The Well of The Past: The Power of Religion in Bangladesh

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Demonstration in Bangladesh
Demonstration in Bangladesh. Photo: Rajiv Ashrafi/flickr.

Modernity’s jihad against religion seems to be in retreat. The incarceration of religion within the private sphere of human affairs under the assumption that with the spread of modernity, religion would cease to exist, has not worked out as was envisaged. America and Europe, the epitome of the West, have not been able to achieve this even on their home soils. Religion seems to have become more pervasive than ever in both North America and Europe.

The eminent sociologist Robert Bellah in his book Religion in Human Evolution: from Paleolithic to Axial Age cautions us that “nothing is ever lost” and reminds us, in the words of Thomas Mann, that “very deep is the well of past.” Another American sociologist, Peter Berger, known for his seminal work on sociology of knowledge and religion, also warns us that “those who neglect religion in their analyses of contemporary affairs do so at great peril.” The West at least appears to be groping towards a revised version of secularism as part of an attempt to address the issue of the rising religiosity in their own territory. However, this leaves post-colonial countries newly emerging into modernity with a terrible dilemma. Their desire to be ‘modern’ according to the most common interpretation of Enlightenment discourse continues to rule religion entirely out of the public sphere.

Bangladesh stands as a classic example of this dilemma. An elite-constructed and dominated version of secularism exists that refuses to take into consideration popular views on the secularism/religion debate. This insistence on secularism means that Bangladesh has tended to ‘forget’ its past. Yet this is a past in which religion has played a fundamental role in the creation of an independent Bangladesh. For independence in 1971 to happen, the partition of India in 1947 was necessary. While secularism can be seen as a point of departure for creating Bangladeshi nationalism from the 1950s onward, the post-1971 reality is that secularism is now being imposed without taking into account the increasingly religious mindset of the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis, producing a rising threat of religious intolerance in Bangladesh. Yet, even in the 1970s, Abul Mansoor Ahmad, a veteran politician of East Bengal, warned of the dangers associated with the flawed assumptions of secularism preached by the post-independent regime immediately after the country received its independence on 16 December, 1971. Ahmad had warned that if the Awami League failed to understand the difference between an ‘Islamic country’ and a ‘Muslim majority country’, then the country’s future would be grave.

Identity construction in the pre-1947 period

The origins of the current Bangladeshi dilemma over the place of religion in public life lie in the historical background to the partition of India in 1947. Muslims of Bengal, mostly from agrarian backgrounds, had developed a separate consciousness of identity, spearheaded by the Bengal Divide of 1905 – a division of the largely eastern Muslim areas from the mostly western Hindu areas. This partition presented the Muslims of Bengal with a way to consolidate and develop a distinct identity that would help them to recover from their denigrated position in society vis-à-vis the Hindu community. The construction of an Indian identity that actively promoted and embraced essential elements of Hindu religious identity reinforced an already existent Hindu superiority in the sphere of economy, culture, education and politics that would only solidify under a greater Indian state.

Hindu-Muslim separateness was active not only in the minds of Muslims but in Hindus as well. In the context of Bengal, Nirod C. Chaudhuri claimed in his book An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian that the Muslims of Bengal were of a separate ethnic group than ethnic Bengalis. Muslim Bengalis belonged to a “new ethnic group of people, born of the same race and language and in geographical contiguity, but who do not look the same, dress the same, or have the same beliefs as others so born.” No wonder the Muslims of Bengal did not want to waste the historical chance to vote for the Two Nation theory that would emancipate them from such scrutiny.

At the same time, the Two Nation theory was justified as a tool of economic emancipation from the Hindu Zaminders and money-lending class who dominated the agrarian-based Muslims of East Bengal. While the economy was the primary determinant, authors have argued that the people of East Bengal had always stayed away from mixing religion with politics even when they made a conscious and informed decision to vote for the Muslim League in 1946. But this also discards the argument that there was any conscious support for secularist ideals in the way it has been preached by post-independent leaders. While the basis of Bengali nationalism was language-based Bengali ethnicity, secular ideals were simply a way of making a conscious separation from a religion-dominated (read Islam) Pakistani identity. A closer look at the politics of 1950s and ‘60s reveals how politics during this period was in fact clouded with religious jargon for the overwhelming number of Muslim voters.

