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Religious Orthodoxy v. Secularism: Bangladesh’s Tug of War

Written by Bahzad H. Joarder.

Bangladesh’s development trajectory since 1990, especially after democratic practices were reinstated has been a unique success story. It is widely regarded as a model country for development on social indicators. It remains one of the few developing countries that is on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and is already well ahead of many countries including economic behemoths like India. With China ceding its market leader position in the RMG sector, Bangladesh, already a big player, is increasingly viewed as a potential leader in the sector. For a country once referred to as ‘bottomless basket’ by Henry Kissinger, one which has seen years of suffering, famine, poverty and political strife, the 21st century heralded new promises. Yet, those promises may remain unfulfilled potential, if Bangladesh fails in tackling a new adversary, one which threatens the very fabric of the post independent society- the rise of militant Islam.

The Shrinking Space for Civil Society

In many ways, Bangladeshi society is enigmatic and displays extraordinary contradictions. The population is overwhelmingly Muslim but there is no Sharia law. Large congregations occur both during religious festivities as well as celebration of the Bengali new year. A Quran is found in most Muslim households but so is the works of Tagore. Each year the second largest congregation (Tablighi Jamaat) after Hajj in the Muslim world takes place at the banks of river Turag, just outside the capital, Dhaka. Yet, every year some of the largest crowd gathers to celebrate the works of Lalon Shah and the birth anniversaries of Tagore and Nazrul. While a Muslim boy or girl is sent to read the Quran, one would also find a tabla or a harmonium in their households. No eye brows are raised when after evening prayers, villagers gather around gas-lit lights to listen to folk singers and watch the traditional theatre known as Jatra with separate sitting arrangements for the men and women. Religious doctrines, for the vast majority of Bengali Muslims, are not all encompassing and do not prevent them from participating in cultural rites. Such traits are truly unique and tolerance remains a fundamental tenet of the Bengali life- until now.

Following a series of attacks against bloggers in Bangladesh, whose blogs were viewed as anti Islamic, this trait of tolerance is very much in question. A list of bloggers/writers was identified as anti Islamic and a militant group called for retribution. Despite asking for police protection by at least one such writer, none was forthcoming. The most recent attack took place against a publisher of secular books. The police apprehended a British-Bangladeshi national and detained him and several associates in connection with the attacks on bloggers. There have also been attacks against foreign nationals and according to foreign intelligence there was a very real and imminent threat against foreign nationals that even led to a tour by the Australian cricket team to be called off.

While there have been some sporadic attacks against ethnic minority groups especially against the Hindu community after the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1990, post independent Bangladesh did not witness riots or Islamist militancy until 2005, when the country for the first time experienced a coordinated series of bomb blasts. An outlawed Islamist militant group (Jamatul Mujahideen) claimed responsibility. The loss of life was minimal and the leaders were eventually brought to justice. There have been other instances of militant groups causing terror in pockets of the country but law enforcement agencies were quick to tackle those incidents such as the capture of top militants like Bangla Bhai. Imprisonment or the demise of the leaders usually resulted in nullifying the threats posed or so was thought. It would now appear that the rank and file in these terror groups with additional influx of new recruits found new platforms and entities to continue their terror attacks both within Bangladesh as well as in neighbouring India.

Political patronage was always available for these people. Islamist parties like the Jamaat-E-Islam, banned after independence from Pakistan owing to their collaboration in war crimes perpetuated by the military junta, was rehabilitated by subsequent military backed governments in the 70’s and 80’s. The biggest parties; the Awami League (in 1996) and the BNP (in 2001) formed election alliances with Jamaat, the latter forming a government with their Islamist counter-parts making central leaders like Motiur Rahman Nizami a cabinet minister.

Jamaat-E-Islam, the largest of the Islamist parties is now in disarray following the incarceration and death sentences handed out to its central leaders for war crimes in 1971. Some commentators draw a nexus between Jamaat’s activities and the rise in militancy. Others view the Madrassa system of education in Bangladesh with suspicion– a breeding ground for militancy and misogyny.

Some 6 million students attend the Madrassa education system which dispenses degrees up to post graduation level. This system runs parallel to the conventional school education. Bangladesh has two kinds of madrassas- the private Quomi madrassas and state-sponsored Alia madrassas. There are an estimated 6,500 Quomi madrassas in the country, with almost 1.5 million students. The Quomi madrassas are entirely supported by private donations, enabling these institutions to resist any efforts by the state to control, modernise or reform them. In contrast, there are 7,000 or so Alia madrassas, which follow a standardised syllabus set and regulated by the Education Board that includes subjects such as English, Bengali, science, and mathematics. The students who graduate from Alia madrassas often go on to complete their education at secular institutions – in fact, 32% of Bangladeshi university teachers in the humanities and social sciences are graduates of Alia madrassas.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, after his recent visit to Bangladesh, voices concern in his preliminary report. He writes:

While perhaps half of the madrasas meanwhile follow the national curriculum, there is still a high number of Qaumi madrasas, which have their own curriculum, outside of the Ministry of Education. Members of religious minorities frequently expressed their fears that the madrasas, in particular Qaumi madrasas, promote extremist views, such as stigmatizing all non-Muslims as ‘infidels’. The spread of madrasas, in particular those not operating in line with the national curriculum, seems to be a main source of fears existing among religious minorities.

