Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bangladesh's Secular Revolution

Bangladesh continues to make important strides towards greater social and religious freedom, turning its back on the trend towards cultural and religious isolationism seen too often as a reaction to Western cultural encroachment. That's not to say that Bangladesh is losing any of its national character or sanskriti - in fact, it's arguable that they're preserving it.

Last week the Education Ministry directed authorities not to force women or girls to wear veils or religious attire. Unlike the Shah's ban on veils in Iran - and the subsequent forced veiling under the Ayatollahs - Bangladesh has chosen to let individuals practice religion as they see fit.

K. Anis Ahmed writes in today's Wall Street Journal that this "secular revolution" is largely the result of women's empowerment in the country.

Credit women's empowerment, which provide not only a sign of societal progress, but also remain its most salient cause. The prime minister and the opposition leader are both women. The foreign affairs, home and agricultural ministries are all run by women. Women hold top jobs in government, banks and business, and are especially prominent in legal, medical and social industries. They excel in art, culture and sport. They serve in the armed forces and fly planes for the national airlines. In the lower socio-economic spheres, women work in agriculture, microfinance and the garment industry. Tens of millions of women are economic decision-makers.

Of course the struggle for gender rights and equity still has a long way to go. But the attempt to achieve these worthy goals, led mainly by nongovernmental organizations, has also increased social resiliency against religious fanaticism. In fact, it's not a stretch to argue that the government's actions to stem Islamism could never have been imagined without society's secular backdrop.

The truth is, radical political Islam is an invention of clerics such as Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab who, despite their stated intention of removing innovations in the religion, actually did more innovating than anyone else.

This new political Islam became a convenient rallying cry for tyrants and dictators who imposed foreign and often invented cultural mores onto their countries. Bangladesh has a strong and proud Islamic tradition, but they also have a deep and proud national culture. The two are complimentary, and by trusting the people to live and worship as they see fit, the state is doing a good job of ensuring that they preserve both.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Babar Ayaz: Restoring Secular Democracy

The following Op-Ed by Babar Ayaz originally appeared in the Pakistani English-language daily, Daily Times.

The Bangladesh Supreme Court has courageously restored ‘secularism’ in the country’s constitution. The court also said that religious parties should be banned. The appellate division of the apex court said: “Preamble and the relevant provisions of the constitution in respect of secularism, nationalism and socialism, as existed on August 15, 1975, will revive.” That was the tragic date when the young Turks of the army assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who led the liberation struggle.

But the country’s Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said the country would however remain an Islamic republic. He also maintained that ‘Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim’, which is not in the original 1972 Constitution but introduced subsequently by a military-led regime, would be retained. He also said that the country would continue with its present name: the “Islamic Republic of Bangladesh”.

To defuse a strong reaction by the Islamist parties, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she had no intention of banning such parties that are recognised by the Election Commission, although the restored portion of the constitution disallows functioning of religious political parties. Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) had collaborated with the Pakistani army during the military operation in 1971. It is also alleged that the JI’s youth were responsible for the mass murder of the Bangladeshi intellectuals in 1971.

While Sheikh Hasina is right in not jumping to outlaw the religious parties, she would have to find a legal window to resist the implementation of the Supreme Court. Banning political parties does not make sense in a democratic structure as the banned parties can re-launch a party with a new name just like it happened in Turkey. It is also good to keep these parties engaged in the democratic process, otherwise they are likely to go underground and be led by the militants within the party.

The Awami League that led the Bangladesh liberation movement had envisaged a democratic secular polity in the country and was fully conscious that democracy sans secularism is incomplete. The move to secularism was also a consequence of the rise of Bengali ethnic solidarity that negated the basis of the ‘two nation theory’, which gave an overwhelming role to religion in Pakistan. Exploitation of East Pakistan by West Pakistan contributed to the rise of ethnic politics in Pakistan. Although the Muslim League was born in Dacca (Dhaka) in 1906, it was realised by the Bengali politicians that the political formulation that Muslims of India are a separate nation was incorrect. That was one of the major reasons that led the politicians of the new nation to opt for secularism.

According to Saleem Samad’s paper on Bangladesh minorities, “The first constitution passed on November 4, 1972, abolished: (a) all kinds of communalism; (b) political recognition of religion by the state; (c) exploitation of religion for political purpose; (d) discrimination on religious ground (Article 2 of the Bangladesh Constitution). The preamble of the constitution emphasised secularism as one of the fundamental principles of state policy. It is obvious that Islam, or for that matter, any other religion, as an individual belief system was not interfered with but its political use and or abuse was barred.”

So when the Bangladesh Supreme Court gave its verdict in favour of secularism and asked for banning political parties formed on a religious basis, it was upholding the dream of the founding fathers of the Bangladesh constitution. Both Pakistan’s and Bangladesh’s experience has shown that the formation of political parties on the basis of religion has widened the gulf between various sects of Islam. The manifesto of these religious parties is also in conflict with globally accepted human rights. The logical outcome of the political formulation of declaring a country as an ‘Islamic Republic’ is that equal rights are denied to the minorities and it gives more space to religious fundamentalism.

We have seen both in the case of Pakistan and Bangladesh that the minorities’ ratio in the population has been shrinking since 1947. Because of a more tolerant attitude of Bengalis towards the minorities, the migration of Hindus and Christians was less than Pakistan. According to Bangladesh’s 1991 census, the religious and ethnic minorities stood at 12.6 percent, as compared to less than 5 percent in Pakistan. The Hindus are 10.5 percent (12.5 million), Christians (0.3 percent), Buddhists (0.6 percent) and other religious minorities (0.3 percent) in Bangladesh. Hindus, mostly Bengali-speaking, are the biggest religious minority community and they are scattered all over the country. Similarly, Christians are also scattered all over, but the Buddhist population is largely concentrated in Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Patuakhali.

As the basic secular structure was changed after the 1975 bloody coup, the minorities started feeling insecure and discriminated against. The Khaleda Zia government, which wanted to keep the Islamists appeased, failed miserably in protecting the Hindu minority in the riots that followed the Babri Masjid demolition incident by Hindu extremists in India. The Islamic parties, claiming that she had committed blasphemy, hounded Dr Taslima Nasrin out of the country for recording the brutal killings of the Hindus in her novel Lajja, a charge that cannot be proved even when you go through her novel with a fine toothcomb.

Instead of expediency politics, the Awami League should take this opportunity to restore the country’s original name, ‘The People’s Republic of Bangladesh’, because you cannot be an ‘Islamic Republic’ and be secular at the same time.

Similarly, to be a true democracy Bangladesh should also treat non-Bengali speaking people of the country equally and expunge such clauses from the constitution that talk about Bengali nationalism instead of Bangladeshi nationalism. Such clauses support majoritarianism and seclude the minority ethnic groups of the country.

Coming back home, our establishment should realise that terrorist attacks by militant Islamic groups and discrimination and victimisation of minorities in Pakistan cannot be stopped unless Pakistan corrects the historic mistake and re-launches itself as a secular democracy. Though their problems are not as compelling as that of Pakistan, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court appears to be centuries ahead of its Pakistani peers and the Pakistani establishment.