When it comes to integrating religion into a society that is simultaneously moving in two opposite directions -- the rise of liberal, democratic views versus the resurgence (or insurgence?) of Islamic fundamentalism -- is it possible to have a middle ground? Can we say “na tor, na amar” and happily be done with it?
If so, what would that country look like? Questions aside, what we can personally do is perhaps put forth a few hypothetical situations. We would be a nation where people were allowed to practice their own religion, be it Islam or otherwise, without fear of intervention from the government or any other powerful entity. We would be brothers and sisters, under the auspices of a benevolent motherland.
Our rights, no matter who we were, despite race and ethnicity, would be upheld. Similarly, our government would be made up of a diverse range of people, each boasting a different background, all working together to improve the country as a whole.
As idealistic as that sounds, there is a flip-side. People without religion -- the atheists, the agnostics, the blasphemers, individuals lacking any official moral compass, as they are often referred to in society -- would be treated equally as well. The azaan would, of course, blast out of the speakers of our mosques five times a day, but so would ring the mighty bells of the nearest church, or the incantations from the closest temple.
Freedom of speech would be an unimpeachable tenet, the users of which will not be persecuted, no matter how “offensive” their rhetoric. And the state would need to be separate from all religious dialogue, with laws passed for the betterment of all concerned, not the majority. Gender would be a non-issue, and men, women, and others would be equal under the law, and allowed to move freely in society, without fear of reprimand for the way they dress, what they do, and who they cohort with.
That is what it might mean for us to secular. Are we willing to live with that anymore? Because this is a lot like Bangladesh is now, if we can forget its recent history. And a lot like Bangladesh was, before the steady influx of extremism and western liberalism into the mix.
Either side of the great religious divide might not be okay with that. There will be some, if not most, who will say that they are, that these two extremes are perfectly compatible, but they are not, not truly.
The fundamentalists (the ones who take the word of God literally) would not be pleased. The absence of a governmentally sponsored religious law would be an issue. If not, then, at least, the way women are dressed perhaps, or the role of minorities in the government (“how can a Hindu know what we want?”), or being okay with Islam-bashing bloggers.
But the so-called liberals -- those godless heathens -- would have to be okay with mixing with the likes of mollahs, who would be preaching the “right” thing every chance they get, who they can only describe as being backward. Getting an Arabic wake-up call at four in the morning would be an annoyance from something they deem a redundant feature in the current century. Having discussions on pre-marital sex (with their minds already made up) would be problematic. And it would become increasingly difficult to be part of the same group of people who might be offended at what they have to say.
And therein lies the problem. We are trying to find a middle-ground solution to a problem that doesn't have one. With two opposing forces pulling vehemently in their respective directions, the rope must either break, leading to a stalemate, or one side must overpower the other. The situation as we have it now can, it seems, never be how it remains, when there are people together whose views remain so starkly in contrast with their fellow citizens.
Religion, in the end, is not compatible with liberal ideologies. And vice versa. It is, firstly, inherent in religion, to discriminate, and to believe in a singular moral logic. And whether we deem it to be a Western influence or not (and thereby see ourselves as being only “Eastern”), these beliefs, which constitute things like freedom of speech and individual rights, have indubitably become an inherent part of many of our lives, though granted, it’s a smaller portion of the population.
We can’t, as a nation, pine for the love of God and simultaneously mingle with His enemies. Nor can we stand up for the empowerment of women and be friends with people who believe that a rape victim needs four male witnesses (double that if the witnesses are female) to prove her case.
Whatever side we choose (and I can only already hear the cries of “why must there be sides?”), the fact that we, as individuals, and then, as a country, have to choose one, becomes more and more evident. The butcher will not live peacefully with the cattle.