This finding is in stark contrast to reports from National Bureau of Asian Research. Their 2009 Project Report on Islamic Education in Bangladesh and Pakistan found little evidential links between Bangladeshi Quomi madrassas with radical politics or militancy. The report states:

Those tied with militant activities had largely Alia madrassa and general education backgrounds. The common denominator among those indicted for terrorist activities, furthermore, has been the experience of the Afghan jihad, not madrassa education. While Quomi madrassa students and teachers appear to be largely apolitical, Alia madrassa affiliates are actively involved in partisan politics.

The report’s policy implications are an interesting read. It found that an overwhelming majority of madrassa teachers and students support democracy and regards it as the best way to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh and believe that Islamic law cannot be introduced through violence and terrorism.

Another important finding happens to be the growing involvement of the ulama in social welfare and community services through ulama-led NGOs. It has further strengthened their organic links with local communities, and provided them with opportunities for more frequent interaction with government officials. Their participation in the modern public sphere has opened up new avenues for them to disseminate their views on issues of socio-religious and cultural concerns to a wider audience.

Whichever view one supports, be it the UN Special Rapporteurs report or the NBR report, the suspicious view on the Madrassa education system and its link to militancy cannot be allayed. The numbers being educated in madrassas may be insignificant but it remains crucial in determining the future of the nation’s relationship to its faithful.

Constitutional Secularism: A Conundrum  

A generation of Bangladeshis can still recall the vicious atrocities and crimes against humanity perpetuated by the Pakistani military junta in the nine months leading to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, while powerful nations engaged in dispassionate real politic remained silent. Men of a certain age can still recall how they were stopped at check points and asked to down their trousers to check if they were circumcised and asked to recite Quranic verses to proof their allegiance to Islam. Recovered military transcripts and the liberation of women from ‘rape camps’ after the surrender of the Pakistani army; tell of plans of systematic rape to breed a more Muslim populace.

These war time experiences are perhaps the reason why when Bangladesh adopted a constitution in 1972, the Preamble pledged secularism along with nationalism, socialism and democracy as the ‘fundamental principles’ of the constitution. In the 5th Amendment case judgment, the Court after meticulous research found that one of the reasons behind the lofty ideals in the preamble was the fresh memory of persecution in the hands of the Pakistani military junta. The case as is discussed later paved the way for reviving the fundamental principle of secularism.

Someone reading the constitution without being aware of the historical context will be acutely surprised that Article 2A of the same constitution proclaims the state religion as Islam while ensuring equal status and equal rights for other religions. The Constitution also begins with Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim (In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful/ In the name the Creator, the Merciful).

This contradiction is highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur in his preliminary report. He writes:

“The Constitution of Bangladesh, which enshrines the principle of secularism while at the same time proclaiming Islam as the official State religion gives rise to ambiguities that have a direct impact on human rights in the country, including the protection of religious minorities.”

The report however emphasises that there is not the slightest contradiction between being committed to secularism and professing and practising Islam or indeed any other religion. A secular constitution can well serve a society in which many people manifest their religious convictions, passions and loyalties; perform religious practices and enjoy religious festivities. A secular State and a religious society can harmoniously exist together. But a secular State cannot at the same time be a religious State, i.e. a State proclaiming an official State religion, even if the same Article provides for ‘equal status and equal rights’ for other religions without invoking unease in the minority community.

The contradiction between the lofty ideals in the preamble and Article 2A can be explained when placed in a historical context. When the constitution was adopted post independence in 1972, secularism was declared as a fundamental principle. The subsequent government of military ruler-turned politician slain president Ziaur Rahman scrapped secularism as a fundamental state policy and his successor ex-army chief HM Ershad, who followed his footsteps, made Islam the state religion in 1988. When the Awami League government in 2011, revived secularism as a fundamental principle, following a Court ruling in 2009, it left Article 2A proclaiming Islam as the state religion, however, granting equal status and equal rights to other religions. It must be added that the new wording is indeed an improvement over the old article, which stipulated that ‘The State religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic’. It was as if a concession is being made to other faiths! The logic behind retaining a state religion while simultaneously naming other religions as equal appears to be that in a people’s republic the mentioning of the names of religions is a mere constitutional courtesy (as per Judgement in 5th Amendment case), since, the preamble very clearly denotes prominence of people’s sovereignty and secularity of the democratic body politic. The Supreme Court favours this argument as exemplified in its decision to recently reject a writ petition challenging Islam as state religion in a secular country on grounds that the constitution ensures equal rights for people of all religion.

Secularism is often misconceived as being anti religion. While some secular states (e.g. the Soviet Union) aimed at purging the public sphere with any visible religious manifestation, the understanding of secularism in Bangladesh is quite different. Secularism as entrenched in the Bangladeshi constitution aims to create and uphold an inclusive open space for the unfolding of religious diversity, free from fear and discrimination as noted in the same report.

