The Crisis of Secularism in Bangladesh


By Mirza Galib

There is much dispute about whether ‘secularism’ should be the ultimate goal where we should try to reach as a nation. The word ‘dharmaniropekkhota’ in Bengali is a thematic translation of the English word secularism. The idea of ‘secularism’ was born in modern Europe through the division of power between Christian church and the state. But if ‘dharmaniropekkhota’ in Bengali means the same as ‘secularism’ in English needs to be determined. There are two main aspects of the debate relating to secularism in our country. One, how necessary is ‘secularism’ to build a non-sectarian society, and two, what is the place of religion in state affairs and politics. We will try to critique a few commonly accepted conceptions about ‘secularism’. In trying to define ‘secularism’ we will take assistance from a recent article by Salimullah Khan. The article is titled “The terrible consequence of sectarian politics”, published in the 25th issue of “Sharbajan: Muktijuddher Ditiya Parba” on 5th of March.

The literal meaning of ‘dharmaniropekkhota’ is being neutral on religion. If this meaning is to be used in personal and familial life then that will be tantamount to having no religion at all. But ‘dharmaniropekkhota’ as a political concept does not lead to a religion free personal life. Rather the concept of secularism as a political concept “works as a unifying platform for people of different faiths”. According to Salimullah Khan “Secularism means “there are more than one religion in this state, but there is only one state. Therefore, in conducting state affairs position on religion will be neutral. ……outside the sphere of the “national” and the “state” religion can have its place. The sphere of religion will encompass the personal and familial life of the individual.” In this article we will treat secularism as a political concept. We will not dismiss it as an anti religion concept. But at the same time we will try to evaluate it critically. We have a few reservations about the usefulness and application of ‘secularism’ as an ideology. An ideology in theory often has little in common with how it is implemented. An individual who practices religion in his personal life cannot possibly leave his religion when engaging in political and state affairs. This is why we see in the west religion ultimately found a way to coexist with the secular democracy. From the western experience of ‘secularism’ we have to ask the question that if Christianity has a place in European democracy then why Islam shouldn’t has its place in Bangladeshi democracy? The second problem we have is that if the state needs to be neutral on religion then why shouldn’t it be neutral on language or ethnicity on the same logic? The elite that are too sensitive about neutrality on the religion issue do not seem to think similarly about language and ethnicity. If there is no need for a language neutral state then why it is so important for the state to be neutral on religion? Third, we will try to examine how acceptable ‘secularism’ is from an Islamic perspective. This is an important question because if ‘secularism’ conflicts with the core beliefs of religion then it will not be possible to embrace ‘secularism’ without compromising religion. It has to be congruous with all religions. But we will only look into the Islamic position here.

1. I have been living in North American country for the past three years which is a secular democracy. But Christmas, Easter etc. are national holidays here. Yet Eid or any other religious holidays do not have the status of national holidays. Theoretically a secular state cannot celebrate any religious holidays. And if the national holiday is to celebrate the religious holiday of a religious majority then what kind of secularism is that? But this secular state sanctions financial aid for Catholic schools and universities. At the same time Muslims can build “Islamic schools” here, the type of school we call madrasa in our country. Clearly this state created a harmonious relationship with religion instead of ousting it from the national life. This character can be observed throughout the European secular states. The Church of England has a special place in the land where modern democracy was born. Religious leaders from the Church of England become member of the upper parliament house of England the House of Lords. The conflict between the church and state in the European history has, after passing the long road of history, ended up coexisting with each other. Even though the Church plays little role in politics yet the Christianity holds its place in the European identity. If we get out of the childish imagination that religion will disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow then we can learn a lot from the European experience. Instead of sending religion to exile we can walk in the road of democracy by incorporating the religious identity into our national and cultural identity.

