May 05, 2007

"Secularism" and its discontents

With Huntington's half-baked "Clash of Civilizations" thesis being bought wholesale by neocons and jihadis alike, Turkey in turmoil over its national character, and bombs going off in Bangladesh, there cannot be a better time to contemplate the place of religion in our body politic.

I hate disclaimers. Especially before writing. But this is one topic from which people are more likely to make snap judgements about you than any other. So, full disclosure: I'm a non-practising Muslim. I fast occasionally, pray twice a year and currently have no Muslim friends I can call "close" in both senses of the word. My family are all Bangalis, two freedom-fighters among them, no rajakars, highly non-political, and evenly-spread out over the AL/BNP divide. Most people would consider that too much information to give out to anyone with a computer and a modem. But then, most people are not about to say that secularism, 71-style has failed and then expand on why.

An essential part of "Ekatturer Chetona" was communal harmony. By which was meant that people of different religions would get along, hopefully on the basis of language. Here one notes that linguistic-ethnicities other than Bangalis were thus screwed, leading to the CHT insurgencies and Choles Ritchil's recent demise.

When the time came for implementing this noble vision, the aim was essentially short-term. The biggest threat to communal harmony was undoubtedly religion-based parties such as the Jamaat. Thus to short-circuit them, we banished all politics based on religion and wrote in "secularism" into our first, much-lamented constitution.

The mistake here is the befuddling of a "communal" and a "religion-based" party. Taj Hashmi's article here is worth a read on this point. And whatever else you might say about Hashmi, you can't say that he's an Islamist apologist. Communal parties are those that appeal to the voter's religious identity, not his sense of religiosity. Religion-based parties do the opposite. Of course, Jamaat is a mixture of both, and has been for some time. But more on that later.

An interesting aside here is to look at the emergence of Pakistan in '47. The Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami: at that stage, their very names gave away their nature. The League was a communal organization, emphasizing "Muslim" identity over "Islamic" religiosity as the Jamaat did and still does. Thus, it should not come as a surprise, via Advani of all people, that Jinnah was a secular man. Of course the heavy drinker and ham-sandwich eater was a secular man in the sense that he did not practise his religion and did not force it down anyone else's throat! That did not stop him from having a "Muslim" identity and galvanising an entire generation. And here let me note, that our Bangali Muslim forefathers were among the most passionate of his supporters till his "Urdu and only Urdu" shot in the foot and his sidelining of Fazlul Haq.

Jamaat's moral bankruptcy is of course evident in this tale. How to explain why they shed blood (and apologists, they did!) for a state that only 25 years earlier they had opposed? Bloodlust, pure bloodlust. That too in the name of Islam! And it must be noted that in the process, they turned from a pure religion-based party to a mixture of the two: a religio-communal party.

After '71, instead of targetting just the intolerance bred by the communal aspect, we targetted the religious motivation in an effort to pull the rug right underneath Jamaat's feet. This had the unforeseen effect of alienating a substantial portion of (non-rajakar) Bangalis who, for good or bad, had a deep faith in their religion even if they would never vote Jamaat. Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, (and in my opinion, very wrongly!) some saw this as an attack on their religion. And no, I'm not arguing that these alienated ones are those joining the JMB, so hear me out!

The story then becomes a bit more complicated. "Secularism" is used to denote the separation of religion and politics. All well and good. But secularist policy does not denote one unique thing and comes in different flavours. For instance, in France and Turkey, it means that religion is absolutely abolished from the state. So, no yarmulkes, no gold crosses, no kirpans and no headscarves in public institutions. (Although let me note cynically here that this did not stop France from flying the flag at half-mast for Pope John Paul II. I'm almost sure that Bangladesh did not, but they should have!).

The U.S. and Canada does it differently, allowing private citizens their religion even on state property but ensuring that the state apparatus is non-religious. India again does it completely differently by including every religion within the state system, instead of excluding all of them. The mirror image of Turkey and France if you will. Thus, all religions are valid within the Indian state system, holidays are granted for all major religions and DD will carry an awfully goody-two-shoes movie to celebrate your puja, eid or dharamsala retreat. (Has anything really changed in the subcontinent over the last 2000+ years?) And yes, obviously these are over-simplifications but I have more or less conveyed the gist of these systems.

