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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 10 New Delhi February 24, 2018

Revival of Religious Fundamentalism: Secularism under Threat ?

Friday 23 February 2018

by Monaem Sarker

Contemporary global phenomenon has engulfed many corners of the globe resulting in a state of uncertainty for the innocent masses who are victims of extremist violence and radical religious fundamentalism particularly exploited by religious bigotry and blood-thirsty politics.

The latter half of the 20th century has been relatively calm since the end of the Second World War and more so by the demise of the Cold War era. As a writer and observant political worker, one has been alert in witnessing 9/11 when the Twin Towers were hit by terrorists disguised as passengers in two aircraft that subsequently killed about 3000 innocent people caught in the catastrophe; history shall forever remember this event. As a writer and member of the civil society, one has a point to make. Presumably the world has not taken conscious precaution in spite of experiencing first hand the fall of the twin towers more noticeably known as the World Trade Center, a stone’s throw from the United Nations building. This was one of the most tragic incidents of our time.

In the beginning I have to highlight one issue. My mind, heart and soul are geared towards the belief that secularism accords to our national interests, presently at odds with divided contem-plation of the masses. This great principle is under attack by terrorists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh and other countries of the world.

Secularism is nothing but a way of life which is one of the proud pillars of our nation. In a recent book of mine there are collections of studied excerpts from different sources depicting the history of the religions and spiritual traditions of the world. There is ready reference to be distributed to you here for your understanding and positive outlook on this serious subject. Regarding references you shall discover the collection of background information compiled in a book of my work now in progress on revival of Religious Fundamentalism, rise of Extremism and clash of humanity.

Over the first decade of the 21st century Christianity grew from 2 billion to 2.2 billion, Islam from 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion, Hinduism from 0.8 billion to 1.0 billion and Buddhism from 0.36 billion to 0.5 billion. This demographic statistics certainly shows that Christianity and Islam have been fast spreading all over the world; while India and Nepal remain the home to Hinduism, and South, South-East and East Asia have remained the home to Buddhism.

Revival of Religious Fundamentalism


The synonyms of the word revival are bringing back, re-establishment, reintroduction, restoration, reappearance, resurrection and so on and so forth. Religious fundamentalism is back with a bang. Past historians, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists examined 75 movements in several continents. A book called Strong Religion has recently unearthed “family resemblances” on fundamentalism among the self-proclaimed within the major religious groups in most parts of the world.

Let me mention here the paradox of funda-mentalism of the past and present with reference to Reverend Jerry Farwell, founder of the ‘Moral Majority’ movement in the US in 1979, while in the same year considering the context of Islam, Iranian students took 52 American citizens hostage within the US embassy in Tehran. Recently followers of Bin Laden and the Taliban of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan are branded as fundamentalists. Elsewhere in India and Nepal Hindu fundamentalism is prevalent while very recently Bangladesh is besieged by Rohingyas after being persecuted by the Burmese Buddhist fundamentalist monks in collaboration with the government there causing massive genocide; this is history revisited from Sri Lanka in the past. In assessing the theory and practice of fundamen-talism, some questions need to be asked: who are these people, what religious and political sentiments motivate them to commit such atrocities? In other words can it be clearly stated that family resemblances, discerned in differing varieties of religious revivalism, are a “fundamen-talist phenomenon”?

Not much to ponder as it is quite clear to many that it is more useful to understand fundamen-talism from the context of ‘family resemblance’. What is family resemblance? As mentioned earlier, this indeed represents differing varieties of religious revivalism also described as a “fundamentalist phenomenon”. As stated earlier, fundamentalists have been referred to as offsprings of “enclave culture” meaning the movements see themselves as beleaguered minorities in a hostile world. The so-called Islamic State or IS and its splinter groups in Iraq and Syria immediately strike us in present times. It is hard to understand from the sociological narrative whether fundamentalism is religious, political or simply out there to uphold the fascist ideology.

We do not have to look for the Myanmar regime aiding the Buddhist fundamentalist monks to carry out genocide against Muslim Rohingyas and throw them out of their homeland on the pretext of some Rohingya militants’ publicised killing of eight police and border guards in Myanmar to announce their presence in the region and express their indignation over the atrocities of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government.


Out of all the ‘isms’, capitalism, communism (Marxism, Leninism, Maoism), socialism, funda-mentalism and so on, Secularism does relate to a way of life. What is it? Indeed, there is a vast literature on this topic. In view of space sustraints let me provide a brief overall meaning of secularism.

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

In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvan-tages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else. Secularism champions human rights above discri-minatory religious demands. It upholds equality of laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities. These ensure that non-believers have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief. It is essential that the public services such as hospitals, schools, transport etc. are secular insofar as none is disadvantaged or denied access on grounds of religious belief or non-belief.

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

Having defined the term secularism, let us see now how the fundamentalist attacks the principles of secularism and how they are a major threat. True, religious fundamentalism or movements become “militant and highly focused antagonists of secularisation”. Most of the fundamentalist movements are undoubtedly hostile to much of modernity, and in turn hostile towards secularism and a major threat to it. The global upsurge of religion unfortunately did not help to rein in these and counter this threat.


Global politics at this moment has unfortu-nately reached such a point that, in my view, it has become far worse than what it was in the Cold War period before the disappearance of the Berlin Wall leading to the unification of Germany in 1992. Presently, however, the Korean peninsula next door in particular has reached dangerously close to another threat of a great conflict between the US and allies in East Asia and Oceania, and North Korea and its allies. Under this condition if a Third World War breaks out, secularism is going to be the first casualty.


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

The NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico is also facing destabilisation under the Trump Administration. It is hard to say how this trade integration in the region would unfold with Trump being an anti-integration President. An extreme Right movement in the US against the minorities on several fronts is emerging now. This is obviously a major threat to secularism in the region.

ASEAN in South-East Asia has lost its momentum due to the actions of some of its member-countries particularly in Myanmar with the Rohingya crisis escalating since last year. The powerful ASEAN members, like Indonesia and Malaysia, are unhappy over Myanmar’s ethnic- cleansing plan and wiping out Rohingyas from the Rakhine state over the years. In the process we are forced to provide shelter to almost a million refugees from Myanmar.

In our region, SAARC is not going anywhere. The present relations between India and Pakistan have been worsening every day. That means the political environment is not conducive to keeping secularism in a healthy state in South Asia. In view of the above, the global picture is grim. At the least, there is a great crisis on the economic front alongside the rise of the political crisis as mentioned earlier.

Corruption and Values

Coruption is indeed a major problem in the sub-continent particularly in Bangladesh. After two hundred years of British rule the three large nations of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are now home to more than 1.5 billion people representing one-fifth of the world population. This huge population together with diminishing moral values is a matter of serious concern in this region. On the pretext of terrorism and insurgency in some parts of the subcontinent the nation-states have been reviving a culture of religious extremism. In India, the revival of Hindu extremism-led politics is resulting in the nation treading a path towards abandonment of secularism. In Pakistan, the Taliban and other Islamic extremists have become a threat not only to the integrity of Pakistan but also to the whole region. In Bangladesh although Islamic extremism is under control due to the government’s zero tolerance to terrorism, there is indeed the emergence of a byproduct, that is, corruption gripping all walks of life. This cannot be ignored.

Corruption is not only in monetary terms thriving in this nation, moral values are also taking a toll. Why? This is a subject which needs very close scrutiny; however, I have no scope or time now to touch this in a meaningful way. Having said that, I am convinced that the present environment in the political arena is not conducive to rein in corruption, and in turn secularism is likely to be a major casualty of political developments in the years to come.


I would like to make five observations out of my assessment of the present threat to secularism.

• The threat is unavoidable unless the pro-gressive political governments of the world show commitment and resolve in strengthening secularism and its practice in the era of the new world order.

• Religious fundamentalism needs to be addressed in a meaningful way instead of nation-states encouraging it directly or indirectly.

• There is no room for state-sponsored terro-rism or spread of weapons of mass destruction. The world expects the latter to diminish.

• The Right-wing governments of the world must come to terms with arresting rampant corruption gripping some emerging nations especially in our region.

• The twentieth century was not a replica of the nineteenth century and the twentyfirst century will be quite different from the twentieth. In the twentyfirst century the people will look forward to a more humane world order in all respects.

The author is a politician, columnist and presently the Director General, Bangladesh Foundation for Development Research, Dhaka.

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