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Home  Worldwide  Bangladesh  January, 2004  Bangladesh’s stillborn secularism...
Bangladesh’s stillborn secularism, its burial and the aftermath

New Age, Bangladesh
Dhaka, Wednesday, January 14, 2004


Bangladesh’s stillborn secularism, its burial and the aftermath

It remains a fundamental task for the truly democratic groups and individuals, committed to equal rights of all citizens, to uphold the struggle for a secular democratic state in Bangladesh, which will not have the right to degrade any citizen on the basis of his/her personal faith — let alone issuing any fatwa as to who is a Muslim and who is not, writes Nurul Kabir
   Those who treasure the concept of citizens’ democratic freedom, justice and human rights are bound to find, without fail, the recent government ban on ‘all kinds of publication, sale, distribution and retention of all books and booklets on Islam published by the Ahmadiya Muslim Jamaat’ an undemocratic act that clearly infringes on the fundamental right to freedom of expression of a whole community on the one hand, and its right to peacefully practice and preach religious faith on the other.    And many, especially the left-leaning and liberal democratic organisations and individuals, have registered protests against the government’s undemocratic action that stemmed from the explicit pressure mounted by the ruling BNP’s fundamentalist political partners.    But this undemocratic action needs to be looked at from another point of view — from the point of view of the infringement of the political ideology of democracy that refuses to allow any State, or a government running the affairs of a state for that matter, to have a say on its citizens’ right to practice and preach any religious faith as well as its citizens’ philosophical views of the religion/s — positive or negative.    Evolved in Europe through years of political struggles, the concept of democracy, classical democracy that is, is inherently secular. It could not have been different either, as the rising bourgeoisie in 17th and 18th century Europe who preached democracy at the political level, had to secure political power by defeating the feudal kings who used ‘divine authority’, emanating from the Bible, to rule people.    “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God/Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation/For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil/Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power?…For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vein: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil,” reads a letter of the Biblical Saint Paul to the Romans.    Clearly, Saint Paul wanted people to accept that there could be no power without God’s desire, and that resisting power amounts to rebellion against God’s order, which is bound to attract God’s wrath, and that the ruler is ‘minister of God’, while he holds ‘sword’ to revenge against those attracting God’s wrath by denying the authority of any rulers who is the representative of God on earth.    It was not for no reason that a papal dignitary had warned a 16th century French King: “If you wish to preserve your sovereign rights intact, if you wish to keep the nations submitted to you in tranquillity, manfully defend the Catholic faith, and subdue all its enemies by your arms.”    It was, therefore, only obvious that the classical bourgeois had to fight the feudal kings along with their Bible — the source of the kings’ ‘spiritual legitimacy’ to politically rule a people. And while doing so, they rightly defined democracy as a system of governance by the elected representatives of people, and that too on the basis of a Constitution embodying the ‘general will’ of the people. They rightly did away with the idea of any involvement of divine God or religion in running the earthly affairs of the State.    The bourgeoisie’s political anger against the theory of divine representatives of God on earth was manifested clearly after they had accomplished the historic French revolution. The French bourgeoisie, by the decree of its legislative assembly in 1793, declared that there was no God. They, however, ‘rescinded the decree three years and a half later and granted toleration to the scriptures’, but they did not allow any religion to play any role in running the affairs of the State. In other words, they did not grant the state any authority to have any say on the individual citizen’s religious faith/s. And this is what became known as democratic secularism.    Bangladesh did not accomplish a French Revolution in securing the emergence of a ‘nation state’ through an armed struggle against the Pakistani occupation forces in 1971. Still, there was an underlying aspiration of the people of the day to have a secular democratic state, primarily because the neo-colonial Pakistani ruling class used to undermine/demolish/crush the Bengalis’ genuine aspirations for social, cultural, political and economic autonomy in the name of religion. The Pakistani rulers hardly left any scope to brand/project any movement against political, cultural and economic exploitation of the Bengalis by then ruling elite, as a conspiracy against Islam. Naturally, the Bengalis, who had once actively supported the idea of dividing the sub-continent on the basis of religion, were fed up with mixing religion with politics. Besides, a large section of those who politically organised democratic movements of the time were committed to leftist ideologies that never endorsed the idea of the State approving or denouncing any religious faith, but always defended the right to practice the faith/s at the personal level.    However, the people’s aspiration for a secular democracy found expression, apparently, in the Constitution of the newly emerged state called People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1972. It rightly proclaimed ‘secularism’ as a ‘fundamental principle’ of the State and prohibited any political party based on religious ideals.    “…no person shall have the right to form or be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of, any communal or other association or union which in the name or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues, a political purpose,” said the ‘proviso’ of Article 38 of the Constitution.    But still, it was a false dawn. Because, while running the affairs of the state, the rulers of the day, Awami League, introduced instead a multi-theocracy in the name of secularism.    To give a couple of examples, the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman adopted, as Prof. Maniruzzaman points out, “the policy of equal opportunity of all religions and ordered citations from the holy books of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity at the start of the broadcasts by the State Radio and Television.”
   Besides, the government of Awami League failed to ensure ‘separation of religion from [public] education’, which was initially recommended by the first education commission, headed by Dr. Kudrat-e-Khuda. The commission’s primary report said, “Instead of creating blind allegiance to the external aspects and formal rituals of religion, the curricula and text books should inculcate in the students a refined and well integrated system of secular ethics to produce a new generation of citizens for secular Bangladesh.”
   But it did not really happen. The government retained the kind of religious syllabi for the Muslim students in the primary and secondary education that was originally adopted by the Pakistani rulers to perpetuate Islamic political hegemony in the society. It also made sure that the religions of other communities are taught in the classrooms.
   Also, the so-called secular State under the governance of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman continued to financially sponsor hundreds of madrassahs — the institutions that go on producing and reproducing a particular religious world-view, which is bound to ideologically strengthen, and perpetuate as well, a political culture devoid of secularism.
   It is to be noted here, that the provision of the US Constitution, which says that the ‘congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof’, is still officially ‘interpreted to forbid government endorsement of or aid to religious doctrine’.
   However, after the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government through a military putsch in 1975, the situation continued to deteriorate, especially as regards the state of secularism, as the State started constitutionally recognising the dominance of a particular religion — Islam.
   The government of Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed, who was once a close political associate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, took away from the Constitution, by a proclamation in 1976, the provision that prohibited use of religion for political purposes.
   Then came another proclamation in 1977 that replaced secularism as a fundamental principle of the State with ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ and announced that ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions’ of the State. The same proclamation inserted Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar Rahim on the top of the Constitution. And all these paradigm shifts were ‘ratified’ by the erstwhile parliament in 1979, with Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman at the helm of the state machinery.
   These changes found adequate expression in the entire education system as well. The new Committee on Curricula and Syllabi stated in one of its documents: “Islam is a complete code of life, not just a sum of rituals. A Muslim has to live his personal, social, economic and international life in accordance with Islam from childhood to death. So acquiring knowledge of Islam is compulsory for all Muslim men and women.”
   It was under Ziaur Rahman’s regime that Bangladesh started getting the identity, the world over, of being a Muslim state, instead of a secular one, which was an aspiration during the war of independence Zia himself fought.
   And then, it was the regime of Lieutenant General H.M. Ershad that completed the burial of secularism, if there was any. He got the Constitution amended in 1998 to declare that ‘the state religion of the Republic is Islam …’.
   The undemocratic action, one has to admit, is a logical consequence of the series political-ideological mission the country’s bourgeoisie —visibly of much inferior quality, compared to their classical predecessor — undertook, with a distorted definition of secularism, immediately after the emergence of the State.
   The Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, still occasionally claims that the party is committed to secularism, while a section of the ruling intelligentia occasionally argues the case in favour of the party. In such cases, people need to note that the AL in its last electoral manifesto, in 2001, pledged that the party, if returned to power, ‘will not get any law enacted, which will be inconsistent with the dictates of Quran and Hadith’.
   Again, it is Sheikh Hasina who reportedly told a group of Sufis on September 11 last year: “The BNP-Jamaat came to power in the name of religion but they have so far displayed serious ignorance to Islam. It is an irony that the Awami League was branded as an anti-Islamic party, although my government worked tirelessly to establish the religion in the country.”
   It is under these political circumstances that the fundamentalist forces like Islami Oikkya Jote and Jamaat-e-Islami have raised the demand that the State ban all literatures published by the minority religious sect and declare the members of the Ahamadiya community non-Muslims. The government of Khaleda Zia, the manager of the undemocratic statecraft in other words, has met the first demand on January 8, while its fundamentalist partners are expecting that their second demand will also be met in due course of time.
   Khaleda’s administration may or may not concede to its fundamentalist partners’ second demand, but one needs to seriously understand the inherent fascistic political values behind such proposals. And reading about Moulana Abu Ala Moududi, the erstwhile chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan, can help us understand the situation.
   Moududi, according to an article printed in the Karachi-based Dawn in August 2003, told the Justice Munir Comission that debated the Ahmadiya issue in Pakistan, that the “Non-Muslims in Islamic Pakistan should be declared zimmis”. Asked about Muslims in non-Islamic states, namely India, Moududi reportedly replied: “I should have no objection even if the Muslims of India are treated in that form of government as shudras and malishes (sic) and Manu’s laws are applied to them, depriving them of all share in the government and the rights of a citizen.”
   Moududi simply echoed the words of Guru Golwalker, leader of the Hindu fundamentalist Rastriya Sevak Sangha of India, who reportedly wrote a few years earlier that Indian Muslims be “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatments, not even citizen’s rights”.
   And this is what religious fundamentalism is all about — be it Muslim, Hindu or Christian. So it remains a fundamental task for the truly democratic groups and individuals, committed to equal rights of all citizens, to uphold the struggle for a secular democratic state in Bangladesh, which will not have the right to degrade any citizen on the basis of his/her personal faith — let alone issuing any fatwa as to who is a Muslim and who is not.

   The writer is Deputy Editor, New Age

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