Secularism and Bangladesh

Nayeem Hossain

Nayeem Hossain

There are certain things we don’t feel comfortable about talking. You might have your favorite (or least) favorite topic. But there are some topics that got tabooed by society, some by law and some by political partisanship. Religion is a topic that is discussed widely but never dissected openly to show the relevance to our society, or to the country. I’m not talking about Orosh or Milad Mahfil. I’m talking about the need of religion to Bangladesh’s identity. To understand the role of religion as a standard identity criteria of the country, we should look and start talking about it before it’s too late. 

When you see a human, you don’t see his or her religion. You see color and gender. In an almost homogeneous race like ours, color doesn’t always identify race. Here it’s replaced by religions. After gender we are identified as Hindus and Muslims. Then by ‘Muzhab‘ for muslims- Sunni, Shia and for Hindus their casts. That has been the norm for many years. At any point I haven’t found a time frame in our Indian Subcontinent’s history when we were secular. As many so-called Muslim scholars like to point out, I don’t think “Din-e-Elahi” by Akbar counts as a secularist attitude. At least not to me. Many people might differ, but I don’t think Bangali as a race was secular at any point. We might have been more religious tolerant then other parts of Indian Subcontinent but I don’t think that counts as secularity. Under the British rule we had Hindu Jamindars in Muslim majority areas and vise versa, so Jamindars don’t feel bad to squeeze for tax and fear of the peasants don’t turn into loyalty. The British played the religion card better then any of our rulers. I don’t want to indulge in a history lesson but when Banga-Bhanga happened, many identified the support and oppose of it on religious lines. Even anti British underground freedom fighters were divided by the slogan “Vande Ma Taram”. So at which point were we looking for a secular movement in Unified Bengal? I really need to know. Correct me if I am wrong but I think Muslim League was instigated from Bengal, wasn’t it? So as a race we always had a communal attribute in our societal point of view, which obviously was reflected in out political ideologies too. Now the result was Pakistan, so obviously having a religious political view didn’t end on a high note for us! Now my point is did we realize after Pakistan, that religiously motivated political system is actually harmful? May be, we did. May be we wanted to uphold all the elements of the Bangali race without a religious coat on it. May be that’s why one of our fundamental points in the constitution is secularism.

What is secularism? If I say I’m secular; does that mean I have a religion, I practice mine but I have no problem with others practicing theirs as well? Now is that secularism or religious co-existence? Does all religion allow religious co-existence? I think at a personal level this might be a bit complicated. This complication should be avoided at the highest level. That is at the state level. For a state, being secular is not an option, to me it’s a must. In a democracy, it’s a right of the citizens to practice their religion. A person can make decision based on religious believes and ethics. Their religious believe can guide them to decide what is right and wrong. But state doesn’t depend on individuals ethics only do they? States also have law. And that law should be impartial to all. Majority and minority. To ensure that all citizens rights are impartially and equally served, how can a country achieve that under a system that’s based on a specific religious believe? Now if someone says majority rule, then I give you a scenario. What if in Bangladesh for next fifty years for some weird reason, no Muslim family is able to conceive. On the other hand, Christians started to conceive at a rate that after a hundred years they are the majority religious sect of the country. In that case, if Bangladesh has a religion based constitutional system, will Bangladesh (if still existing!) take Jesus as their lord and savior? Or, in another scenario, if the country has a system where religion based political parties are allowed to form a government, then how are they going to run the state? What would be the basis of their policies? These are some of the confusions I can identify with my micro level judgement. I’m sure there are experts who can explain these better then me. I’m hoping they are explaining this to the current establishment and the society to make them understand, that for a country the only way forward in a democratic system is being secular.

I live in the United States. None can say the country is a Christian country. Religious freedom is a fundamental right here, but that doesn’t mean the majority is ignored. We have national holidays on Christmas don’t we. To ensure religious freedom they are not giving the whole country off on every religious holidays. At least in that sense we are far ahead! But having a Christian majority never made the ten commandments as a constitutional base. Neither in India, having the largest Hindu population means the constitution and rule of the country has Mahabharat printed on it. Then why are we so confused and skeptical about going to our fundamentals? If we do have a religious introduction to the constitution, if we do have religious politics as a viable option to form government, then how is this going back to our basis is beyond my understanding, but I’m sure others can explain that.

To me, being a secular state should be a unique nationalist stand point of Bangladesh. If you have a passport of Bangladesh then that’s your only identity. I think being secular has been always attributed from a cultural stand point and we mixed it up there. Even the most hardcore leftist slaughters in Kurbani right, so how can you be historically communal in head and culturally secular in heart? This is a national identity issue and I urge the policy makers to look at it and openly explain the need of a country to be identified as a secular entity. The state system has to be above religious influence. That wouldn’t stop a secular party to start their campaign from a religious monument, but will ensure that won’t change the identity of the country and the rule of law. People will be always communal, but that doesn’t mean the state system has to reflect that. Communal aspects change, state can’t follow that trend. 