Religion and politics in a contemporary context

The trend of using religion to serve narrow political purpose is still visible in Bangladesh. Recently, under pressure from Hifazat-i-Islam, an offshoot of country’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that the country would be run by the Medina Charter and the Prophet’s Sermon on the Last Pilgrimage. The Medina Charter emphasizes equal rights for all religion in the country but the announcement also made it clear that any defamation of religion would not be tolerated by the administration. Needless to say the principal intent for such a declaration was likely to appease Muslim voters as elections approached. Such contradictions are not new in Bangladesh, and simply indicate that it is power rather than religion that matters. However, the insistence on a strong religion/secularism binary in Bangladesh politics is a denial of its history that threatens to come back to bite the state.  Although the Hifazat-i-Islam meeting was a peaceful demonstration of the Islamic power base in the country, the strength to make demands based on strict Islamic principles was nevertheless apparent. Once these demands are conceded, religion has re-entered the political sphere, secularist discourse or not.

Very few systemic studies have been done on the changing nature of society in Bangladesh over the years and, in particular, on its connection to globalization. Wilhelm von Schendel and M. Sufiauddin are two researchers who, in recent times, have successfully traced these changes, though these observations are seldom reflected in the Bangladeshi media. For instance, Bangladesh sends a good number of migrant workers to Middle Eastern countries. These workers are returning home with a stricter version of Islam that is inconsistent with Bangladesh’s more tolerant version. Political parties are then faced with demands to uphold the interests of Muslims above every other consideration. Complying with these demands produces paradoxes.

For Bangladesh’s civil society, being a member of the civil society means being free to criticize Islam. As a consequence, critics intent on banning Jamaat-i-Islami’s politics did not limit themselves to criticizing the political party. They also criticized the Prophet in the name of freedom of speech. But the fragile freedom of this civil society in relation to the state becomes apparent in the response to attacks on formal state secularism, as the renowned Bengali daily Prothom Alo discovered when it criticized a fictional novel containing an identifiable female activist of the secularist Shahbag movement. The newspaper was forced to retract the story and offer a formal apology. Bangladesh stands as probably the only country in the world where blasphemous acts can go on in the name of protecting the freedom of speech but not the other way round! And this undeclared war against religion which is promulgated by the state seems to be a denial of the changing social fabric of Bangladesh.

The politicized use of the independence war and the division of the country into anti- and pro-liberation forces has deeply segregated the country, and brought about the resurgence of religious elements directly into political life. We are so busy creating an identity based keeping in mind the sub-continent’s partition-based politics, we tend to overlook the due share of credit to the people of East Bengal. Religion thus become a contested concept which we can neither accept not forget in light of the demographic feature of the country. We continue to keep Islam as the State Religion and use the ‘Islamic’ card when we need economic assistance from the Middle East or continue to tap Middle Eastern markets to send migrant workers. It is no wonder that such a reality was recognized officially as early as in 1974 when Sheikh Mujib decided to participate in the Lahore Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit to use the religious composition as a tool to bring foreign assistance in face of economic crisis of the country.

What is the way out of this paradox of a society that is founded on religion yet, in insisting on its secularism, denies its religiosity? Banning the use of religion in politics, which would be consistent with the common understanding of secularism, is hardly likely to work since the first parties to fall under this ban would be the two major political parties. As a single-issue movement, Jamaat-i-Islami could be separated from the BNP, but this would weaken the latter’s support base, something The BNP would be unlikely to accept. In any case, efforts to reduce the influence of religion in politics have simply revived Islamic elements in the society. A new non-tolerant nature is emerging is Bangladeshi society, where capturing ‘power’ and only ‘power’ matters.

Despite their history, the people of Bangladesh have always rejected a religion-based politics. However, the success of the Hifazat-i-Islami meeting forces us think twice about the future of the country as a so-called secular state. The re-emergence of Islam as a political factor can solely be attributed to narrowly focused politicians who didn’t think twice about tapping ‘religious sentiment’ in order to win national elections. It is probably too early to tell whether the idea of post-secularism offers any viable alternative, one in which the ‘right’ past is recognized and in which ‘religious activities’ can be defined. Or it may be too late. Bangladesh needs clear cut definitions especially on religious activities now so that political parties refrain from tapping religious sentiments under the guise of ‘political entente,’ as they have done before. This returns us to Robert Bellah, who reminds us of the ‘power of the past’ with one of Hegel’s unforgettable observations: “Those moments which the spirit appears to have outgrown still belong to it in the depths of its present. Just as it has passed through all its moments in history, so also must it pass through them again in the present.”

This is a cross-post from openSecurity.

Lailufar Yasmin is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. She is currently on leave to pursue her doctoral research at Macquarie University in Sydney.

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