The expressions of solidarity with Avijit Roy are impressive. But I think that they are too late. Had journalists, artists and political activists taken a more robust view on free speech over the past years then we may never have come to this. Instead, they have helped create a new culture of self censorship. Partly, it is a question of fear, an unwillingness to take the kind of risk that Avijit Roy courted, and for which he has paid such a heavy price. But fear is only part of the explanation. There has also developed over the past two decades a moral commitment to censorship, a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offense. So deep has this belief become embedded that even free speech activists have bought into it. Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. "You can't say that!" is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The right to "subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism" is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of "tolerance" or "respect", we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. What is called "offense to a community" is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim majority countries across the world, challenging religious based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms. What nurtures the reactionaries, in Bangladesh and other Muslim majority countries, is the pusillanimity of many so called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within communities. On the one hand, this allows Muslim extremists the room to operate. The more that society gives license for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage. There will always be extremists who respond as the Avijit killers did. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious moral legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offense. So let us challenge the Islamists and the reactionaries within Muslim communities more than ever before. Let us also challenge the anti Muslim reactionaries. But equally let us call the fake liberals to account. If we do not alert ourselves even today then we will lose many more like Avijit.
I contend we all should have the right to offend. Why? I bet you are wondering why I just said that. "The right to offend" is a contentious proposition. Almost nobody enjoys being offended, whether in private or in public. So why should we have a right to offend? What is so defensible about that? Imagine someone coming to your house and shooting you as you exit from the front door, just because you said something that someone else did not like. It has happened before. And if you are a blogger, I bet you've already offended someone with your writings. Hopefully you have not get death threats yet. Now, most of us would agree that the hypothetical shooter is dead wrong in shooting you. But why is he wrong, and why do we think that? Does he have a right to punish people who offend him and his sensitivities? Let's find out why he does not. Salman Rushdie said it well: The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each others positions. The right to offend is not about humor. It is not about anarchy. It is not about what I feel like doing, without consequences. Believe it or not, it is about defending the right to tell the truth -- which is necessary for progress of society. The right to say these things is called freedom of speech, and is one of the cornerstones of a free society. Throughout human history, we have had a lot of "inconvenient" truths, and saying them out loud have cost the lives of countless martyrs. Modern society is no different, with the concession that today it is less likely -- but still possible -- to be killed by saying something offensive. Moreover, this right extends beyond the mere possibility of stating verifiable truths. Since we express what we think in countless ways (such as humor, offensive statements, ironic quips), you need to have a right to say things in these ways as well. Furthermore, what the majority of society may understand as being "true" is constantly being proven wrong. That is why we must have a right to say things that others will regard as blatantly wrong, even if these things are offensive. And that is why I have the right to say retards are funny, God does not exist. Regardless whether I offend you or not. I have the right to ridicule your religion, your beliefs, your ideas, and even you. Yes, you read that right. Evidently, if we are to gain (or, more appropriately, preserve) this right, we need to have the right to be offended. Call it eye for an eye if you want; I will call it tolerance. What does it mean? It means that, if I say something that offends you, you can only respond with speech. You cannot retaliate with your fists, a knife, or a bullet. Why? Because you have accepted (or, more likely, forced by society into accepting) that you have a right to offend as well, and you are also granted protection against your integrity. Read again: you may not take the matter in your own hands. This is a recognized fact of modern society law: If I insult you publicly, you cannot shoot me or beat me up. Not unless you like going to prison. However, if you try to hit me, I am entitled to use the same force to stop you. But that is a subject for a different post. That is absolute tolerance. Naturally, that does not exactly work in a world where words have different leverage depending on their source. Something written about me in a newspaper will carry a bit more weight than what I've written on this blog. Thus, lies created to ruin someone's life need to be forbidden. Modern society law comes to the rescue to draw a line between what's acceptable and what is not. So where do we draw the line? We draw the line on the character of the speech. The line is drawn where speech turns from just offensive into defamatory. Most of you would be surprised to learn that, in matters of speech, offensive is not equal to defamatory. Key to determining if speech is libelous is two factors: 1.Said speech contains a significant amount of non-falsifiable statements -- lies, and accusations that cannot be positively proved. 