The internal conflict in Bangladeshi society is mistakenly being painted as a war between Islamic extremism and secularism. While attacks on ‘secular’ bloggers and minority communities have been on rise for some time now, the latest trigger of speculation is PM Sheikh Hasina’s capitulation to Islamic fringe elements demanding the removal of the statue of ‘Lady Justice’ – borrowed from a Greek goddess, albeit one wearing the traditional sari – that was installed outside its Supreme Court premises. The contention of the Islamists is that Islam does not believe in idols.
Sheikh Hasina can be seen capitulating to the demands of fringe Islamic groups since elections are due in 2018 and she, like the Congress party of India, wants to keep both the urban, ‘secular’ population happy and also appease the rural orthodox Islamic constituencies. This appeasement may strengthen her chances against the conservative, pro-Islamic opposition Bangladesh National Party.
The developments in Bangladesh highlight what has been taking place all over the world. In all majority Islamic countries – including previously stable and peaceful tourism economies like Maldives – across South and Central Asia, there is a rise of Islamic extremism.
However, it would be a mistake to label it as a fight between Islamists and secularists for several reasons.
First, a divide – of any kind – between majority and minority can be acknowledged as existing only in a democratic political setup, like, for instance, in India, where both the majority and the minority have been provided a free cultural and political space to thrive and grow and the minorities can stake their claim to just treatment. In fact, in India, they do more – there is virtually a tyranny of the minority many times.
But it cannot exist in Islamic theological states where minorities have reconciled to their abject fate, do not have any rights, are treated as second-class citizens, and merely exist instead of thriving in a different culture. The latter is the real nature of theologies like Pakistan. And even though Bangladesh proclaimed itself as being secular when it was formed in 1971, there have been constitutional flip-flops since then; further mere constitutional status does not matter, if the political and social fabric itself legalizes violence in the name of Islam.
Second, an majority Islamic population and secularism can never co-exist. In fact, an Islamic majority, especially of the hardliner Sunni or Wahabi type, can never co-exist with anything. Islam, by its fundamental nature, views everything and everyone non-Islamic as an object against which jihad has to be waged, either to eliminate them or convert them to Islam. Therefore, the question of a secular republic with and Islamic majority cannot even arise.
Certainly, there have been countries like Turkey – closer to Europe and highly westernized in their lifestyle – that have not always been bound by hardline injunctions. But that was in spite of Islam, much like the defunct and ornamental status of Christianity in Europe and America. However, even in Turkey now, we are seeing a lapse into dictatorship – the recent manipulated referendum by Erdogan to appropriate more powers for himself and erode the wishes of modern Turkish cities like Istanbul and more than half the population. And even though this lapse to extreme dictatorship of Erdogan is just political in nature right now, and he is more interested in eliminating the potential formation of Kurdistan on Turkish borders by fighting off Syrian rebels, this does not insulate it from becoming a hardliner Islamic theology.
The current political status of Islam is not like the un-influential, defunct status of Christianity. Its potency is very strong among its over-zealous followers and it can radicalize even an ordinary Muslim – so much so that the only deliverance from Islam can be when the religion crumbles and dies under the burden of its own internal conflicts, contradictions and wars, which Muslims wage against other Muslims, against their women and against other Muslim states.
There is no war between secularism and Islamic extremism in Muslim-majority states, since there is no such thing as secularism to begin with. It is merely a word to throw about for the sake of international diplomacy and all the power resides with the Islamic majority. In a country like Bangladesh, especially at present, the oppressions of the Islamic majority are so atrocious that even to speak of the conflict between secularism and Islam – as if the former ever had a chance of asserting itself – is laughable. Therefore, the idea that Bangladesh is seeing such a conflict is a misreading and a wrong perspective on facts that needs to be dismissed at once.