By Kazi Anwarul Masud
The disappearance of the Soviet Union characterized by President Reagan as an “evil empire” and communism generally believed to be a Godless society has, perhaps, given life to a resurgence of religion even in developed countries where the need for a transcendental power was not felt by the people who lived in comfort. In developing countries people mired in poverty and faced with the inability of the authority, be it dynastic dictatorship like North Korea( one of the remaining bastion of communism) or democratic or having hybrid-democracy to provide essential goods and services, had little option but to believe in God or gods mainly for material goods and then for spiritual salvation.
The worship of a god has always been a part of human history because of their inability to control the forces of nature that on occasions threatened their way of life. Sigmund Freud thought that human crave for belief in super natural was due to human being’s defeat to conquer death. Stephen Hawkins thinks that despite contradiction between Biblical and scientific explanation of the origin of the earth science does not completely rule out the possibility of the existence of God. From the dawn of history as in pre-historic time human beings worshipped trees, sun, huge beasts etc. History also tells us of human sacrifice for the satisfaction of “deities” to escape from drought, flood, or other kind of natural disasters. But with progress of civilization and human understanding of the causes and ways to mitigate disasters, formerly beyond the control of human beings, the worship of such deities lessened and gradually human beings started questioning the “omnipotent powers” the deities supposedly had. The quest for answer led some to secular thoughts.
Though the term secularism is of recent origin its various doctrines have been taught by free thinkers of all ages as an extension of free thought. In recent times the use of the term “secularism” is associated with George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) and Charles Brad laugh (1833-1891). Holyoake expressed secularism as a quest for development of physical, moral and intellectual nature of man to its highest possible degree as an immediate duty of life. In its quest, Holyoake contended, theology was inadequate, unreliable and unbelievable. Brad laugh as President of National Secular Society (of England) warned his followers of the attempt by the Roman Catholic Church of its use of democracy as a weapon to endanger freedoms of thought, speech and action. “The great struggle in this country” warned Brad laugh “will not be between Free Thought and the Church of England, not between Free Thought and Dissent but between Free Thought and Rome”. In belief Brad laugh was an atheist while Holyoake was an agnostic. Brad laugh believed that the logical consequence in the acceptance of secularism must be that man gets to atheism “if he has brains enough to comprehend”. Holyoake on the other hand states that secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it advances others.
Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life and is capable of being tested by the experiences of this life. Quite naturally Christian Church is critical of such belief which totally ignores and/or denies the existence of God. Besides, the fallacy of atheism and agnosticism, in developing societies in particular, lies in the denial of the inextricable and inescapable influence religion has on the life and mind of all individuals in almost all aspects of their existence from birth to death. Even Nehruvian secularism, it has been argued, co-existed with the localized and dispersed structure of dominant caste hegemony in India. While Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad spoke of secularism from the perspective of religion, Pandit Nehru was the first in the sub-continent to accept the western concept of secularism. It is said that Nehru was an agnostic and indifferent to religion but he was deeply conscious of the grips of religion on the mind and body of man Yet it is surprising that many leading political leaders refuse to understand that there is a close linkage between modernization of society and the secularization of the population. As German philosopher Jurgen Habermas points out that though the people living in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have an increasing awareness that they are living in a secularized society the religious behavior and conviction of these people have not resulted in tangible losses by the major religious communities. Habermas adds that development from agrarian through industrial to post-industrial society, through secularization, “leads to average-to-higher levels of welfare and greater social security”.
