One of the many lessons of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s magisterial book, A Secular Age, is how religion continues to exist and continues to be relevant.
The relevance is not only limited to religion’s potential for creating identity and meaning in life.
Religion’s relevance also lies in the moral and epistemological limitations of the virulent forms of atheistic exclusive humanism and hardcore naturalistic ‘science’ that Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and their ilk seem to be promoting.
Religion’s potential for solidarity and taking the cause of justice and vulnerable forms of life, is as relevant as ever.
Its potential for an ultimate explanation against an unfounded scientific reductionism cannot be blindly and arrogantly dismissed.
Rise of Islamism and electoral democracy
During the last seven or so years, coinciding with (or in response to) democratisation, the most spectacular religious phenomenon in the Maldives is the rise of Islamism. At least twelve Islamic/Islamist NGOs were registered between 2004-2010. Prior to 2004, there were no more than three organisations with the specific goal of religion.
But re-Islamisation led by Islamism itself should not be taken as alarming for at least ‘electoral democracy’.
If popular participation in politics can be an indication of support for democracy, the voter turnout in February 2011’s local elections stood at around 70%, which is comparable to past turnouts for parliamentary elections. Equally important, Islamist Adalath Party fared quite badly in all three elections since 2008.
However, re-Islamisation seems to have had, and will continue to have, mixed results for the society and politics.
As late as the mid-1970s, ethnographic research in the Maldives could conclude that Islam of the people was largely limited to ‘washing, praying and fasting’.
What this means can best be contrasted by describing what James Piscatori and Eickelman call ‘objectification of Muslim consciousness’. They explain that this is ‘the process whereby basic questions come to the fore in the consciousness of large numbers of believers’.
This process has become a salient feature of all Muslim societies. Similarly, this growing objectification of consciousness, largely over the past decade, became the most important religious development in the Maldives. Its main feature includes fragmentation and pluralization of religious discourses.
For sociologists like Jose Casanova this could ultimately mean an Islamic aggiornamento, or a sort of reform that took place in the Second Vatican when Catholicism finally endorsed democracy and human rights in the 1970s. But should we be so optimistic?
Judging from data and people’s comments, often here on Minivan News, it would be hard for some of us in the Maldives to see any positives from objectification of our religious consciousness.
Indeed, in the Maldives what we have seen is a sort of reflexive re-Islamisation: through responding to the terms of alternative discourses (e.g. democracy and human rights) and processes of global modernity, the society seems to be undergoing a new re-traditionalization.
Mixed Results of Islamism
We could observe two parallel processes led by Islamism in the Maldives. It seems to be a striking reversal of what had happened since the 1970s.
First, there is an attempt at de-secularising the actual community. The most obvious example is public piety such as the Muslim veil.
But there is also an attempt at re-Islamising the functional spheres like the economy. Islamic banking or riba-free business is a case in point.
Call for re-Islamising the national curriculum, call against music and entertainment, and rise in ‘creationism’ pseudo-science, are important examples too.
Perhaps a more important example is greater de-privatisation of religion: Islamist organizations and Islamist media outlets have proliferated in the public sphere. Their influence in the political society and the state has increased (e.g., a religious ministry led by Islamists).
But here is the other side of the picture. Islamist attempts at ‘rationalisation’ and ‘objectification’, or in short ‘purification’ of the society, seem to have mixed results for the dominant national consciousness.
The powerful motif of a ‘100% Muslim nation’ may no longer serve as a taken-for-granted, internalised background. It may no longer be a largely unconscious sacralised background understanding of the nation.
The signs of this change could already be seen from the increased sarcastic deployment of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ (e.g., ‘are we really a 100% Muslim nation?’), especially by Islamists to decry the alleged failure of officials to make the society ‘Islamic enough’.
If this is so, there is not only de-secularisation. There is a sort of ‘secularisation’ taking place too. This is a secularisation of the imagined community, of the taken-for-granted national consciousness. Ironically, reflexive re-Islamisation is driving this secularisation.
Now, why does this matter? Here is one reason why it matters.
Freedom of religion
This sort of secularisation of the national consciousness seems to be a condition of effective religious liberty. Even if political secularism was to be enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of religion might not be effective without this sort of secularisation of the ‘imagined community’.
The poignant suicide of a young man, possibly because he felt he betrayed his ‘comrades-in-identity’ (i.e. the rest of us Muslims) is a case in point. His desperate email is telling: ‘Maldivians are proud of their religious homogeneity and I am learning the hard way that there is no place for non-Muslim Maldivians in this society.’
One cannot only legally be non-Muslim; but more importantly such a person may be dismissed as unworthy. If this is so, political secularism itself may not be a sufficient condition of liberty without secularisation now seemingly driven by reflexive re-Islamisation. (Here then is also a lesson for the arrogant global (i.e. the US) project of bringing freedom of religion to the world.)
Awareness of the Other
If the above interpretation is correct, we could increasingly experience these phenomena:
i) Through objectification of the taken-for-granted national consciousness, an increased awareness of the existence of some fellow Maldivians with different worldviews and faiths.
ii) Through a process of de-secularisation of the actual community, intense reflexive and political bulwarks (especially by Islamists) against this cross-pressured awareness.
I think both of these things are taking place.
Political Reconciliation of the Cross-Pressure
How we finally politically reconcile this awareness is the ultimate condition of the possibility or impossibility for democracy – and therefore equality, liberty, fraternity – in this over two-millennia-old country.
This is not a place for advocacy. But for this political reconciliation, a necessary, but not sufficient, condition is a dose of humility from the full political and social spectrum.
As a colleague at the government once pointed out, as a first step, the government needs to get over with its ‘hubris’ of going it alone.
Azim Zahir has a BA in Philosophy and Politics and is completing his MA degree at the University of Sydney.
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