2.Said speech is designed expressly with the intent to harm someone's reputation. For example, when a reasonable person is expected to believe the speech to be true. The civilized world does apply this rule.Both assertions must be satisfied before judging speech to be libelous. Your feelings about you being offended do not matter at all when judging speech. In effect: • if a statement is true, then it is not libelous. • if a statement is hardly likely to be believed, it's not libelous. • if a statement wasn't made with the purpose to harm someone, it's not libelous. For example: let us suppose I call you a fucking bitch. If what I said is hardly likely to be believed, or it is true, then I have the right to say that. Fortunately, thanks to this, most insults are protected speech, whether you like it or not. But if: 1.I called you gay, 2.you were reasonably gay-mannered, 3.I have a grudge against you, 4.I said the statement in a manner that negatively affects what lots of other people think about you, 5.I could not prove that statement, and 6.You really wanted to put me in prison. I could end up in the arms of my future cellmate.Different types of speech are afforded different levels of protection. It just so happens that death threats are a type of speech that is outlawed – we have already seen other types of forbidden speech. In the scale of "useful speech", death threats rank at the bottom, and there is nothing defensible about them. Thus, it is a crime and it is expressly not protected by free speech because a death threat inflicts direct, grave emotional distress in a person. Moreover, death threats are, by modern judicial standards, expressly outlawed and categorized as a serious crime, right there with theft, because it usually is used to prevent others from exercising their right to free speech. Yes, we forbid certain types of speech to let other, more productive types of speech flourish. Now, you may be thinking: Hey, but just yesterday you called me a whore, and that inflicted emotional distress on me. If you were distressed at that, I suggest you reevaluate how thick your proverbial skin is, because you got nothing on the people who have received death threats. After all, there might be something productive about me calling you a whore. Remember this. The next time someone offends you, you do not get to call "mummy" when someone offends you. You have to shut up, put up and respond in kind. And you better develop thick skin, because offenses are a part of our everyday life. And sure, there are animals out there, who will feel offended by you and think they are entitled to payback in blood. But that is why we have guns. Islam represents more than a religion; it is a culture, too. The religious faith and the culture and the people are inextricably intertwined, so when the faith is denigrated, they feel disrespected.The history is complex and frankly it involves a lot of western interference in Muslim regions on top of their own economic and political and social problems. In addition, they have no tradition of free speech either religiously or politically. That is a western concept, and it is not a very old one even in the West. It is really not surprising that Muslims would be very, very sensitive on the subject of the way their religion is discussed in the West. Moreover, Islam has not undergone Enlightenment the way Christian nations and Judaism did. Someday that may happen, but until it does, Muslims are simply not going to grasp the "freedom of speech and expression" issue the way westerners do. Right now, there are still Muslim countries functioning socially very much as they did in the middle Ages. They did not have to function in any other way for centuries, and then they suddenly got dragged into the modern world by the West. They are undergoing culture shock. The Muslim extremists responsible for the acts of violence we are witnessing around the world are causing more problems for themselves than anything. I am not sure to categorize it as common-sense or education but they are:
The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism was a key part of Marx's writings. He argued that the relentless drive for profits would lead companies to mechanize their workplaces, producing more and more goods while squeezing workers' wages until they could no longer purchase the products they created. Sure enough, modern historical events from the Great Depression to the dot-com bubble can be traced back to what Marx termed "fictitious capital" – financial instruments like stocks and credit-default swaps. We produce and produce until there is simply no one left to purchase our goods, no new markets, no new debts. The cycle is still playing out before our eyes: Broadly speaking, it is what made the housing market crash in 2008. Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more people to take on debt. When there were no sub-prime borrows left to scheme, the whole facade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.
The question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy has persisted for generations. Recent developments in technology, transportation and communication have served to intensify the interaction between the "democratic" countries of the West and the traditionally Islamic societies of the Middle East, South East Asia and North Africa. The political, religious and social developments of various cultures are now only as distant as the television or internet. The recent events of the Middle East, facilitated by these technological advances, have only heightened the talk about the role of democracy in the region. The outcome of these revolutions remains unclear and will provide the most recent test case for the installation of democracy in majority Muslim countries. While the validity of his entire thesis remains open for debate, Samuel Huntington was right when he said of the post-Cold War era, "in the politics of civilizations, the peoples and governments of non-Western civilizations no longer remains the objects of history as targets of Western colonialism but join the West as movers and shapers of history". While the Western powers, the United States foremost among them, still hold a large amount of influence in global affairs the center of influence is shifting. As the world becomes more "flat," to use Thomas Friedman's terminology, the compatibility of competing systems of thought becomes a more frequent topic of debate. At the forefront of this debate is the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Due to the fluid and variegated interpretations of both of these ideologies, the conversation is immense. To attempt to make sense of this topic the scope of this article will be to examine both of these systems in order to elucidate both core values as well as potential abuses and then to put forward potential scenarios in light of these realities. Does Islam represent an obstacle to modernization and democratization? Does Islam pose a threat to democracy if a democratically elected government becomes a "theocracy"? Does the majority rule of democracy threaten the liberty and freedom of other members of a society? If the majority imposes its will upon minorities, is that a departure from democracy in general or form of "liberal" democracy? Does modernization strengthen or inhibit democratization and individual liberty? These broad questions are being debated in many different contexts around the world. They provide a framework for looking at the experience of Muslim societies and the relationships between Islam and democracy. The relationship between Islam and democracy is a hotly debated topic. Usually the disagreements are expressed in a standard form. In this form, the debaters' definitions of "Islam" and "democracy" determine the conclusions arrived at. It is possible, depending upon the definitions used, to "prove" both positions: Islam and democracy are compatible and that they are not. To escape from the predefined conclusions, it is necessary to recognize that "Islam" and "democracy" are concepts with many definitions. The use of the word "democracy" brings to mind a myriad of images. The roots of this system of government are in the city states of ancient Greece. In contemporary usage it can refer to the unruly shouting matches of a town hall meeting or to the complex representational political structures of many Western states. What exactly is meant by "democracy?" What are its fundamental components? What are its abuses? In order to assess whether Islam is compatible with democracy it is essential to clarify what exactly this term denotes. By simple definition, democracy is a system of government by the people rather than a single individual or elite group. It can be defined as government by the populous; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their freely elected agents. This investment of the supreme power in the people must have on it certain checks lest it simply degenerate into anarchy and a power struggle within the populous itself. In most modern states democracy is synonymous with a republican form of government wherein the people have the power to freely elect representatives to act in their best interest. They elect representatives to rule for them and in doing so give up a certain amount of the power vested in them. In a democracy this is done willingly, and thus central to democracy is the idea of free elections. However, this alone is not synonymous with a healthy democracy. "Free elections" do not necessarily equate a democracy. There are other more basic democratic principles. As Roger Trigg, in his insightful work Religion in Public Life, says, "a democratic country is one in which government is answerable to the people, and can be dismissed by them in an election." While the people have given up some rights, they still retain the ultimate power over elected officials. Thus Trigg concludes: "A pre-condition of exercising that democracy is an individual freedom according to which all citizens are free to form judgments about what is important, and to live life accordingly. A state in which citizens are told what to think, or conditioned through lack of information to accept certain things as true, is controlling its citizens rather than being controlled by them." The preservation and exercise of individual freedom is necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy. This fundamental principle has far-reaching consequences in the shaping of a democracy. A democracy is a rule by the people collectively, but it must be free individuals that produce this collective body. The preservation of individual freedom leads to other necessary principles of democracy. The exercise of individual freedom in a society produces certain cultural dynamics that have become hallmarks of democratic societies. Bassam Tibi, the famous Syrian political scientist and the founder of "Islamology" as a social-scientific study of Islam and conflict in post-bipolar politics, repeatedly emphasizes two of these cultural dynamics that are present in a truly democratic society. He says, "My assumptions herein are that pluralism and power sharing are basic features of democracy, it is my opinion that a process of democratization that is restricted to the procedure of voting is not a real democratization process". These two core elements of pluralism and power sharing come up repeatedly throughout Tibi's work. Pluralism is the logical result of the exercise of individual freedom. When people are allowed to think and act freely within a society the result is a plurality of ideas, thoughts, and voices within the public square. A democracy celebrates a diversity of ideas within a single body. Tibi's second core value is power sharing. In a vigorous democracy the ruling powers are not held within the grasp of a narrow segment of the population but are shared throughout the whole of the body. Thus the plurality of voices, the freedoms of the individual, are represented not just within the society but also within the exercise of the ruling powers. These values are central to true democracy. Thus in the investigation of the compatibility of Islam and democracy it must be considered if Islam is compatible with these core principles. It also should be discussed how these principles are put into practice within living democracies. Among the many values prized in democratic societies the most central are individual freedom, plurality, and power-sharing. When these values are put into practice they have the potential to produce a fair and just form of human government. Especially throughout the past three centuries, many of the happiest, most productive and advanced societies have been those where these core values were prized and most consistently exercised. These values have been exercised most freely in those countries of the West, but have also been recognized and sought by the international community. As just one example of this the United Nations in 1948 put forward its "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." In the exercise of democratic ideas this declaration called for its members to "implement human rights that gave priority to the protection of the individual over other national goals". To implement a policy such as this is logical only in a society where the power is with the individual rather than with the political leadership. Yet, the idea of human rights was, and is, embraced by the member states of the United Nations. In due course it will be examined how this reality interacts with Islam. A second aspect of the practice of democratic values is that when carried to an extreme these values create a logically unsustainable position. A primary example of this is seen in pluralism. The idea of a plurality of voices and ideas within the society is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Yet, the pursuit of pluralism cannot be the final goal of a democracy. When this becomes the final objective it creates a culture wherein it is impossible to hold any belief because it is incumbent on the individual to hold all beliefs. When tolerance becomes prized above all other values and any semblance of truth is removed from the public sphere the society begins to lose any authentic voices because all the voices speak the same ideas. No idea is allowed to be freely expressed because it may not represent every idea. In essence it becomes enforced liberalism. As Roger Trigg says, "enforced liberalism will be as objectionable to some, as dogmatic intolerance is to liberals". This debate over how far "plurality" should extend before it reaches "pluralism" is presently raging in Western Europe and the United States. The stand that a