Bangladesh: Secularism and this 'moderate Muslim' state

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Law Minister Moudud Ahmed surprised us the other day when he informed the country that the people of Bangladesh had never accepted secularism as a principle of state. And then he surprised us even more.
The secularism practised in Bangladesh in the early years of freedom was, said he, a negation of religion.
Now, while we remain quite aware of the niche Moudud Ahmed has carved for himself in national politics since the time of General Ziaur Rahman through some of his swift changes in political loyalty, we surely did not expect him to do, or say, certain things that are simply not true.

The minister, in his younger days, was close to the Awami League leadership of the time. And he was one of the millions of people in this country who watched the evolution of Bengali politics through the 1960s and well into the 1970s. It is, of course, quite normal for a political being to part company with his political peers and go looking for new places in the sun. Moudud Ahmed has done that. But when such changes in position lead to a total repudiation of history it is a whole society that goes through indescribable pain.

But let us stay away from that for now and go searching for reality as it prevailed in the years between 1972 and 1975. Moudud Ahmed has mocked secularism as it used to be in those times. He implies that secularism was an assault on the religious feelings of people (and such feelings applied, without his having to say so, to the Muslim population of the country). Observe, now, the facts.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and all his colleagues in the Awami League were devout Muslims and prayed as any Muslim would pray. That was surely not a negation of faith, was it? In those days, Ramadan and Eid and all other religious occasions were observed by Bangladesh's Muslims. The state did not clamp any restrictions on religious activities of any kind, or of any denomination or sect. And if the minister and his friends would care to recall, it was Bangabandhu's government which put an end to the quite un-Islamic act of horse racing at what was then known as the Race Course.

Surely such acts were not the activities of men dedicated to a sidelining of Islam in the lives of the majority of the people of this country? In the early 1970s, when true and proper secularism formed the core of our political existence, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists for the first time were able to practise their faiths without fear or inhibition of any kind. And this they were able to do because Bangladesh was a people's republic based on Bengali nationalism, which again was a dissemination of the thought that the state was for all Bengalis, that it had not been created as a homeland for the followers of a particular faith. In other words, Bangladesh was a rejection of the pernicious two-nation theory the Muslim League had propagated in the 1940s as a justification for the creation of Pakistan, with such horrendous results.

But, of course, Moudud Ahmed and a whole lot of other people in this country today hold forth on the queer idea of "Bangladeshi nationalism." What such an idea implies is not hard to guess. When you remember how ruthlessly, and without any regard for legality, General Ziaur Rahman brought Allah into the constitution, and how crassly General Hussein Muhammad Ershad added flesh to the idea through imposing Islam on the country as a state religion, you can quite understand what the larger objective behind "Bangladeshi nationalism" was.

Briefly, it was a roundabout way of taking the people of this country back to the old idea of communalism that we had struggled against, long and hard, in our years with Pakistan. Mercifully, though, the idea has not taken hold. We still sing Tagore songs, we yet dance to the music of Nazrul and, judging by the way in which we said farewell to Shamsur Rahman last week, we remain committed to the principle that this is a land for Bengalis, that religious and sectarian obsessions of the kind which divided India in the 1940s, and then sent Pakistan packing from our land, are not part of our collective life. But, of course, there have regularly been the men who have periodically made attempts on this secular ethos in Bangladesh.

Maulana Bhashani, otherwise an outstanding if peripatetic politician in the history of this country, threw the first stone at our secular edifice soon after liberation when he launched his Muslim Bangla movement. That was a frontal assault on a state whose freedom he had only years earlier so steadfastly espoused. Bhashani did not stop there. At a public rally in 1974, he launched a below the belt attack on the respected Phani Bhushan Majumdar by ascribing the on-going food crisis to the presence of the Hindu minister in the government.

And that was how secularism began to be ripped apart. The nationalism that had developed throughout the 1960s, one that envisaged a purely Bengali landscape, was under attack from some rather unexpected quarters. Do not forget that even leftists of the pro-Beijing brand were doing all they could to undermine the cause of the state. Men like Abdul Haq solicited, in 1974, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's assistance in overthrowing the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was through these men, these elements, that the deconstruction and destruction of secular politics truly began. It served as a natural corollary to what was to follow. But let the point not be missed that when secularism lay flat on its face in Bangladesh, it was not the Bengalis who pushed it into the mud. That came by way of the coup makers of August 1975. The damage done on August 15 was nowhere more intense than in the return of the "Zindabad" factor in national politics.

To this day, the inability, or reluctance, of the votaries of "Bangladeshi nationalism" to accept Joi Bangla as the authentic national slogan has only confirmed the wider plan behind the program of banishing Bengali nationalism, and with it secularism, to the woods. When Air Vice Marshal MG Tawab, in his double role as chief of air staff and deputy chief martial law administrator, addressed a "Seerat" conference in Dhaka in 1976, he merely reaffirmed the creeping success of what was clearly revealing itself to be an anti-Bengali trend in this Bengali-speaking country. It was a moment of deep shame for every one of us.

A manifest move was under way to deprive the people of Bangladesh of their heritage. And the heritage was based on a simple fact of history -- that Bengali nationalism was based on language, that this nationalism was not so much rooted in geography as it was in culture. There was a certain malign purpose to this war on Bengali nationalism, as we were to comprehend soon enough. On the one hand, it was a subtle move to take us away from ourselves without informing us overtly that we were indeed returning to the discredited two-nation theory. On the other, it provided a secret passage through which the very elements uncomfortable with Bengali success in the 1971 war could come back into politics and eventually take centre stage.

The Jamaat, the Muslim League and such ragtag elements as those belonging to the Islami Oikya Jote should not have been doing politics in secular, Bengali Bangladesh. But "Bangladeshi nationalism" made sure that they did. We, as a people, have been bleeding since the day Zia and his acolytes welcomed them to national politics in 1979. Ershad went many steps further. He had Islamic motifs painted on the walls of what today constitutes the Prime Minister's Office. And he patronized so-called "pirs" and assorted traders in faith.

But none of that, or anything that happened later, has yanked the Bengali away from his fundamental cultural roots. Moudud Ahmed has certainly the privilege of letting us know that secularism has never been accepted by us. We do not have to agree with him, and we do not. He and his friends in the rightwing coalition government may enthuse over repetitive American happiness about the "moderate Muslim state" that Bangladesh has become. We do not take kindly to such sinister redefinitions of ourselves as a people. Besides, whoever has told these Americans that we have actually mutated from secularism to creeping communalism? We are not amused. It does not make us happy that Hindu, Christian and Buddhist Bengalis are referred to as minorities. It is not exactly thrilling to have a ministry of religious affairs whose preoccupation appears to be helping a political process whereby the secular foundations of the state can be whittled away.

Religion is a matter of the individual soul. That is where the beauty of secularism lies -- in its ability to make people remember God without having Him descend to the worldly level of dealing with everyday politics. Foreign envoys stationed in this country can cheer as much as they wish the "imam training programs" in Bangladesh. But someone should be telling them that long-term orientations on secular politics would be an infinitely better enterprise to undertake.

by Syed Badrul Ahsan
The Daily Star
August 23, 2006

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier.