Secularism Didn’t Reflect Our Social Spirit


   Written By Tusher Abdullah

MNA Editorial Desk: Assuming power with three-fourths majority in 2008 general elections, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government revived secularism as one of the state principle in 2011, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2009. But it kept the provision of state religion untouched, due to sensitivity of the issue and out of fear of losing votes. Minorities have opposed this decision ever since.

In addition to the attacks on secularism from the usual suspects that is, those who want Bangladesh to be an Islamic theocracy and believe that it is the secular character of the state that is the root of all our ills secularism has also come under an intellectual assault of late from scholars and social scientists.

Here I want to revolve around the effectiveness of secularism as an ideology imposed on post-colonial societies as part and parcel of the contested discourse of modernization and westernization, and impossible to divorce from the power relations inherent to such an understanding.

In short, secularism is now no longer considered an unalloyed good by the liberal intelligentsia. It seems to me that much of the current discourse surrounding secularism is a semantic one, and that much depends on how we define our terms.

secularismSecularism: In Bangladeshi Context

First, therefore, it is necessary to define exactly what we mean by secularism in the Bangladeshi context and to fully appreciate the difference between secularism and secularization.

—    If I understand properly, secularization refers to the demotion of religion to the private sphere and the ultimate decline of religion’s influence in society, and secularization theory holds that secular government policy will unavoidably lead to secularization in society, and that secularization is a desirable social outcome that is indispensible to the transformation of a society from a traditional one to a modern one.

But I am not sure that secularisation was ever the project of secularism as a government policy in Bangladesh. In short, it seems to me that one can have secularism without wishing for secularisation to be the eventual or even the desired outcome.

Perhaps the best way to understand it is to return to how the word is rendered in Bangla in the Bangladeshi Constitution. It was National Professor Anisuzzaman who translated the original English text, and the word he chose was “dhormo niropekhota” which translated back into English means religious neutrality.

It was an inspired choice, and, I believe, gets to the heart of secularism as it is understood by Bangladeshis and as it was intended as a guiding principle for our nation. It does not relegate religion to unimportance or seek the diminution of religion as a part of life as a goal. The scholarly definition of secularism that best tracks with the original Bangladeshi understanding of the term is perhaps offered by Jose Casanova as:

“some principle of separation between religious and political authority, either for the sake of the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis each and all religions, or for the sake of protecting the freedom of conscience of each individual, or for the sake of facilitating the equal access of all citizens, religious as well as non-religious, to democratic participation. Such a statecraft doctrine neither presupposes nor needs to entail any substantive ‘theory,’ positive or negative, of ‘religion.”

It seems to me that the above definition captures it perfectly. Bangladesh cannot wait for our society to secularize before establishing secularism as a principle of statecraft, nor indeed is the secularisation of society even desirable or a goal of secularism. Nor, it is clear, under this definition, is there any connection between secularism and atheism or hostility to or disrespect for or dismissal of religion and religious faith and religious thought.

Secularism in Our Constitution

Secularism is one of the four fundamental principles that had been induced into the original Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972. The secularism principle was removed from the constitution in 1977 by the 5th amendment of the constitution by Ziaur Rahman and also declared Islam as the state religion in 1988 by Muhammad Ershad. In 2010, Bangladesh Supreme Court declared the 5th amendment illegal and restored secularism as one of the basic tenets of the Constitution.

At present the Constitution of Bangladesh declares Secularism as one of the four fundamental principle of the state policy in Article-8 of Part-II and also declares Islam as the state religion in Article-2A of Part-I. In Article 12 of Part -II of the constitution which was restored by the 15th amendment states –

The principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of –

  • Communalism in all forms;
  • The granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion;
  • The abuse of religion for political purposes;
  • Any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.

Secularism & Our Social Spirit

Bangladesh is functionally a Muslim country, even if its Constitution pays lip service to secularism. No country can be truly secular if it has a state religion.

The original Constitution of Bangladesh, written in 1972, enshrined secularism as one of the four pillars of the newly-formed People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and defined the word “Bengali” as a demonym for its citizens.

There are certain things we don’t feel comfortable about talking. You might have your favorite (or least) favorite topic. But there are some topics that got tabooed by society, some by law and some by political partisanship.

Religion is a topic that is discussed widely but never dissected openly to show the relevance to our society, or to the country. To understand the role of religion as a standard identity criterion of the country, we should look and start talking about it before it’s too late.

Many people might differ, but I don’t think Bangali as a race was secular at any point. We might have been more religious tolerant then other parts of Indian Subcontinent but I don’t think that counts as secularity.

Under the British rule we had Hindu Jamindars in Muslim majority areas and vice versa, so Jamindars don’t feel bad to squeeze for tax and fear of the peasants don’t turn into loyalty. The British played the religion card better than any of our rulers. I don’t want to indulge in a history lesson but when Banga-Bhanga happened, many identified the support and oppose of it on religious lines.

secularismReligious Nationalism: As our foundation

If there is any separation of the temporal and the spiritual in South Asia, it doesn’t manifest very much in our statecraft. Indeed, the very foundations of our respective statehoods are religiously motivated, and while this may be less obvious in Bangladesh after 1971, our existence as East Pakistan are a testament to the fact that religious nationalism is a potent force in sub-continental political organization.

Even when it isn’t institutionalized, its psychological hold can be overpowering enough to lead to things like say, Muhammed Ali Jinnah being denied his legitimate right to become prime minister of India in 1947 solely because of his religion.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, a wave of Islamization swept over the country. The political forces which had been opposed to the Liberation from Pakistan regrouped under the banner of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islaami, Jamaat Shibir and other groups.