In a religion people take guidance from holy books. They interpret the meaning differently but don’t change the book do they? In a country that guidance comes from the constitution. You can add to the book but you can’t change it’s identity can you? What you won’t do to your religion, how can you do it to your country in the name of religion? 🙂     

The state system has to be above religious influence

9 Responses to “Secularism and Bangladesh”

  1. Fuad Hasan

    That is a very insightful post. Thank you. Todays nations are geographical, Not Faith based. Religious politics flourished when faith decided loyalty. But not any more. In a country, every person with different religious affiliations are loyal to that country. This is why we should have a secular constitution. And i think i never experienced more secularism than present days. But i agree it is really just the begining. However since we have muslim majority population, situation may demand some flexibility. Even in United States, chritians hold political and social power cards. The ongoing rumour that Obama is a secret muslim proves my point. It is still a long way untill americans will accept a practicing muslim president or an staunch atheist president.

    Secularism doesn’t mean lack of religion as many muslim bangalis like to point out. It means separation of religious affairs and state affairs. Sadly Not many of bangladeshi understands this.

  2. Zahed

    The army has been acquiring land from the local residents in many places in Bangladesh unlawfully. This is nothing new. A tiny fraction of the population encroaching upon the private property of the local residents.

    I see no reason why the army needs huge pieces of housing estates when the majority of Bangladesh’s poor can hardly feed themselves.

    This is just an outburst of pent up anger of the locals against army’s fear tactics and landgrabbing techniques like the Jamuna and Bashundhara land dacoits.

  3. khondkar Abdus Saleque

    We are all from one Adam and Eve.Almost all religion someway or other recognised this.Religion is faith and believe of individuals .It must not and should not crerate the divisions among the best creation of God.But unfortunately due to deliberate wrong interpretation of religions people are divided and fundamentalists-extremist spread hatrade among religions and sometimes within groups of the same reeligion.Secularism is often misinterpreted. It encourages and guarantees freedom of all religion in a multireiligion society.If we are a true follower of any religion we must not have any problem in a multi religion secular society.
    But everyday educated section of socity in the name of religion spreading hatrade and mallice.The present tensions and terrorism will continue to tease and torment world community till we can not establsih true secularism in all countries.

  4. M Abdun

    Why do you need to be secular? Bangladesh was not secular up until Sheikh Hasina came to power 2 years ago? Will the achievements as a nation be more or less for being a secular? Certainly there are lots of evidences to show that it is the later.

    Secularism is totally incompatible with Islam. You don’t have to follow the teachings of the non Muslims to be “modern”. As a Bangladeshi it is a proven fact that you will NOT be able to achieve a grain of what the secular people of the world have achieved in the filed of science and industry that is behind today’s modern world. However, what you will be able to achieve is widespread illicit sexual intercourse between men and women through “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationships, alcohol/drug consumptions, prostitution, disobedience of parents etc. Yes, as a Bangladeshi you are achieving those qualities well as they are easy to achieve.

    Islam is not Christianity and as such you cannot follow the fruit of an ideological invention that is stemmed from the followers of Christianity. In front of Allah there are nothing like Bangladeshi or American or British or French. Islam is a full code of life that spans from personal to governing a state. Yes, you, Sheikh Hasina and alike are willing to stand in front of Allah as “secular Bangladeshi” and carry the burden of such act in this world and hereafter. But does that mean that all Bangladeshi are willing to do the same? I DON’T.

  5. nayeem hossain

    @ M Abdun- “As a Bangladeshi it is a proven fact that you will NOT be able to achieve a grain of what the secular people of the world have achieved in the filed of science and industry that is behind today’s modern world.”

    So in your own words, Bangladeshis are not achieving anything that’s taking the world forward. What is holding us back and what is taking the rest of the world forward can you please explain. As far as I’m concerned, West in the Gothic era had everything related to religion; from art to science. But when they broke the shackle of religion they accelerated to a pace that for the next five hundred years ruled the world. But that didn’t mean religion lost it’s position in personal lives of Europeans. The issue is secularism is compatible with statehood it’s never meant to be compatible with any religion.

    “widespread illicit sexual intercourse between men and women through “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationships, alcohol/drug consumptions, prostitution, disobedience of parents” is also a problem in Iran and Afghanistan. Iran is trying to fund Afghan border region’s infrastructural development not only of political power but also to control the massive export of heroin to their country. And do you think alcohol consumption or prostitution is new to Bengal? I think in many years in the history of India people are more aware of the negative sides of explicit sexual behaviors with the flourish of education. Modernism and Westernism is not the same thing. Modernism evolve regionally with cultural changes.