democratic society takes on this issue will have significant ramifications on the way in which it relates to Islam and any other system of belief. Another abuse of democratic principles is when a society falls into relativism. In the name of tolerance or pluralism many democratic societies have declared that absolute truths are non-existent. To assert that something is universally true is the ultimate act of intolerance and exclusion. In order to avoid this there is no longer any place for absolutes within the public square. In the end this ultimately removes any meaning from any formalized system of belief. Indeed for the monotheistic religions of the world, namely Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, if they say nothing absolutely then they say nothing at all. Or stated another way as Trigg says, "religious liberty may be a noble creed, but there is little point in preaching it, if there is nothing left to believe in". This battle concerning truth – and truth claims – within modern democracies has not been resolved but will bear serious consequences on the issues of the free expression of religion in coming years. It is not difficult to imagine a preacher being imprisoned for "hate speech" because he reads passages from the Bible that speak against homosexuality or a high school athlete being penalized because he prays during the celebration of a football game. What is the place of personal beliefs within a democracy? In the name of allowing everyone to believe what they choose it may be that democracies in fact make it impossible for individuals to believe anything. Within democracy is there any place left for belief in what is true or has the pursuit of individual freedom and plurality degenerated into pluralism and relativism? In principle there is a harmony between the core values of democracy and the freedom to exercise ones religious beliefs, but in practice many modern democracies see a sharp contention between religion and democracy. Islam was founded in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula and has now grown to be the world largest organized religion. Nearly one-fifth of the world's population is Muslim. Islam itself is far from monolithic. The most prominent division is between the majority Sunni and the minority Shia, but there are many more fragmentation beyond just this division. Before considering any of the fragmentation within Islam it should first be considered what the core fundamental principles of Islam are. To clearly describe the core values of Islam is a daunting task. In no way will this seek to be an exhaustive survey of the principles of Islam. Thus in a brief summary of these principles one might begin by looking to the five "pillars of Islam." These refer to five obligations for all Muslims. The first is the "shahadah" or creed. This is the confession that "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet." Included in this are two crucial concepts for an understanding of Islam. First, the unity and singularity of God is at the core of Islamic doctrine. The second concept revealed in this is the importance of the prophet Muhammad for Muslims. His role in the shaping of Islamic doctrine and culture cannot be overemphasized, even now more than 1300 years following his death. The second of the five pillars is the "salat" or prayers that are to be said five times a day. The third pillar is "zakat" or alms-giving. There is variation in the way this is exercised, but the traditional giving is 2.5% of an individual's income. The fourth pillar is "sawm" or fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The final pillar is the hajj or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. These five pillars are typically taken to be universal to all Muslims in spite of the serious fragmentation between groups. A second way to consider the principles of Islam is by the meaning of the word Islam itself. Islam means "submission" to God. Thus a Muslim is "one who submits." This is reflective of the orientation of a Muslim. He views his life as submitted to God and then attempts to live in response to that. The source of authority for a Muslim is found first of all in the Quran, then in the collected sayings and records of the life of the prophet Muhammad, and also in the collective opinion of the community of Muslims. As one who is submitted to God Muslims then live according to the dictates God has given for them. In "Sura 2.177" righteousness for the Muslim is described as including belief in God, his book, and his prophets, as well as the actions of the Muslim, especially as it relates to his fellow man. This is described as the willful giving away of goods for others, an emphasis on proper treatment of the poor and orphaned, and integrity of life. From the Quran come principles for the way that Muslims are to live. In other words, out of the theology of Islam springs actions that affect the way that Muslims relate to each other and to the world as a whole. In principle Islam is a religion that reveals to Muslims who God is – a theology. As a result of this theology there is a system of practice for Muslims as this is put into application. This system has central elements such as the five pillars. It also calls for Muslims to be defined by righteousness as explained by the Quran. But what do these principles look like in action? When Islam, like any system of belief or ideology, is put into practice there are various applications and interpretations. Besides distinctions based on theological/historical divisions, namely the Sunni and Shia division, Islam is presently facing a major division in practice. There is a debate over how the principles of Islam are to be applied. Is Islam a holistic system of belief? Does it apply to all areas of life? If it does apply to all areas of life is it through specific dictates or is it in principle? The way that these questions are answered is indicative to what Islam will look like in practice. In his incisive article Bassam Tibi draws the division in the terms of Islam and Islamism. He speaks of Islam as a faith, culture, and source of ethics, while Islamism is "a mobilizing religious ideology, represented by a transnational movement that not only engages in a new form of irregular warfare but also, in other contexts, cynically plays and manipulates the game of democracy". He draws a distinction among Islamist between "institutional" and "jihadist" but this distinction is in means and not in terms of goals. Both share a common international political vision for a global Islamization. Thus there are really two separate discussions that take place. One is whether Islam on a principle or theological level is incompatible with democracy. The other is whether there is an incompatibility when applied to the present situation of particular Muslim groups in particular democracies or to the emergence of democracy in particular Muslim societies. The first area