This Monday, March 30, 2015 photo shows the body of the late Bangladeshi blogger Qyasiqur Rahman Babu in a morgue at the Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The blogger, 27, was hacked to death by three men in Bangladesh's capital on Monday, police said. The killing took place a month after a prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger known for speaking out against religious extremism was hacked to death in Dhaka. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

The Threat of a Secular State

Writing for The Electronic Intifada, Professor Joseph Massad argues that liberal and secular Arabs have had a devastating effect on Arab states. Some feminists argue that liberals and secularists have aided imperialists in their execution of the War on Terror bringing death and devastation to hundreds of thousands of people globally. Conservative political leaders in the United States have increasingly sounded the alarm over liberals and secularists impinging the rights of religious peoples. For the past decade, in the view of these writers, it is religion that is under assault and that needs protection. One might think that all religious people are suffering harms. Yet, in the pages of every newspaper, the grim reality is apparent. It has been a struggle to maintain secular public space in many countries ranging from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and even the United States. It is secularism and secularists who are increasingly under assault for speaking out against the rising tide of religious extremism. And collaboration/ambivalence/resistance does not fall neatly into a secular/agnostic/religious ordering.

Recently, I read an editorial written by Tahmima Anam, a Bangladeshi novelist, about the attacks on secular and atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. Three have been killed in the space of 24 months, hacked to death in the street in front of their loved ones, brutally killed by those who disagreed with their writing. What is startling, though hidden in the accounts so far, is the fact that not all the bloggers were prominent. As Anam notes, one was a quiet man who mostly posted on Facebook — an activity in which many of us engage and often quite thoughtlessly. He was searched for and targeted by his killers.

Anam observes:

The space between the killers and their victims is the distance of nanoseconds, the time it takes to execute a search. In some senses, their deaths are random and impersonal. But if the technology of targeting the victims is new, the technology of killing them is ancient and intimate.

The frequency with which we hear warnings to “respect” Islam and the news about the violence against secularists has become chilling. The message is clear that religious zealots will resort to murder in the name of their beliefs. Only now are we waking up to the reality that these are no idle threats.

This Monday, March 30, 2015 photo shows the body of the late Bangladeshi blogger Qyasiqur Rahman Babu in a morgue at the Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The blogger, 27, was hacked to death by three men in Bangladesh's capital on Monday, police said. The killing took place a month after a prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger known for speaking out against religious extremism was hacked to death in Dhaka. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)
This Monday, March 30, 2015 photo shows the body of the late Bangladeshi blogger Qyasiqur Rahman Babu in a morgue at the Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The blogger, 27, was hacked to death by three men in Bangladesh’s capital on Monday, police said. The killing took place a month after a prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger known for speaking out against religious extremism was hacked to death in Dhaka. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

The ambivalent relationship that many states have with their Islamist factions explains why concerted efforts to find these killers has been slow and little action to prevent the targeting of secularists has been taken. From Egypt to Indonesia, states have tried to keep the lid on the Islamist Pandora’s box half ajar. On the one hand, they have capitulated to demands for blasphemy punishments and hounded critical writers like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie. On the other, they have killed Islamists, some just young boys, with impunity when it has suited the state, and often in the name of national security. But what about protection in the name of the people? When secularists provided a political whip by which the leading party in Bangladesh could excoriate the opposition, they used secularism to its maximum advantage. They posited themselves as the protectors of the secular public space. However, little has been done to actually protect secularism in Bangladesh.  It appears that most people deplore the murders but understand the rationale for the killings. The question comes up as to why these bloggers were allowed to write against Islam? And time and again, blame falls on the victims.

