Written by Ibtisam Ahmed.
Bangladesh has seen a series of violent attacks against secular bloggers in 2015, culminating in multiple coordinated attacks on the same day in October. Although these are not the first attacks of their kind, the sheer volume (at least eight separate incidents), the common modus operandi (all attacks carried out using machetes), and the increasing boldness (going from attacks in accessible public spaces to breaking and entering individual homes) of the violence this year has been particularly damaging.
While the attacks have inevitably raised questions of free speech, internet security and local terrorism, one relatively uncommented aspect has arguably affected the national psyche in a much deeper and, worryingly, irreversible way. In a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority (89.5% according to the national bureau of statistics, 89.1% according to the CIA Factbook), the targeting of self-professed secularists has contribute to the steady erosion of the country’s liberal heritage.
Nation Born of Multiculturalism
Following the dissolution of the British Raj in 1947, the Indian Subcontinent was divided into three parts: Hindu-majority India and the two wings of Muslim-majority Pakistan. The latter two only had their religious demographics in common. Separated by the length of India, West Pakistan (modern-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh) had different linguistic, economic, social and political traditions. Indeed, the eastern wing’s closest comparison was the Indian state of West Bengal – the two adjacent states had been one larger entity, Bengal, until an imperially imposed Partition in 1905 was made along religious lines.
The schism that was implemented in 1905 was the genesis for the national divide in 1947, with the Muslim-majority half of Bengal joining four other states to form the Dominion of Pakistan. Initially, the religious zeal of Muslim unity, combined with the communal violence of the 1947 Partition, kept the two otherwise disparate wings of Pakistan relatively intact. However, a series of decisions made by the Government, including the movement over linguistic autonomy in the 1950’s, the mishandling of industry, the clear lack of national security concern for the east wing, and the appalling relief efforts following a cyclone in 1970, led to a decisive call for greater political autonomy which resulted in the 1971 Liberation War that gave birth to Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi nationalism was based on rejecting a divisive religious identity in favour of being Bengali. Despite remaining a Muslim-majority nation demographically, the Constitution embedded secularism as one of four founding principles. Although this was undermined by a later Government’s decision to instate Islam as the official state religion in 1975, the social norm of the country was against communalism.
This was supported by an intellectual class that was still reeling from the effects of Pakistani slaughter in the 1971 war, a key factor behind the politically-charged war crimes tribunals earlier this decade. Additionally, the day-to-day realities of Bangladeshi culture underlined a secular nationalism. Bengali – the language, not the demonym – was derived from Sanskrit, providing an easy link to religious tolerance. Other social norms also encourage multiculturalism; an oft-cited example is the Bangladeshi wedding, a mixture of Muslim and Hindu customs designed to be celebrated by entire localities, regardless of religious or ethnic backgrounds.
(It is important to note here that this multicultural approach carried and still carries connotations of South Asian social conservatism and should not be misrepresented as a means of achieving neoliberal values and norms.)
The last few decades, however, have seen a resurgence in political Islam. After a period of military rule in the 1980’s, Bangladesh regained a semblance of democratic process in the 1990’s. During this period, religious political rhetoric, which had been taboo in the aftermath of the Liberation War, was no longer seen as undesirable, especially because it allowed politicians to connect with rural voters during elections.
Among the many results of this re-emergence of political religiousness, aided by stronger diplomatic and financial ties with the Middle East as well as the rule of a right wing coalition which included Islamist parties, has been a conflation of patriotism with single-minded Islamic piety. Secularism has therefore gone from being a national constitutional principle to a derogatory socio-political slur.
Further complicating matters is the attitude of the current Government. On the one hand, though it is nominally progressive and secular, it has not done anything substantial to protect the attacks taking place on freedoms of speech and expression, providing a believable narrative of tacit approval for the removal of secular voices. On the other hand, it is framing the attacks as part of a larger global wave of extremism, which is shifting the focus away from local religious militancy. Subsequently, fundamentalist elements within Bangladesh are going unchecked, allowing their version of nationalism to take greater hold.
The Power of Words
The most damning indication of the social death of secularism is in its interchangeability with atheism in recent years. Each of the bloggers who have been killed have been branded atheists, regardless of their actual spiritual beliefs. It is vital that this is not considered trivial. The atheist label has always carried negative connotations in what is essentially a socially conservative part of the world. By misinterpreting secularism as a manifestation of dogmatic atheism, rather than as an acceptance of all (or no) religions, right wing nationalists have been able to damage the value of tolerance in the socio-political system.
Murdered blogger Ananta Bijoy Das, who was the least polemic of the targets – and it is important to use the more appropriate “polemic” instead of “inflammatory” – had eloquently written about the extraordinary potential of narrow-mindedness to stifle progress. His comments are proving not only to be prophetic, but also slightly understated, given how Bangladesh’s progress has not been stopped so much as being steadily reversed.
Ibtisam Ahmed is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, whose thesis examines the extent to which the British Empire can be studied as an attempt at political utopia. This article forms part of a Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice special issue on Bangladesh. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.