Crisis of modernity and secularism: the cases of Egypt, Turkey and Bangladesh

Whenever democratic space has opened up, people have been eager to choose those who not only provide a better solution for their economic and social problems, but who can also offer them a recognition of the authenticity of their cultures.

Lailufar Yasmin
17 August 2013

The idea that the West has a mission to civilize the rest of the world rests on a conventional view of modernity in which modernity is viewed as involving a separation between religion and the public sphere. 

This mission sets out to impose a singular and unidirectional conception of modernity on Islamic countries that overlooks the differentiated experiences and perceptions of non-western societies, as well as the differentiated experiences within the west towards modernity. Instead, religion becomes the decisive factor in determining who is modern and who is not, and, by extension, who is civilized and who is not. 

Such a viewpoint asserts that there is an “organic” linkage between modernization and secularization, of which the west has been the bearer for the past century and a half. This tends to create a dangerous binary that excludes the rest of the world, especially countries with Muslim majorities, as uncivilized members of the community of states. I argue here instead that the masses in Muslim majority countries have rejected such a view, instead supporting the Islamists who have an alternative prospect in view which involves blending modernity and Islam. It is elites in Turkey, Egypt and Bangladesh, who are opposed to such an understanding and are rather inclined to replicate the western construction of religion, i.e., Islam as a hindrance to modernity. This is only paving the way for more unproductive tension in these countries.

Secularism: the great invention

The modern west has made itself distinct from the rest of the world by separating the temporal and spiritual worlds from each other. This separation, according to Charles Taylor, is “the great invention of the West.” Reformations throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in Europe paved the way for the rise of humanism, and a modern understanding of the world that is distinctively secular. Secularism refers to the confining of religiosity to the private domain of life. The term was initially coined by George Jacob Hollyake in 1851 as a way of creating a conscious difference between a secular approach to religion in which religion was to be considered part on one’s private life, and atheism.

The term was in frequent use for this purpose during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The distinction between atheism and secularism originated in the fear that endorsing a secular public sphere would be misunderstood as denoting the eradication of religion, which was quite the opposite of the Kantian agenda for the secular. Kant, a principle theorist of the secular, defined a clear boundary between a private and public sphere. He insisted that making the public sphere secular did not indicate the end of religion, and he certainly did not disapprove of the practice of religion in the private sphere of human beings. Rather Kant insisted that reliance on a transcendent God violated human autonomy and freedom.

Modernity was thus perceived to diminish the role of religion in public life in favour of reason and science. This was a central assumption in the theories of John Locke, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to name but a few. In one way or the other, the proponents of this school of thought, with their varied backgrounds and ideological orientations, argued that religion was a private matter for citizens. Although few said so explicitly, one further implication of this argument was that religion would eventually disappear, as secularization was essentially progressive.

By the beginning of the twentieth century there was a widespread assumption in the west that, as had been implied by the Enlightenment framework, religion was “a soon-to-disappear remnant of the “dark ages.” However, this view of the early twentieth century changed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s with the beginning of the studies of “history from the below” in the west. The predicted eventual end of religion in modern societies was challenged, based on the evidence of thriving religious practices in everyday life. Since then, the increasing visibility of religion in the west has led to the late-twentieth century perception that there has been a ‘return’ of religion to the west.

The dilemma of the Muslim majority countries

The growth of the modern nation-state system and its continuation in its modern form is directly linked to keeping a separation between religion and public space. It is interesting to note that as the secularization thesis developed in the west, some major theorists, such as Durkheim or Weber, did not endorse the usual teleological view of modernity, and in particular did not support the imposition of such a modernity on non-western societies. Nevertheless, enlightenment theories in general predicted the eventual decline and death of religion wherever these theories were to be applied. As these theories served as the basis of modernity, they also served as the basis of westernization and extended beyond the west to form the basis of universalism. Secularisation came to essentialize religion as a hindrance to modern development universally. As the non-western countries formed their own nation-states, they blindly replicated the western notion of keeping religion ‘confined’ without reflecting on the cultural particularities of these societies. A glaring example of this orientalist perspective would be Turkey, where the founding fathers of the country branded Islam and decreed that Islam needed to be contained in order to build the modern state of Turkey.

The Cold War period, dominated by superpower rivalry saw the non-western countries follow the path of industrialization, as Jawharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India proclaimed in parliament that ‘catching up’ with both the United States and Soviet Union was the main imperative, “These two types of development [the US and the Soviet Union], even though they might be in conflict, are branches of the same tree.” Identity issues assumed a backseat as nation-building took the route to being modern, which was considered as synonymous to being industrialized. One can of course argue that identity issues, although multi-layered, were always present as the newly developed countries attempted to establish their ‘distinct’ identity vis-à-vis the other through projecting a ‘national’ narrative. However, the end of the Cold War and particularly the ‘war on terror’, resurfaced the debates on identity—should all modern nations be ‘western’ in all senses or revive and retain their own cultural distinctiveness, often imbued with religious practices and symbols.

