Imagine a million people in a Muslim country marching in defence of secularism and in protest against threats to it from Islamic politics. Imagine, also, a half-million people marching in another Muslim country, denouncing terrorism and religious extremism promoted by certain militant mosques. Difficult to imagine? That is because, in recent years, we have only seen and read about huge Muslim rallies worldwide, including in India, where the target of attack was external — George Bush, Danish cartoons, Israel — and in which at least some protesters took pride in showing Osama bin Laden as their hero. Mass protests, in which the focus of criticism is internal to Muslim society and politics, have been rare. But these did take place recently.
The first happened in Istanbul and Ankara last month when peaceful demonstrators protested against the creeping Islamism in Turkey’s politics and also against the army’s threat of intervention amid a political crisis over presidential elections. “Turkey is secular and will stay that way,” they chanted. “We want neither Sharia, nor a military coup, but a fully democratic Turkey.”
The impact of their protests was so swift that the presidential election, which was already underway, was terminated. Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer had warned that Turkey’s secular system was under “unprecedented threat” from both “domestic and foreign forces who are working with a common objective”. A remarkable feature of the protest rallies in Turkey was the large-scale participation of women. Turkish women enjoy equal legal rights, intellectual freedoms, and opportunities for educational and economic advancement that are almost unrivalled in the Muslim world.
Educated women are the strongest defenders of secularism because, as one Turkish woman intellectual has said, “Islam and modernity can co-exist, but the key is secularism and democracy.”
In Turkey, which is 95 per cent Muslim, secularism was instituted by the sweeping reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, in 1923. In his 15-year rule, Ataturk de-Arabised Turkey, liberating it from the medieval socio-cultural model that still holds sway in Saudi Arabia. He replaced the Arabic script with Roman, and abolished religious law and religious education. However, there are two negative sides to Turkey’s government-led drive for secularism, which many progressive Turks believe has swung to the other extreme.
They think that the rigid interpretation of secularism in Turkey curtails legitimate religious freedoms. Secondly, it has given excessive powers to the army, which has overthrown elected governments in the past, to stifle democracy. This could become a hurdle in Turkey’s pursuit of European Union membership.
The second event, on April 15, took place closer home, in Pakistan, where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party formed by mohajirs (post-Partition migrants) from India, organised in Karachi what was probably the biggest, and most disciplined ever political rally in the country’s history. MQM’s supremo, Altaf Hussain, who has been in exile in London since 1992, addressed it telephonically for one-and-a-half hours.
Targeting the notorious clerics of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, who want to enforce an extremely intolerant Sharia rule in Pakistan, he said, “These people are imposing ‘Kalashnikov Sharia’, extremists are defaming Islam and maligning the name of Pakistan.” He also said, “because of their acts of violence and terrorism, India, Afghanistan and other countries are describing Pakistan as a sanctuary of terrorists.”
Altaf Hussein cited Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s historic speech of August 11, 1947, in which Pakistan’s founder proclaimed the equality of all citizens of Pakistan, whether Muslims, Hindus, Christians, or Parsis. He appealed to moderate Muslims to raise their voices against extremist Islamic leaders who were calling for demolition of girls’ schools and wanted to deprive women of their right to get education. “Muslims will not be able to catch up with developed nations if we do not promote modern education for both men and women.”
Pakistan has witnessed many scary manifestations of ‘Kalashnikov Sharia’ in recent months. In February, Zilla Huma Usman, a provincial minister, was killed by a fanatic. Her crime? She had not covered her head! The assassin told a television channel: “I have no regrets. I just obeyed Allah’s commandment. I will kill all those women who do not follow the right path, if I am freed again.” In another instance of Talibanisation of Pakistan, Lal Masjid issued a fatwa last month against Nilofar Bakhtiar, the country’s tourism minister. Her crime? She took part in a paragliding mission and was photographed with her male French instructor in what was a charity event to raise funds for victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
Last week, Pakistan’s interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao was injured in a suicide attack that killed 30 people. Analysing such recurring acts of terrorism and Shia-Sunni violence, journalist Zahid Hussein has warned in his recent book, Frontline Pakistan — The Struggle Within Militant Islam: “These are the fault lines from which a geo-political earthquake could at some point erupt. Pakistan’s battle with itself is far from over.”This is the context that makes the mammoth rallies in Turkey in defense of secularism and in Pakistan in protest against terrorism highly significant. Because they represent the other, reformist, side of the battle within the Muslim world.