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On Islamic fundamentalism.

In exile from her native Bangladesh to escape government prosecution for blasphemy and a sentence of death by Muslim leaders, this controversial author spoke out on April 28, 1996, at Harvard University:

Gradually men will come to realize that a world whose institutions are based upon hatred and injustice is not one most likely to produce happiness.... We need a morality based upon love of life, upon pleasure in growth and positive achievement, not upon repression and prohibition.

--Bertrand Russell

We are at the threshold of the twenty-first century. The last decade of the twentieth century reminds me of the opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair....

How true his remarks are even today! Science and technology have made miracles. Arts and literature have reached new heights. At the close of the twentieth century, human creativity has opened up incredible new possibilities. At the same time, however, we find that large areas of this globe are ruled by bigotry, hatred, and fanaticism in the name of race, religion, and political creed. When we look around, it seems as if a new dark age is descending upon us.

After World War II, people were confronted by a war of political creeds which became known as the Cold War. The whole world was divided into rival camps that competed with each other not only on the ideological level but also in acquiring terrifying weapons of mass destruction. That fear no longer exists. We hear that the Cold War has ended. We even hear that history has reached its end. But has it? Emphatically not.

Instead, humankind is facing an uncertain future; the probability of new kinds of rivalry and conflict looms large--in particular, the conflict between two different ideas: secularism and fundamentalism. I do not agree with those who think that the conflict is simply between two religions--namely, Christianity and Islam. After all, there are fundamentalists in every religious community. Likewise, I do not agree with those people who think that the crusades of the Middle Ages are going to be repeated soon. Nor do I think that this is a conflict between East and West. To me, this conflict is basically between irrational blind faith and the modern rational, logical mind. To me, this is a conflict between modernity and anti-modernism. While some people want to go forward, others are trying to go back. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.

At one point in time, Islam was a powerful force for change, expanding throughout the world and winning the hearts of the multitude. Historians tell us that Islamic civilization was the richest and most advanced culture in the world during the early Middle Ages, particularly in the mid-eighth through the mid-eleventh centuries, and perhaps reached its peak during the ninth century. In comparison, the culture of Europe crept far behind. But gradually this glory faded, and Islamic civilization stagnated and ultimately declined. There were many causes for this: invasion by the Turkoman nomads in the eleventh century, the Crusades in the twelfth century, European exploration in the sixteenth century, as well as a failing economy and social immobility. By the nineteenth century, European imperialism had succeeded in subjugating vast empires--Turkey, Persia, and India--and Islam was pushed into the backyard of modern history.

When the colonial powers finally left the occupied countries of Asia and Africa, some Western scholars thought that these nations had left behind a lasting legacy of secular democratic ideas and institutions in the newly independent states. Most of these newly independent nations proclaimed themselves secular states, including some of the Muslim-majority countries. But within 50 years, we find secularism is either giving way to or being threatened by fundamentalism. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of secular eastern European states, we find a resurgence of different kinds of nationalism where religion is considered vital to national identity. The question arises out of these new developments: was secularism a matter of cardinal faith with the new leaders of Asian and African countries, or was it imposed on them from above by their former colonial masters? This question is not irrelevant. I offer this quote from an observer who, in turn, is quoting from various sources. He makes these observations about the newly independent countries where Muslims constitute the majority:

Jinnah {of Pakistan}, whose country's reason for being was its religion, was quoted as saying after he came to power that "Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state ruled by priests with a divine mission." Sukarno's policy {in Indonesia} was "to tolerate Islam as a religion to curb it as a political force." Nasser {in Egypt} restricted polygamy, suppressed religious courts, and instituted votes for women; however his aim was not "to knock down Islam but to transform it," "to neutralize Islam in internal politics, while utilising it in foreign politics." Bourguiba {of Tunisia}, "the most iconoclastic of all the contemporary Muslim rulers, while instituting modernist reforms ... allowed the Ulema a certain visibility and status as religious leaders." In short, these Muslim rulers, like the Buddhist rulers of Sri Lanka and Burma, sought to use religion as a unifying ideology while adapting it for the purposes of modernization.

Naturally, when the challenge came from religious fundamentalists, the second and third generation of nationalist leaders found it very difficult to hold the fort. The basic argument of the fundamentalists is this: the idea of secularism is Western in origin. The imperialistic West sold its idea of secularism to the nationalist leaders of the newly independ states so that the West could dominate the indigenous culture and religion by proxy. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the failure of the West to solve all the problems of humankind--because the West is basically areligious and devoid of morality --there was a renewed challenge to the Western value system. A belief grew among the majority people of western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that Islam should go back to its roots to find an alternative to Western life, culture, values, and institutions. A social scientist has tried to explain this stand by citing some instances of failure on the part of secular democracies:

In many parts of the world the secular state has not lived up to its own promise of political freedom, economic prosperity, and social justice. Some of the most poignant cases of disenchantment with secularism are to be found among educated members of the middle class who were raised with the high expectations propagated by secular nationalist political leaders. Some of them have now been propelled toward religious nationalism after trying to live as secular nationalists and then feeling betrayed or, at least, unfulfilled. Many of them also feel that the Western societies have betrayed themselves: the government scandals, persistent social inequities, and devastating economic difficulties of the United States and the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s made both democracy and socialism less appealing as role models.... The global mass media in their exaggerated way have brought to religious leaders in non-Western nations the message that there is a deep malaise in the United States caused by the social failures of unwed mothers, divorce, racism, and drug addiction.