We forget that it is not so easy to distinguish what constitutes “harm” to religion. And if the state muzzles such speech, how far should they go and where should they draw the line? As it is, many Muslim-majority states are repressive in terms of the amount of free, critical, political speech they will allow. Should we really demand that they use their already extensive power to suppress even more of our freedoms? Many Muslim states have already resorted to using the punitive power of the state to quell the rise of Islamism when those Islamists act against the ruling party. But this does not suffice, and such sporadic engagements do nothing to instill confidence in the law. After all, police power has been used against all opponents, not just Islamists. The protection that is afforded is to the rulers, politicians and the state, not to the people from whom they purportedly derive power and legitimacy.

In Bangladesh, a majority of the Islamists now banding together in groups with Arabic names like Hefazet-e-Islam, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (said to have been founded by Osama bin Laden), and Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, are from the poorer, rural classes. Educated in privately-run madrassas and taught a conservative and pinched form of Islam, they are possessed of little that prepares them for modern life. Rapid urbanization, changes in gender dynamics, increasing neoliberalization with its attendant wealth disparities create the conditions in which youth turn to ideological groups that provide them with structure and meaning and a sense of power. With few other prospects and in a society willing to leave them behind, they are ignored by an ineffectual political establishment whose only interest is retaining control over the government. Moreover, with Bangladesh’s globally-recognized focus on women’s advancement, little attention has been paid to young men who are increasingly vulnerable to radicalism. And when radicalized, these men come after all that symbolizes their disenfranchisement: women in the public, secular thinkers,  and religious heretics. But it has often also been the case that the extremists have been from middle-class backgrounds, educated, and not particularly deprived of opportunity. In a place like Bangladesh where they belong to a majority and are not faced with racial marginalization, what explains their behavior? Interventions to prevent radicalism among the poor seem obvious. But for this latter group, a criminal justice response that sends the message that they cannot act with impunity to destabilize society is imperative.

Whereas secularists, feminists, and religious dissidents are engaged in dialogue and intellectual struggle, the right-wing Islamists are willing to use violence in ever increasingly brutal ways. You can’t bring an argument to a machete fight. Feminists, secularists, and others who do not wish to live in the fevered dream of an “Islamic state”  are threatened with violence and they are being killed in spectacular fashion.In this context, blaming liberals for demanding action against Islamists is entirely illogical. Asking for justice and protection cannot be conflated with collaborating with a global War on Terror and imperialism just because interests converge. Such easy equivalences make it impossible to work for improvement in the country except via an Islamist politics. And that makes no sense  to the vast majority of us who practice Islam in differing ways but have no wish to see it used as an ideology. That may be a very liberal standpoint but it is better than the forced adherence to a sort of religious formalism and zealotry that partakes of the worst in our religious histories.

Such forced adherence was evident in a recent incident reported in the news. Folk-singer, Anushe Anadil and her arts group Jatra were forced to leave the Sunderbans by a group of Islamist clerics. They were told that either they don burkas or they leave. According the newspaper reports, the clerics were unhappy about the women in the village meeting with the organization. After paying what amounts to a ransom, and with the help of village women, Anadil and her colleagues were allowed to leave the village in the early morning hours of April 4th, 2015 after a harrowing night.

According to the Dhaka Tribune:

“For three weeks, the clerics of Joymoni have been unhappy with the women of the village coming out of their homes and dreaming about earning a living,” she said.

Threats culminated when the four Jatra staff members were encircled by around 300 men at the local marketplace on Wednesday evening.

While many work for the betterment of all people in the country, the reality is that there are people committed to stopping that work in the name of religion. In order to continue, those of us committed to gender justice must insist on expansive, capacious visions of human flourishing in which one’s gender does not determine one’s opportunities. If women don the burka, it should be because they choose it. And to preserve meaningful choice, people may have ask for protection and, when necessary, punishment by the state against those who would restrict that right through violence and intimidation. And when the state fails to ensure safety, the people must hold it accountable as well.

Most feminists are not in support of indiscriminate carpet bombing via drones, nor imagine that every rural male is an Islamist zealot. But zealots do exist. They are intimidating and killing their own. Demanding that they be stopped should not be mistaken as an invitation to external powers to come and occupy their lands and enslave people to fulfill its own economic and political agenda.  Imperial feminism exists. Comprador elites exist. But in this struggle, these labels hide more than they reveal. Spurious charges make working in solidarity for a stable future more difficult than it already is. We need to get our priorities straight on this.

Anam’s opinion piece in the Times is entitled, “Save Bangladesh’s Bloggers.” It should be called “Save Bangladesh’s Secularism.”

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    Cyra Akila Choudhury

    Cyra Akila Choudhury is Associate Professor of Law at Florida International University. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Georgetown.

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    • Jekyll

      A shitty defense for more incensed perputation of secularist ideals in even more lackdasical Muslim country.

    • N Khalil El-Bathy

      This piece completely misses the mark. Massad’s essay was an indictment of the destructive neoliberal and imperialist measures supported under the banner of liberalism. It was not an indictment of secularism. He clearly criticizes Islamist liberalism just as he does its secular counterpart.

      Implying Massad supports violent Islamist groups reveals how this authors support for the American imperialist project and the oppression of Muslims.

      • Anamika Zafar

        The article doesn’t seem to mention Massad at all past that first line. It is about South Asia. So a Muslim who asks for protection and legal enforcement of laws against violent Islamists (not the peaceful, law abiding ones) is an imperialist in disguise? It’s “support for the American imperialist project”? So what’s the alternative, that we just let them bomb schools, cut off noses, etc? If they come steal your land and happen to belong to an Islamist group, should you just let them have it? Seems a very dualistic way of thinking and the only way to resist imperialism is to support the violent groups? You imagine that these groups are all anti-imperialists and that’s why we should support them?

        • N Khalil El-Bathy

          Salam, Anamika.

          I think you’ve asked the $1 million question, but I never made any mention of supporting what you call “violent groups” (as Massad’s piece makes clear liberal and secular ‘modernizers’ are just as violent as the murderous self-described ‘jihadi’ groups). So you’re right, it is very dualistic. Most feel caught between either joining the ‘secular’ forces of empire and state building that grind away at the poor and oppressed, or joining those murderous guerrilla Islamist groups.

          The secular vs religious framework, however is a political maneuver that paints poor and oppressed as needing what has empire calls ‘modernization’ but what is really colonization and subjugation. It’s the contemporary version of the ‘white man’s burden.’ The religious is not automatically right-wing and authoritarian as Choudhury argues, although it can take that form just as secular politics can.

          The bottom line is that we need to build an alternative. The poor and oppressed join the latter because their is no serious alternative to struggling the former. We need to build a liberatory and emancipatory alternative. Choudhury, on the other hand, tries to white wash the role of the liberal project in empire and state building, or explain it away as an exception or foot note, but it’s not; it’s wholly complicit.

          So let’s build something else.

          • Anamika Zafar

            Agreed we need to build something. Agreed its not so simple as secular v. religious But I don’t see how a criticism of the Bangladeshi government is whitewashing the role of liberalism in empire? Is her criticism that it has used the Islamist threat to consolidate their own power wrong? Could you also please point to religious groups that are left-wing and pro-women’s equality, minority rights, etc., in South Asia which is the context she is writing in?

            • N Khalil El-Bathy

              There have been plenty of secular forces that have committed the same atrocities and crimes, so, again, I don’t think religion per se, is the problem.
              The particular case of the politics of Bangladeshi society is definitely complicated, but I have been writing more in response to the author’s mischaracterization of Massad’s arguments, which is an all too common conservative and right-wing attack by liberals against the Left, especially when they parrot arguments of the “white man’s burden.”

              Insha Allah I will try to draft a fuller response in the coming weeks.

            • Anamika Zafar

              Again, the piece is not really about Massad, is it? His entire article is about Arab secularists and liberals, etc. And absolutely the secularists in places like USSR and even USA are exactly rampantly doing all sort so misdeeds. But that is not true in the context of South Asia. The postcolonial secular state has failed but the Islamist programs don’t give us much hope either. I think you should consider her other work…I think she has a web page. She’s got a lot of stuff against liberals, etc., haven’t read them. A full response elaborating on the problem of the secular/Islamic divide would be helpful to a lot of us.