concerns Islam as a system of belief, cultural practices, and ethics. As was seen in the section above, in principle Islam can produce people who are grounded in their ethics through the belief in God. Because of this belief in God, this can produce "righteous" lives, namely a willingness to give for others, a concern for the less fortunate, integrity of life, and many other praiseworthy characteristics. Through the application of Islam in this principle sense there is application to every area of life and yet compatibility with a multitude of political systems, including democracy. In the second application, if Islam is viewed as a "holistic vision" for society that dictates not only what the individual should look like, but also what the culture is, including the political structure, should be then there is historically a greatly increased likelihood for conflict and restriction of civil liberties. This would be true for Islamist who have a global vision for a sharia-based Islamization. Even if these objectives are sought through seemingly democratic means, as Tibi's institutionalized Islamist does, this does not reflect a democratic society. Trigg considers this same discussion of religions with a mandate for how all of life should be ordered. He says, "Their concern for truth, and a consequent willingness to impose it on others takes precedence [over individual freedoms]." This is certainly not exclusive only to Islam, rather Trigg goes on, "the Roman Catholic Church has historically been accused of not respecting religious liberty, but in the contemporary world, it is often Islam which challenges 'Western' ideas of freedom and human rights". For there to be genuine democracy and religious freedom it cannot be imposed from the top down. There must be within the culture the freedom for individuals to come to their own conclusions concerning personal belief – and even the right to change that belief – without the fear of government intervention. For Islamist this does not seem consonant with their view for globalized Islamization. In order to accurately assess an issue the principles being discussed must be defined. It also must be determined whether the discussion is descriptive or prescriptive of the issue. In essence, is this article attempting to describe the current reality or is it the analysis of what might be? This article has attempted to approach the issue of the compatibility of Islam and democracy from both approaches. It has looked at what democracy can or ought to be when its core principles are rightly applied. It also has considered Islam when applied as a system of faith and source of ethics. But it also must be recognized that there are abuses of both of these issues. Democracy taken to the extreme leads to pluralism and relativism. Islam taken to an extreme leads to enforced religion and oppression of those who hold differing views. In the end this is a complex discussion with a number of variables that have to be taken into account. At the conclusion of this analysis four scenarios have emerged for the relationship between Islam and democracy. Of these four scenarios three of them are incompatible and inevitably result in conflict. The first is a society where the democratic values of plurality and individual freedom have been taken so far that they lead to pluralism, where nothing can be believed because everything must be believed, and relativism, where nothing can be true because then something is false. In a society like this even a Muslim who views Islam simply as the theological and ethical grounding would be excluded because he has a belief in a God that is not embraced by others in the society. This is the reality that some Christian and Islamic groups are presently facing in Western societies. In the name of defending individual freedoms the free exercise of those freedoms are prohibited. This would be particularly damaging to the individual citizen who is forbidden to exercise his individual freedoms. The second scenario would be the same sort of democratic society when it comes into contact with an Islamist ideology that is attempting to bring about a globalized Islamization. In the first part the society would be accepting of this ideology because it is another voice to add to the pluralism. However, when it becomes evident that the Islamist ideology is not ready to bend to the relativist and pluralist agenda conflict of one sort or another is bound to ensue. This conflict seems to be forthcoming in the countries of Western Europe that have a burgeoning Islamic community and a firm commitment to pluralism and relativism. Either the society will accept the ideology or there will be a cultural clash as these two differing agendas battle in the public sphere. The third scenario is when a democratic society that provides for the exercise of individual freedoms interacts with an Islamist agenda that attempts to curtail those rights. In this scenario there will be a clash when the democracy is forced to impose limits on the exercise of one individual's rights because their intent is to eliminate the rights of other individuals. "The dilemma is how to reject relativism, and yet not fall into the authoritarian approach which makes democratic freedom impossible". This is a difficult case in countries where democracy is already established. It is conversely a factor making it difficult for strong democracies to emerge in Muslim majority nations. So in these scenarios there is an incompatibility between Islam and democracy. There is a final scenario where Islam and democracy are compatible. When the principle form of both is rightly exercised there is a place for Muslim individuals within a healthy democracy, and also a place for democracy within a healthy Muslim community. The exercise of individual freedoms allows for Muslims to live according to their system of belief. They then become beneficial citizens within the democracy who because of their faith in God treat their fellow citizens with respect, care for the unfortunate and integrity of life. The place of religion within a democracy is a complex question but it ought to be true that there is a place for the exercise not only of the majority religion of the citizens, but also the reality of religious freedom for the minority. When both are properly exercised there is compatibility between Islam and democracy. These two ideologies may work in concert to create healthy and flourishing cultures. Today, democracy is advocated and supported globally and few major leaders or intellectuals oppose it. In fact for the vast majority of the world, democracy is the sole surviving source of political legitimacy. It has gone from being a form of government to a way of life. Yet according to many observers these trends have had only limited results in the Muslim world, thus raising the question of the relationship between Islam and democracy to one of great interest to policy makers and scholars.
