Jobs @ MG
The debate on secularism and democracy
By Mohd. Zeyaul haque
Book: Islam and
Secularism in the Middle East
Editors:John L. Esposito & Azzam Tamimi
Publisher: Hurst & Company, London
Price: Not stated
Several years ago, Maulana Atiqur Rahman Sambhali wrote a
thought-provoking piece in Nida-e-Millat, an Urdu periodical from Lucknow.
The Maulana wondered as to why some of the prominent Indian ulama
relentlessly attacked secularism and secular politicians in Muslim
countries, but swore by secularism in India.
The Maulana asked the Indian ulema to decide once and for ever whether
secularism was acceptable for Muslims or not. And, if it was not right for
Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, how could it be right for Muslims in
Maulana Sambhali argued that the Indian ulema opposing secularism in
Muslim countries insisted on demanding rights in India ‘‘on the basis
of the secular Constitution’’. He rightly said that it was not at all
proper for Indian Muslims to demand any right under secularism if
secularism itself was un-Islamic. In that case Muslims would be demanding
(and insisting on committing) something haram (the legally forbidden).
Interestingly, no alim cared to reply and explain. Also, they still
continue with their old ways. That leaves common Muslims in the dark.
Maulana Sambhali had said that if secularism per se was un-Islamic, no
Muslim would demand any civil or political rights, happily spend his life
as a second-class citizen as a member of a Muslim minority, and wait for
his reward in the Life Hereafter. Conversely, if secularism was not
un-Islamic, the ulema should drop their double-faced stance and spare
common Muslims unnecessary agonizing over non-issues. Several years after
the question was raised, we have yet to have a convincing explanation from
that section of the ulema to which the query was addressed. The riddle
There is yet another spin on the theme: one ideological strand in the
Subcontinent’s Islam is of the opinion that Muslim-majority countries
should have ‘‘Islamic rule’’, while Muslim minorities (like Indian
Muslims) should be left to wallow in the lowly life of a second-class
citizenry. This was exactly what the propounder of this point of view said
soon after the partition of the country. He was asked the question in
Pakistan while demanding Islamic rule in that country.
In a nut shell, Muslims (Indian and other) have yet to come to terms with
what Akbar S. Ahmad calls the ‘‘post-colonial paradigm’’ – the
emergence of new nation states, democracy and secularism. If anything, the
post-colonial paradigm is witnessed at a terrible play in Muslim states
all over the world. Instead of democracy, we witness the spectacle of Ayub
Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Perwez Musharraf in Pakistan, military men
like Gamal Abdal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ba'thist
butchers like Hafez al Asad and Saddam Hussein (guilty of massacring large
numbers of their own countrymen) and the puppet regimes of Turkey and
Algeria run by military generals through remote control. The Turkish and
Algerian generals are in turn manipulated by Western ventriloquists.
That these Muslim states and regimes have been left untouched by the
post-colonial paradigm is quite clear from the above few examples. The
others too do not fare any better – Suharto’s monumental corruption
and Mahathir’s autocracy are no improvement on Mullah Omar’s obduracy.
What we see in Khatami’s struggle to liberalize a fundamentally
illiberal dispensation is no consolation either.
Also, to be considered are the tragic situation of Muslim peoples like the
Chechens, the Kurds and the Palestinians – all of whom are the victims
of the post-colonial dispensation. The Chechens are not Russians (and the
Russians don’t consider them as their own), but they are forced to live
with, and under, Russians in the Russian Federation on gunpoint. Even the
OIC accepts Chechnya as a part of the Russian Federation, and Iran’s
developing economic and defence ties with Russia are based on this
understanding. That means Chechens have nobody to look up to.
The same is happening to the Kurds, a single people whose national
territory has gone over to Syria, Iraq and Turkey. There are some Kurds in
other neibhouring countries as well, none of which have any love for them.
None of the modern nation states, which have appropriated parts of Kurdish
land, treat them as their own because none of them are Kurdish nation
states. This is a strange predicament for a sizeable section of the global
Muslim population which witnesses the post-colonial paradigm ‘‘at a
terrible play’’, to use Akbar’s words. Chechens have to lose their
own miseries while Palestinians have lost almost everything to the
post-colonial state of Israel, to the extent that Palestine is only a
state of the mind, or, in the mind.
