The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 4


I’ll never forget the bathroom incident, but it stretched back a little further. I think it was earlier by about a month, when all the students at our Academy were called for an assembly in the Auditorium. Absal, Salman and I sat near the center. I didn’t really talk to Salman. But Absal liked him and I was friends with Absal. Still, I didn’t trust Salman. He never seemed genuine to me. 

We laughed at the way people were sitting.

For the most part, guys were on one side, and girls on another. Some guys and girls sat together, but most sat apart. Maybe they were Islamists, we wondered. Maybe, I suggested, they were afraid of being considered liberals by the revolutionaries and feared being made into targets. "Or," Absal said, "Maybe they’re gay and like sitting with members of the same sex."

Salman ignored this and touched my shoulder: "See her over there? She’s really pretty."

Absal smiled: "Plus her parents are Hanafi. Aren’t your parents like mildly concerned with mazhab concerns?"(1)

"They don’t care. God I hope not. I mean, how stupid would that be?"

"Yeah," Absal agreed, "But lots of parents don’t care about religion but then make it a marriage factor. Don’t worry, we’ll get over that. Later it’ll be like ‘You can only marry her if her family is fiscally liberal but politically conservative’."

"That doesn’t make any sense Absal. Besides, if Hayy is attracted to her, that’s all that matters."

"I don’t want a girl."

I was sick of them speaking on my behalf. "I broke up with one a month ago and that was hard enough. Stop bringing it up, dammit."

"Hayy’s just mad," Absal suggested. Hayy was a strange name, I admit. Some of the Islamists — the smart ones — laughed when I was called that, and asked me what seven-year stage I was at, but I never figured them out.

Absal continued, "He’s mad because he still likes his old girl. And he’s attracted to this other girl. But you know with that concession passed last year, polygamy is legal again. You can get your ex back, and marry that other girl over there. Except if you do do that, the government will charge you extra in taxes and tag you. It was one of those pseudo-concessions."

"Leave him alone," Salman interrupted, taking my side for once.

"Maybe Hayy’s just gay," Absal wondered aloud. I was happy he pronounced my name without the hard Arabic ‘h’. Soon, however, I began to reflect over his comment and became angry again. 

The principal moved to the front of the stage. He motioned for everyone to be quiet. After introducing himself -- as if we didn’t know who he was -- he began to speak. This was a very important occasion, he told us. As if none of us realized we were all gathered here and made a great target. I could just see it now. One of the extreme radical lower-class Islamic groups, with a scary name, would blow up the privileged children of the uppermost class of the country and remove most of the literate population in one blast of dynamite and faith.

But back to the assembly. 

Apparently, our country had a new flag.

Um. Okay.

The principal dimmed the lights, and we watched a large banner fall, with one spotlight shining on it. There were some gasps. For the most part, deathly silence. I’m sure a lot of students smiled in the darkness. My friend Abdullah, who was a moderate cultural Muslim (they were very common, but not as common at the Academy) whispered: finally... Our flag was the same, except on the middle white stripe, the seal of the (deposed -- in the name of nationalism) Royal Family had been replaced by a stylized calligraphic icon that read, simply: Allah. (In Arabic, not our language.) But everybody knew what it said. And what it meant.

Absal leaned towards me. "Looks like another pseudo-concession."

"Now," the principal said, obviously trying to sound convinced of the wisdom of this decision, "We declare our identity as a Muslim nation. Now our flag bears the colors of our land, and the name of God, by whose blessing our great leader [great because he hasn’t lost an election in twenty years] rules and bestows justice and goodness. Our Republic is a Muslim Republic, as well as a Revolutionary one."

Of course by "revolutionary," he wasn’t referring to bold, fresh or promising. Rather, he referred to the stale ‘nationalist’ revolution that occurred in the name of removing Communism (basically, we watched the Communists become nationalists, and nothing changed. Not even the flag — until now. Maybe this was just a really slow revolution).

I hated the government inside. Enough of the Islamists. They were the only ones who thought. Plus, they were so common, as a force in society, that we had become accustomed to living alongside people who posited a universal vision completely at odds with our own. While being secular, we felt the anti-secularists to be part and parcel of the fabric of our nation. It was due to stagnation in the people. The rich, the secular and the democratic, they were slaves of the West. They had no pride in their culture, their architecture or their language.

We had no present, and no visible future.

Those who hated our past offered no vision for the future. Those who loved our past couldn’t deal with the uncertainty of the future. And the rest of the population? Well, I imagined most people were traditionally Muslim, meaning the Islamists had greater appeal to them — something that really pissed me off.

"This is crap," I vented. The anger in my voice rose. "We’re Muslims, we know that, so enough is enough."

I dared not say anything about the government in power (not that my heart held much love for it), but maybe being at the Academy isolated me. Was the Islamist movement really so powerful, or was the government trying to beat them at their own game, by saturating the environment with Islamic symbols? It was probably other revolutions, like Iran’s, or Turkey’s, that got the government jittery.  

A few weeks later we had one of our special classes, on politics -- in other words, on what politics is right (the Nationalist Revolution’s) and what politics is wrong (all other forms of politics. To know more about these wrong forms of politics, see also: ‘Forms of political organization that have succeeded’).

Though everyone was hesitant to speak at first, the atmosphere had provoked enough concern to bring people up to the task of airing some of their grievances. Not a practicing Muslim myself (having read about the Murji’i (2) movement, I decided to side with them), I too had been shaken by the flag ceremony.  

The teacher was programmed (....aren’t they all?).

"Class this is our flag. Show allegiance to it. It is the great symbol of our great3 people. This seal now complements the colors of the people, for which we had our great Revolution. Our great leader affirms his commitment to God."

Or to power, I thought — and nearly said aloud — but I caught myself. Pleased with my quick thinking, I broke into a smile. In response, a student across from me smiled back and whispered salam. I gave him a puzzled look, and he apparently took that to mean ‘what’s your name?’. From his bag he removed a piece of paper, scribbled on it (while the teacher droned on and on about the color of the leader’s uniform last week) and quickly held it up so I could see.

Khattab. His name was Khattab.

It sounded Salafi. He was a big guy, bigger than anyone in the class. Maybe he was overweight, but he looked like a gigantic soldier. His face was rough, as if he was permanently facing the effects of walking through a sandstorm. He looked at me as if he liked me. If Absal were paying attention, he’d say that was because he was gay and turned to Salafism to mask his insecurities. But it felt more like Khattab simply wanted to be friends with me. Oddly enough, I felt the same connection.

Within a minute, we were passing notes to each other and it looked damn suspicious. But I have to admit, something in me enjoyed the idea of being the rebel. I almost wanted to see the principal come in and call Khattab and I to his office. Maybe then the girls would be impressed. Everyone would think: Hayy? Of all people!

I realized that all this thinking had distracted me from the teacher, so I faced back in her direction, as she finished up her pre-prepared propaganda speech. (Hey, I just unintentionally used alliteration in prose!). 

"Now," the teacher said, "We are a country committed to God, with the people’s concerns being the primary goal of the Republic."

Yeah, I thought, that’ll get the Islamists to shut up. Was she an idiot?

Khattab raised his hand and wondered: "Are you an idiot?" 

Sometimes, I love Salafis.

I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. Abdullah wanted to laugh. Absal was burying his face in his hands. The class sat shocked, in silence. The teacher wasn’t accustomed to being addressed this way and simply didn’t know what to say. There was no motion for a minute or two. Khattab kept glaring at her. Was he an idiot, too?  

"This is nonsense," some girl announced from the back. By her Calvin Klein jacket, I was guessing she bought Calvin Klein clothing (say that three times fast). In addition, she was fine as hell. I didn’t lower my gaze.

She was very angry: "Dammit, Allah belongs in masjids, like imams."

One wonders how a concept that is infinite can confine itself to a mosque.

"Why don’t you worry about getting yourself to a masjid and forget about the imams?" Khattab asked.

If we could point to the exact time and place when the fundamentalist came out of the Islamist closet, that comment would definitely be Khattab’s moment. This was no time for political discussion however. I was mesmerized by this Calvin Klein girl. Her hair was a dark brown, but it shone in the light. Her skin was soft, but a bit too pale... I guessed she was from the south. As I stared, she looked over and caught me — it earned me a smile, so I counted myself lucky. But back to the matter at hand.