The reason such an interpretation can be made despite the apparent contradiction lies in constitutional law principles. A constitution must be read and interpreted in light of the fundamental principles in the preamble as it is regarded as the ‘guiding star’ (Per M H Rahman J in 8th Amendment Case, 1989).  A fundamental principle takes precedence over any other laws or principles. Secularism is defined in the revived Article 12 (the said article was discarded by constitutional amendment during military rule and was only revived following the historic judgment in the 5th amendment case that made all amendments and proclamations of unelected, military rulers void ab initio, thus paving the revival in 2011 when parliament re introduced the article.)

Under Article 12, secularism is to be achieved through, among others, elimination of communalism and not granting political status in favour of any religion. Clearly the framers in 1972 did not make provision for any favouritism. As mentioned earlier, subsequent military backed governments amended the constitution. In reverting back to the original framework but retaining Article 2A, albeit with added proviso of equal status and equal rights for other religions, the law makers arguably left scope for ambiguity. The Judiciary, however, has shown in the recent case that it considers that the constitution treats all religions equally.

The language in Article 12 emphatically prohibits the use of religion to vindicate political purpose and religious freedom. Part II of the Bangladeshi Constitution deals with the fundamental principles of state policies. Article 8 clearly provides secularism as a fundamental principle which along with the other principles set out in Part II shall be fundamental in the governance of the country, making of laws, interpretation of constitution but shall not be judicially enforceable. The judicial non enforceability issue is a cause of great consternation among human rights commentators. There is an argument that the non justiciability of state principles is no longer sustainable as the human rights jurisprudence now look to enforce the fundamental principles in the form of socio-economic rights using such doctrines as universality, inalienability and indivisibility. Regardless of such arguments, a literal reading of the constitution does not make provision for judicial enforceability. This should not be confused with the judicial enforceability of all rights guaranteed by the constitution or laws thereof.

Secularism as a principle is strengthened further when Article 12 is conjunctively read along with the fundamental rights guaranteed under Part III of the constitution, in particular Article 39 and Article 41 of the constitution.  Article 39 guarantees freedom of thought and conscience and speech. While the freedom of thought and conscience is unqualified, the freedom of speech and expression is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of state security, friendly relations with other states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence (this is the case with most constitutions in modern democracies, although the language may differ). Article 41 guarantees freedom of religion subject to law, public order and morality. The revived Article 38 runs as thus, ‘Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of morality or public order.’ However, it prohibits association if such is designed to destroy the religious, social and communal harmony among the citizens; create discrimination among the citizens, on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or language; organise terrorist acts or militant activities against the State or the citizens or any other country and thwart the objectives of the constitution.

Here’s a radical thought. If indeed the revived constitutional provisions have managed to reincarnate the spirit of the 1972 constitution, even if in parts, then all such militant groups that espouse ideology contrary to the constitution, organize terrorist acts, such as the bombing of shia mosques, swear allegiance to terror groups such as the Islamic State, then it is thwarting the objectives and guiding fundamental principles of the constitution. If such groups arbitrarily decide that writings of one kind or another is anti Islamic (their version of Islam which does not resonate with others), thus warranting deadly action against the protagonists, then not only others guaranteed rights are trampled upon, not only atrocious crimes are perpetuated, their actions have no place in a democratic, secular society. The government must not be seen to condemn the perpetrators for the violence and simultaneously admonish online activists holding critical views on religion, in particular, Islam for going ‘too far’ in their criticisms.

One is afflicted with sadness when one reads the UN Special Rapporteur’s report depicting government actions and statements:

Government agencies partially compromise the principle of secularism, possibly with the intention to appease religious militants. In order to combat the ‘politicization of religion’ thus tendencies of a ‘religionization of politics’ may be put in place, even under the auspices of Government committed to upholding the constitutional principles of secularism, which is strangely ironic. One example is public statements by Government officials that Ahmadis allegedly are not Muslims. I myself heard such statements in discussion with representatives of the Government.

The beauty of secularism lies in the inclusive space it provides for everyone with different belief systems and self understanding of religious doctrines. It is not necessary that everyone must share the same ethos, ideals or even the direction the polity moves. There remains a positive obligation on the government of the day to ensure that the space provided by the constitution is respected by all.

Bahzad H. Joarder is a postgraduate from the University of Birmingham specializing in International Criminal Law. 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.

Published inAsia and PacificSocial Justice

One Comment

  1. Protyasha Protyasha

    I really liked the idea you proposed through this writing. To some extent, I agree with you. In one of my viva, my teacher asked me, “”What change will you bring if you become PM?” I said that I would amend the constitution by removing the article that claims Islam as the state religion. That time my teacher said that how could I do that as the majority is Muslim and what about “maximizing happiness”. That time I could not answer but now I know. It is not about the “”majority” its all about democracy and in a democratic nation the need of each person needs to be considered rather than the maximum.

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