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Religious fundamentalism in South Asia: challenges and remedies PDF Print E-mail

By: Farooq Tariq

Table Of Contents


What is religious fundamentalism?

Political economy of religious fundamentalism

The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and the case of Pakistan

Imperialism and fundamentalism


Malala Yousafzai

The case of Bangladesh

How to fight religious fundamentalism?



South Asia is in the grip of right wing ideas. Conservative political parties are gaining mass support and ideas of religious fundamentalism are re-emerging in different shapes and forms. The failure of solving any of the basic issues confronting the working masses by the progressive and democratic parties in governments have led to great illusions in extreme right wing political trends. Despite the fact that these conservative ideas tested time and again by the region have failed miserably to address the issues of human development.


Conservative Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Narendra Damodardas Modi is gaining support in all parts of India, and is likely to win the next general elections. Modi is attracting huge crowds all over. He has presided over a mass murder of Muslim in Ahmadabad in 2002. BJP is promoting communal violence in different parts of the country as part of an orchestrated campaign to create communal polarization to help its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in the coming elections.


Right wing Nepali Congress Party has emerged the largest party after November 2013 general elections. Royalist defeated only seven years ago by an unprecedented mass movement in Nepal are attracting some considerable support. Restoration of Royalty is been posed by some political quarters as well. 


Bangladesh is now the testing grounds. The fate of religious fundamentalism in the region will be decided mainly by the outcome of the present conflicts between Awami League, Bangladesh National Party and Jamaat Islami. The proceedings against 1971 war criminals is directly linked with the struggle against fanaticism. The close linkages of the religious terrorists groups with military establishment was one of the main reason for the genocide in Bangladesh. However, a government with weak social base can not take advantages in circumstances where the whole trial and punishments are seen as way to prolong the power period.


Islamic fundamentalist influences are acquiring an increasing hold in Bangladesh, in common with the rest of the Muslim world. When liberals are capitulating to Islamic fundamentalism, Bangladesh with its endemic poverty can hardly resist such an influence.


Pakistan is another country where religious fundamentalism is fighting on several fronts to gain more mass support. Here as well, weak civilian governments littered with neo liberal agenda are cornered by mass disconnect to take any decisive action against fundamentalism.


Afghanistan is uncertain after the partial withdrawal of NATO forces during 2014. Taliban using several strategies are gaining support despite one of the most concentration of imperialist forces in one country to curb religious fundamentalism. It is  a very complex situation with many twists and turns but in general the religious fanatics are not disappearing from the political scene.


Though Taliban has been out of power for more than a decade, they remains resilient in the region and operates parallel governance structures aimed at undermining the U.S.-backed central government. Since 2010, both U.S. and Afghan officials have pursued a negotiated settlement with the insurgent group, but with the planned withdrawal of NATO forces at the end of 2014, it seems that the prospects for such an agreement remain dim.


The expansion of radical Islam across the Maldives has been accompanied by the gradual introduction of Sharia law. Youths sent to overseas Madrasas return home and further undermine the islands' democratic credential. Islam, which only decades ago did not play a major role within the public sociopolitical sphere, has turned into a divisive “game changer”. Moderate, peaceful and inclusive forms of religious expression are being violently pushed aside by adherents of fundamentalism. 


The newly “elected” Maldivian President Abdualla Yameen, the half brother of the Maldivian strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled  this island nation for about three decades with dictatorial measures, has provided a fertile ground for the Islamic fundamentalist groups to thrive. In particular, the younger generation of Maldivians are being urged to join the jihad and vanquish the enemies of Islam. And the recent utterances of Gayoom, laced with religious overtones, have only gone to strengthen the hands of radical Islamic outfits.


In Sri Lanka, we observe different colors and shapes of Buddhists fundamentalism.

The militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka gave full support to the military action against the Tamils because they believed that they are threatened by the prospect of Tamil secession. In fact the issue that is the primary concern of the militant Buddhists is the dominance of Sinhala ethnicity.


They want Sri Lanka to be the land of Sinhala, that upholds Sinhala language as official one, and regards religion of Sinhala,i.e. Buddhism, as the foremost one. For them, Sinhala and Buddhism are inseparable. The glory of Sinhala is the glory of Buddhism. What is good for Sinhala is also good for Buddhism. Such belief gives rise to the close connection between Sinhala nationalism and Buddhism.


There is rising tensions of Muslims and Bhuddists in Sri Lanka and Christian minority is also been attacked on several occasions. Bodu Bala Sena (‘the army of Buddhist power’) – the newest and crudest version of Sinhala nationalism – is up against Sri Lankan Muslims, claiming that they are invading the social, cultural, economic spheres, pushing aside the Sinhala majority.


