Revival of Religious Fundamentalism: Secularism under Threat? : Monaem Sarker

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Introduction

It is my great pleasure to present the keynote paper today on a very important and contemporary global phenomenon of the modern world. This is indeed an interesting age when the whole world has been in a state of uncertainty and the innocent people in the East, West, North, South are victims of extremist violence and religious fundamentalism.

মোনায়েম সরকার

We grew in the latter half of 20th century with a relatively calm environment after the end of Second World War and even in the Cold War period. Personally, I am disturbed as a writer and a political worker, what we have been witnessing in the world today the revival of fundamentalism, particularly, driven by religious bigots and blood thirsty politics in both more developed and developing nations.

We all know present is an uncertain time and God knows how long this uncertainty in global politics, economics and security will last? It does not look like we would live again in a golden age between the period of end of War II and 9-11, when the New York based World Trade Centre (Twin Tower) was hit by two passenger planes high jacked by terrorists. In this attack more than 3000 innocent people had to give their lives in an extreme violent environment.

Unfortunately, the world has not learned any lessons from this inferno took place in the World Trade Centre which is just at a stone throw away from the United Nation Building.  What we have been seeing now, things are even getting worse. My apology if I sound too strong in expressing my feelings about this subject. The topic is too broad and vast to cover within a limited time. I shall try to cover as much as possible.

Let me begin with a question. What makes me as a writer and a member of the civil society to burn my finger with this issue?  Well, you would know, over the last half a century, I have been dedicating my time in propagating in our country, the belief in Secularism, one of the pillars of our beloved nation. This great principle is now under attack from terrorist & religious fundamentalists not only in our nation, rather all over the world as well.

Secularism, is it an ideology or way of life? To me it is both. I shall cover this term in more detail in a minute. One of my recent books, rather I would say, a collections from different sources entitled, History of Religions and Spiritual Traditions in the World, has been distributed here for your ready reference. This is indeed a collection of background information I compiled for my major work now in-progress on revival of religious fundamentalism, rise of extremism and the clash of humanity on the planet revisited.

Let me first refer to page 66 of this book where a demographic table on major religions has been presented.  Over the first decade of 21st century Christianity grew from 2 billion to 2.2 billion, Islam from 1.2 to 1.6 billion, Hinduism from 0.8 to 1.0 billion and Buddhism from 0.36 to 0.5 billion.  This statistics certainly shows that Christianity and Islam have been fast spreading all over the world, while India and Nepal remain as the home of Hinduism, and South, Southeast and East Asia as the homes for Buddhists.

Revival of Religious Fundamentalism

The synonyms of the word revival are bringing back, re-establishment, reintroduction, restoration, reappearance, resurrection and so on and so forth. Religious fundamentalism is back.  In the past historians, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists examined 75 movements in several continents.  A book called ‘Strong Religion’ has found recently “family resemblances” on fundamentalism among so called fundamentalist groups within major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and so on.

Let me mention examples of religious fundamentalism that came and ended in the past.  In the context of Christianity, Reverend Jerry Farwell founded the ‘Moral Majority’ movement in the US in 1979. In the same year, in the context of Islam, Iranian students took 52 American citizens hostage within the US embassy in Tehran. These days, in the name of Islam, the followers of Bin Laden and Talebans of Afghanistan and Pakistan are regarded as fundamentalists.  In recent years, in India Hindu fundamentalism is in rise. In Sri Lanka in the past and in Myanmar in recent time ethnic cleansing of Tamils and Muslim Rohingyas, respectively by Buddhist Monks had been found to be collaborators with Arm forces of these nations.

In the literature of religious fundamentalism the following questions have been asked with a view to assess the theory and practice of fundamentalism in major religions. Who are these people? What religious and political sentiments motivated them to go for such violent actions? In other words, can the ‘family resemblances’ discerned in differing varieties of religious revivalism be described usefully as a “fundamentalist phenomenon”?

There is no need to make effort to discuss these questions since the answers are more or less known to everyone by now. Having said this, it is important to understand fundamentalism from the context of ‘family resemblance’. What is family resemblance? As mentioned earlier, this indeed is the differing varieties of religious revivalism which also described as “fundamentalist phenomenon”.  Fundamentalists have been referred to the “enclave culture” meaning that the fundamentalist movements see themselves as beleaguered minorities in a hostile world. The so called, Islamic State or ISI and its splinter groups in Iraq and Syria immediately come to mind in recent years. This is hard to understand from the sociological narrative that these types of fundamentalism are they religious, political or simply run by ultra religious agendas to grab attention with fascist ideology?

More recently, at our door step, the Myanmar military have been utilizing the Buddhist fundamentalist Monks to throw millions of Rohingyas out of their land in the pretext of some Rohingya militants killing 8 police and border guards of Myanmar to make known their presence in the region and protest the atrocities of Myanmar’s Quasi Civilian government.

Secularism

Out of all the ‘isms’, capitalism, communism (Marxism, Leninism, Maoism), socialism, fundamentalism and so on, Secularism, does relates to a way of life. What is it? Indeed, there is a vast literature on this topic. I have no time to go into the detail. Let me provide a brief overall meaning of secularism.

A website in the UK which has been dedicated to secularism called ‘secularism.org.UK’ mentions the following:

“Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law. The separation of religion and state is the foundation of secularism. It ensures that religious groups don’t interfere in affairs of state, and makes sure the state doesn’t interfere in religious affairs.

Secularism protects both believers and non-believers.  Secularism seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.

Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.”

In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else. Secularism champions human rights above discriminatory religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities. These equality laws ensure that non-believers have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief.

It is essential that the public services such as hospitals, schools, transport etc are secular at the point of use so that no-one is disadvantaged or denied access on grounds of religious belief (or non-belief.)