The rise of Islamism and the Arab Spring

The resurgence of Islam in the political arena is traced to the defeat of the Arabs by Israel in the Six Day War, the 1973 oil crisis and more infamously, the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The Arab Spring, which started to rock the Middle East from December 2010 onwards, was at first seen as revolt against long-standing Islamic autocrats in the Middle East. The subsequent fall of the regimes and return to democracy left the world amazed as governments in Tunisia and Egypt were formed by popularly elected Islamist groups. Many now asked what the Arab Spring was all about?

The Arab Spring had been considered by many commentators as a way of rewesternizing the world through the embrace of western ideals of democracy; instead, those democratic options paved the way for Islamist political parties to come to power peacefully. Before the onset of Arab Spring, the same happened in Turkey where the AK Parti was re-elected by popular mandate twice, and consolidated its political hold on power. This re-emergence of Islamists and their popular support might instead suggest that the people of these countries, and maybe more generally, are interested in a gradual return to their ideological roots and an amalgamation of these with the modern forces unleashed by democratic ideals. In other words, modernization is not the exclusive preserve of westernization. In countries with Muslim majorities modernisation aspires to blend Islam and modernity together. We might not want to call this Islamic modernity. We might want to recognise both its dichotomous nature and its insistence that the relationship between the two is amenable to peaceful coexistence, by referring to it as ‘Muslim and Modernity’.

For example, the projection of Malaysian identity in the wake of 9/11 by Dr Mahathir Mohammad, as Shanti Nair has commented, spelt out, “Malaysia's status as a powerful, disciplined and learned nation that could defend itself and Islam.” Malaysia’s active promotion of ‘Asian values’ also reflected the nationalist aspiration of postcolonial countries to project their cultural distinctiveness over and against that of the west. This process of modernisation allowed space for the creation of identity internally. As Stephanie Lawson has pointed out, the promotion of Asian values, “operates to produce a unified, nationalistic rallying point—and it differentiates the unified ‘us’ against the external ‘them’.” This call for a unified ‘us’ appears at a clear juncture in the career of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who developed from being a “charismatic fundamentalist” in the 1980s to a “globalist liberal advocating for reformasi (reform)” in the late 1990s. The responses that emerged especially from Southeast countries with Muslim majority populations in the wake of 9/11 championed this creation of commensurability between modernity and Islam, an important feature of which is embodied, as Lily Rahim has argued, in the demand for, “the equal treatment of all religions by the state and freedom of religion and conscience.”

Such views reject orientalist perspectives on Islam as a hindrance to modern development. Lily Rahim argues that such a shift in the Islamic countries was much evident during the Arab Spring in the Middle East and has termed this unique assertion of post-Islamism a ‘refolution’—a mixture of reformist and revolutionary zeal. In her analysis of post-Arab Spring political developments, Rahim has argued as research seems to show, that these countries have equally rejected authoritarian Islamic state systems and authoritarian secular principles in the conscious effort to blend modernity with cultural specificities in Muslim societies.

The cases of Turkey, Egypt and Bangladesh

The elites in these three countries seem quite oblivious to the fact that Islam can co-exist in the public sphere as long as it is not used as a political weapon. What started out in Turkey as a protest against a proposed development project at Gezi Park soon escalated and turned towards blaming the Islamist government for hijacking Turkey’s secular identity. What began in Bangladesh as the trial of the war criminals soon turned ‘secular’ with the so-called progressive elites ridiculing Islam. A democratically elected government was ousted in Egypt on the grounds that it wanted to establish totalitarian control of the society. While the political situations existing in these three countries may seem politically unconnected, at the bottom of all three scenarios lies an intense desire to contain Islamists and thereby to gain ‘modern’ credentials by reorienting Islam according to an essentially western perspective.

Marxist writers have attributed the recent political turmoil in Greece and Turkey to protest against the elimination of ‘public spaces’ by capitalist regimes. But the underlying cause remains related to the ‘recognition’ of identity. Whenever democratic space has opened up, people have been eager to choose those who not only provide a better solution for their economic and social problems, but who can also offer them a recognition of the authenticity of their cultures.

In their response to this, the division between the masses and their political elites is not only widening, but the elites have opted to deploy repressive measures to quell the challengers. The recent moves of the Bangladesh government against the Islamists was a glaring example of this, leading to the imprisonment of a renowned human rights activist, lawyer Adilur Rahman Khan, charged with fabricating the number of deaths that had occurred during these demonstrations. The actual death toll remains controversial after the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Islamists this August.

The basic understanding of secularism is perhaps ‘lost in translation’ worldwide, both in the west and the non-west, especially in the Muslim majority countries. Secularism emerged out of the internecine intolerance between the Catholics and the Protestants that led towards the mutual accommodation and toleration of religious differences. But as it has developed, it has turned out instead to identify religion itself as the problem for the development of modernity and reason. Such a politicization of secularism has led towards intolerance and religious feud, which needs to be rethought, not only in the Muslim majority countries, but also in those European countries where self-expression through religious attire has been banned in public institutions.


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