Bangladesh will have to undo the Maududian infiltration of its state and society if it wants to be a true secular democratic country. It means uprooting Jamaat and its affiliated organizations from our society forever. It means purging the state and its machinery of elements that are furthering the Jamaat's hate-filled agenda. The time has come to take stock of the damage this body of conspiratorial and bigoted men has done repeatedly to the body politic of Bangladesh. The Jamaat-e-Islami was founded in British India in 1941 by Abu-ala-Maududi who remained its Amir (chief) till 1972. He is considered to be the chief ideologue of the party and all Jamaat members are expected to study his writings. Maududi was of the view that the best way of transforming any society is to train a core group of highly disciplined dedicated and well-informed members to assume leadership in social and political matters. Over time, he hoped that the group would be able to Islamize the entire society after which the Jamaat would push for an Islamic state. The headquarters of the Jamaat-e-Islami is called "Mansoora", which is located in Lahore, Pakistan. After partition, religious extremism in Pakistan reared its ugly head when Majlis-e-Ahrar, a vociferously anti-Pakistan Islamic party during pre-partition days, in 1953 started its campaign of terror against a sectarian minority with the help of another witchdoctor of dubious history, i.e. Maududi, who till then had become completely irrelevant after his opposition to Jinnah and the Muslim League. To the credit of Pakistan's judiciary, it swiftly handed down a death sentence for the person who is singlehandedly responsible in providing the ideological foundations for not just the Islamization in Pakistan but the global Islamic jihad. Nevertheless the Maududi's sentence was commuted and subsequent to commutation, his book, Islam and Communism, was picked up, reprinted and distributed allegedly by CIA over the Muslim world. The idea was to use Maududian extremism to stiffen resistance against Soviet expansionism. It is therefore ironic that the Jamaat-e-Islami, Maududi's enduring creature, which in 1977 received funds from quarters in the US to overthrow the increasingly pro-Soviet Bhutto in Pakistan, is today the bastion of anti-west. Wonders never cease. The Jamaat-e-Islami started its work, in what is now Bangladesh in the 1950s. It laid emphasis on Islam and remained committed to the unity of Pakistan. As a result Jamaat chose to ignore the grievances of people of East Pakistan and was also unsympathetic towards the ethnic and linguistic sentiments of the region. The blind commitment to the unity of Pakistan prompted Jamaat to support the central government under General Yahya Khan in 1971 who used brute force to suppress the Bengali nationalist movement. The Jamaat-e-Islami became notorious in Bangladesh for collaborating with the Pakistani army during the liberation war. It also indulged in mass rapes and killings for which its leaders are now facing trial. Jamaat was outlawed in independent Bangladesh for its role during the liberation war and also because the country was established as a secular republic. The Jamaat describes itself as a "moderate Islamic political party." The party emerged in its traditional form in May 1979 after the withdrawal of the Political Parties Regulation. It has participated in almost all the national and local elections. Jamaat prefers to adopt 'constitutional means' to attain its objectives. The government of Bangladesh in 1973, by a notification disqualified Professor Ghulam Azam, a former Amir of Jamaat, from being a citizen of Bangladesh. The collaboration of the Jamaat with Pakistan army and the involvement of its leaders in war crimes created an image problem for the party. In the immediate aftermath of liberation it was a challenge for the party to convince the people that the Jamaat was not opposed to the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh. The Jamaat has now undertaken an extensive propaganda campaign to refurbish its image. The Jamaat now says that it was not the only political party that supported the cause of united Pakistan. There were other parties namely, the Muslim League, Nezam-e-Islam Party, Jamiyat Ulema Islam, the pro-China Communist Party all of whom supported the cause of united Pakistan. It also claims that a large number of prominent personalities had taken similar stand. In subsequent years, the Jamaat slowly become a full participant in the political process, rehabilitated by generals Zia-ur-Rahman and Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The primary motivation however of the authoritarian rulers in Bangladesh was to bolster their own political legitimacy through their much-publicized support for Islam. The Jamaat-e-Islami advocates not just religious extremism but open violence against minorities. Maududi has inspired a generation of Islamists globally. His exegesis of the Quran is widely read and followed by the Salafi Islamic order, predominantly found in the West and the main source of terrorism in the name of religion. Along with Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, Maududi remains the most widely read Islamist ideologue for relatively more affluent Muslims in the west. Within Bangladesh too, the target audience is the middle class. In the triumphalist Islamist narrative, Qutb and Maududi are prophets without parallel. The Jamaat-e-Islami actively works on the campuses of large educational institutions to spread its doctrine of hate and bigotry not just against religious and sectarian minorities in Bangladesh but against all liberal people. Its student wing, the Islami Chatra Shibir (ICS) is a cadre-based organization modeled after Nazi Militia. The Jamaat-e-Islami seeks to infiltrate the army, the air force and the civil bureaucracy to weaken the country's resolve against extremism. Key members of the Jamaat-e-Islami sit in educational institutions to introduce nothing but poison in the young minds of Bangladesh. The Jamaat-e-Islami is the best organized outfit among all the political parties in Bangladesh. Its structure is similar to revolutionary cadre-based parties where members move up through concentric circles of cells. Its cadres are disciplined. The party has a highly selective membership process. A prospective party member begins as an associate and receives lessons in party ideology before being conferred full membership. Unlike other parties, Jamaat has developed a stable party fund and contributions come from members and sympathizers. The influence of Jamaat now is quite widespread. Its sympathizers are of all ages, some of whom are madrassa educated but others have also received a modern education. The common people of Bangladesh are still reluctant to accept the ideology of the Jamaat. Women, who have played an important role in Bangladeshi society, are especially skeptical of the Jamaat. Though the Jamaat has often tried to mislead women by trying to highlight their role as mothers in Muslim homes, the Bangladeshi women want much more than that. Hence even rural women who are more influenced by religion, they too are wary of Jamaat and consider it to be a hurdle in the way of their progress. But the Jamaat is continuing to make inroads because of its strong organizational machinery. It is luring people and bureaucrats and sometime even using force where they are in a position to do so. Most importantly, when Jamaat was in power it tried to create a system that would benefit its followers and put the others at a disadvantage. Minorities and others, of course do not have any place in their scheme of things. The Jamaat-e-Islami is consistently working in Bangladesh to achieve its avowed objective of Islamic state. In this effort it has been supported by both military dictators as well as the democratic governments. Though in the initial phases after liberation the growth of political Islam in Bangladesh was a top down phenomenon, Islamists of Bangladesh have now come to a stage where they can sustain themselves and grow at a rapid pace. It has also been suggested that Bangladesh's indigenous culture and society are a natural defense against extremism but unfortunately both the culture and the progressive elements of society have been under attack. The importance of Islamic parties is often underestimated on the grounds that they do not win many elections. But the number of seats won by them does not reflect the kind of influence they have on the Bangladeshi society. One reason why Jamaat has not done so well politically is because the party is not so keen on winning seats, but prefers, at this juncture, to make society more orthodox in other ways. It must be remembered, for those who still care about the reasons why we made this country in the first place, that Bangabandhu's Bangladesh and Jamaat-e-Islami's Bangladesh are mutually exclusive. Bangladesh must decide here and now: do we wish to make Bangladesh a prosperous, secular and democratic country? Or do we wish to make Bangladesh a violent dystopia run by maniacs and religious extremists?
Many of us label Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim democracy. But the current Awami League government classifies Bangladesh as a secular country. It defines Bangladesh as a "non-communal country" with a "Muslim majority population". The Awami League emphasizes that the concept of a moderate Muslim democracy cannot be applied in the case of Bangladesh because it fought its war of independence on basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a major contestation in the creation of its national identity. Identity questions for Bangladesh still stand: is it a country of secular Bengalis or Muslim Bangladeshis? The Bangladeshi identity is made up of two distinct parts, the Bengali and the Muslim. The role of these two elements in the formation of Bangladeshi Muslim identity has varied at different times in the history of the country. Initially, Islam acted as a unifying factor, followed by the Bengali language, after which the two were reconciled. Finally a trend towards radical Islam has appeared in the society. In the first half of the twentieth century, the people of the region were mobilized on the basis of religion. This led to the alienation of the Bengali Muslim population that ultimately resulted in the creation of Pakistan. This period saw the eclipse of old Muslim elite and the rise of the Hindus because of the Bengal renaissance. During this period the Bengali language and culture were linked to Brahmanic heritage. The Bangla language borrowed a large number of words from Sanskrit. This was difficult for the Bengal Muslims to swallow and they in turn started borrowing from Arabic and Persian language and also started focusing on Islamic scriptural heritage. The breakup between the two major communities became visible in the Bengali Muslim attitude towards the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Swadeshi movement against the partition. Muslims in general favored the partition of Bengal and saw the Swadeshi movement as a ploy to serve Hindu communal interests. They feared that as a backward community in united India they would continue to be exploited by Hindu landlords, businessmen and industrialists. The fear of Hindu dominance made the East Bengal Muslims take shelter under the banner of Islam and support the Muslim League, which championed the cause of Islam and Muslims in India. This support was crucial to bring about the creation of Pakistan in 1947 on the basis of the two- nation theory. Pakistan was seen as a homeland for Muslims where they would get the opportunity to progress. However, the sustained campaign for Pakistan under Jinnah also sharpened the communal identity among a section of the population despite the prevailing Sufi tradition of Islam in Bangladesh. The political developments in post-liberation Bangladesh unfortunately have failed to remove this distrust between the communities. This also prepared ground for the emergence of militant Islam in the country. From 1947 to 1975 the Bengali language was the unifying factor in East. The ruling elites in Pakistan distrusted Bengalis and promoted their cultural assimilation by imposing Urdu on the region. Bengalis were however unwilling to give up their mother tongue which also signified their Bengaliness. This struggle gave rise to Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan. Bengalis were not given much say in the decision making process in the power structure of Pakistan. The state followed a policy of centralized administration and monopolized political power. This also resulted into skewed economic development and created disparity between the two parts of Pakistan. The formation and development of Awami League as a political party in 1949 was the result of the growing discontent among the Bengali population. The severe defeat of Muslim League in the general elections of 1954 encouraged the Awami League to put greater emphasis on political and economic issues. They started talking of creating an exploitation free society. The Awami League now wanted a fundamental change in the power structure of Pakistan. In the 1970 general elections, the Awami League won a landslide victory, securing 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan. In this election Islam-based political parties could not get any seat but they still polled about 17 per cent of the votes. Despite this massive victory Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman was prevented from becoming the prime minister of Pakistan. The Pakistani state violated the principle of equality of opportunity and the people felt exploited in the name of Islam. By 1971, language had replaced religion as the society's organizing principle and became a powerful instrument for nation-building in Bangladesh. Mujib had championed the cause of a secular state as opposed to an Islamic state. Secularism also became important as a reaction against the orthodox Muslims who had sided with Pakistani forces during the liberation struggle. This change in nature of politics however made India important and underlined its important role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Mujib saw Muslims in Bengal linked with Bengali and not West Asian culture. But a secular Bangladesh was a problematic concept which threatened Bengali Muslims' quest for a unique identity. The community was now faced with dilemma that: if the unifying factor was Bengali culture and language then what was the need to exist separately from West Bengal and India. The concept of secularism in Bangladesh also faced problems because its root did not run deep. Though lot of emphasis was placed on secularism during the Bangladesh liberation movement, its main support base was limited only to a small section of the country's liberal elite composed of the academics, Bengali nationalists, political activists, social workers, reformists, writers, singers, artists, lawyers, sections of professionals, journalists, politicians, and feminists. Most of them come from the upper strata of society. They had participated in the nationalist movements before 1947 and in the subsequent liberation war of 1971. The leadership of these liberal elite came from the intellectuals in Dhaka University. The Bengali economists working there highlighted the economic disparities between the two wings of Pakistan. For this they had to face the brutality of