Sunday, October 14, 2012

The struggle for the secular versus the religious state

Where the "x" state fails, radical Islam steps in
In an insightful, researched and articulate piece (below), assessing the state of affairs in Pakistan, following the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, Doug Saunders quotes a Pakistani historian who points to the failure of the Pakistani government as the primary context and cause of the religious extremism that pulled the trigger on the gun that shot Malala. He also documents the historian's portrayal of the 'war within Pakistan' between the religious extremists and the secular forces in comparison to other states where the process is moving in a different direction, favouring the secular state.
However, are we not witnessing a similar theme, a conflict between religious extremism and a more secular state in many other countries, not yet and not necessarily by means of bullets and armed militias.
In the Middle East, where there are several countries transitioning from dictatorship to the inevitable vaccuum that follows their demise, deposition or exile, radical Islamic extremists are attempting to fill the vaccuum, like wolves in sheep's clothing, bearing the gifts of charity and social supports where the state has failed to provide those ingredients, the normal expectations of a healthy state. Vulnerable people, they know, and so do we, are especially open and ready to receive those 'gifts' of charity, often without giving full consideration to the price they pay for that acceptance. Buying political tyranny through short-term charity as seduction, as a means of establishing a religious state is certainly not beneath the radical Islamist terrorist groups. 
Radical Islam, in some of its guises, claims to seek world domination, the establishment of Sharia law and the removal of secular values, including exclusion from education of Islamic women, the very cause for which Malala was fighting and was shot. Her recovery may come to symbolize the irrepressible force and energy of her cause around the world.
And yet, in the United States, we heard two different applications of Roman Catholic "social gospel" on Thursday night, one espoused by a young Republican whipper-snapper, seeking the imposition of a religious "law" or dogma on the women of the country, through the legislature, and/or through the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe V. Wade. The other, from the Democratic candidate for Vice-president, who acknowledged his Roman Catholic faith's belief in and advocacy for a pro-life position on abortion, but refused to apply his personal faith to the millions of women in the country, preferring a secular and legally supported 'right to choose' guaranteeing access to therapeutic abortions, although in the U.S. such procedures are not funded by government.
Malala, now the face of the struggle for secularism, access to education and freedom from radical religious terrorism in the Swat valley of Pakistan, could also be a member of the Democratic party in the U.S. or in many other countries, the face of forces seeking a healthy balance between religious observance and a secular state, in which religions may be practiced without fear of state intervention, and with the protection offered by a healthy state apparatus against those who would impose their religious beliefs on their countries.
The role of religion in matters of "state" while never technically absent, and never completely separate from the decisions made by all legislators, must not be the motivating impulse for specific legislation or for specific legal decisions even those rendered by a country's Supreme Court.
However, having said that, we all know that, should the Romney-Ryan ticket win on November 6, any appointments to the Supreme Court will go to judges recommended by Mr. Bork, in the political/religious/ethical/legal frame of  Justices Roberts, Ito, Scalia and Thomas.
And so, from the perspective of the "street" in American politics, is this campaign not just another stage for the theatre of advancing religious extremism, (of a Christian variety, as opposed to an Islamic version)? Is there not a 'holy war' without bullets, and using public debate, the ballot box and the media, for the direction of the country, with the President and the Democrats trying to hold the ground of the secularists, not without a faith of their own in private, against a rising tide of religious extremists seeking to impose their religious belief on the 330 million of their countrymen and women?
Is there not an open political alliance between the evangelicals and the Roman Catholics seeking more public and aggressive support for Israel, seeking the removal of Roe V. Wade and the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court who favour their "strict" interpretation of the constitution, really code words for the protection of marriage between a man and a woman, for preventing gays from accessing spousal rights including marriage, for elimination of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, for reduction and/or elimination of environmental protection steps, for the reduction and/or elimination of regulations on Wall Street, for the lowering of taxes for the wealthy, and for the elimination of that same social "net" that is absent from countries without healthy governance where religious extremism breeds among the ghettos of the poor, the homeless and the destitute. Only the Republican "chant" will be, not a social argument but a fiscal argument, to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit, on the backs of those dispossessed, whom, I always thought, indeed believed, christianity at its best was supposed to champion.
Ironic, eh?
Where the Pakistani state fails, religion steps in
By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, October 13, 2012
Try to look into the eyes of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Taliban militants this week because she was advocating for universal education and the rights of girls, without despairing for the future. The war between human advancement and religious authority now has a human face. But it is a far wider war, threatening to engulf a country of 180 million people.
Yet even as Pakistanis rose in outrage against the shooting, influential people in both Pakistan and the West were dismissing the scope of the problem she has come to embody.
This is just a regional problem, Pakistani elites say. Her home is in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan’s lawless northern frontier, where extremist forces from Afghanistan are at work. This, they say, has nothing to do with the rest of Pakistan. And many Westerners, as well as Pakistanis, have rushed to condemn her shooting (and those of countless others) as a consequence of the U.S.-led drone war against the Taliban.
Yet the problem of religious extremism is not confined to Pakistan’s border provinces. It is now present in all four major regions. Punjab, in the east, has become a stronghold of violent, sectarian extremist groups in its southern regions. Baluchistan, in the west, is home to an insurgency supported by extreme Islamist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, that are seeking religious government. Karachi, in the centre, is being ripped apart by Islamic violence and houses countless circles of radicalism. Even Sindh, in the south, has seen its historically moderate, secular values ruptured by the establishment of religious schools in rural areas, financed by Islamists, that are radicalizing a generation.
Nor does it make sense to blame the United States for this. While there may be good reasons for criticizing its anti-Taliban air campaign, the attack on Malala had nothing to do with drone strikes.
“This is a war that is within Pakistan,” Pakistani historian Farzana Shaikh tells me. “It is between different visions of the kind of Pakistan people want … The Taliban themselves have blamed not U.S. policy or U.S. drone strikes for their attack on her, but the fact that she seemed to be promoting a secular agenda.”
Both Westerners and many Pakistanis are all too willing to assume that these developments are an inevitable consequence of Pakistan being a poor, Muslim-majority, postcolonial state with bad neighbours.
Yet if you look around the region, you quickly realize that almost every other state is moving in the opposite direction. Bangladesh recently passed a constitutional amendment declaring itself secular and recognizing religious minorities. And while it has had Muslim-Buddhist riots recently, the government has made strong progress in reducing the influence and power of extremist groups. Education levels are on the rise, poverty is dropping and birth rates have plummeted. In India, home to almost as many Muslims as Pakistan, Islamic extremism is rare (and usually originates in Pakistan) and on the decline. Both countries have seen more moderate forms of Islam and secularizing trends dominate, while Pakistan has shifted toward the more hardline, restrictive, Saudi-based practices of the religion.
What is happening in Pakistan is not military or religious or social, but purely a failure of politics. By obsessing over its unnecessary war with India and squandering billions in aid on an overly powerful military, by devoting itself to internecine wars of dynastic politics and grotesque corruption, and by tolerating religious voices within the state, Pakistan has allowed fringe religious groups to become a surrogate for a government gone missing.
“The state over many years has reneged on its primary responsibilities toward average citizens in Pakistan,” Dr. Shaikh says. “Things that one might normally have taken for granted from the state – access to decent education, access to decent health care, to housing – have simply not been there. That vacuum has been filled by many of these extremist groups, who have very powerful charitable arms.”
Those groups are the ones building the new schools. They are also the ones forbidding girls from becoming educated. This, in turn, is feeding a deadly cycle of alarmingly high birth rates, overpopulation and poverty.
Where the state fails, religion steps in. Malala was trying to stop that cycle – and only the education of women, and therefore the removal of religion from education, will accomplish it.
Pakistan’s future might be found in the eyes of Malala Yousafzai. Or it might lie with those who put a bullet in her head. Poorer, less generously assisted Islamic countries have prevented this from happening. Pakistan has no excuse.

No comments:

Post a Comment