“In the past 25 years, fundamentalism has been turned for the first time into a major political force. It’s a conscious effort, I think, to try to undermine progressive social policies. Not radical policies but rather the mild social democratic policies of the preceding period are under serious attack”. Naom Chomsky told an interviewer Stephen Shalom in 2006.


The most prestigious radical intellectual was absolute correct in his  assessment of fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism has become the most serious challenge for the whole region of South Asia in particular and the world in general. It is gripping one country after another.


What is religious fundamentalism?

 There are numerous definitions and explanations available on the market. "Essentially the term fundamentalism suggests going back to the basic texts and reproducing as closely as possible the laws and institutions found then. It has also come to imply a dogmatic adherence to traditions, orthodoxy, inflexibility and a rejection of modern society, intellectual innovation and attempts to create a ‘golden era’.Islamic fundamentalists have exploited the dream of the 'golden era of Islam', in poverty stricken, economically backward Muslim countries through the local "mullahs".


“The term “fundamentalism”  –  as  religions reaction against scientific and secular  culture – may not be a perfect one, but it is a useful label for movements that, despite substantial differences, bear a strong family resemblance” (Armstrong 2001).


“Fundamentalism is a controversial category, but an objective meaning can be given to it in line with the following: embattled faith;  beleaguered tradition; withdrawal from mainstream; creation of counter culture; transformation of mythology in to ideology; cultivation of theologies of rage, resentment and revenge; refusal of dialogue necessary for peace and continuity; defending beleaguered tradition using ritual truth in globalizing world that asks for reasons”  Abul Barkat, Professor, Department of Economics,University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Religious fundamentalism is a form of militant piety in religion. Fundamentalism is an embattled faith. It is beleaguered tradition defended in the traditional way – by reference to ritual truth – in a globalizing world that asks for reasons. Fundamentalism is evident in both great monotheisms (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and in other religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, even in Confucianism etc).


The Muslim and Jewish fundamentalism’s are not much concerned with doctrine, which is an essentially Christian preoccupation. `Fundamentalism’ all follow a certain pattern – they are  embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself.


Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture, yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers.


They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of charismatic leaders, they refine these “fundamentals” so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Fundamentalists – by  turning the myth of  their religion into logos and  by  transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology – cultivate  theologies of rage, resentment, and revenge. Fundamentalism is a refusal of dialogue in a world whose peace and continuity depend on it.


Fundamentalism finds its roots in the backwardness of society, social deprivation, a low level of consciousness, poverty and ignorance. Like fascism and national chauvinism, Islamic fundamentalism finds its base mainly among the middle classes, (the petty bourgeoisie). But it is not only the petty bourgeoisie that is attracted by fundamentalism; those who have fallen from among the petty bourgeoisie into the ranks of the working class and semi-proletariat are also impressed by the movement. Similarly, sections of the working class that are newly formed and not yet equipped with class-consciousness and the experience of class struggle are also likely to become supporters of this movement.


Religious fundamentalism is not a revolutionary force as some sections of the Left forces are describing them as “a section of class ready to fight imperialism” but conservative. Further more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.


To sum up about the definition of religious fundamentalism, it can be said that they are against democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, and free speech. They fear of annihilation by offensive secularism and modernity. It is inspired by the glorious history
It is very selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past\. It promotes militancy and piety.  


However, the Islamic fundamentalism is gaining support in all Muslim majority countries of South Asia. Muslims constitute the majority of the population in four of the eight countries in South Asia, i.e., Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives, and they are also a significant minority in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Islamic fundamentalism is one of the most dangerous enemies of the working people. It is absolutely and under all circumstances necessary to fight against its “reactionary and medieval influence,. It is the duty of radical social and political activists to fight intransigently against the spell it casts on the struggling masses.


Some sections of religious fundamentalism bear a few characteristics common to the Fascism that appeared in Europe between the two world wars: the social base, partly made up of lower middle classes, and above all the reactionary character in a real sense, that is to say the will—as Marx put it—to turn back the wheel of history. But, apart from this, there are many differences.


The Theses on National and Colonial Questions adopted by the second Comintern congress (1920) stated:


With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind,


“the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries, the need to combat pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc;”


“Islamic fundamentalism is a backward-looking ideology. Islamic fundamentalist movements do not seek to overturn the social order, or only seek to do so as a wholly secondary concern. Islamic fundamentalism is the distorted expression of the resentment of the populations and masses against foreign imperialist oppression, against local political despotism and also against their economic situation”. Renowned writer and activist Dr. Gilbert Achcar wrote back in 1981.


“Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another 30 or 50 years -- I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, as long as the basic frustration and discontent persist that lead people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it -- look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come”. Maxime Rodinson on Islamic Fundamentalism.


The great teachers of the working masses have been warning of the dangers of the growth of the religious fundamentalism in any shape and form.


South Asia is the most complex region of the world in terms of religion, and is inhabited by the followers of all major religions. Islam, after Hinduism, is one of the major religions of South Asia. It has the second largest following (29 per cent) after Hinduism (64 per cent). However, Islamic fundamentalism is not the same as Islam. The two has to be seen in opposite to each other.


Islamic fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon. It has acquired several forms and shapes in different South Asian countries mainly as a militant and jihadi force. It has grown because of the failure of the ruling elite in South Asian countries in nation building and in constructing democratic polities.


Political economy of religious fundamentalism

Successive regimes, both civilian and military, in some of the countries in the region had used Islam as a means to legitimize their rule. They all combine repressive political regimes with inequality promoting economic systems that have been indifferent to the demands of the poor segments of the population and have presided over economic systems where inequities are pervasive.


The track record of the successive governments in these countries has been quite dismal.  Repressive political systems have indulged in mainly promoting the interests of the ruling elites and patronage, privileges have characterized the allocation of scarce resources. While the problem faced by the million of educated youth was how to find productive jobs for themselves and their families. They have witnessed blatant misuse of authority and shameless exercise of favoritism, nepotism and corruption in the distribution of limited jobs. 


For running day to day life, income disparities and denial of access to basic services have become common place resulting from decades of economic mis governance, Big man personality–centered cults, denial of human rights and lack of recourse to justice.  Those who have no connections or influence in the polity or are not economically well off lead a life full of misery and grief. Their ability to throw out the non performing rulers is also limited due to absence of democratic institutions and norms.


The main ingredients of this new paradigm can be summed up for the sake of simplicity of exposition, as trade liberalization, privatization, deregulation, fiscal discipline, openness to foreign direct investment and private capital flows etc. All of these have resulted in monopolization of national economies by multi national companies, massive polarization in favor of the rich and ever increasing poverty in most of the South Asian countries.


For instance, in Bangladesh, according to one 2010 survey, 98.9 million (66%) are poor, 47 million (31.3%) represent middle class, and the rest, 4.1 million (2.7%) are rich. In 1984, the number of poor people was 60 million (60% of total population) i.e., the number of poor people has increased by 39 million in last 25 years. This rising number of poor and increasing inequality – an outcome of failure in the national development – constitute a solid basis towards religiosity and religious extremism in Bangladesh.


This deep sense of alienation against the state is therefore exploited by the

fundamentalist to win the sympathy and support of the population. This sense of frustration and despair have sown the seeds of revolt against the established state and become breeding grounds for recruitment of the youth for religious fundamentalism.

The illusionary perception of the combination of private initiative, collective welfare, adequate justice and good governance has given rise to expectations among the younger generation excluded from the privileges and benefits of the existing system that they will be better off under a true “Islamic mode of economic management”.


Islamic fundamentalism has unfortunately become popularly synonymous with many small groups of believers.


The past dominated trends of successive regime,s collaboration with religious fundamentalists groups, use of religion and support for religious groups are coming to an end in recent times. More and more governments in South Asia are feeling the burns of these past practices and now in a consistent struggle to find the most effective ways to do away from them. Most of them are relying on military means and state oppression as the main weapon to eliminate them. This is ditto copy of the policies of the American imperialism.


Islamic fundamentalism has been well entrenched in Pakistan’s power structure for the last two decades There are many social and political reasons for the spread of religious fundamentalism in South Asia but mainly in Muslim countries.


The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and the case of Pakistan

Pakistan is situated in a region where fundamentalism has been posed, of late, as one of the most threatening questions. The process initiated by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran had even been internationalized by the 1996 Taliban's victory in Afghanistan. However, the 9/11 changed the whole scenario. The state power of the religious fanatic in Afghanistan was crushed by the mighty military force of American imperialism and Iran was forced to enter in different reconciliation tones. At the same time, the rise of Hindu radicalism in India has further complicated the situation in the region.


Muslims comprise the second largest population after Hindus in South Asia. They are, however, not a monolithic community. The rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan and the official patronage from time to time, it has got, has an enormous political and security impact on the region.


The two ruling political parties in Pakistan which emerged after 2013 general elections are quite sympathetic to Islamist. The Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf of Imran Khan have used this softness to attract the religious votes successfully for the May 2013 general elections. However, this has become one of the most serious challenges for both of the ruling parties. Regular suicidal attacks, bomb blasts at busy market areas, targeting of religious minorities, attacks on Polio eradication teams and kidnapping of important personalities for massive ransoms have become norms for the religious fanatic terrorist groups. The state seems helpless.


