Secularism loses ground in Indian subcontinent

By Mustafa Malik

(Published in the Columbus Dispatch, October 12, 2011)

Bangladesh has had a big political surprise since my last visit here a year ago.  Its staunchly secular Awami League party government has amended the constitution, making Islam the “state religion”!  The amendment also gave the constitution this opening statement from the Quran:  “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, and the Merciful.”

The event highlights the growing politicization of religion throughout the Indian subcontinent.

“It’s Allah’s revenge!” said Abdul Aziz, a friend from my college days in Sylhet, known for its  133 tea gardens and the shrine of the famed saint Shah Jalal.

Bangladesh, which is 90 percent Muslim, was founded by secularists who ushered in a constitution with “secularism” as its core principle.  “It’s ironic,” Aziz said, “that the ‘Islamic state’ amendment was sponsored by [Prime Minister Sheikh] Hasina, who hates Islamic politics and parties.”  Hasina turned to Islam, she said, because of “ground reality”:  rapid Islamization of Bangladeshi society and politics.  Islamist political parties are gaining popularity, mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools) are proliferating and even secular politicians are trumpeting Islamic causes.

The surge of religion in Bangladeshi politics follows the same trajectory as in the subcontinent’s other two nations:  Pakistan and India.  In both, democratization accompanies the growth of non-secular forces and ideologies.

The two top leaders of the struggle to create Muslim Pakistan — Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan– were secular, Oxford-educated lawyers.  In the 1960s President Mohammad Ayub Khan campaigned vigorously to “modernize” Islam by reforming Islamic laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and so forth.  By the mid-1970s, Pakistan was swamped by Islamic mass movements, leading to the Islamization of much of its legal system and cultural space.   In democratized Pakistan mosques and madrassahs are mushrooming; head-covered women and bearded men abound in offices, schools and shopping malls; and anti-American Islamic militancy has diffused in the social mainstream.

Equally dramatic has been the rise of Hindu nationalism in mostly Hindu India.  Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the foremost leaders of the Indian independence struggle, were also secular, Oxford-educated lawyers.   They opposed the creation of a Muslim Pakistan out of British India, arguing religion would, in Nehru’s words,  “recede into the background” in a democratic India, and hence Muslim fears of discrimination by the Hindu majority were unfounded.   Yet the Hindu nationalism snowballed after India’s independence in 1947.  Hindu nationalists say India is a Hindu holy land (punya bhumi) and that Islam and Christianity are “foreign” creeds.   The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has thrice formed the national government.  Relentless campaigning by Hindu fundamentalist groups –the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena — has spawned anti-Muslim xenophobia in society, politics and — even academia.

In 2007 I was invited to speak at a Republic Day (January 26) event at Vikram University in India’s holy city of Ujjain.   Hearing my views the previous evening, the organizer of the meeting requested me to limit my talk to 20 minutes!  The next day I found out why.  During my speech I was booed by the audience.  I had said, among other things, that “the founders of Pakistan clearly couldn’t foresee the Islamization of their society. One could also argue that the rise of Hindu nationalism and the travails of Indian Muslims have borne out their argument for the creation of a Muslim homeland.”

One reason for religious upsurge in the subcontinent’s public sphere is the “vernacularization” of democratic procedures.  The secular institutions introduced by Westernized elites don’t resonate with many of the postcolonial-era Muslims and Hindus, whose values and outlook have been shaped by religion.  Secondly, the idea of confining religion to the private sphere is alien to most Muslims and Hindus.  As I wrote elsewhere, the separation of religion from state affairs was prompted by Europeans’ bitter experience of religious wars, church-state power struggle, pogroms and the Inquisition.  Muslims, Hindus and most other non-Western faith groups didn’t go through such nightmares over religion and cherish their religious heritage.  The Arab Spring is the latest example of the democratization process spurring religious upsurge in postcolonial societies.

Unfortunately, religious passion can also trigger interfaith hostility.   In all three states of the subcontinent persecution of religious minorities has increased with the rise religious militancy.   It’s time policy makers and peace makers in the three countries earnestly explore avenues for outreach and engagement among their religious communities.

● Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, was born in India and worked as a journalist in the United States, Britain and Pakistan.  He hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom:

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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