From this perspective of utter disarray and stagnation, democracy – and
secularism – look a little too far-fetched and difficult to achieve for
the Muslim world. Democracy and secularism do go together (but not always)
because it is rule of the people which demands that no section of the
people is left out of power on the grounds of race, sex, or religion.
However, in practice democracies have been sometimes unfair to their own
people, discriminating against racial or religious minorities, or against
poor people. The status of blacks in American democracy and that of
Palestinians within Israel are two examples of this.
The book under review tries to look at how Islam and secularism (and
democracy) have fared in West Asia, which constitutes the Islamic
heartland. In the debate the questions raised above figure in the context
of West Asia and thus provide some clues to the situation all over the
Muslim world, enriching the quality of discourse on these issues.
The editors– Pro. John L. Esposito of Georgetown University, Washington
and Azzam Tamimi of Institute of Islamic Political Thought, London –
need no introduction. Prof. Esposito is known for his sympathetic
understanding of Islam and his refutation of Pro. Samuel Huntington’s
self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘‘clash of civilisations’’, while
Azzam Tamimi is known as the head of an important institute of Islamic
What emerges from the study of the situation in West Asia only confirms
the fears of the Indian ulema: that secularism has failed the societies of
the Islamic heartland. From the Kemalist legacy of Turkey to the
French-inspired dispensation of Algeria, and from Nasserite Arab
nationalism to Hafiz Assad’s and Saddam Hussein’s Ba'thist butchery
– all of them have failed to fulfill the political, cultural and
spiritual aspirations of their people.
There is nothing noble or humane about all these legacies and regimes as
all of them have been more brutal and murderous than the white colonial
regimes or the remote-controlled, inept monarchies they have replaced. The
Muslim societies seem to have no respite from viciousness.
What has been happening in the Middle East is just the opposite of what
happened in the West as a result of secularization. Secularization ended
foolish religious discords in the West and made the Catholic-Protestant
schism less effective as a destructive force, thus helping create a civil
society that was relatively tolerant and peaceful.
John L. Esposito’s sage opinion: In the 21st century, Muslim societies
of the Middle East (which have experimented with ideas like Arab
nationalism, Arab socialism, Kemalism and Ba'thist daydreams, and found
them inadequate) would have to try to evolve in a way which fosters
political freedom, tolerance and pluralism. Both secularists and Islamists
would have to take these points into consideration.
Prof. Esposito says it after taking due note of the collapse of the
West-inspired ‘‘development paradigm’’ which required a certain
degree of acceptance of secularism for ‘‘modernisation’’ and
economic development. Modernization also meant ‘‘Westernisation’’
in some respects.
That modernisation has some elements of Westernization in all cases is
evident from the two diametrically opposite modes of development – the
first is the Turkey of Mustafa Kamal and after, and the second is Saudi
Arabia of King Abdul Aziz till date. The Kemalist legacy involved almost
complete rejection of Turkey’s past and wholesale adoption Western
mores, while Saudi Arabia chose to retain much of its Islamic (and tribal)
past. The Westernization of Turkey is quite evident, but the fact that
even Saudi Arabia’s economic development has been driven by Western
technology, Western advisors and Western-educated Saudi elite is less well
grasped. A substantial Western input is thus unavoidable in any case, in
fields as diverse as industry and technology and education and culture.
