim" party as you define it, but I would stop short of claiming that the JIs are not Islamic "at all".

Interesting discussion at any rate. I'll be back to read more for sure.

Fugstar said...

how about.

We try to make as wise policy as we can possibly squeeze out of our tiny little collective minds and souls, with every thing on the table.......

Eventually we'll figure out the most just traffic rules, and then someone will dig out the mejellah and find it concurs with some fiqui maxim somewhere.

Maybe the traffic management strategies employed recently are part of some big joke up there. keeing dhanmondi people going round in circles, distracted and what not.

think i love about desh is that we have cool names for places.
Shariatkandi, Muhabbatpara, Zakiganj. deeply embedded in the landscape.

JIB/JMB. i thenk they are very different phenomena. It amuses me how deshis cant distinguish the deoband, ahlal hadith, jihadi, jamati and other trends.

leads to highly non credible output.What id like to know about is how the Afghan war veterans are getting on as a whole. What proportion have taken up anti social activities. How many people lost their men...

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Fugstar said...


I miss you Dhaka Shohor.
And hope you are doing well.