In defense of secularism
SECULARISM remains as an enigmatic concept in our national politics. Progressive politicians are yet to be successful in establishing it as a principle of governance. The last several years have been tough for them, and they were on the run because of the emergence of a radical right wing. Many progressive politicians would be happy to see secularism remain as a non-issue in the upcoming election.
Unfortunately, they will have to face it. During every general election it became an issue. I can share the example of one election with you when I, as a journalist at the time, intensively covered election processes. It was during the 1996 parliamentary election when I traveled across the country to know how common people would see the election, who they would prefer for their votes, and what they would expect to see after the election.
During that election, one party was subject to a smear campaign that if the party would be voted to power, we would hear ululation from the mosques instead of azans, since the party holds secularism as one of its principles. Many elderly Muslims in rural areas asked me about this for clarification.
In our country, ululation is a Hindu ritual. Muslims never did it as a practice. But in Arab countries, women, irrespective of religion, ululate to celebrate a wedding, to express grief over a death, and to show honour to a respected person. In East Africa, women at some orthodox churches ululate to call people for prayer. Ululation is not a Hindu religious practice; rather it is a cultural act performed mainly by the Arabs.
The AL could undo the smear campaign at that time because people were fed up with BNP rule. Of course, during AL's tenure we did not hear any ululation. Nobody really expected to. People understood that it was a ploy to scare voters away from the AL. The AL may encounter this propaganda again as we are approaching to a general election at the end of this month. One hopes that the four-party alliance will not bring this issue back to challenge secularism.
Since the mid-1970s, the right wing politicians hijacked the idea of secularism and defamed it as something anti-religious and anti-Islam to establish their political legacy, stoking people's fear of losing their religious rights, and became somewhat successful. General Ershad's declaration of Islam as the state religion and the rule of the four-party alliance have weakened the foundation of secularism in the country. Religious fundamentalists are now pushing for enacting laws to protect religious fanaticism. Having the goal to enact blasphemy laws in the election manifesto is one example of that.
It is necessary to re-discover secularism. Secularism is neither anti-religious nor anti-Islamic. Secularism means that the government of a country should not carry out its day-to-day jobs adhering to any religious texts. Religion is for people to practice for their spiritual development, if they want. Inherent in the idea of secularism is the plurality of religion and tolerance.
In a country, people of multiple religions exist. If the country is run by the texts of a particular religion, people from other religions will find it discriminating against them. The duty of a democratic country is to establish justice and equality and ensure the protection of the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups.
Bangladesh is a unique country in terms of its birth. It was created as a result of a language-based nationalism, not based on any religion. Adhering to this fact, the founding figures outlined secularism as one of the principles of state organisation.
The military dictators, who ruled the country after the murder of the founding father, initiated the exploitation of religion for their political purposes. But one thing Bangladeshi people demonstrated time and again is that they are deeply religious, but they do not tolerate religious fanaticism in any form or shape.
In the 1960s people stood against Mawdudi's orthodox interpretation of Islam. In recent years, people have rallied against religious fanatics like the so-called Bangla Bhai, the leader of a religious vigilante group who faced capital punishment. People are aware that the so-called Islamic parties invoke the religion for their political gains.
It is not only Muslim fundamentalists who hate secularism and use religion for political gains, but the Hindu, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalists also do the same. Secularism emerged as a political principle as a result of people's upheaval against Christian churches across 19th century Europe.
We can keep faith on the awareness of our people, but hardly can sit idle if we want to regain secularism. Muslim fundamentalists have gained strength and have got organised and are working round the clock to cajole people in the name of religion. Pakistan lends us a great lesson here.
Once Pakistan had a vibrant progressive force, but the country began to be dominated by fundamentalists with the patronage of President General Ziaul Haque in the early 1980s, who, with Middle Eastern money and US support, trained various Islamic groups to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now not only Pakistan but also the whole South Asia including Bangladesh and India is now under threat from religious radicals.
The government which we hope to elect through the upcoming parliamentary election should initiate a tripartite move involving India and Pakistan against religious extremism. Our government's role may be critical in this move since we have an opportunity to emerge as a mediating force between India and Pakistan if we can have an independent stand without moving toward any one of them. I believe most Bangladeshis would like to see the country emerge as a key player of peace in the increasingly volatile South Asia.