Friday, November 6, 2015

Why Has Bangladesh Sounded the Death Knell for Secularism?

By Shuprova Tasneem
November 6, 2015
Another death of a secular activist -- only this time, not a person writing secular books or blog posts, but responsible for publishing them. Another cycle of outrage, of papers splattered with pictures of grieving family members and insensitive politicians’ remarks.
Promises of apprehending the murderers, despair from families still waiting for justice, protests from concerned citizens. For anyone watching the same thing happen over and over again, with Dipan’s death being the fifth in this year alone, an obvious question comes to mind -- how did it get to this?
Political parties slowly destroying our secular roots
When Bangladesh was established as a free nation in 1971, it was based on secularism, the first nation in South Asia to do so. Our country was based on the idea of cultural identity over religious identity, with a focus on language and traditions.
Given the brutal riots in 1947 and the overt use of Muslim rhetoric by Pakistan to oppress Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), it’s no surprise that the freedom movement of 1971 was based on secular ideologies.
The fiery rhetoric of liberation, which included the slogan “Bangla’s Hindu, Bangla’s Christian, Bangla’s Buddhist, and Bangla’s Muslim -- we are all Bengali” reflects the mood of the time -- the creation of a nation of communal equality based on a non-religious notion of nationalism, but where all religions can be practiced without fear.
Sadly, we have let these lofty ideals trickle out of our state ideology. It started as early as 1975, when Ziaur Rahman amended the constitution by the Fifth Amendment and deleted secularism from the equation, creating Islam as one of the dominant state ideologies. In 1982, General Ershad also used Islamic rhetoric to gain public support, amending the constitution and making Islam the state religion.
Ever since the emergence of a democratic regime in Bangladesh, both Awami League and BNP have put forward the image of their party heads as moderate Muslim leaders. In the last few general elections, we have seen the political parties allying with Islamic parties to garner public support, including the much criticised BNP-Jamaat alliance.
The political parties’ mad rush to ally with Islamic parties and prove their Muslim identities can seem quite strange, especially when, in 2008, Jamaat got only two seats out of the 38 they contested for. Even though we are a Muslim majority country, the people clearly don’t vote for Islamic parties, so why are they so keen on them?
Although the AL has attempted to hold on to the secular image of its forefathers, the government’s worrying stance on not hurting religious sentiments, rather than condemning the recent attacks, hardly adds to their credibility.
Our shift away from secularism
Post 9/11, the political ideology of the world has shifted from the communist-capitalist rhetoric to a more complex weave of ideas -- one that has put the spotlight on a political Islam.
The growing clash of nations and Islamophobia on the world stage has created two distinct situations -- one where the West, in an effort to stem the tide of extremist religious ideologies, has taken to supporting “moderate Muslim” countries and have specifically identified Bangladesh as being so; the other being that the War on Terror and innocent loss of Muslim lives have made Muslims all over the world identify more strongly with their religion, including in Bangladesh.
Additionally, countries like Saudi Arabia (or rather, royal families of said countries) have used their oil wealth to put forward ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideologies in accordance with their national interests.
This changing political landscape has led to growing distrust of Western concepts of secularism, which has been viewed as an ideology that does not only disassociate religion from state affairs, but attempts to reduce its influence in our private lives as well. “Atheism” is almost a dirty word to most people in this country, but misinterpretations of secularism are slowly pushing it in the same direction.
It is also widely believed that the Saudis fund religious parties, non-governmental organisations, and madrasas in Bangladesh, thus propagating a version of Islam that is a lot more conservative than it used to be. The political parties, instead of attempting to refute this view, have only capitalised on the sentiments of citizens in order to increase their vote banks.
Our glaring failures
This leads us to the next question -- why have we allowed this to happen? We live in a time when political parties all over the world are more focused on presenting an image of themselves that they think the voters want to see, rather than sticking to a certain code of belief, where catch-all-parties win over ones that adhere to a specific ideology.
In this age of globalisation and growing commercialisation, we have welcomed funds from the Middle East, and have done very little to stem or at least regulate the flow of oil money that has flown into madrasas, NGOs, etc in order to radicalise a once-secular population. Of course, there is no point in blaming outside influences only -- we have, with a classic lack of forethought, seen the warning signs and done nothing.
It is high time that we begin to properly regulate our system of education. We have no idea what is being taught in the Qawmi madrasas in Bangladesh, since the Bangladesh Qawmi Madrasa Education Board (Befaq) refuses to come under the government curriculum.
There has already been enough discussion on how students who study in these institutions mainly get a religious education, and it is extremely difficult for them to move on to higher education.
It is not only education in madrasas, but the entire government curriculum needs to have room for education that teaches us about religion and also our culture, traditions, and secular values.
And when teaching the future generations about religion, we need to ensure that students have the option of studying different religions, and that when studying Islam, they are able to properly understand it. Another major problem in our country is our complete inability to discuss issues that might be sensitive -- I’m not even talking about homosexuality and alcohol, but things like the relevance of the hijab from the Qur’an, the Islamic concept of “ijtihad” (independent reasoning), Islamic law in the modern world, etc.
On the other hand, these are all issues that are openly debated in Muslim majority countries like Egypt and Malaysia, and often from Muslim clerics themselves.
It is naive to assume that education can solve all our problems, but proper religious education is something we must focus on immediately. A lot of people who are devout Muslims and completely against the recent barbaric acts will say religion is a private matter, and there is no point in discussing it in the public sphere.
This view is admirable but misplaced. We do need to talk about religion, and we need to clear up all the misconceptions around it that have been established through decades of distortion.
Right now, it is only poorly educated Islamic clerics who create and influence the discourse on Islam. We need to take that power away from them, and the government has to stop trying to appease all the forces that be, put its foot down, and bring back secularism into our politics. Without this, we are headed for dark days indeed.

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