Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has led to the Emirati government allocating land for the construction of Abu Dhabi’s first Hindu temple. This move of the UAE government is bound to accelerate religious pluralism in the Gulf nation which is home to nearly 2.6 million immigrant Indians. The Emirati city of Dubai currently has two temples, one of which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and the other to Lord Krishna. These facts introduce us to an altogether ignored reality in certain Muslim majority societies.
While we often hear of the bigoted and conservative nature of theocracies and so-called Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, we are mostly unaware of the religious tradition prevalent in other Muslim majority countries. Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, is a secular nation. The Indonesian constitution is planked on the philosophy of “Pancasila” which is pluralistic in its outlook. The drafting committee of the constitution categorically decided to replace the word “Allah” with “Tuhan” so as to ensure that the minorities in Indonesia did not feel neglected and all communities could relate to the phraseology of the constitution.
Indonesia’s national carrier is called “Garuda Indonesia” whose name has been inspired by Hindu mythology. Garuda is the steed or “vahan” of Lord Vishnu. In fact, the Garuda Purana details the conversation between Lord Vishnu and Garuda. Some of the Indonesian currency notes carry pictures of Lord Ganesha and it is a common sight to come across statues of Lord Krishna, Arjuna and Ghatotkach while paying a visit to the Main Square in Jakarta, or the city of Bali.
There are examples from many other nations which can be recounted. Foremost among them is Turkey, which was built on the lines of fundamentalist secularism by none other than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk brought in sweeping secularisation measures and cultivated the notion of Turkish nationalism. Lebanon is another mutli-faith country where the law mandates equality between Muslims and Christians. Following their independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union, the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, despite their Muslim majority societies, chose to embark on the lines of Leftism and secularism instead of Islamism. The same is the case with Bangladesh.
After its liberation in 1971 which effectively buried the dubious theory that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations, Bangladesh chose to ingrain “secularism” within the preamble to its constitution and decided not to replicate West Pakistan by proclaiming itself to be an Islamic state.
Interestingly, several of these nations had been led by women. Megawati Sukarnoputri served as the president of Indonesia, Tansu Ciller as the prime minister of Turkey and Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as prime ministers of Bangladesh. This is not to suggest that these states do not suffer from their respective set of domestic issues which are a challenge to the kind of secularism being practised in these countries. We’ve been reading about the brutal manner in which many secular and atheist bloggers have been hacked to death in Bangladesh. The word “secularism” was expunged from the preamble to the Bangladeshi constitution during military dictator Ziaur Rahman’s regime, but was thankfully brought back owing to a high court ruling in 2010.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a known Islamist, and the Pancasila philosophy is often criticised in Indonesia courtesy its secular grounding. No country is devoid of religious politics or communal discrimination, but the very reality that secular Muslim majority countries exist should be an eye opener for many. But at the same time, let us also recognise the reality of countries like Saudi Arabia which masquerade as “Islamic states.” The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) does not even provide its non-Muslim citizens the right to freely propagate their religion and build their places of worship.
How absurd can a state get, especially when it claims to rule under the pretext of Islam? Doesn’t the Quran explicitly mention religious freedom? Of course it does! Chapter 109, Verse 4 of the Quran says, “I have my religion and you have your religion.” Another much quoted verse is Chapter 2, Verse 256 which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” These two verses from Islam’s most significant religious document clearly hint at how ignorant the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is regarding the teachings of Islam when it prevents non-Muslims from professing their faith freely and puts to death anyone who converts from Islam to any other religion.
One can cite more verses from the Quran to explain how integral the freedom of worship is to Islamic teachings. Chapter 22, Verse 67 of the Quran states, “We have appointed for every community ways of worship to observe. Let them not dispute with you on this matter.” The need to protect religious monuments belonging to non-Muslims as well as Muslims is also mentioned in the Quran in Chapter 22, Verse 40 wherein it is stated, “If god did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of god is much invoked, would surely be destroyed.” And here we have the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its redundant apostasy laws and completely un-Islamic ways of not allowing non-Muslims build their religious monuments and worship god in their own prescribed ways.
There are several theocracies like Saudi Arabia where such laws are common. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are often targeted and asked to prove their patriotism. This sort of racism was regularly manifested during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. Didn’t the members of Muslim Brotherhood hear tales of the Christian delegation which came to meet Prophet Muhammad from Najran? The Prophet didn’t just have a theological debate with them, but allowed them to pray inside Masjid al-Nabwi or the Prophet’s Grand Mosque in Medina. Yet, we had certain elements in Egypt questioning the Coptic Christians’ patriotism simply because of their annual pilgrimage to Bethlehem. They were labelled as being part of a Zionist ploy which is indeed laughable. This kind of an anti-Christian sentiment needs to be shunned.
Anti-Semitism is even more deeply entrenched as Islamic clerics in West Asia have repeatedly called for boycott of Pepsi, since Pepsi allegedly stands for “Pay-ever-penny-to-save-Israel.” Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to deny the holocaust and label the 9/11 terrorist attacks as insiders’ job. There is no space for such blatant lies in Islam. The Quran says in Chapter 2, Verse 42, “Do not mix truth with falsehood or hide the truth when you know it.”
The likes of Ahmadinejad have to recognise the horrors of the holocaust and treatment meted out to the Jews in Germany. Conspiracy theorists have to give up on the preposterous suggestion of US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-Mossad involvement in 9/11. We must regret the fact that a terrorist named Osama Bin Laden used Islam’s name to commit an entirely inhumane act on September 11, 2001, which led to the death of thousands. He shall never be forgiven for that because Islam teaches that the death of even a single innocent person is like the death of all humanity (Quran: 5:32).
One more thing that is essential to undo the baggage of anti-Semitism rests in understanding that not every Jew is a Zionist sympathiser and not every Jew can be held responsible for the excesses of the Zionist state in Palestine. Lastly, we have our dear neighbour Pakistan where the population of religious minorities has historically been on the decline. Blasphemy laws are utilised to frequently frame non-Muslims and forcible conversions aren’t that rare. Owing to a hostile environment, the Hindu community in Pakistan has steadily shifted base to India which is a matter of great shame for Pakistan.
Whether a country is Muslim majority, Christian majority, Buddhist majority, Hindu majority, Jewish majority or atheist majority ruled by communists, it has to realise that freedom of religion and equality of all religions before the law is a must. No person can be deprived of any privileges because of his faith which is a matter of choice. Everyone must be treated equally. Muslim majority countries, in particular, are doing fairly well in some regions but have dreadful laws in places like Saudi Arabia.
A thorough revision of the law is a must in such regions to bring non-Muslims at par with Muslims as citizens of a free state. It must also be ensured that minorities within the Muslim community, be it Shias, Sufis or Ahmadiyyas are not discriminated against, labelled as heretics, and recognised as Muslims.
More importantly, the rights of women need to be recognised, which is possible only when the state bans female genital mutilation, introduces compulsory girl education, outlaws polygamy and gives women an equal say in matters of divorce, inheritance law and judicial testimony.
(This article was originally published in DailyO.)