Oxymoron it may sound due to visible and vocal theocratic states in the Middle East and North Africa, but secularism actually prevailed for long in almost half of the Muslim world. History gives us a clue to understand the problems and prospects of secularism in the Muslim world. Bangladesh, a country of 90% Muslims plays a unique role in that theo-sociopolitical dynamics.
The mighty military victory of early Muslims in the greater Middle East, North Africa and Spain was unique on two counts; it took place in the name of God and it lasted unabated for centuries. No wonder Muslims connected their victories with the Quranic verse - God would make Islam victorious (Chapter 61:9) and they were the best nation (Chapter 3:110). Naturally, Islam was “explained” legitimizing State, law, Caliphate and aggressive wars. As its eager partner Patriarchy harvested heavily on Muslim women. This is radical Islam, an “antithesis of secular democracy”- as Mawdudi claims. Most Muslims are still living it in that area.
At the same time preachers grew a benevolent kind of Islam in an equally vast area from India to Indonesia. This Islam is spiritual, void of politics, state and war. In such a vast area for so many centuries not a single stoning to death of adulterers or apostates, or amputation of limbs of thieves is found in history. This is peaceful Islam that protects secularism. Muslims in that vast area lived it all along.
Few decades ago the radicals launched a calculated theo-cultural assault on secular Muslim world. Their organizations and literatures outnumber and outdo those of peaceful Islam. Their success is flabbergasting and highly worrying. The PEW poll “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” of May 2014 shows a steady trend of radicalization of secular Muslim societies and governments. Note that Jinnah of Pakistan, Dr. Musaddeq of Iran, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, Kemal of Turkey and the recent Saddam Hussain of Iraq were strongly secular. But by today their constitutions lost secular elements partially or fully. The process is A-Political, i.e. independent of who is in political power. (A) Countless radical organizations, mosques, schools, conventions, sermons, literature, televangelists etc. are constantly brainwashing society thereby corroding secularism. (B) Radicals in public and private organizations constantly influence policy making. Their rich members, business institutions and banks fund spreading radicalism. (C) Millions of expatriates in the Middle East “export” radical Islam back home. (D) Continuous failure of inept and corrupt secular governments is also a factor. People become frustrated on them; radicals propose “Islamic State” to them as a divine solution that people do not have the knowledge to scrutinize or guts to reject. After all, mosques influence Muslim-minds more than state does. All these factors and current global geo-politics either defeated or are weakening secularism in Muslim world.
By today, (1) Six of the Muslim countries adopted Islam as the moral basis of constitution, (2) about 16 countries ratified Islam as State religion, (3) about 24 countries avowed separation between mosque and State and about five countries are neutral without constitutional stand on it. But Sharia law deeply influences their legal system. (Strikingly, Islam is one of Lebanon’s 18 state-religions). Except the realms of the Middle East, in all other countries Islamists political parties take part in elections. That gives a false impression that they want democracy. Actually they want to capture power through election and establish Islamic State destrying secularism. Iran is a perfect example; the election and parliament are controlled by Shura-E Nigahban (Guidance Council) of selected clergies hand-picked by Ayatollahs. No law passed by parliament can be enacted if the Council opposes. It tantamount to “Murdering Secularism”.
On this grim milieu Bangladesh is doing probably the best in Muslim world. Unlike radicals’ our constitution doesn’t mention Sharia law at all. We don’t have Faith-Police harassing people everywhere. Our civil, cultural and media forces explode in rage whenever illegal village Sharia courts oppress women; even the clergy is often arrested. There are books supporting agnosticism and even atheism!! Enriched by preachers’ non-political Islam most of our people are against political Islam. Islam as “state religion” and BISMILLAH were added to our secular constitution by army dictators, not by elected parliamentarians. Many leaders of Jamat-E Islami, the biggest Islamist party are sentenced (one is hung) for committing genocide and mass-rape during liberation war in 1971. These are unbelievable in Islamist countries. But there are dangers too. Radicalization of the society is continuing through the A-Political processes mentioned above. PEW report shows more than 50% people want Sharia law. That is a red light alert situation! If it is not stopped immediately then one day Bangladesh may become non-secular theocratic state through democratic election. This happened in Egypt.
EFFORTS TO SAVE SECULARISM IN MUSLIM WORLD
Radical Islam is orthodox. The battle of ideas between progressive and orthodox forces was always there but did not reach people due to the political and financial power of orthodox. The battle is germinating in the Muslim world. Scores of scholars are coming up with modern construal of Islam. Theirs is more legitimate than that of the radicals according to the Quran, Prophet, logic, reason, gender-equity, secularism and world-peace. Nahdatul Ulama, one of the biggest Muslim organizations of the world led by famous Imams and scholars published a massive book –“Illusion of Islamic State”. Its president His Excellency Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid was president of Indonesia. Dr. Ali Alyami from Saudi Arabia living in the US is conducting a movement for democracy in his motherland. Dr. Subhy Mansoor, a “driven out” professor of Al Azhar University is impacting many Arabs. “Mawdudism-Free Bangladesh” a grass root movement of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, Canada - showed spectacular success. One book and one movie on Sharia law exposing the anti-Islamic nature of radical Islam emerged as powerful weapons of public-awareness about the danger of radical Islam. People in about 25 villages stood up to resist radicals openly. The process is peaceful, effective and needs very little resource.
It happened in Bangladesh, it can happen everywhere by the same process.