On secularism

Posted in Rights, society by jrahman on May 21, 2009

Secularism is in fashion these days.  The Law Minister thinks that if the High Court verdict on the 5th Amendment to the constitution is upheld, we will revert to being a secular state.  But the Judge who issued the verdict specifically said:

Some of the areas that the court condones are closed-transactions. For instance, incorporation of Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim or resting trust on the Almighty Allah in the fifth amendment do not fall under the purview of illegality since the court feels that these could also have been done constitutionally.

So the Judge says Bismillah and trust on Allah stays in the consitution, and indeed the Law Minister assures everyone that the constitution will continue to begin with Bismillah.  And yet, this verdict is about secularism?

Secularism ki khay, na mathai dey?

Jokes aside, it’s about time we discuss these questions: What is secularism?  Why do we want it?  Why have we failed to achieve it? 

This blog is unabashedly, unequivocally, secular.  As are its allies in Unheard Voice.  Back in early 2007, when I was invited to write for UV, blogger borro bhai Rumi Ahmed instructed me that my pieces would have to be ‘compatible with some basic tenets … including secularism (doesn’t matter how you interpret it)…’

Doesn’t matter how you interpret it — therein lies the rub.  The fact is, there is no broadly accepted interpretation of secularism, either among the self-styled seculars or their opponents, in Bangladesh.  Thus we get inanities linking secularism with burkha sale.  Fortunately, we also get very nuanced arguments that are solidly grounded in the Bangladeshi tradition and reality — examples are here and here.

What do I understand as secularism? 

I understand there are at least two versions of secularism in practice.  First there is the means-based secularism — the state is based on a liberal foundation where everyone has their rights, and the state shall not violate those rights.  This leads to a secular state, though not necessarily a secular society.  The clearest example of this is the United States, where in a secular republic, no one unable to quote from the Bible has a serious chance of becoming a president. One might also call this pluralism. And in Bangladesh, oshamprodayikota might be a valid term.

But there is also what I understand to be the ends-based secularism.  The idea here is to create a secular society and use the state and politics as the means. 

But then the question becomes, what is a secular society?  In India, secular society has come to mean co-existence, in equal manner, of every faith.  So if Amar, Akbar and Anthony share an office, the Indian secularism would insist that a Ganesh statue, a cross and a Quran are kept in the room.  But in Turkey, secular society has come to mean an absence of religious icons — hence the ban on headscarves.  And the most extreme ends-based secularism is that of the communists — an end to religion. 

Have I simplified things?  Yes.  But I don’t think I’ve lost the essence of the issue. 

For Bangladesh, which of these various types of secularism do we want?  Have we ever had an honest discussion about it?  If so, when? 

Did the Awami League leadership discuss this in the 1960s when they prepared the nation for an inevitable confrontation with Pakistan? 

Did the framers of the 1972 constitution debate these issues when they put dharma-niropekkhota as a founding principle? 

Did Gen Zia consult anyone when he dropped it from the constitution through a decree?

And even if they had not, what is stopping us from having these conversations?  Until those of us, self-confessed secularists, are clear about what we want, how will we be able to rebutt a claim that secularism=atheism.

Having raised these issues, it’s only fair that I state where I stand.  Politically, I am for a means-based secularism: to each their own, and state must not discriminate.  But it is also important to stress that I do not want the state to engineer any particular type of society. 

But independent of these debates about what secularism might mean, there is a range of things that all progressive Bangladeshis push for right now.  These are what we might call practical secularism. 

We should push for an immediate repelling of the Enemy/Vested Property Act.  We should institute a Sachar-type commission that looks at the issue of discrimination in Bangladesh and recommend practicable reforms.  Then we should push for those reforms.  Whenever issues like Arif the cartoonist, or Daud Haider the poet, or Taslima Nasreen come up, we should stand firm against the obscurantists.

Until and unless we institute these practical mesures, and have a frank discussion about secularism, High Court verdicts, presidential ordinances, or constitutional amendments will result in a secular Bangladesh.  Let’s leave the Law Minister to do politics, and begin the conversation.

(This post is based on a correspondence at Uttorshuri from February 2008).

4 Responses

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  1. Unheard Voice » On secularism said, on May 21, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    […] (More at Mukti) […]

  2. Robin Khundkar said, on May 21, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    I prefer the word “pluralism” to “secularism”. I think that is in more in sync with culture of the Indian Subcontinent.

  3. Faraaz said, on May 23, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Secularism indeed has various interpretations and hence when someone says do you agree with secularism regardless of its interpretations, I cannot answer that question because my agreement/disagreement solely depends on how it is interpreted.
    You have clearly explained some of the different manifestation of secularism.
    However, in the context of Bangladesh, one needs to re interpret secularism. Does Bismillah in the constitution really undermine the rights of Hindus and Christians and Buddhists in Bangladesh? USA has In God We Trust yet it is able to protect the rights of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Atheists over there.
    The issue is not whether the constitution has Bismillah or not. The issue is where the constitution has laws that protect citizens and treats them equally regardless of their religious affiliations or the lack of it.
    Secularism in Bangladesh cannot mean separation of mosque and state because mosque is not the equivalent of a church. The Mosque has no political functions or authority by its very definition, hence the mosque is already separate from the state.
    As far as the issue of Tasleema Nasreen and Arif is concerned, I dont think it is so much about Secularism. It has more to do with freedom of speech or the lack of it in Bangladesh. Forget about religion, do you think a book that takes a severely critical look at Sheikh Haseena or Khaleda Zia would be allowed in our country the way it is allowed in USA?
    We need to address the key root causes behind problems and the issue behind Tasleema Nasrin was not secularism but the political points the government scored by appeasing the Islamist parties and Mullahs. That will not change with the removal of Bismillah from the constitution.
    Governments will continue to act to save their own political interests in violation of the constitution if need be.

  4. jewel said, on February 20, 2012 at 1:24 am

    i m realy impress.

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