There are, of course, many other reasons for the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in Asia and Africa, but I find it difficult to accept fundamentalism as an alternative to secular ideas. My reasons are: first, the insistence of fundamentalists on divine justification for human laws; second, the insistence of fundamentalists upon the superior authority of faith, as opposed to reason; third, the insistence of fundamentalists that the individual does not count, that the individual is immaterial. Group loyalty over individual rights and personal achievements is a peculiar feature of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe in a particular way of life; they want to put everybody in their particular straitjacket and dictate what an individual should eat, what an individual should wear, how an individual should live everyday life--everything would be determined by the fundamentalist authority. Fundamentalists do not believe in individualism, liberty of personal choice, or plurality of thought. Moreover, as they are believers in a particular faith, they believe in propagating only their own ideas (as autocrats generally do). They do not encourage or entertain free debate, they deny others the right to express their own views freely, and they cannot tolerate anything which they perceive as going against their faith. They do not believe in an open society and, though they proclaim themselves a moral force, their language is hatred and violence. As true believers, they are out to "save the souls" of the people of their country by force of arms if necessary.

True, the imperialist West did not establish and rule over its colonies by peaceful means. It did not colonize the new world with idealism, enlightenment, and democratic values. So when the fundamentalists argue that they are paying back their old adversaries in the same coin, they may find some sympathetic listeners even in the West. But, as I said earlier, the fight is not between the former colonial powers and newly independent nations; the war is between two ideas of our time: secularism and fundamentalism. So the doctrine of "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth ... burning for burning, wound for wound" is totally irrelevant here. The fundamentalists want to replace democracy with theocracy and to impose old theocratic laws instead of modern secular laws on the members of their own society, not on other distant powerful states which they consider their enemies.

Though it has a global dimension, Islamic fundamentalism is also a local phenomenon. In reality, there is no such thing as an "Islamic front" embracing all the states of the world that have a Muslim majority. It has been proved time and again that pan-Islam is just an aspiration. There is no end of fighting between different Muslim states. The war between Iraq and Iran and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait are examples of the animosity between states run by Muslims. The civil war in Afghanistan is also a reminder of this. In fact, even if we assume that the first loyalty of a Muslim is to his or her religion, that person is first and foremost a member of a nation state.

All the various Islamic groups are actually artificially constituted by the rulers of different countries to buttress their own position. Often these groups are initiated by despotic rulers who use Islam to perpetuate their despotic rule. For example, my country, Bangladesh, was once a part of Pakistan. Pakistan regarded it simply as a colony and exploited its people just like a colonial power would, even though most of the population consisted of fellow Muslims. It tried to impose its own language and culture on our people. When the war of liberation began, Pakistani soldiers brutally murdered the freedom fighters. Like an occupation army, they burnt village after village, raped women, and committed all sorts of crimes against our people. The liberation war of Bangladesh proved that religious unity among Muslims was a myth. It was Bengali culture which unified the Muslims and Hindus of the land and gave them their real identity. Naturally, for me, the question is: what is to be done about the rise of fundamentalism in my country? The global problem can be discussed later.

As I said, in my country the basis of nationalism was Bengali culture. No doubt religion plays an important role in the lives of Bengalees--whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian. But it was Bengali language and culture that shaped our nationalism. So the founding fathers declared Bangladesh a secular, democratic country. But successive military generals who usurped power gave up secularism and declared the country an Islamic state in order to make themselves popular among the ignorant masses. When, after more than a decade, democracy was finally restored, the elected leaders did not restore secularism as the guiding spirit of the constitution. They, too, feel that, because religion is important to the ignorant, illiterate masses, it is a useful tool for control.

Even the opposition is hesitant to disturb the fundamentalists for fear of losing political support. In short, when almost all the political parties make political hay out of religious sentiments, there is no reason why that situation would not be favorable for the fundamentalists. Bangladesh is not (yet) governed by Mollahs, however; political power is still not in the hands of any religious fundamentalist party. When the Mollahs issue a fatwah from time to time, it has no constitutional legitimacy or legal sanction. But seldom is any action taken against them. Doesn't this indicate a compromise with fundamentalism?

How to correct this situation, I do not know. I do not think the government or the other democratic parties are really worried about this development. Some day they may have to pay a high price for today's small gains. In the meantime, common people will have to suffer because of the activities of the fundamentalists. If only there was faster economic growth, less unemployment, better access to education, I think the situation would be different. Until such miracles happen, democrats will have to bear the brunt of fundamentalism in my country. Women will have to suffer not only discrimination but also ignominy and violence, and human rights will remain just a dream for many.

Looking at the world situation, I feel the situation is not as bleak. We hear about the globalization of the economy. Modern technology has made for a globalization of culture, too. In a sense, it seems that the world today is like a close-knit family. Economic activity and cultural give and take has brought nations closer in the past. But to make the global media market into a useful tool for fighting fundamentalism, the advanced nations should be very careful about certain aspects of their drive for a global market. If just greed and profit-making become the guiding forces in this drive, with no consideration for ethics and moral values, fundamentalists will name this globalization as exploitation. Market leaders could be compared to colonial powers of the past.

Similarly, if culture means just Western culture, it will also provoke anger in poorer countries. Personally, I believe in plurality of culture, and I have nothing against Western culture as such. But in the past, feelings of cultural superiority among the Western rulers were a constant irritant to the people of non-Western countries. When fundamentalism looms large, the West should be very careful in handling the culture of Asian, African, and Latin American peoples. There is no such thing as a "superior" or "inferior" culture, there are only various cultural patterns which make up this beautiful, multicolored mosaic.

"The power of reason is thought small in these days, but I remain an unrepentant rationalist," wrote Bertrand Russell. I began this article by quoting him, and so I would like to conclude by quoting him again:

Reason may be a small force, but it is constant and works always in one direction, while the forces of unreason destroy one another in futile strife. Therefore every orgy of unreason in the end strengthens the friends of reason, and shows afresh that they are the only true friends of humanity.
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Author:Nasrin, Taslima
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Words:2619
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