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Talk by Bharat Wariavwalla on "State, Secularism and Democracy: Can Liberal Democracy Prosper in the West Asia?"

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  • December 12, 2013

    Chair: Dr. Arvind Gupta, DG IDSA

    Discussant: Amb Talmiz Ahmad

    The West Asian region has been making news since December 2010 when the revolution broke out on the streets of Tunis. Since then, the entire West Asia has remained politically volatile and the discourse on so-called Arab Spring and region’s political transformation has found a popular audience world-wide. In the light of recent developments, Mr. Bharat Wariavwalla delivered a talk on State, Secularism and Democracy in West Asia to elucidate the conceptual and practical intricacies involved in democratization of nations in this part of the world.

    Mr. Wariavwalla began his talk by commenting on the popular notion of “Islam’s incompatibility with Democracy” and argued that such flawed rhetoric distorts understanding of the Arab Revolution in West Asia. He suggested that events in Tunisia; the starting point of Arab uprisings, reflect spontaneous and sudden reactions of aggravated masses and the revolution had “no political agenda or pre-planned motive”. Briefly touching upon the developments in Libya, Egypt, Syria, he stated that the ultimate aim of these revolutionary movements was to bestow power to the people. Mr. Wariavwalla affirmed that Arab Spring has not yet died down and added that even though democracy has not yet reached the shores of the region, it will find its way sooner or later.

    Democracy and Secularism: Theoretical Perspective

    Mr. Wariavwalla reflected on theoretical nuances of democracy and examined evolution of secularism in American and French context. He highlighted that 1776 American Revolution carved a secular society where church was considered different from state i.e. both were two different institutions but tolerant of each other in social domain. The French model, on the other hand, takes the position that there can be no manifestation of religion in the society i.e. state would be intolerant of religious expression. Thus most nations were faced with a dilemma of adopting either of the two models of secular thought. He also illustrated the case of Turkey in Twentieth Century when it, after the fall of Ottoman Empire and birth of modern day Turkey, adopted French-secular model. He mentioned that while Turkey has constitutionally tried to keep religion and state separate, the present AKP led Erdogan government has made too many concessions for religion and consequently faced resistance from public. He also drew comparison with the Indian constitution which declares that “Religion and state are to be kept apart”, an idea borrowed from French Revolution.

    In next segment of his talk, he spoke on the issue of Islam and Liberal Democracy. He again highlighted the spirit of French revolution to suggest that even in the past, democracies were born as a result of efforts and aspirations of common people. Thus, democracy adapted to Islamic principles could still flourish in the West Asian region and it will be guided by people of the region. With reference to current geo-political developments, Mr. Wariavwalla analyzed the role of west in West Asian region and stated that the West (U.S. in particular) has been very comfortable with monarchy in West Asia. To support his argument, he elaborated the case of Tunisia and how US was at ease with Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime. He pointed that the Arab uprisings have challenged the authoritarian rule in the region and it is unlikely that dictatorial regimes will find their way back in the region.

    Islam and secularism:

    To address the issue of secularism in Islamic nations, Mr. Wariavwalla asserted that there were two forms of Islam; Lived Islam and Scripted Islam. The former is a socio-cultural manifestation of Islam which is tolerant of religious differences unlike the conventional and dogmatic scripted Islam. He analyzed the case of two west Asian nations; Egypt and Tunisia, to build his argument.

    Egypt, a nation with multi-religious identity, has 10% Coptic Christians. So far the Christians have not been targeted in the process of political transformation. However how accommodative the Egyptian state will be of its minorities will be decided in summer of 2014 when first draft of the constitution is passed. In Tunisia, though Islam is the official religion yet the idea of liberalism and religious freedom has been imbibed in the institutional framework of the society. Furthermore, Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria), Hamas (Gaza Strip) and Morsi (Egypt) epitomize the situation where state opposed to religious parties from coming to power in name of secularism. In case of Islamic nations, it may not be possible to treat state and religion as two distinct institutions yet state can adopt the position of religious tolerance. Evidently, secularism and democracy can coexist and flourish in Islamic nations. He also commented on Western discourse on Islam and stated that West has popularized the stereotypical image of Islam being a non-democratic religion. The Western perception of Islam needs to be revised and contra-factual image of Islam should be changed.