With the demise of Communism the fear of a Godless society has disappeared. On the contrary, a worldwide resurgence of religion has been noticed but the trend towards “individualization does not necessarily imply that religion loses influence and relevance either in the political arena and the culture of a society or in the personal conduct of life”. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are the refusal of some in the Islamic world to accept the fact that the developed North since 9/11 has taken an irreversible lead in the material development of the world. Scott Thomas (of the University of Bath, United Kingdom) believes in religion’s growing influence in international politics. He believes that the “growth of fundamentalismrigid adherence to a set of rituals and doctrinesis occurring through a variety of rituals and practices, both public and private” (Foreign Affairs-Nov/Dec 2010). The North that accounted for 32 percent of the world’s population is likely to account for just 10 percent by 2050. “Religiosity” writes Scott Thomas “is now one of the most accurate indicators of fertility, far more telling than denominational or ethnic identity, since religious people tend to have more children than their secular counterpart”.
It is generally believed that Muslims are increasing in number by almost geometric progression accompanied by concern of countries having large Muslim minority such as China with over 20 million Muslims, Russia having between 12 to 15 percent of the population, and Europe, in particular France, have sizeable Muslim population. The recent elections in Sweden and Holland electing anti-Muslim political parties to Parliament signals disintegrating relationship between Christianity and Islam. Muslim Diaspora, notwithstanding speeches by political leaders, is negotiating a perilous journey for livelihood in their country of birth. Professor Bassam Tibi’s (Gottingen University) call for Europeanization and not Islamization has not been well responded to in his present homeGermanynot to speak of in other European countries. Chancellor Angela Merkel has candidly confessed that multiculturalism has failed in Germany. All these testify to Yale Professor Paul Bloom’s assertion that religion is bred at the bone and to an extent validates Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis.
This is a peculiar phenomenon in the sense that modernity has created separate space for both religion and society, and in the eyes of Professor Charles Taylor “ we are entering a post-Durkheimian age” in which faith is not connected or loosely connected with political identity (and) we end in living in an “immanent frame”. The aggressive stance of the Islamist is caused by their fear of losing the “purity” of Islam to Christianity and also due to the failure of Muslim leaders in general to ignite the pride of being a Muslim among the young generation by not giving them material advancement and liberal democratic institutions and values but the “shackles” of colonialism under which many Muslim countries had to live with all colonialism’s attendant ignominy. It is possible that the realization of the irreversible material advancement of Christendom that cannot be overcome by the Muslims also contributed to the explosive rebellion added with social exclusion of the Muslim Diaspora in the West.
The ban on the construction of minarets approved in a referendum in Switzerland, according to Professor Stephane Lathion of Freiburg University, is an indication of disquiet among the Swiss about Islam which exist elsewhere in Europe. Situation got worse with the murder of Van Gogh in Holland, discriminatory treatment of the Turkish community in Germany by the civil and political authorities though the Turks were invited as “guests” to shore up the German economy after the Second World War, and the recent law enacted in France against Muslim women wearing veil in public. According to some the problem is not Islam but its visibility and the refusal of the Muslims to assimilate with the mainstream culture of the host country. So in a circular way we come back to partial justification of clash of civilizations while stoutly rejecting the thesis. If multiculturalism has failed, as claimed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, then the challenge for the 21st century will be to devise way for peaceful co-existence of various faiths.
Professor Bassam Tibi( of Gottengen University) has suggested that as the Muslims have issue with assimilation in the Western culture they may try to integrate with the mainstream way of life as it would not force them to totally dissociate themselves from the roots of Islamic culture. Adoption of such a course should not pose much problem as the second and third generation Muslim immigrants have little tract with the culture of the first generation Muslim immigrants and are largely divorced from the fundamentalist ritualistic tradition of their forefathers.