Pakistani army in March 1971. The liberals were secular nationalists who advocated the promotion of Bengali language and culture; the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh; secularism; individual freedom, and liberal democratic institutions. They were opposed to religious orthodoxy and were committed to modernization, development, and the progress of women. While the base of liberals in Bangladesh was a narrow one, the Islamic parties had significant support in the country. This was evident from the fact that even at the height of the anti-Pakistan upsurge during the 1970 general elections these parties managed to get 17 per cent of the total votes in East Pakistan, though they could not win even a single seat in the National Assembly. The failure of the Mujib government to deal sternly with war criminals—the Jamaat, Rajakars, Al Badr, Al Shams — who had collaborated with the Pakistani army and his decision to provide them partial amnesty ensured that they could gather strength at a later date. The repatriation of Bengali military officers from West Pakistan and their integration in influential positions within the Bangladesh military structure enormously boosted the morale and spirit of the pro-Pakistan, anti-liberation forces in the country. The shallow base of secularism in Bangladesh could not have curbed the desire of the Bengali Muslim community for a separate identity. The rift created by the communal movements of pre-partition days was weakened but did not disappear. Religion once again regained its importance in the country's politics as the political parties and politicians of all hues started working in Bengali Muslims' quest for a unique identity. The community faced with dilemma that: if the unifying factor was Bengali culture and language then what was the need to exist separately from West Bengal and India. 1971 shows that Bangladesh rejected the Pakistani interpretation of Islam but this did not mean that Bangladesh has rejected Islam from its own identity. The inability of the elites to understand this fact has trapped them into the secular-religious divide. The post-independent leaders of Bangladesh failed to deliver the dreams of nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy based on a vernacular cultural model. Such failure essentially led towards creating the clash between the religious and the secular and between anti-1971 and pro-1971. There is no legal way to tackle the rise of religiosity in Bangladesh. Instead, the failure to acknowledge these silent 'religious' transitions, where political parties are interested only in the bigger share of the pie using religion, will only add to the existing tension and divide the unity of the country further between the religious and the secular. Instead we must continue to implore why we are rapidly turning more religious than before, and why consider it a solemn duty to continuously project this religious identity. I really have no idea where this will go. Will this all settle down? I doubt it. Will it escalate into civil war as the Jamaat have threatened to make it? I don't know. Certainly the battle seems to be pitched between whether you are a Muslim first and Bengali second or Bengali first and Muslim second. From my point of view the situation is very complex but I do hope that Bangladesh will struggle through and find a true peace – one where everyone is free to live according to their own conscience and not one where they are fearful of the consequences of doing so.
It is surprising to see that US, UK, EU and United Nations are not only concerned over the plans to execute the notorious war criminal Quader Molla but they are trying to halt his execution.It is incomprehensible why the growing Islamist militancy in Bangladesh is not causing any concern in the international community especially the US. Why Americans are still treating Jamaat as a normal political party? Jamaat leaders are seen at American embassy parties and even visited the state department. I think that the US understanding of extremism in Bangladesh is flawed. It is impossible to deal with extremism in Bangladesh while assuming Jamaat to be a normal political party. The Jamaat is a party which is operating under democratic system of government to achieve undemocratic objectives. Their objective is same as the objective of Taliban. Only the means adopted is different. The influence of BNP's alliance with Jamaat is seen in its policy and practice. It is very difficult for the BNP to acknowledge the existence of Islamic militants in Bangladesh and take action against them while being in company of Jamaat. If the ever increasing activity of Islamist and deteriorating law and order condition in Bangladesh do not create worldwide concern, then it is clear that there is an international conspiracy against Bangladesh. I am afraid that if things are not controlled in Bangladesh then the country might also become another trouble-spot like Pakistan or Afghanistan. Sometimes it strikes my mind whether the US wants to transform Bangladesh into a trouble-spot like Pakistan or Afghanistan!
In the modern age, religious experience becomes part of "expressive individualism", that is, it becomes important to find one's own way against a model imposed from outside −− be it from society, the previous generation, or religious authority. Although there is a strong individualist component to the religious experience in modern times, this will not necessarily mean that the content is individuating; on the contrary, many join powerful religious communities.
Almost all political parties in Bangladesh are talking in the same language. The present Awami League government, the opposition led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiyo party, a coalition partner of the Awami League government have branded the present youth movement activists as atheists. The government has arrested four online activists with allegations against them of defaming Islam. This is political dishonesty. This is government acting against its own people. This is betrayal of freedom of speech and expression. This is abusing power to undermine human rights.
It has been some time since I contributed to this discussion, but I came across some comments on one of my previous posting with the same title. After seeing those comments I again felt to contribute a bit on this topic.