The Pakistani state is in consistent path of de-linking its long standing connections with several religious fundamentalist groups. They are by large no more the second tier of “defense of Pakistan Islamic ideology” as was presented mainly after military general Zia ul Haque took over the power in 1977.


American Imperialist are using drone attacks to eliminate the basis of the these fanatics mainly in tribal areas of Pakistan known as Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA). The government of Pakistan condemn these as attacks on “Pakistan sovereignty”, however, rightly so, is not using Pakistan might military force to counter them. The American drone attacks are overwhelmingly opposed by the masses in Pakistan. There has been numerous demonstrations, rallies by rising religious forces and it has become of their main justification to spread their fanatic ideas.


Setting up an Islamic state and Jihad are the two objectives of all fundamentalist movements. Islamic fundamentalism has risen as an alternative political phenomenon not only in Pakistan but also in the entire Muslim world. Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is partly a link of this international phenomenon and partly caused by specific local reasons.


When analyzing Islamic fundamentalism, one must understand that the religion of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are not one and the same thing. Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary, non-scientific movement aimed at returning society to a centuries-old social set-up, defying all material and historical factors. It is an attempt to roll back the wheel of history.


It is possible to distinguish three general causes contributing to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.


1.  The contradictions of imperialism. Islam has been a political religion since the beginning. When Arabs invaded other countries, the rationale was jihad (holy war) against infidels, although these wars had economic motives. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Muslim countries, one after the other, were colonised by the imperialist countries, the resistance movements used religion as well as nationalism as a launching pad for independence struggles. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, the national liberation movement was begun in the name of religion. Of late, as the multinationals have stepped up their super-exploitation of the Muslim world, one of the natural reactions is hatred of the headquarters (i.e. the West) of these multinationals.


During the Cold War, imperialism used Islamic fundamentalists against the Left. The fundamentalist parties were the closest friends of imperialism in the Muslim world. However, in the post-Cold War era, imperialism does not need them as it did in the past. The CIA has stopped funding Islamic fundamentalists. This changed situation mainly brought Islamic reactionaries into contradiction with imperialism. At the same time, because of the experience of centuries of colonisation and exploitation, a hatred for the West, especially for the USA, is widespread in the Muslim world, as in any Third World country.


2.  The inability of capitalism to solve the basic problems. Islamic fundamentalism is spreading especially rapidly in those counties where capitalism has failed to fulfill the tasks of the democratic revolution, where it has failed to eliminate poverty and ignorance and where class contradictions are sharpening. Poverty and ignorance are concomitant. A society ridden with ignorance is fertile soil for the growth of fundamentalist ideas.


3.  The fundamentalists, through their massive network of social services, have built alternative societies in the Muslim countries where they are strong. They provide hospitals, orphanages, schools and many other facilities, which weak capitalist governments have failed to provide to the masses. This adds to their influence as a social force. Their schools (seminaries) are the most influential tool. These seminaries not only provide religious education but also guarantee food and shelter to the children of poor parents who cannot afford education and food.


Imperialism and fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalism provides a glaring example of imperialist hypocrisy. Now the USA and the imperialist West pose as the biggest enemy of Islamic fundamentalism and try to fool the working class in the West by presenting fundamentalism as a big challenge to world peace. But it was the same imperialism that used these fundamentalist forces against the left in various Muslim countries.


In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a rise of populist, anti-imperialist and class movements. The USA worked out a plan to patronize the fundamentalists in order to weaken these populist movements, which imperialism feared could end up in socialist revolutions. The CIA, under the guidance of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, established a liaison between fundamentalist parties in different countries. According to the plan, a network of Akwanul Muslameen popularly known as Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Hamas (Syria), Sarakat ul Islam (Indonesia), Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria) and Jamaat Islami (Pakistan) were established. These parties were given full economic and political support during that period.


This process reached its peak during the 1980s, when thousands of militants or so-called Mujahideen were trained and sent to Afghanistan. The Jamaat Islami of Pakistan provided the main force, but the above-mentioned parties also sent their share.


In the Afghan war, thousands of guerrillas fought against the Afghan revolution at the command of the CIA and the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a hero then. But the post-Cold War situation, as mentioned, brought them into contradiction. Later, the same imperialist forces has to struggle 8 long years to find Osama and kill him violating the sovereignty of Pakistan.