Survey conducted in France has shown that great majority of Muslims do not practice their faith and a sizeable portion of them are not economic immigrants. But these positive factors are overshadowed by terrorism inflicted on Western civilians like London, Madrid bombings, failed air port bombing in the US, recent parcel bombing in two Western embassies abroad. Naturally Western public unaware of the killings of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, albeit to uproot Islamist terrorism, take the terrorism of a small band of wayward Muslims as representatives of Islamic culture and hence their fear of the Muslims. This disdain of the Muslims has contributed to the resurgence of Islam as a counter to perceived Western injustice, for example, on the Middle East issue where the Americans are seen by the world at large to be partial to the Israel and its daily violation of Arab human rights in Palestine that became a land for the Jews given by the British on the ground of Biblical pronouncement that the land was given to them by God. The argument here is not to support Iranian President Ahmeninijad’s threat to destroy Israel but to point out the distortion from the promise made by the British in the Balfour Declaration and subsequent assurance given by Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary that Jewish immigration to Palestine would not intrude upon the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Arabs living in those areas for centuries. It is clearly evident that the tide of history has washed away all these promises of the past and now the Arabs on their knees are wanting Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 war, as demanded by UN Security Council resolutions, and implementation of two stateIsrael and Palestinesolution. Osama bin Laden might not have started his “war on the infidels” for justice in Palestine but it is incontestable that the Islamist resurgence owes in part to the cavalier style of Western treatment of Muslim genuine grievances.
Scot Thomas writes, “Islam is also experiencing a genuine revival, one that extends beyond the more extreme Islamic fundamentalists movements. More Muslim women are wearing veils, more Muslim men are growing beards, and more Muslims are attending mosques more often”. A survey by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies has shown that overwhelming majority of Turks, Indonesians and Egyptians have acknowledged that religion plays an important part in their lives.
On India, Scot Thomas points out that the apparent dominance of Hindus (80%) of the population masks the considerable religious variation in Indian states. Muslims comprise more than 60% of the population in Jammu and Kashmir, Christians predominate Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya and are significant minorities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu while Sikhs make up nearly 60% of the population in Punjab. Additionally caste system creates tension among the Hindus coupled with Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Christian conflicts bedeviling the peace and security in the country. There are many countries in the world-both in the developed and developing worldsthat are peopled of many languages, practicing many religions, having different cultures. In recent past the world has seen the disintegration of the Soviet empire, emergence of newly independent states in former Eastern Europe, implosion of Yugoslavia and consequent bloody wars in the Balkans, freedom of East Timor etc. But then again all conflicts based on differing ethnicity or language or religion should not lead to independent states and anarchy. In addition to the features a state should have as decided at the Montevideo Conference the stringent factors insisted upon by the US and European Union for the recognition of newly independent states in East Europe should warn the dissidents that dissidence alone should not lead to separation. Professor Reinhardt Schulze (University of Berne) points out the necessity and importance of social ties and traditions for a society’s social integration and the need for a single national identity of all the people living in a country.
A conservative view of modern nation state can be defined as one established by a major ethnic group with its own tradition, language, religion and culture subordinating those of lesser ethnic group or immigrants carrying their own tradition, language, religion and culture causing tension between the two unless both groups believe in a single national identity that would surpass all other differences. (John RexUniversity of Warwick). But for the terrorism of 9/11 the Western world was blissfully unaware of Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists who has contributed greatly to the disintegrating process of inter-faith understanding so essential for secularization of the population for furtherance of modernism and advancement of digital age.
In the case of South Asia, however, freedom from British colonialism was based on the distinction between Muslims and Hindus and the conviction of the Muslim community in particular that co-existence with the Hindus in a single country was not possible. Decades later it was realized that religion alone could not be the binding thread of the Pakistani nation where the numerically minority but militarily and economically stronger community insisted on ruling the entire country even though by that time the people of East Pakistan who won the majority in election to the Pakistan Parliament were denied their legitimate right to rule the country. What followed were a brutal genocidal war by Pakistani occupation forces and a war of liberation under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Father of the Nation of Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, though, identity politics did not take any root because the overwhelming majority of the people were ethnically and linguistically the same with about 12% professing Hinduism and Christianity. Bangladesh, therefore, does not have the problem now faced by Europe of multiculturalism and the resistance of the majority population to accept as equal citizens their Muslim compatriots. In the Indian sub-continent, however, housing one fifth of the world population multiculturalism is essential if India and Pakistan were not to breakup in pieces and in the process destroy the peace and security of the international community.
(The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh)