If secularism was the driving force behind the creation of Bangladesh, why is the country now facing an Islamic resurgence? The state of Bangladesh emerged on the basis of secular socialist principles in 1971 and its first constitution, framed in 1972, officially banned the use of religion in politics and also banned all religious political parties. However, after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - the "Father of the Nation" and the leader of Awami League - Islam emerged as a strong political force guiding politics and social behaviour in Bangladesh during the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad. But despite the rise of Islam, the Awami League government has always worked towards secularizing the country. Bangladesh found itself facing many challenges, leading to a contradiction in the country's constitution in which secularism is juxtaposed against Islam, which as the state religion undermines the secular nature of the state. So why can't Bangladesh develop as a secular state without the intervention of Islam in mainstream politics? A secular state does not stand against religion, it sees religion as a private affair and pursues a neutral approach on religious matters. In order to evaluate the challenges of secularism in Bangladesh, we need to analyze the factors that have led to the resurgence of Islam in the political landscape of Bangladesh and evaluate the possibilities of overcoming the challenges the state now faces.
The reemergence of Islam as a strong force in all sections of Bangladesh society resonates with the reflection of neocolonialism. According to Postcolonialist theory, despite achieving political independence from the colonial masters, the postcolonial state continues to reflect the influences of colonialism. Postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon stressed that the middle classes and the intellectual elite of the colonial system become powerful in a postcolonial state, and they follow in the footsteps of their colonial masters by engaging in corruption, oppression and the exploitation of the working classes in their native land.
In historical terms, Muslim religious nationalism and Muslim separatism was generated by the Muslim League, leading to the establishment of the two-nation theory that identified the Muslims of India as a separate nation. This became the chief reason for the Partition in 1947 which led to the formation of Pakistan and India. Pakistan was supposed to be a home for Bengali Muslims, a place where they would be free from Hindu economic domination and play a leading role as representatives of the majority of Pakistan's citizens. However, they were treated badly by their rulers in West Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Bengalis of East Pakistan were not offered representation on policy-making bodies, and political power, the military and the civil service were all monopolized by West Pakistan. Moreover, there was a continuous effort by Pakistani rulers to suppress indigenous Bengali culture in order to promote an Islamic alternative.
According to Marxist historian Badruddin Umar, although Islam was the ideology of the Pakistan state, the principles of the Islamic religion were not practiced. Instead a form of religious communalism became deeply entrenched in society, and the elites of West Pakistan used religion "to promote their class exploitation of the toiling masses," which was apparent in the imposition of Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan. According to principles of Islam no language could claim a special position, but Urdu was the language of the ruling classes of Pakistan, and was therefore forced upon the Bengali speaking peoples in an attempt to suppress the Bengali language. Islam accepts all cultures around the world as long as they do not contradict its core principles, but as well as the language issue, a continuous effort was made to suppress indigenous Bengali culture. Pakistani rulers even attempted to Islamize the Bengali language by replacing Bengali script with Arabic. Meanwhile, the traditional Bengali New Year's Day, Pahela Baishakh, was also strongly resented by the Pakistan government, and Rabindranath Tagore, who epitomised Bengali culture and literary heritage, had his work banned from radio and television. Such a demeaning attitude towards Bengali culture reflects the strong sectarian feelings that were expressed towards the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan, whom the ruling classes considered inferior converts from low-caste Hindus. None of the Bengalis' cultural activities had religious sanction under the government and did not conflict with Islamic ideology, but the ruling elites continued to subjugate them in order to demonstrate their racial superiority.
The cultural suppression of the people of East Pakistan by their West Pakistani rulers led to the emergence of Bengali ethnic nationalism as religious nationalism waned with the creation of Pakistan. The rise of the Bengali nationalist movement, which was based on secularism, language and literature, motivated the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan in their struggle for independence to gain a sovereign nation of Bangladesh.
After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, religion-oriented political parties were banned, and secularism was officially proclaimed a state principle. But within a few years of independence a resurgence of Islam in the culture and politics of Bangladesh became apparent. Bengali nationalism, based on secular principles - which was the main driving force behind the creation of the Independent nation state of Bangladesh in the 1971 War of Liberation - was removed from the constitution by General Ziaur Rahman and replaced with Bangladeshi nationalism, which emerged as the new national ideology. Ziaur Rahman removed the principle of secularism in 1977, which was also one of the main features of Bengali nationalism, and inserted the line "absolute trust and faith on Almighty Allah". In 1988 General Ershad declared Islam as the state religion.
Bengali nationalism emphasized language, territory and secular culture, while Bangladeshi nationalism was based on politicized Islam, language, territory and anti-Indian feelings, emphasising the idea that Bangladeshi citizens were different from the people of the Indian state of West Bengal. Bangladeshi nationalism did not include minorities, particularly the ethnic minorities of the Chittagong Hill tracts region. In post-colonial Bangladesh, the governing culture during the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman and General Ershad Islam emerged as a strong force that aroused religious, political and social consciousness on the basis of Muslim identity, which had become prevalent during the Pakistan period. Once again it became obvious that the ruling elites were emulating the exploitative tactics of the colonial rulers of west Pakistan, underscoring the postcolonial theory of Frantz Fanon mentioned above.
Bengali nationalism, which comprised "Bengali culture, language, folklore and mores", was also the culture of the Hindus of West Bengal. The incorporation of political Islam and anti-Indian feeling into Bangladeshi nationalism reflects a sectarian outlook towards the people of West Bengal, undermining Bengali culture in a similar way to earlier attempts by the West Pakistani rulers. The exploitation that was perpetrated in the name of religion during the Pakistan period was also prevalent in the institutionalization of Islamization during the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad. According to Professor Mubashar Hasan, "Islam became a tool to legitimize illegal regimes in the eyes of the Muslim majority"
As well as governmental institutions, other non-governmental actors and institutions like the Madrassa, (traditionally oriented schools emphasizing Islamic teachings), mosques and Tableeg Jamaat (voluntary groups preaching Islamic ways of life) were instrumental in spreading the ideals and values of Islam. Meanwhile, Islamic-based political parties and the dissemination of Islamic knowledge by ulema (religious leaders) also played a crucial role in instilling religious identity in the minds of the people of Bangladesh.
After Bangladesh became independent in 1971, secularism became a fundamental principle of state policy, and the separation of religion and state became a political and constitutional rule. Mujib's secularism was characterized by the neutrality of religions and the elimination of communal politics, but his emphasis on refusing political recognition for any religion by the state was misunderstood by the masses to be un-Islamic and attracted an immediate backlash. According to Professor Md Nazrul Islam and Professor Md Saidul, although secularism had been a founding principle of the Liberation War, people had not been familiar with this term during the liberation struggle. They were driven by Bengali nationalism and had fought against the Pakistani ruling elites for the cultural, economic and political emancipation of East Pakistan.
Secularism in Bangladesh is still perceived as a rejection of Islam. In 2010, Secularism was re-established in the constitution, although Islam was retained as the state religion. Although secularism has been reinstalled, there are still contradictions because the ruling Awami League did not want to offend the religious sentiment of the people by eliminating Islam as state religion. We therefore need to understand why the Awami League government has faced an uphill struggle in its attempt to secularize Bangladesh.
As part of the rise in fundamentalism and Islamization during the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Ershad, Islamic-based political parties and other governmental and non-governmental institutions played a crucial role in entrenching the ideals and values of Islam in Bangladeshi society, motivating people to indulge in the practices of Islam. Emphasis was placed on heavenly rewards rather than Islamic rationalism, further hindering the secularization of society. Meanwhile, the cultivation of orthodox ulemas and the proliferation of madrasas in education has encouraged political Islam and its emphasis on Islamic identity, causing a baffling paradox that prompts conflict in terms of the population's ethnic and religious identity, in the same way that the Islamic revivalist movements affected Bengali Muslims in the nineteenth century.
The Madrassa is a principal educational institution that contributes to the process of socialization into the Islamic way of life. In the school curriculum, the Islamic content focuses on the scriptural orthodoxy, sidelining more rational aspects of the faith and plunging people into obscurantism while thwarting the development of individuality. Islamic rationalism should be cultivated in the curriculum along with the fundamental doctrines of Islam, and historian Masooda Bano stressed that Islamic rationalism is consistent with Sunni orthodoxy. Emphasis on Islamic rationalism would enable the Muslims to do away with old religious superstitions and values, shed their dogmatism and give priority to reason in exploring truth and solving social problems. The propagation of Islamic rationalism through madrassa education, speeches at religious meetings and mass media would help construct a barrier against imaginative and irrational thinking while encouraging a social awakening among the people of Bangladesh, motivating them to embrace a more rational aspect of Islam that would benefit the growth of individuality and help would help society to progress.
Islamic reformer Syed Ahmed Khan saw religious orthodoxy as the key to the backwardness of the Bengali Muslims in the nineteenth century. If we examine Bangladesh society since its creation in 1971, we can see that the predominance of religious orthodoxy has hindered people, preventing them from embracing secularism by encouraging them to consider it un-Islamic, thwarting the progress in the secular sphere of life. According to Arab secularist Aliabd al-Raziq "Islam does not prohibit Muslims from establishing new political systems on the basis of new theories of human rationality and the experiences of various nations" We can therefore deduce that secularism conforms with the principles of Islam. Rationalism and logic are important aspects of secularism, which means that enlightening the population through Islamic rationalism will enable them to transcend the misconception that secularism is not an absence of religion, and that the separation of religion and politics would enable political and social development.
To summarise, the resurgence of Islam and the obstacles to the secularization of Bangladesh can be attributed to several factors. Military rulers have exploited Islam for political gain like their colonial rulers of West Pakistan did before them, which reflects postcolonial theory. Meanwhile, the dissemination of religious orthodoxy through madrassa education, Tableeg Jamaat, ulema and the Islamic-based political parties has accelerated the process of desecularization. Governmental and non-governmental institutions have exploited people's attachment to Islam for their own advantage, and the fear of faith and people's superficial knowledge of Islam have caused them to cling to obscurantism, hindering their acceptance of a secularized society. However, the secularized society could be achieved through the propagation of Islamic rationalism through madrassa education, ulemas and the mass media. Education in Islamic rationalism, which conforms to the principles of Islam, would allow people to use reason as the fundamental justification for knowledge or beliefs. This would enable people to emerge from the darkness of orthodoxy and otherworldliness and make them realize how the separation of religious institutions from state institutions would be beneficial for the continuing welfare of humanity.
Selima Quader Chowdhury, Senior Lecturer, General Education Department, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Email: email@example.com
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