Pakistan is not a nation-state in real term of the meaning. It is an unnatural and unhistorical country with its borders drawn in the name of religion. Pakistan is like a semi-theocratic state, if not a completely theocratic one. With the exception of a handful of wild collapsed states, Pakistan is probably today the most volatile society in the world: the weakest link in the world chain. Since it is also to a great extent the pivotal fulcrum upon which US imperialism is resting in its so-called“war against terror” (more properly, its war against the oil-producing nations), the fate of the whole world largely depends upon how events play out there.


From the start, Pakistan was a monstrosity of a state. Born in a conflagration of communal frenzy, it was an utterly unviable entity, composed of two halves with nothing more substantial than a common religion to connect them, separated by a thousand miles of hostile territory. Millions were slaughtered to create it, as a direct result of a fiendish imperialist conspiracy to cut across the solidarity of a sub-continental-wide national liberation uprising.


Pakistan could only survive by accepting the humiliating role of a US client state throughout the Cold War, fighting surrogate diplomatic and military wars, first against Soviet-patronized India and later against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. In the process, Pakistan was forced to stagger under the weight of a constantly swelling tumor, in the form of a crazed clerical-fascist military intelligence state-within-a-state. Among the horrors spawned by the ISI, its coffers swilling with dollars, was al-Qaida, the most notorious of its creatures. Every al-Qaida atrocity bore the hallmarks of the ISI, the monster which the CIA nuzzled to its breast.


The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan began sharply in the 1980s. On the one hand, the military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, was using religion to justify his rule and was Islamising laws and society. On the other hand, Pakistan had become a base camp for the forces opposing the Afghan revolution. Not only were thousands of Pakistani guerrillas operating from Pakistani soil but also 25,000 guerrillas from other Muslim countries reached Afghanistan through Pakistan.



There is a wide network of Deobandi and Wahabi madrassas in almost each South Asian country and many of them are being funded by Saudi Government and by massive donations from Muslim immigrants.


Madrassas played an important role in promoting religious fundamentalism. While their numbers remain contested, according to conservative estimates there are approximately 20,000 madrassas in Pakistan (USCIRF 2011). Taliban are their role model, according to one research, 82% of those belonging to Deobandi madrassas saw the Taliban as a model for Islamizing Pakistan (Ali, 2010). There are five main types of madrassas in Pakistan, divided along sectarian and political lines: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia, Ale-Hadith/Salafi (a minority sect which is close to the Saudi brand of Wahabi Islam) and Jamaat-e-Islami.


Similarly, The Hefazat-e Islam movement in Bangladesh has strong support from the country's religious-school system, the teachers and students at some 25,000 madrasahs.


There is no uniform curriculum or set of teachings across these five types of madrassa. Almost one third of these madrassas teach a brand of violent political jihad, extol suicide bombing and impart ideological and other training that encourages violence. Preaching and sermons at madrassas serves as an important recruitment tool, especially for young males. Madrassas also function as sanctuaries and meeting places for militants.


Most of these madrassas trace their origins to post 1979 when madrassas number rose from a few hundred to the thousands. The Pakistani military, through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), funneled Saudi and US money to these madrassas, which quickly became the breeding ground for training and radicalizing a generation of Afghani and Pakistani “holy warriors.” They also set up “networks for Jihad” in Pakistan’s main urban centers (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.11).


Special textbooks in Dari and Phustu, filled with violent images of guns, dead bodies and bombs and extolling Jihad designed by the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, were distributed at these madrassas. These remain in circulation in Afghanistan and in the Khyber Pkhtunkhawa (formerly North West Frontier Province-NWFP) province of Pakistan to date (Stephens and Ottaway, 2002).


After the end of the Afghan war, the Pakistan Army started using these guerrilla forces to fight a proxy war in Kashmir. The 9/11 changed this political strategy initiated  military General Musharaf under pressure of US.  The religious fanatics changed their political stand as well. Now posing as “anti imperialist” force they started conducting different terrorists attacks that included the attack on the US embassy in Islamabad in 1999 and the hijacking of an Indian plane from Nepal demanding the release of Maulana Massod, a militant leader, show their strength.


The civilian leaders strategy to fight religious fundamentalism also paved the way for more growth of the fanatics. The suicidal strategy of talks and conciliation with fanatics led to that situation. In 2008, Pakistan People’s Party and Awami National Party, which came to power in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province through elections after 9 long year of military rule dominated Pakistan, signed an agreement with the Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah for implementation of Islamic sharia rule in the Swat region.


By early 2009, the Taliban were enforcing sharia code in the region, burning music CDs and DVDs, ordering barbers not to shave beards, preventing women from visiting bazaars and setting up sharia courts until they also ordered a total ban on female education. Maulana Fazlulllah is now head of Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP), after killing of its previous head Hakim Ullah Massod was killed in a drone attack in end of 2013.