    I personally don’t think Sheikh Hasina is trying to make a a-religious country and I would’ve been very happy to know what she personally did to make the state secular. I think it’s a result of change in cultural perception.

    Also you said Islam is a code of life, and secular state is not telling you that you can’t have a code of ethics, but a code of “life” for an “individual” can’t be code of a “state”. That’s what a secular state system can ensure.

    Have fun my friend 🙂

  6. Saugat Lahiri

    Dear Mr.Abdun,

    You seem to have a very clear cut/rigid structure in your mind of what is “Good” and what “Bad”.And unfortunately,seem to regard all things non-muslim as “bad or bad influences” ,but must be to your suprises of suprises,we(Iam an Hindu and my wife an Christian) also think that illict relations/prostitution,dis-respect of elders,alcohol/dugs as evils.

    Personally speaking,I first see all people as HUMAN BEINGS,the things that you have pointed out are evils that affect the entire human race not any one religion.Secondly,there is a very old saying “United we stand divided we fall” ,correct me if I am wrong,one of my muslim friends had told me that even in Islam its taught to be humble and respects other peoples religions/beliefs,people needlessly fight,die and kill as they forget this.

    Being secular,means to unite all the jigsaw puzzle pieces together and stand strong for what you cherish and love,your country,your language.The rest is for you to choose Mr.Abdun.

  7. M Abdun

    Mr. Nayeem,

    Thanks for the reply. First, I will answer some of your questions then add some of my comments.

    “So in your own words, Bangladeshis are not achieving anything that’s taking the world forward.”
    – If you refer to my earlier post I mentioned ‘in the field of science and industry’ and yes in that area our contribution is absolutely ZERO. Overall we do not have any noteworthy contribution also. BD is ranked towards the bottom of EVERY list published world wide as a measure of success in various areas. You may be tempted to point out success in some areas but that kind of success can be pointed out by any nation including some backward African nations. Now, most of the people in BD possess false prides in the sense that they think that they have achieved a lot but the reality is quite different and it becomes more evident if you live in a developed country. As a nation we are barely surviving.

    We don’t seem to be able keep our lights on for more than few hours at a time each day. I think we need to do something to take our country forward before worrying about the world.

    “What is holding us back and what is taking the rest of the world forward can you please explain.”

    – Certainly not the religion. If we had followed our religion we would have been far better off, may not be as good as the USA but far better than where we are at now. What is holding us back is dishonesty, lack of sincerely, perseverance etc. All of these bad qualities are present among citizens of every nation but in BD the percentage would be very very high.

    Now, the moral corruptions I mentioned are present among every nation and for all ages. And those behaviors have negative consequences personally and at the state level. What religion does is it regulates peoples’ conducts and prevents introduction of such ills at a wider scale . Islam, as a full code of life, defines how to contain the ill behaviors that are so popular among the people. 15-20 years ago BD had only one TV channel and the programs shown were pretty modest. Now we have 10+ channels and all the Nataks, Telefilms etc strongly promote “girlfriend-boyfriend” relationships. So, general public is encouraged to engage in ill activities. As a result the percentage of illicit sexual intercourse among unmarried men has gone up tenfold compared to 15-20 years ago. So, unless there is a resolution at the state level high moral values will not trickle down to personal lives as personal life and state life are intermingled together.

    Basically your post is irrelevant as BD had never had Islamic laws at the state level. So, it is obvious that secularism is not needed in BD since Islamic laws were never implemented at the state level. Quite frankly I was thinking that you were trying to impress your girlfriends by expressing high minded thoughts in the internet- that in reality had no values.

    Fact to the matter is NO one will win by ignoring the commandments of Allah. HE lets the people with weak faiths get deceived, but the new inventions will not be able to affect HIS words as it remained unchanged for 1500 years. New inventions like secularism will come and go like similar inventions before.

  8. Polyester245

    I hope that I not to late to comment. I personally have lived in a Shariah ruled country with for some 20-something years, and I can confirm religious rule is more harmful for the country than secularism.

    -Segregation of sex has led to frequent homosexuals
    -Use of Niqabs has allowed criminals and prostitutes to move about freely, not to mention, it allows men to have mistresses cos the identity of the women are concealed.
    -Restrictions on women’s travel have led to alot of women with depression and suicidal thoughts, not to mention, alot of women are just plain stupid because of being stuck in the house all the time. BD girls r way more intelligent because of this.

    And Bengali guys are alot more polite towards women than most men of this country. BD boys merely harrass girls and they r rebuked by the majority. Women over risk getting raped by merely being a woman. So, please I do hope that Secularism is more firmly established and that no religion should be allowed to rule the state. In a secular state, people are allowed to follow the religion of their choice. In an Islamic state, women and minorities will be more harassed.

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