Yasmine Bahrani is a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai.
Recently in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and counterparts from Iran, Saudi Arabia and more than a dozen other countries announced their support for a united, secular Syria. “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental,” the group said in a statement. They want a new constitution and internationally supervised elections. We all hope for the best, of course, but from the Persian Gulf, the issue of Syria’s — and the region’s — future looks a bit more complex.
Curiously, few Westerners are likely to dwell on the part of that sentence likely to stir the most unease among many in the Middle East: the word “secular.” It might sound innocuous to the Western ear, even simply a synonym for “modern.” But for Muslims in this part of the world, “secular” is a complicated word.
Of course, many of those who reject secularism do so because they believe we must all live as the prophet Muhammad did. To this group, the failure to do so isn’t just a lapse, it’s tantamount to atheism. Naturally, not all Muslims equate “secular” with “atheist,” but to al-Qaeda and other traditionalists, the relationship between secularism and apostasy is clear, and it is a grave matter. (Saudi Arabia and Iran, for all their support of Syria’s future secularism, are resolutely without it themselves.)
Another problem, perhaps less familiar, is both political and social: Many in the region distrust secularism because they associate it with suppression. The nationalist and socialist movements of the 20th century denied the people of numerous Middle Eastern countries the right to wear headscarves, grow beards and practice Islam. The case of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s quashing of Islam in Turkey is well-known, but there are many other examples. When Tunisia’s westernizing leader Habib Bourguiba discouraged fasting on Ramadan, for example, and dismissed the hijab as an “odious rag,” even many of those who supported modernization were offended.
Secular rule in the Middle East is a complicated subject involving women’s rights, matters of child custody and many other difficult issues. But when we talk about it in my classroom at the American University here, my students and I agree that, on a basic level, banning headscarves and beards is just as bad as forcing them onto people. It must always be a choice whether a Muslim woman wears the hijab or a Muslim man grows a beard — issues that have arisen in the West as well. As my students are well aware, the hijab has been banned in France, while Islamic practices have sometimes become employment issues in the United States. In any event, the extremists see it their own way, and they often react violently to those who don’t agree with them. That is, after all, an essential aspect of the Islamist war against the secular — and indefensibly brutal — regime in Syria.
Many of us have had trouble explaining to our fellow Muslims that it’s possible to be observant but still believe in a separation of religion and the state. In Dubai, for example, people are free to wear what they wish and to pray at mosques and churches. Christian friends from Syria and Iraq living here say cautiously that they definitely want secular rule for their home countries. One journalist notes that his relatives in Iraq now hide their crosses and wear headscarves. “Who needed to do that before?” he sighed. A fellow professor, a Muslim, goes further. “I’m not just secular,” he said. “I’m an atheist.” What system of government might he prefer? “I swear to God,” he said, “if anyone makes me live under sharia law, I’ll pack up my family and leave.” He’ll write what he wants, he insists. “I don’t care!”
The problem is that the battle over secular values can often be a bloody one, even without war. Recently, four publishers were attacked in Bangladesh for printing writings critical of religious extremism; Faisal Arefin Dipan died of his wounds. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility. Such attacks send a frightening message to Muslim thinkers and writers everywhere, my students among them. After all, the most famous of all Arabic-language writers, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, was stabbed by a Muslim extremist in 1994, purportedly for his “blasphemous” fiction. He survived, though two years earlier another Egyptian writer did not. Farag Fouda was killed by Islamic extremists who called his writings blasphemous.
The murderers in Bangladesh have reportedly issued a hit list. I generally encourage my students to write what they wish to write. I tell them all thoughts are welcome; nothing is forbidden. When I asked my students what writers should do when faced with such a threat, nearly all said they must stop writing. Two said they would leave the country. Only one young man said he would continue to write.
I told my class it would be sad to permit the murderers to silence their young voices. “The truth is,” one student in a pretty headscarf said, “I’m full of fear.”