To this day I have not had a clear-cut answer to which version we wanted to implement. Perhaps we wanted to implement our own version and we just might, given the khaki rhetoric these days. Furthermore, I still do not see how secularism stops the persecution of minorities, religious or otherwise. Turkey has it's Kurds (as did Iraq), India it's Muslims and Sikhs, Indonesia the East Timorese and, lest we forget the most secular of them all, the Soviet Union their Jews. It's the last that is the most clear-cut case for the utter disconnect between secularism and tolerance, because even "Godless Marxism" failed to reverse the deep-rooted anti-Semitism in Russia. Secularism did nothing for these tragedies.

And even though I said "wrongly" before, the very word "secularism" carried some disturbing connotations to Bangali Muslims who had rough ideas about Kemal's anti-religious views (and these were no doubt exaggerated by Islamist forces) and were highly unconvinced by India's secularism with it's Oshok Sthombos and increasing tolerance for Hindutva parties. One can make a case that "secularism" was not "marketed" properly for their consumption. And because it was not so marketed, it ended up being counter-productive to the goal of harmony among the different religious groups in Bangladesh.

Making the case worse on a micro-level was the fact that the biggest adherents of "secularism" not only had vague ideas about what they meant (India? Turkey? U.S.? Soviet? All?), but were among the most Westernised of elites who pooh-pooh-ed religion as either "the opium of the masses" or "not made for advanced industrial societies". Much worse, they used evidence that is dicounted (if not discredited) even in the West nowadays on account of having been "Orientalist" at best and downright racist at worst. So far, to my limited knowledge, the only person who has tried to bring this issue to the fore is Tarek Masud. In "Matir Moina", the uncle of the boy is walking with friends over fields and streams, and they are all debating over whether Communism or Democracy is "authentic" or not and whether Islam is an "import". That scene is a must-watch not only for those concerned with what Bangalis see as culturally authentic but also for those who think that the mythical "average Bangali" cannot debate hard topics, but is passionate, easily mis-led and of course a coward who sits around all day. Tellingly, the uncle dies resisiting the Pakistani army and thus his concerns are lost.

Again on the micro-level, the secularists did not lose the moral high ground by preaching tolerance, but they did lose the "culturally authentic" ground to Islamists by adopting unfamiliar idioms, such as "Human Rights" and "false consciousness", with no attempts to indigenize them. They ended up being simply yet another (mostly urban) set with Western ideas to be resisted. And it is this resistance that is fuelling the current batch of militants, not some ideological affinity with the concept of "Pakistan" as in '71. Also on the micro-level is the initial mistake I point to: secularism is not the opposite of communalism, tolerance and respect for others are. If those two things were achieved, it would matter little whether a believer (whatever religion, organised or personal) or a secularist were in power.

Some say that globalization is to blame. It probably is. Less in the purely economic sense, but in a more holistic sense that it rewards and promotes elites, whether political, economic or intellectual, who are "culturally unauthentic" and only too happy to be so. The day secularism is sold as both authentically Bangladeshi (yes, this still needs to be done!) and Islamic is the day this resistance will fade. That however, needs getting down to the nitty-gritty, talking to madrassahs and using their own arguments, their own language and their own historical touchstones. Less the glories of secular Turkey and more the glories of Andalus. Arabic lessons anyone?

(And for those of you who are interested, I'll be doing another piece sometime this week titled "Islamism and its discontents". Not to retain some sort of "balance", a la CTG treatment of BNP and AL, but because it's something I'm genuinely interested in.)


Fugstar said...

I think this is a bit politics heavy, religion accords a sacred quality to a lot of things, which secularism doesnt.

I wish the debate would more about religion and society, rather than religion and state, because then we tend to conflate our history with that of the catholic church and the state.

Islamic practice carries cultural authenticity, it would carry more if our scholars and people were 'emitting' ideas into that field rather than simply carrying and recieving. Many of the funky deobandi ulama of the past wanted mor indian character to it.

postislamism, or the postmovement phase should be an eyeopener.

yup that matir moina scene was a beauty

Anthony said...

A succinct coverage of a very touchy issue. Couple of comments.

1. What kind of secularism did Bangladesh’s founders want?

Suhrawardy, one of the founders of the Awami League, adopted the American model of secularism in the 1950s.

