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Book Review
The debate on secularism and democracy

By Mohd. Zeyaul haque


Book: Islam and Secularism in the Middle East
Pages: 214+9
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 India.

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 remains unsolved.

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 studies.

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 democratic state.

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 discrimination.

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 them.

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 peril.’’

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 liberties. 

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