Early Muslim thinkers like Rifa’ah al Tahtawi of Egypt and Sir Syed of
India had begun to realize in their time that the adequate Muslim response
to the West would not be one of sulking or mindless confrontation, but one
of meaningful ‘‘engagement.’’ Secularism being a Western category
with Christian cultural roots, it requires a far more nuanced approach
from Muslim societies than has been the case so far. Tahtawi was convinced
that Islam is democratic in spirit and democracy allows the largest number
of people to participate in making decisions that affect everybody in a
Democracy also demands that no section of the population is discriminated
against on the basis of gender, race, religion or caste. This is where
secularism comes in to ensure that religion does not become a basis for
That somehow secularism has not worked as efficiently as it should have is
evident in all Afro-Asian states which have adopted a secular
Constitution. Our own experience is the best example of the relative
inadequacy of secularization in India which has a well-established basis
for secular nationhood (that is, one does not have to belong to a
particular religion to be an Indian citizen or to hold a high public
office), a secular Constitution and an array of well-functioning secular
institutions. Yet in times of religious conflict, a vital part of the
state machinery – the police – invariably becomes a party to the
conflict, joining the ruffians of the majority community, thus undermining
the authority of, and public trust in, the state. This is only one side of
the problem: On the other hand, we have parties like BJP which declare
that secularism in India has meant ‘‘anti-Hindu’’ stance of the
state. On yet another level, we have intellectuals like Ashis Nandy and
T.N. Madan, who feel uncomfortable about Indian secularism without
necessarily supporting the Sangh. This distrust of secularism is common to
almost all Afro-Asian states today.
Azzam Tamimi pinpoints the Arab problem with secularism by showing that
here secularism does not work to promote democracy but to thwart it. He
cites the case of Algeria where the Islamic Salvation Front won a majority
but was prevented by the army from taking charge. The secular
establishment does not trust the people’s ability to choose their
representative. Same is the case in Egypt and Turkey, to name only two of
John Keane makes a similar point quoting Muhammad Mahdi Shams Al-Din and
Rachid Al Gannouchi, ‘‘that the attempt at secularization of the
twentieth-century Muslim world has produced dictatorship, state-enforced
religion, the violation of human and civil rights and the weakening or the
outright destruction of civil society’’.
Despite secularism’s overall liberating and humanizing influence on
Europe, it has not been able to disabuse Western secularists of their
traditional antipathies. John Keane talks about early European Christian
secularists typically describing Jews as ‘‘children of the Devil’’
and Roman Catholics as ‘‘members of the body of a prostitute’’.
Their hostility to symbols of Islam and Muslim way of living is
implacable. To quote Keanne ‘‘…many otherwise ‘unreligious’ and
tolerant citizens of countries such as the United State, France, and
Germany treat the growing numbers of Muslims – over 20 million in the
European Union alone – who now permanently reside within the old
democracies with quiet aversion, deep suspicion or even thuggish
belligerence….’’ No wonder, to Islamists, the secularists’ claim
to religious tolerance sounds hollow.
There are a number of well-written, properly argued articles in this book
which discuss threadbare why democracy (and secularism) are having such
great difficulties in the Muslim heartland. Peter L. Berger remarks,
‘‘Those who have great hopes for the role of religion in the affairs
of this world and those who fear this role must both be disappointed by
the factual evidence.…’’ However, he cautions that ‘‘those who
neglect religion in their analyzes of contemporary affairs do so at great
The quest for modernisation and development has led to mindless borrowings
of Western category of thought and ill-advised imposition of some
selective models by Muslim dictators who in their megalomania and
methodology have been like clones of Stalin and Hitler. Ahmat Davutoglu in
his ‘‘Philosphical and Institutional Dimensions of Secularism’’
makes this profound statement:
‘‘The process of secularization has been seen as a direct threat to
the self-perception of non-Western societies due to the fact that it has
shaken their self-assertion through identifying man’s existence with the
historical existence of Western civilization.’’
That leaves to with the question: where do West Asian states stand
vis-à-vis democracy and secularism? The answer is that different states
are in different situations, the common fact being that in most of them
assorted dictators, monarchs, emirs and sheikhs are ruling the roost
without consulting their people or ascertaining their will. Many of them
take cover under their own interpretation of Islam (even the secular one
do that, like Iraq during Desert-Storm) and draw their legitimacy from it.
The secular ones are particularly anti-democratic.
Although this book is largely diagnostic rather than prescriptive, Prof.
Esposito’s remarks are worthy of reiteration: both Islamists and
secularist have to recognize the value of pluralism and respect for people’s
will. Arbitrary arrests, denial of due process of law, denial of women’s
right to vote and summary trials and executions are not acceptable under
any label… Islamist or secular. The Middle East’s states have to
recognize normal rules of decency and basic human rights and civil