It was also in the 1950s that the Bangla translation dharmaniropekkhota came into use. Not everyone agreed — Abul Mansur Ahmed, one of the founders of the AL, preferred ihojagotikota (duniyat in Urdu). But the familiar term survived, and was adopted into Bangladesh’s constitution in 1972.

The early 1970s Awami League version of it was close to the Indian model, the Hindi word for which is sarvadharmasamabhava (coexistence of all religions — Gandhi’s Ishwar Allah tere naam).

And we should note that the 6-points based constitutions that AL drafted during the negotiations with Ayub, Yahya and Bhutto, while giving East Pakistan / Bangladesh virtual independence, didn’t say much about secularism of any kind. At least one of them, presented in 1971, had clauses to the effect that no law contrary to the Quran and Sunnah would be enacted, and another clause said that Islam would be the foundation of the state — Bangladesh’s current constitution is more 'secular'.

2. Why did Jamaat fight for Pakistan in 1971 when they opposed its creation in 1947?

Maududi opposed the creation of Pakistan because he wanted a global Islamic state, not Muslim nation-states. And Maududi wasn’t the only one. Very few Islamic thinkers were prepared to support a whiskey-drinking bacon-eating brown sahib like Jinnah.

By 1971 things were quite different. By then Jamaat leaders had realised that a global khilafat was not realistic. They figured that the Pakistan army would easily eliminate the Awami League and left factions, and they’d fill the post war political vacuum. They also figured that this was a great opportunity for ridding the country of the non-Muslim population and the westernised and/or Marxist intellectuals whom it could never have won over.

Needless to say, they miscalculated badly. No one believed that the Bengali elements in Pakistan Army would revolt. Our post liberation politics obscures the fact that just how momentous the rebellions of Zia, Khaled Musharraf and others were. Their rebellion turned the crack down into a full blown war, which necessitated Indian involvement.

So yes, Jamaat miscalculated. But their violence was not just ‘sheer blood lust’. It was calculated and deliberate.

Asif said...


I deliberately focussed more on politics rather than religion. To me, that is what Islamism is: a political cake with a religious icing thrown over it.

I don't think I've conflated our history with that of the Catholic church. I hate Orientalist methodology, but that does not mean I eschew comparative methodology. The history of the Catholic Church in Europe has pointed me towards the history of the clergy and Muslim political elites, but that's where the similarities end. We have a different history that has gone a different route.

Thus, I think the relationship with the state is worth investigating, at least from '47 onwards.


Thank you for bringing the Bangla word back to focus. Now I can rant a bit more about that as well! "Dhormoniropekkhota" is even clearer in it's indictment that religion - any religion - has nothing of note to contribute to politics. If implemented in a state where the state authorities frequently abuse power (sounds familiar?), it provides grist to the idea that the lack of religion is what is wrong.

I do not know enough Hindi to decipher that word. But if it means "Shob Dhormo Shomaan", then I'm all for that. Amader constitution e eta bollei to hoy!

I disagree with you on Jamaat. I don't see them having any positive goals in either '71 or '47, simply negative ones. Thus, no plans (despite Maududi's rhetoric) for a "khilafat", but rather simple opposition to the Muslim "shahebs" like Jinnah, Suhrawardi et al in '47. No plans for a successful Pakistan (or even a truly Islamic one which would supposedly guarantee Bangalis greater rights), just opposition to the Bangali "communists" and "atheists", such as Mujib.

Yes, our post-'71 history is not written. Not in BD anyways. How can it be, when people are so ready to attack all those who don't fall into the party line? Have you not noticed on the blogosphere itself how Bangaldeshis of different political hues tear each other a new one if they veer off the party line? It doesn't matter if you say things that neither Jamaat or BNP or AL would ever say. All that matters is that perhaps you said some things that BNP would not agree with. Or AL. Or Jamaat. Or Tweedledum. *shakes head*

I'd like to thank both of you for very sensible comments, made without questioning my integrity or my beliefs. I would like to add that I have simply elaborated on what I feel is wrong with our practice of "secularism"/"dhormoniropekkhota". I have not made my opinions/beliefs visible. All I'd like to say is that I believe in a BD in which people of different religions can live side by side, and still practise their religion, or none at all should they wish, and hope to see it someday.