Malala Yousafzai

However, the fight against religious fundamentalism also saw a glorious example of determination and sacrifices. Malala Yousafzai has become one of the most known girl in the world because of her persuasion for girl education in an area dominated by religious fundamentalism. She comes from Swat where the pesent leader of TTP Fazlullah also belongs to. On October 9, 2012, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for her diary written three years ago, airlifted to England for medical treatment and became a celebrity, eliciting prayers of support from teenagers around the world. Girls and boys in Pakistan, where children do not often hear positive stories, adored her; she was celebrated on Pakistani television channels as the nation’s daughter, having earned international awards and met with world leaders, including UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.


The book  “I am Malala”, an autobiographical story told by her and written by journalist Christina Lamb, was published in October 2013, is an absorbing memoir and should be on the reading list of all teenagers in South Asia for the reasons: Malala upholds an idea of freedom against the forces of darkness in South Asia; she is a role model for girls in Pakistan and in other countries; she stands against forces which are inimical to democracy; her story, still unfolding, is the story of civilization.


Religious fundamentalism ideological base is to suppress the religious minorities and women. On the question of women, one could find a whole traditional arsenal of tools in Islam to uphold male supremacy and sexual segregation. One reason why Islamic fundamentalism has had a seductive appeal almost everywhere is that men are being stripped of their traditional privileges by modernist ideologies. They know that in the Muslim society that the fundamentalists are advocating they could rely on holy arguments in favor of male supremacy. This is one reason -- very often concealed, but a deeply rooted reason, even if incidentally, it is sometimes unconscious -- why Islamic fundamentalism is in fashion. Modernizing experiences tended to give women more rights, and this has exasperated a fair number of men.

The case Bangladesh
Hafazit Islam, the main group leading the present unrest in Bangladesh, may not have wide support across the country, despite a population that is 90 percent Muslim, however, is one of the most dangerous religious group. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government sees Hefazat as being less militant than the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e Islami. Nevertheless, despite theological differences, Jamaat-e Islami has thrown its support behind Hefazat's campaign for stricter Islamic laws.

Hefazat is a loose coalition of 13 Islamist groups that made international headlines on May 5-6 when their Dhaka rally turned into a riot and security forces were deployed to disperse the demonstrators. Hefazat's agenda is detailed in a 13-point charter that demands the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam, including the execution of Internet bloggers and others who insult the Prophet Muhammad. Hefazat has angered woman’s rights advocates with calls for woman’s development programs to be canceled.
It is demanding laws against what Islamist deem to be "shameless behavior and dresses," as well a ban on the mixing of men and women in public. Hefazat also wants rules against erecting statues in public places. It is out rightly a religious fundamentalist force in Bangladesh that must be opposed at all cost.


Secularism was one of the four principles enshrined in the original 1972 constitution of Bangladesh. It was removed in 1978 by the military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman, who declared Islam the state religion. This helped right wing political parties to use Islam to win support among masses. Jamaat Islami was in the lead. The Supreme Court restored secularism in 2010 as a basic constitutional tenet.


The removal of secularism from the constitution for about three decades was described by many of the country's leaders as a betrayal of mainstream Bengali culture and society. Both are pluralist and progressive. The army, with its close association with conservative political parties, led by the Nationalist party (BNP), insists that Bangladesh must be officially a one religion country despite the long-time diversity of faiths.


Bangladesh is today predominantly a Sunni country, with many influenced by moderate Sufism. The Muslim population is approximately 88 per cent of the population. Religion has always been a strong part of the national identity, but varied at different time periods. History has played havoc with Bengali nation. In 1947, Bengal was partitioned, with most of East Bengal joining Pakistan, and West Bengal becoming part of India. Subsequent tragic events compelled many Hindus to migrate to India after the 1950 and 1964 East Bengal genocides. With the establishment of Pakistan, Bengalis faced  discriminatory attitude at all level. The subsequent liberation war saw a united fight by Bengalis, regardless of religious affiliation.


Zia Ur Rahman, who took over after failure of a Sepoy revolution in 1975, began using religion as basis for his rule. His BNP is still pursuing the same goals along Jamaati Islami. In 1988, the country's second military ruler, Hussain Ershad, declared Islam the state religion. Supporters of the BNP and the military also engaged in various anti-minority activities against Hindu and tribal communities.


Since the return to democracy in 1991, there have been growing calls by civil society members to return "secularism" to the constitution. The Awami League government announced in 2009 that the constitution would be amended to reintroduce the original four principles. The fifth amendment of the constitution, removing secularism and replacing it with an Islamic declaration, was declared illegal by the High Court of Bangladesh in 2005. Court upheld this earlier ruling.