"Now... [the teacher searched for his name] Khattab..." the programmed teacher said, "Everyone has a right to their opinion."

"That’s true. Hers is wrong and mine is right." 

Sometimes I don’t love Salafis.  

Salman smiled: "I agree. After all, opinions are bid’a. Obviously his is right, and mine isn’t. We learned that in our Islamic Law class."

Khattab looked shocked. "What does bid’a have to do with anything?"

Good cover, Khattab -- now nobody suspects you of Islamism. But he kept going: "I was just trying to say, the whole flag idea is stupid. No Islamist is gonna be like ‘oh okay, we got our flag, that’s quite enough of our movement’. We need to take real, concrete steps to contain the threat."

Some students shook their heads in agreement. Others wondered why the teacher hadn’t punished Khattab for his words. A few wondered what bid’a was. One or two were asleep.

Suddenly inspired, I interrupted the discussion. "He’s right, you know... I mean, what is a flag going to do? We need to think about making political Islam un-attractive. Everybody knows secularism is the way to go, but not like this. This is defeatist."

"Now," the teacher warned, realizing we were getting close to the line, "Enough is enough. The decision has been made. Our leader does what is best for us."

I wouldn’t mind if the leader lost his wudu. We shut up and went on with the lesson of the day. Everyone seethed with anger, angry that we wanted to keep talking, learning and arguing, but of course, our society had no time for such improvement. If anything, the teacher’s entire speech and Khattab’s bitter remarks had done nothing to damage the Islamists. If anything, they seemed all the wiser. The government was interested only in making us listen; when we had something to add, it always fell on deaf ears.

Growing dissatisfaction with the political system had been channeled into a desperate attempt to culturally Westernize (among some). For others, it had sparked violence. For a large amount of the population, however, it meant anger -- anger looking for an outlet. We saw, through satellite television and the internet, what had happened in countries so close to us. We all saw the respect Iran got in the world arena, and the progress of Turkey economically, and all of this after their revolutions. Why didn’t our country ever use its brain?

Some students complained that the flag idea should have been brought up before it was suddenly forced on people. Most students complained, however, because they did not want so much Islamic identification -- especially the minority of non-Muslims. But no Muslims, secular or not, ever addressed their concerns. They could go find some other country, we figured, if they were really that afraid.  

The teacher tried to satisfy us with some harmless conversation on the same topic. Seeing as we were all wealthy and supportive of the government, she knew we wouldn’t be calling for revolution. In the middle of this, some very awkward student began to speak, sputtering sentence fragments and his breakfast in front of him.

"The problem’s not with Allah, it’s with Allahu Akbar."

"Problems are bid’a man," Absal said, winking at Khattab. "Just give us an Islamic Republic, so we can discuss innovation in an un-innovative environment."

I glared at Absal, feeling a weakness in my stomach. He was speaking as if he was by himself in the desert somewhere... but he was in the middle of the Academy! His tone, however, as well as his clothes (he looked like he dropped out of a European club) and his lifestyle confirmed that he clearly was not an Islamist. Still, I didn’t like the casual way he ridiculed Islamists or brought up their ideas. It was dangerous. It could get him in a lot of trouble. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was my best friend, I would’ve said something to him. Plus he was my ride home.  


1. Part of the beautiful flexibility of Islamic Law is that it contains several different 'schools of Law', or mazhab (mazahib is plural). These schools are based on the teachings of the four major Imams, the four biggest jurists of Islamic history, and are distributed each in certain areas of the Muslim world, though there is great overlap.

2. The Murji'i sect was a heretical sect that preached a separation between faith and good works. They held the view that one might believe strongly in Islam, yet not perform good actions. This, however, is contradicted by the Qur'an, which on numerous occasions refer to those people who "believe and do good deeds," thereby connecting the two. Islam says people can believe without acting on their beliefs, but this is a very weak and pathetic form of belief. Islam, like Judaism, is an orthopractic religion. It focuses more on conformity to a code of behavior than it does on strict theological and ideological formulations.

3. Apparently, the adjective 'great' describes a nation's ability to remain a depressed, backwards, third-rate, third-world non-entity, which is consistently ignored and insulted in the world arena.