    Discussant’s remarks: Amb Talmiz Ahmed

    Amb Talmiz appreciated the speaker’s effort to reflect on complexities of Islamic democracy in West Asia. He labeled Arab Spring as a “work in progress” and stated that it was a robust and popular movement which unleashed aspirations of the young generation. As a prognosis of Arab Spring, he reiterated Mr. Wariavwalla’s point that authoritarian rule cannot be revived in West Asia and a new liberal documentation of constitution is needed. It was emphatically noted by him that constitution was a mere document which acquires its spirit only from implementation. Thus Egypt’s revised constitution will be put to test once it’s implemented.

    Amb Talmiz also referred to the case of Tunisia; where the Islamic government projected an inclusive vision by allowing the non-Islamists to participate in office of president of the republic and constituent assembly. Thus in congruence with Mr. Wariavwalla’s argument, Amb Talmiz affirmed that Sharia offers “extraordinary flexibility” and professes the idea of secularism.

    Evolution of Islamic thought: In a historical perspective, Amb Talmiz shared how the idea of political Islam was born and religious flexibility was a defining principle of the Sharia. References to scholarly works produced by Islamic scholars like Mohammed Abdu, Rashid Rada were made to elucidate that Islam per se did not provide a political framework and thus there was a considerable flexibility in structuring political thought over time. He quoted Abdur Razak to suggest that Prophet Mohammad’s only intention behind Quranic verses was spiritual and the idea of Islamic state emerged after Prophet Mohammad. He also informed the audience about two schools of Islamic thought; Mecca school which deals solely with spiritual revelations and the Medina school which was a response to specific challenges faced by prophet. It was suggested that in political discourse, preference should be given to the latter.

    Religion and State: Commenting on role of religion in State, Amb Talmiz highlighted importance of religion to set moral code of conduct and social limits. A reference was made to the Constitutional movement of Iran in 1906 that brought together different social classes; business class, intellectuals. It was during this period that issues of women security, liberty and freedom were brought to table.

    Western discourse on Islam: He agreed with speaker’s contention that Islam is often mis-represented as an un-secular and non-democratic religion and added that West often projects this tainted image of Islam as inhumane religion. He stated that Islam was in fact, the originator of human rights and it was the rigid Salafists who follow “scripted Islam”. As a matter of fact, “lived” Islam offers immense scope for religious accommodation.

    Future of Islamic democracy: On the question of Islamic democracy, he stated that even though Islam and democracy are compatible, their coexistence in the Arab world is uncertain. The ongoing struggle and political experimentation in West Asia is the best way to check if Islamic democracy can sustain and flourish in the region. He further quoted Tariq Ramadan’s statement, “there is no successful model to prove that democracy and Islam can coexist” to suggest that this is a sterile debate in the Arab world. In spirit, Arabs support the idea of liberalism to accommodate all religions but Arabs don’t accept the word “Ilmania”; the Arabic word for secularism.
    Contemporary challenges: He identified the challenge of globalization; which has faded borders and decentralized state orders led by pressure from civil society and international partners. It was mentioned that there has been an increased cultural mixing and cross-border interaction which directed the contemporary generations to fight for change. Concludingly, it was suggested that the world order is dominated by western interests and Islamic societies will have to come up with creative ideas to sketch their destiny.

    Comments and Suggestions:

    In the ensuing session, it was suggested that broad generalizations about Arab Spring should be avoided, and historical circumstances and internal political conditions of each nation should be studied to understand the nature of revolution. Finding a universally acceptable definition of democracy and secularism was highlighted as a major challenge while deliberating on democratization. There is often a problem of perception while dealing with these concepts and a lack of consensus on terminology or definition often dilutes the issue

    Prepared by Ms Divya Malhotra, Intern West Asia Cluster, IDSA