Weak governance under Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the consequent civil unrest propelled General Ziaur Rahman to power in a military coup in 1975. By 1977, after a series of additional coups and counter-coups, he became head of the armed forces, and eventually became President. In 1978, Rahman and others founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which espoused an ideology of Islamism and Bangladeshi nationalism (as opposed to the secular Bengali nationalism of the Constitution).

In 1977, the principle of secularism was removed from the Constitution through the 5th Amendment, as were references to freedom of religion for minorities, and was replaced with the statement: “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”. In 1988, the government of Muhammad Ershad passed the National Religion Bill in the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban (Parliament of Bangladesh), declaring Islam as the state religion.

Political leaders cannot appear too divorced from their religious backgrounds and religious leaders are close enough to politics to influence debates that surround the passing of laws.

But in spite of all this and against numerous odds, at least one country in the region still flies its secular colours high, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t India, its Bangladesh. But I don’t know how far it will be able to hold its secular characteristics with full social spirit.

Secularism with a State Religion

In democratic country secularism having a state religion can’t exist side by side. It is contradictory and conflicting. In a modern democratic country, the state is for all, but religion is an individual matter. So a state religion goes against this spirit.

No democratic government has dared revoke the state religion provision in the charter fearing a political backlash. The fear of losing an election over this issue is unfounded. Keeping Islam as the state religion never increases the vote for secular parties like the Awami League.

The constitution is like a sacred document, like a Bible to a nation. But it should not deliver mixed messages to people. Declaring secularism and having a state religion are in conflict with each other.

If the constitution acknowledges all religions and people of all faiths equally, the state religion provision should go. Otherwise, it grants special status to Islam over other religions.

In 2005, the High Court of Bangladesh ruled that the 5th Amendment (1977) was illegal and unconstitutional, and restored a constitution “in the spirit of the constitution of 1972”, which restored secularism as a key principle, but which retained some of the language introduced in 1977 and 1997, namely “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah” (1977) and ‘bismillah-ar-rahman-ar rahim’ (1997).

In 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the 2005 decision of the High Court, but some of the changes from 1977, as well as the 1997 insertion, still remain. The Court also decided to let Islam remain as the state religion.

In August 2015, a petition was filed in the High Court challenging the constitutional provision of Islam as the state religion in light of the constitution’s commitment to secularism, but in March 2016 the High Court rejected the petition and retained Islam as the state religion.

The government could have influenced the court’s decision as the court ruled in favor of the state religion provision because the government wants to keep it for political reasons. The court should have accepted the petition and showed its neutrality.

secularismSecularism threats religious minorities and Anti-Islamists

The Government efforts to improve freedom of religion and belief in the country and noted specific measures taken in favour of religious minorities who feel under pressure. We have already observed worrying trends towards compromising the principle of secularism, possibly with the intention of appeasing religious militants.

According to Bangladesh government 2011 census, the religious and ethnic minorities stood at 12.6 per cent. The Hindus are 10.5% (12.5 million), Christian (0.3%), Buddhist (0.6%) and other religious minorities (0.3%) in Bangladesh.

Hindus, mostly Bangla speaking is the biggest religious minority community and they are scattered all over the country. Similarly Christians are also scattered all over the country, except for the Buddhist population which largely concentrate in Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Patuakhali.

The measures established to preserve secularism seem to lead to the opposite result and to a shrinking of the very space that secularism – like democracy – is supposed to provide.

For instance, a number of official statements on the recent murders of online activists were ambiguous. While condemning the threats and acts of violence, Government representatives also admonished individuals expressing critical views on religion, asking them not to go ‘too far’ in their criticisms.

Besides, the murder of bloggers in the recent time proves that the secular concept of religion is not highly accepted by our whole society.

Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, Ananta Bijoy Das, Xulhaz Mannan, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Asif Mohiuddin and so on are the brutal victims of several attacks occurred by Islamic miscreants for their secular or personal beliefs.

Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, assailants in previous deadly assaults—including on journalists, minorities, and secular activists—have claimed links to ISIS. The government has, however, dismissed those links, saying ISIS does not operate in the country of more than 150 million people, more than 90 percent of whom are Muslim.

While trying to fight the instrumentalization of religions, the Government itself should also refrain from using religion to achieve political goals. I would like to call upon the State authorities to bring the existing norms and practices in line with everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression as enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

At the end of the above discussion I would like to say that, religion has been used as a tool by the political parties and politicians in Bangladesh to consolidate their power base. Retention of Islam as the ‘state religion’ and restoration of secularism at the same time cannot go together. So, the 15th amendment has been a mess. It is time that our elected representatives take cognizance of the fact that Bangladesh is not homogenous state rather it is a multi-national state, this reality ought to be incorporated into the Constitution. The society that we must practice is a culture of tolerance and religious respect towards each other.

The Bengali Muslims are ethnically Bengali but they are Muslims by religion. But when the Bengali culture cannot adapt to the Muslim reality then it becomes a problem for the Bengali Muslims. To some it becomes important to put the Bengali identity first and to some it becomes pertinent to put the Muslim identity first. This is why some prefer the 6th century Arab clothing to Bengali clothing and to some Rabindranath becomes god.

So we must think about secularism from a different perspective. We have to look for something else outside of the “Bengali culture” to unify the Bengali Muslims and Muslim Bengalis. The crisis of secularism can be solved if the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, all can come together as Bangladeshi citizens. We believe the solution is not in excluding one or the other but to embrace both identities.

Tusher Abdullah: Journalist and former student of Political Science (Dhaka University).


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