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The secular conundrum in Bangladesh

Shahbag protests: Bangladesh has a lively political culture of popular protests, led by students of the country Photograph: (Others)

WION Dhaka, Dhaka Division, Bangladesh Mar 30, 2017, 09.05 AM (IST) Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury

 

Making secularism popular isn’t an easy thing in a Muslim majority country. Bangladesh is one of the very few countries in the Islamic world where secularism is a fundamental principle of the state along with nationalism, democracy and socialism. This is in spite of the fact that Islam is mentioned in the constitution as the state religion - a legacy of obnoxious tempering of the document during the military rule. 

But Bangladesh has a troubled history with secularism. 

Secularists are often mocked, demonised and even persecuted as anti-Islam in Bangladesh. Islamists of various sorts call them the stooges of the West and India. The word ‘secular’ is increasingly being used in a derogatory tone. 

Any reformist articulations or a bold voice of dissent is often judged as either unIslamic or blasphemous to Islam
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In the current situation, Liberals aren’t entirely free to express their views; any reformist articulations or a bold voice of dissent is often judged as either unIslamic or blasphemous to Islam. Zealous defenders of Islam have often stifled critical voices by coercion, physical assault and even killing. The recent killings of several atheists or rationalist bloggers is a case in point. Cultural activities are also under the radar of these political and social Islamists. People are often forced into self-censorship, hampering their creativity in the process. 

Beyond the individuals, Islamists are pressuring the government too. The famous month-long Ekushe Book Fair, held every year in the month of February in Dhaka university area, has for the first time seen severe restrictions. There were checking and confiscation of books in the fair on the basis of alleged blasphemous or objectionable content. 

In another instance, Islamists are demanding the removal of the statue of Greek goddess Themis, the symbol of law and fairness, from in front of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. What is even more frightening is that Islamists are demanding, in imitation of Pakistan, the introduction of the Blasphemy law in Bangladesh. They have also openly objected to the appointment of a highly capable judge as the Chief Justice of Bangladesh on the ground that he is a non-Muslim. 

 

Giving in to the fundamentalist pressure, the government recently removed some prose and poetry written by non-Muslim writers from the textbooks
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Giving in to the fundamentalist pressure, the government recently removed some prose and poetry written by non-Muslim writers from the textbooks, replacing these by the ones written by Muslims writers and poets. Government couldn’t reign in the Quaomi madrassas either. These Islamic seminaries are well-known for rejecting any element of a modern curriculum. Numbering several thousand, these madrassas have become fertile breeding centers of Islamic radicalism. 

Unfortunately, a lot of things are happening in Bangladesh now which is in stark contrast with secular ideals. With the hope of maintaining stability, the ruling party of Bangladesh has adopted the policy of appeasement, balancing the disparate social and political elements of the country. Though the party in power has secularism explicitly mentioned in its own constitution, however, in the interest of realpolitik, it appears to have shed the principle, temporarily or for good is for time to tell. Then there is always the dangerous possibility of this balancing act going out of hand.  

The first constitution of the country was the outcome of a momentous and revolutionary series of events, starting from the language movement of 1952  and ending with the war of independence in 1971. It has been a long political struggle to ensure rights and freedom for people of this land. The first constitution incorporated modern secular principles, one which banned religion-based politics too.

 

The Bangladeshi freedom fighters resorted to a new secular Bengali identity in contrast to clichés of Islamic identity of Pakistan
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Political and social use of ‘Islam’ became a tool of oppression for the Pakistani administration in the then East Pakistan and the popular political mobilisations gradually scrapped it from their narratives. The Bangladeshi freedom fighters resorted to a new secular Bengali identity in contrast to clichés of Islamic identity of Pakistan. It was possible due to the bold and fresh political and socio-cultural leadership in the face of repressive state power. 

The modern secular stream of ideas that Bangladesh embraced was, however, temporary in nature. In the years after 1975, the military rulers used the social basis of Islam, expanding it further to legitimise their illegal usurpation of power. It was quite like a replication of what Ziaul Haq did in Pakistan. The unleashed evil of Islamism has already engulfed Pakistan, and in Bangladesh, it is becoming increasingly hard to contain the same.

President Ziaur Rahman even inserted ‘Faith in one Almighty Allah’ in the constitution of Bangladesh, thereby, theoretically imposing Islam on the non-Muslim Bangladeshis. This regressive insertion was, however, scrapped by the Supreme Court much later on the ground that it was unconstitutionally inserted. However, Islamists gained a massive audacity between 1975 and 1996 which included formal rehabilitation of political Islam. 

Socially, the clerics and the mosques have started claiming more and more sway in public affairs, public space and in local as well as political discourses. Sadly, Islamism is increasingly engulfing members of urban middle-class families too. And, the Internet, religious tv channels and easy availability of incendiary religious texts have a big role to play in the matter.

 

An alternative term for secularism, namely, ‘ non-communalism’ is being popularised in Bangladesh
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However, unlike few other parts of the Islamic world, all is not doom and gloom in Bangladesh. The political party in power, due to their long secular tradition, is unlikely to give in to Islamism despite walking a tightrope now. Already, an alternative term for secularism, namely, ‘ non-communalism’ is being popularised in Bangladesh with the hope of avoiding the debate over secularism’s western origin. 

Whatever is the name, it’s imperative for Bangladesh to hold on to secularism in one form or the other to be able to remain a modern nation and be on the path of gradual progression. Or else, an implosion of society or degeneration to a theocracy can’t be ruled out. Some hope lies in the thriving of secular media, in the vigour shown by the intelligentsia and the strong resistance put forth by sections of the public alongside secular political forces.  

Secularism saves the state, civil society and free-thinking individuals from being usurped by religious faith, which ideally ought to be a private matter. What is needed to salvage secularism is a sound counter-radicalisation strategy, detailed schemes and effective execution of the same. The coming years might decide the final fate of secularism in Bangladesh.

 

 

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is Head of Operations at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Bangladesh.

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