            • N Khalil El-Bathy

              Then she should have left Massad out of the article, or at the very least given his writings an honest treatment. I don’t believe this article is only about Bangladesh. The above hit job on Massad is clear indication that this is part of the ongoing debate between liberals and Leftists.

              Tangentially, check out this interview on his latest book:

            • Cyra

              This is the last response to the repeated and insistent misreading of this piece I will give. I am not sure how many ways or in which language to put it in that it will be absolutely clear. This piece is NOT about Massad. If it had been, then any treatment of his work would be a logical expectation. Anamika is correct. It is about Bangladesh which anyone reading past the first paragraph will know. It refers to no other country at all although it could be applied to the rest of South Asia. If you insist on using Massad as your lens for the piece, you will inevitably misread it. For the very last time, and for anyone else interested, this is NOT about Massad. Period. The only use I make of him is to point to the variety of people criticising liberals, etc., I could have left Massad, feminists, and conservatives out of the article entirely. Absolutely. Because really it is not about him but about the broader criticisms blaming secularists in South Asia. Thank you Anamika for reading the piece and actually understanding it.

            • N Khalil El-Bathy

              I agree with that it’s not about Massad per se. That’s what I was getting at when I said “The above hit job on Massad is clear indication that this is part of the ongoing debate between liberals and Leftists.”

              It’s an ideological debate; one in which you use standard tropes of the ‘white man’s burden’ to implicitly attack both the Left. It’s a tactic liberals have employed a hundred times before.

              I don’t really want to talk about Massad either. I don’t know him. He and I have never met. But I do think it’s worth to discuss his ideas.

      • Cyra

        Salaams, Khalil. Thank you for reading the article. I should point out as the comment below that this is not at all about Massad or his position on Islamists or Liberals in general. It’s just an opening statement about what I’ve noticed as a number of critiques of liberals from both the left and the right. I wrote this piece from the perspective of someone caught between the dualism of Islamism and secularism-a binary I find too stark and unhelpful. What precisely is secularism in a Muslim-majority country? What is “liberalism”. Due to word limits, I don’t go into it. But not all “liberals” in the context of South Asia are imperialist apologists which seems to be implied by a number of people charging anyone raising arguments against violent Islamists. I absolutely agree that we need an alternative and far more nuance. I find it odd that you think I support the imperialist project when I spend a great deal of time trying to show how the secular state has failed both to curb violent extremists as well as violence against peaceful Islamists for their own ends. If you consider the body of my work spanning a decade critiquing Western imperialism and the War on Terror, I think that charge is rather unsustainable. On the other hand, if the view is that any critique of the groups wreaking havoc- and here I am speaking violent political groups that have undertaken violence against their own people not against an invading force–makes one an imperialist dupe, this radically closes the space for critical engagement of any kind. I encourage you to write to expand these ideas and publish your own work.

        • N Khalil El-Bathy

          I’m sure you’re aware of Left critiques of liberalism, but more than that, it was your smear of Joseph Massad that makes me suspicious.

          In regards to the dualism you’re talking about, you’re right, and my reply below to Anamika speaks to that some.


      • O. Locke

        “American imperialist project and the oppression of muslims” – N Khalil El-Bathy

        Were you high when you posted this?

        Can you give me some examples?

    • Rose Whatsinaname

      I think the author confuses a secular society (where religions are free to coexist and in fact thrive) and a secularist society (which is punitive and more repressive in nature)

      • Cyra

        No I do not. It is about secularists as they call themselves and societies that purport to be secular but are not really. Bangladesh is a Constitutionally *secular* country. But thanks for reading the piece.

    • O. Locke

      the reason for most of the problems muslims face itheir refusal and outright unwillingness to change.

      muslims MUST reform their faith.

      religious doctrine has poisoned discourse and made change almost impossible.