Bangladesh is one of only seventeen countries with women as heads of state or government and actively promotes women in politics through a parliamentary quota of 45 seats (out of 345 seats) for women. In addition to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament are all women. Data from July 2012 revealed woman’s progress in education, with approximately eighty-nine per cent of girls successfully passing the higher secondary school exam, relative to seventy-eight percent of boys.


Economic empowerment has largely arrived via the garment industry, which employs approximately three million workers. Eighty per cent of these workers are women. In 2012, the garment industry accounted for annual exports worth $24.3 billion (approximately eighty per cent of Bangladesh earnings). However the conditions of working women in Bangladesh textile industry is one of the worst in the region. Several incidents of fire in textile factories during 2011/12, resulted in numbers of death of the workers mainly women unseen in history.


These statistics however do not hide the fact that gender equality is far from being achieved in Bangladesh. Women continue to face challenges including early marriage and domestic violence. UNICEF recently estimated that up to seventy-four per cent of girls are married prior to the age of eighteen, after which their education is terminated and their employment opportunities become limited.


The establishment of war crime tribunal for the trial of those involved in 1971 massacre of thousands was a turning point in the struggle against religious fundamentalism. In 1971, it was a classical alliance of Mullah and military. The JI, at the time, hand in hand with military establishment, was playing the role of a spy organization.


The Awami League established war crime tribunal might have gone soft if the Shahbagh movement have not taken place. Within days, thousands gathered Shahbagh area of Dhaka to demand strict punishments for those proven guilty. It was a peoples voice for justice.


With the implementation of the death sentence of Mullah Qadir known as “butcher of Mirpur” in December 2013, the polarization within Bengali nation has come to an extreme. The boycott of the general elections due on January 5th 2014, by main opposition BNP has crated a very volatile situation. Bangladesh is on the brink.

507 persons have died in Bangladesh political violence in 2013. There are 40 registered political parties, only 12 are participating. Out of 300 constituencies, candidates have been elected 'unopposed' in 154 constituencies.  The main opposition alliance who is boycotting the election has called for rail-road blockade for an indefinite period. The election is not likely to give legitimacy to the post-election 'new' government.


How to fight religious fundamentalism

In cases where Islamic fundamentalism takes purely reactionary forms, the radicals, Left, progressive and social activists must use tactical caution in their fight against it. In particular, they must avoid falling into the fundamentalists’ trap of fighting about religious issues. They should stick firmly to the national, democratic, and social issues. They must not lose sight of the fact that a part, often a big part, of the masses under Islamic fundamentalist influence can and must be pulled out of its orbit and won to the workers and peoples cause.


At the same time, they must nevertheless declare themselves unequivocally for a secular society, which is a basic element of the democratic program. They can play down their atheism, but never their secularism.


The  tactics used by Americans in the “war on terror” has led several South Asian countries government to use military and repressive measure to curb fanaticism. They can only think in military terms. This fight is a political fight. It is an ideological struggle. It can not be successful by taming a significant section of Muslim societies by the barrel of the gun. It can not go a long way if the governments keep imitating Americans way of dealing with fanatics. The write of the state can only be established with a massive political authority.


However, most governments in South Asia are part and parcel of neo liberal globalization. They are implementing all the ingredients of the neo liberal agenda, against a peoples agenda. The issue of poverty is been addressed by short terms small loans, state subsidy to multi national and national companies to provide cheap services, less spending on education, health and transport. Thus loosing the grounds they once had with their progressive policies of nationalizations, state subsidies of basic infrastructure, free education and health felicities to the right wing and extreme right wing forces.


Religion is been used by most of the South Asian governing political parties to strengthen their power basis. Even the recent shining success story of Aam Admi Party in Delhi elections is now been termed as miracle. The atheist Arvind Kejriwal won the elections on social issue and termed his victory as a “god given” gift. He told the Delhi parliament that he was an atheist but now he believes in God. Such examples are good enough to the keep the grip of religion dominance on the consciousness of the ordinary people despite their radical postures.


There should be no alliance with religious parties and extreme religious groups on any social or political issues by the radical social and political groups. The religious fundamentalists groups always try to occupy the constituency of the democrats by hypocritically advocating for  “rule of law, democracy and restoration of constitutions”. Some groups talks against neo liberal agenda and oppose privatization. These are just traps to find new grounds among masses. There should be no political or tactical alliance wit them. We must expose them rather giving them a curtain in the name of united front.