Asif said...

Correction: "It doesn't matter if you say things that neither Jamaat or BNP or AL would ever say. All that matters is that perhaps you said some things that BNP would not agree with. Or AL. Or Jamaat. Or Tweedledum" - It doesn't matter if you say some thing that none of the political parties would ever say. All you have to do is disagree with SH to be labelled a Jamaati, KZ to be labelled an A-leaguer and with Islamism/Maududi to be labelled an atheist.

Fugstar said...

Islamism as opportunistic political showboating. I see jargonists from many political stripes, i probably do it myself. Its definately something to avoid.

I dont see it entirely in that way(just politics), maybe because my experience with its diversity, relevence and meaning is different. Think islamic state in a quantum mechanichal sense. Islamically moved rather than Islamic Movement.

In the uk we think of groups like ht as solely political. the others offer more than politics and direct themselves to do more self development type activities, which cant all be intepreted as political. work to combat druggies, thugs, good health all sorts of thankless work.

I was suprised when some very nasty/bitter looking journalists from desh came to london (paid for/bribed? by the brit govt) remarked on a mosque that 'eikhane jamatira bhashe'. I got this swampy vibe, hard not to feel personally insulted by stuff like that. They look at it from a weird angle and missed all the social work and meaning that a 'constellation of institutions', manned mainly by my generation provide. oh well.

From deshis in the uk (students, rich, poor, dumb, smart) if i compare the level of intermediate religious learning and awareness from the 3 different parties, the other 2 lack something. So i think that the learning circuits within the islamic minded population do provide something of greater than political benefit.

Clergy, i guess you mean ulama in the Sunni sense. There have been a lot of good ones, and its their work that should be the focus. In a lot of cases they were used by the royal court instrumentally, many resisted and suffered. Thats why our intellectual landscape would in the past rely on the waqf endowments to lend things like education and learning a little more independance.

I hope to see a bangladesh where ideas rooted in the principles of the religion can be explored, furthered and implemented (at whatever levels) to uplift the people with grace. Where their sense of the sacred and of dignity is not crushed by materialism. Where regressive habits of the mind are not driven into them politically from cradle to grave. where the corporate media has very little actual designation of value to peopl. Where theres the time in the working mans day to study and reflect.

The political level is one level of many(however unfashionable that is), but looking at things how they are now, it shouldnt be the driving level. heres a review of something i guess you should read seeing as this fascinates you

final semi rant.
The abdication of the secular quarter wouldnt be an issue if parts of it werent so deamonising of the other.

Asif said...


I know of it's diversity, but except for some outlying cases (NONE in BD), Islamist parties have to convince me of their relevance.

Yes, I know that they do a lot of non-political work which is good. Once again, I focussed on the political aspect of their works because I believe in the primacy of politics (at least in the short-term). Therefore, even if they are doing good things, they are undoing them by taking stupid stances politically. For instance, if a hypothetical Islamist party were to give food aid to poor women on a social level, but politically bar them from owning property: that's a self-defeating endeavour.

Deshis in the UK are highly unrepresentative. So are one or two Bangladeshi journalists. No I don't think the Brit. Govt. is out to get you guys :)! You have to understand that despite everything, Jamaat still has a tained reputation from '71. If there was an internal movement within Jamaat to bring killers to justice, perhaps that would change.

Having said that, let me sympathise with you and say that I too have met people for whom every religious person is a "jamaati", even every Islamist becomes a "jamaati". That is simply Bangali parochialism, though they are not the only ones who can be accused of such myopia.

"The abdication of the secular quarter wouldnt be an issue if parts of it werent so deamonising of the other." - sorry, no. It would be an issue, since "the other" happens to demonise the "Other", i.e. the minorities. The secular quarter has noble goals, goals I agree with. Just not their methods.

"I hope to see a bangladesh where ideas rooted in the principles of the religion can be explored, furthered and implemented (at whatever levels) to uplift the people with grace." - I've already outlined the kind of BD I wish to see. Where I'd differ with you is when you say "the religion". My Islamic faith does not compel me to deny that others might seek upliftment with grace through other religions. Thus, I'd say "any religion" where you say "the religion".

This is an all-rants-tolerated page. So feel free whenever you wish.