2. The core principle of secularism is that different religions for different people but the state belongs to everyone. Since there are people of different religions in a state, therefore, all citizens must be equal to the state for it to be democratic and equitable. From this perspective no religion in particular should be treated differently than any other and state policies must not be dictated by any religion. The same principle applies to language as well. People of different languages live in a country. Therefore, if one language is given more importance than others then that will be discriminatory to the speakers of other languages. By making Bengali the state language and making Bengali nationalism a part of the constitution we have created a state that is not neutral on language and ethnicity. Why Bengali is the state language? Bengali is not the language of everyone living in this land. Is this because it is the language of the majority? Then what is the problem in making the religion of the majority the state religion? If we do not consider adopting Bengali nationalism in the constitution not sectarian then the question arises automatically that why a religious national identity is considered sectarian? If an ethnically Bengali majority country makes the Bengali culture and language parts of its identity then why the religion of the majority cannot be a part of their identity. The Bengali nationalist can say that even if we espouse Bengali nationalism we do not infringe the right of others and thus we are not sectarian. This is sound logic. But can’t we say the same about religious identity? If we can be united with other Bangladeshis as a Bengali then why we can’t be united with the non Muslims bearing a Muslim identity. Why we have to expel the religious identity from the national sphere? We agree with Salimullah Khan that “those who put their Muslim identity first and attack Hindus are the ‘communal Muslims’.” But what is the flip side? You can not be a liberal Muslim if you put your Muslim identity first? What about those who feel deeply connected with their Muslim identity but do not want to attack people of other religions? What kind of Muslims are they? It cannot be that whoever feels strongly about his religion must be communal.

3. If religion stays at the private sphere and if Hindus and Muslims both can become “Bengali” at the national sphere then only secularism will work. The secular claim that “the Bengali identity became a prominent concept so that Hindus and Muslims can get out of their own narrow spheres and create a bigger “national” sphere.” But can the Bengali Muslims give up their Muslim identity and become only Bengalis? Even if that is only within the national affairs? We don’t see that as a possibility because religion cannot always be contained just within the private life and state often interferes with the private lives of individuals. For instance Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus obviously follow different religions. The Muslims will not go to a temple to pray nor will the Hindus will come to a mosque for prayer. But since both are citizens of the same state they will attend a national event together. It works out fine thus far. But what about the food menu? Should the state cater to the Muslims food restrictions and serve halal meat and should it be careful not to sever beef to the Hindus? Or should these issues be contained within the private life and should not enter the national sphere? If halal food is not served then many Muslims will not go there and if only beef is served then Hindus will not go. So if Hindus and Muslims are to get together then the state must arrange for a different menu. So, we cannot turn a blind eye to this. Bengali Hindus and Muslims will have many differences. We have to acknowledge these differences and we have to unify despite these differences.

Can the Bengali culture be accepted in whole from a Muslim perspective? It cannot, because this culture is not neutral on religion. It is true that religion is not culture and culture is not religion. But no culture is devoid of religious influences. There lies the problem of a culture transcending religious boundaries and becoming truly universal. A Muslim might not want to become fully Bengali when a part of the Bengali culture contradicts with a core belief in his religion. Here is the conflict between the Bengali culture and Muslim Bengalis. For instance we can look at paying respect to the national heroes. Creating sculptures, paying tribute with flowers, lighting candles, and respecting fire is part of the Bengali culture. Islam does not allow these practices. There are two major conflicts. Islam allows for prayer only and is very strict about practices related to idolatry. Bengali culture contains many practices that are directly related to Hindu worship. So naturally the Bengali Muslims feel distant with these practices. Secondly, many of these practices are completely forbidden in Islam. For example the dominant Islamic scholarly opinion is that making sculptures is haram. It is true that a large number of Bengali Muslims are “liberals”. They go to the jumma prayer and at the same time have no problem honoring a statue by giving flowers at the altar. It is also true that another great number of Bengali Muslims are orthodox Muslims. They find it difficult to accept new practices and want to practice their religion without alterations. Although most modern schools have a Shaeed Minar, most madrasas do not have one. Bengali Muslims, including people of the Tabligh Jammat, Madrasa educated people, and Islamic political parties, are very sensitive about paying tribute at the Shaheed Minar. It would be wrong to term this sensitivity as ‘reactionary’. It did not come out of disrespect for the martyrs of Bengali language movement but it came out of the non Islamic way of paying respect to them. If the state disregards this conflict and force this ‘Bengali culture’ then the state must stand clearly against the orthodox Islam in the name of secularism. Since the orthodox Islam is the dominant Islam in the world this stance will be seen as secularism versus Islam and it will simply divide the people.

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. Some consider reciting the Quran after Fajr very important and yet some developed the habit of practicing music in the morning. Some try to unify these two ways and yet some consider one pole unacceptable or less acceptable. Clearly, the Bengali culture has failed to become this unifying platform and it will continue to be so in the future. 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.

Article source: BD Chronicle
Image source: Washington Post