There is no short cuts in struggle against religious fundamentalism. There is no minimum and maximum stage of this struggle. Every step has to be linked to next one.  For several rulers who are toeing the Americans, military solution is a short-term strategy while the long-term strategy requires reforms and more development. But this is all false; it will not solve anything. This is just an excuse to please American imperialism.


There is no in between the short-term and long-term strategies. If the fight against religious fanatics has to go forward, it must begin with a revolutionary program. It had to start with the political will to separate religion from the state. Religion cannot become the basis of a nation.


There has to be a concrete program to fight religious fundamentalism. It has to combine an immediate dealing with the suicidal attacks, bomb blasts, kidnappings and curbing the activities of the fascist forces from their strongholds along with an overall plan of action in economic, political and social fields. This should include the nationalization of religious madrasas and retraining of teachers. It should include an immediate increase in workers’ wages  to a decent level from the present slave wage level in both the private and public sector.


All discriminatory laws must go and all citizens including the religious minorities  should enjoy equal constitutional status. The governments should be committed to fully back local resistance to the religious fanatic. Civil society organizations in the stronghold of the religious fundamentalists should be given full backing by the state so that they can function. The state must help to strengthen and sustain the local defense committees to fight the religious fanatics.


All trade union rights must be restored in all the public and private sector with full freedom of speech and gatherings. The neo liberalize globalization must be abandoned and a real regional unity be forged with trade on equal basis be one of the main strategies of the countries. More and more frequent people to people contact with each country must be one of actions that must be ensured.


The forces of religious fundamentalism organize on an international basis. A fight against them has to be organized at that same level. The Americans’ “war on terror” is fueling more religious fundamentalism. It is seen as a war on Muslims.


We must oppose both imperialism and religious fundamentalism. No support to one against the other. The fight between the religious fundamentalism and the imperialists is a fight between bulls. There is not much to gain in siding with one against the other, but to end the fight and open the space to create an alternative way of living.


While democracy remains a contentious and much debated term, in the context of electoral endorsement to fundamentalists it remains one of the main pillars of resistance. In Bangladesh, India, Burma, and Pakistan, democracy continues to be the ethical and legal basis of the progressive movements despite the occasional setbacks.


Commenting of some provocative films against Muslims, Gilbert Achcar says that Muslims should ‘simply ignore the crazy provocations,’. While Achcar strongly condemns Islamophobic hate material, he rejects any curtailment of free speech in the name of preventing blasphemy. ‘Freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression,’ he says in an interview with Farooq Sulehria for Pakistan’s Viewpoint Online.




For more readings and references:

• Gilbert Achcar "The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising", 2012

• Gilbert Achcar: Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror, 2003

• Ali, T (2002) Clash of Fundamentalisms. London: Verso

• Ali, T (2004) Bush in Babylon. London: Verso

• Barber, Benjamin (2000) Jihad vs. McDonald. In F. J. Lechner and J. Boli (eds)

• The Globalization Reader. Oxford and Malden: Blackwell (pp21-6)

• Chomsky, N and Achcar, G (2007) Perilous Power. London: Paradigm

• Ciment, J (1997) Algeria The Fundamentalist Challenge. New York: Facts on File

• Kepel, G (2002) Jihad. London/New York: I B Tauris

• Mir, A (2008) Fluttering Flag of Jehad. Lahore: Mashal

• Napoleoni, L (2003) Modern Jihad. London: Pluto

• Said, E (1997) Covering Islam. New York: Vintage

• http://www.leninology.com/2006/08/interview-with-gilbert-achcar.html

•  From VIEWPOINT ONLINE ISSUE NO. 44, APRIL 1, 2011:           http://www.viewpointonline.net/thre...

• Yaqub, S (2004) Containing Arab Nationalism. University of North Carolina

• www.iba.edu.pk/News/speechesarticles_drishrat/The_Economics_

• http://www.rfi.fr/sites/filesrfi/Political Economy of Fundamentalism in 

• http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20061103.htm

•  The problem of fundamentalism and violence in religion: A Buddhist experience   http://www.visalo.org/englishArticles/violence.htm

•  Islamic Culture And The Challenge Of Buddhist Fundamentalism By Liyanage Amarakeerthi  http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2013/05/05/islamic-culture-and-the- challenge-of-buddhist-fundamentalism/

• http://www.merip.org/mer/mer233/maxime-rodinson-islamic-fundamentalism

•  Is Maldives moving into the Sino-Pak orbit? By Radhakrishna Rao, Bangalore

•  orhttp://www.organiser.org/Encyc/2014/1/5/Is-Maldives-moving-into-the-Sino-Pak-orbit-.aspx?NB=&lang=4&m1=&m2=&p1=&p2=&p3=&p4=&PageType=N




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