In summary, secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike. Secularism protects free speech and expression. Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs. Religious beliefs, ideas and organizations must not enjoy privileged protection from the right to freedom of expression. In a democracy, all ideas and beliefs must be open to discussion.

Having defined the term secularism, let us see now how the fundamentalism attacks the principles of secularism and a major threat to it?

We like it or not, it is true that the religious fundamentalism or movements become “militants and highly focused antagonists of secularization”.  Most of the fundamentalist movements are undoubtedly hostile to much of modernity in turn hostile towards secularism and now becomes a major threat. The global upsurge of religion unfortunately did not help to reign in to counter this threat.

In this respect, a sociologist Peter Berger argues in his study on “The De-secularization of the World”:

Quote “the nation that we live in a secularized world is false” unquote.  As we know the secularization theory and practice have been popularized immediately after the Second World War in the 1950s and 1960s in both camps from the beginning of the cold war. What happened then was the world was gradually abandoning faith based religion and began free itself from the shackles of religion and superstition. But, what Berger found from his research is, in recent years, the world becomes massively religious. This is anything but what the authors of secularism has been predicting.

Before I conclude, let me pay some attention towards the threat to secularism in our regional context.  Historically, British India was very rich in all three major religions: Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism (in order of numbers). In our context, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made Secularism as one of the four pillars of our nation. In India, secularism has in place from 1947 after its independence and in Pakistan, the nation since 1947 adopted the principles of an Islamic Republic. In this region secularism is now in disarray.

In recent days the Lokshava in India is preparing for an amendment to the Secularism Act and making the nation committed towards Hindu nationalism and it remains to be seen what happens in Raijay Shava. In Bangladesh, things are in cloud.  Religion based politics is still thriving, some underground and some on ground. Nothing is clear cut. Under this circumstance it is hard to paint a clear picture. But one thing is clear there will be more and more debate on the issue of the secular path in the future.

Before concluding, let me provide some observations along the line of the above discussion. It is not only fundamentalists who are the major threat now to continue with true secularism, the politics, economics and society in the era of digitization are also factors. The time is short let me concentrate on Politics, Economics and Corruption today.

Politics

The global politics at this moment has unfortunately reached to such a point that, in my view, it becomes much worse than the cold war period whichexisted before the disappearance of Berlin Wall and unification of Germany in 1992. Presently, however, in our next door, Korean peninsula, in particular, has reached dangerously close to another theatre of a Great conflict between the US and allies in East Asia and Oceania, and North Korea and its allies. Under this condition, if third Great War eventuates, the secularism is going to be the first casualty.

Economics

How would the present economic order contribute to threat to secularism? It is indeed a great question. The economic order which existed over the last half a century in Europe with the formation of European Union (EU) has entered into a period of great disturbance with Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU.

The NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico has also entered into a period of destabilization under the Trump administration. It is hard to say, how the ultimate shape of this trade integration in the region unfolds with Trump being an anti integration President.  An extreme right movement in the US against the minorities in several fronts is in order now. This is indeed a major threat to secularism in this region.

The ASEAN in Southeast Asia seems lost to have its momentum for the action of some of its member countries in recent years, particularly, Myanmar escalating the Rohingya crisis since last year. The strong ASEAN members like Indonesia and Malaysia are unhappy on Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing plan and wiping out Rohingyas from Rakhain state over the years. In the process in Bangladesh, we are forced to provide shelter to almost a million refugees from Myanmar.

In our region, SAARC is not going anywhere. The present relations between India and Pakistan have been worsening day by day. You know what I mean. This political environment is not conducive to keeping secularism in a healthy and steady path in South Asia. In view of the above, global picture is grim to say the least in the Economic front and certainly would be in a great crisis with a rise of any of the political crisis mentioned earlier.

Corruption and Values

This is indeed, a major problem in the sub-continent, particularly, in Bangladesh. Almost two hundred years of British rule of the Greater India, the three large nations of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are now the home of more than 1.5 billion people which is one-fifth of the world population.  This huge population together with diminishing moral values is a matter of major concern in this region. In the pretext of terrorism and insurgency in some parts of the subcontinent, the nation states have been running after reviving a culture of religious extremism. In India, the revival of Hindu extremism led politics is making the nation to abandon secularism soon. In Pakistan, Talebans and other Islamic extremists have become a threat not only to the integrity of Pakistan, but also a threat to whole region. In Bangladesh, although, Islamic extremism is under control due to government’s zero tolerance to terrorism, there is indeed an emergence of a byproduct such as corruption, gripping all walks of life, cannot be ignored. Corruption not only in monetary terms is thriving in this nation, morale values are also taking a toll and a nasty turn. How? It is a subject which needs very close scrutiny however I have no time today to touch this in a meaningful way. Having said that, I am convinced, the present environment in political arena is not conducive to reign in corruption, in turn the secularism is likely to be a major casualty of political developments to the years to come.

Conclusions

In conclusions, I would like to make four observations out of my assessment of the present threat to secularism.

• The threat is unavoidable unless the progressive political governments of the world are showing commitment and resolve in strengthening secularism and its practice in the era of new world order;

• Religious fundamentalism needs to be addressed in a meaningful way instead of encouraging directly or indirectly by nation states;

• There is no room for state sponsored terrorism or spread of weapons of mass destruction. The world has seen enough;

• The right wing governments of the world must come to terms with arresting rampant corruption gripping some emerging nations including our region.

• Twentieth century was not replica of nineteenth century and twenty first century will be quite different from Twentieth century. In the Twenty first century people are looking forward for a humane world order in all respects.

 

Writer : Director General, Bangladesh Foundation for Development Research [Edited by : Mr.Nazrul]
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