Islamic secularism

Posted in culture, history, politics, Rights, society by jrahman on January 15, 2011

(This piece was originally posted in Kafila on 11 January.  Thanks Naeem for the poster).

Bangladesh will mark its 40th year of independence in 2011.  The celebrations have already begun, and will continue until next December.  The TV channels are already playing patriotic tunes.  One such tune is Shona shona shona.  The song says the land, mati, of Bangladesh is better than gold, and under this land sleeps many heroes: Rafiq, Shafiq, Barkat, Titu Mir and Isa Khan.

Who are these heroes?  Rafiq, Shafiq and Barkat were killed by the Pakistani authorities during the language uprising of 1952 — a milestone moment in Bangladesh’s nationalism. Titu Mir defied the East India Company and organised a peasant revolt in the 19th century. Isa Khan was a Bengali chieftain who resisted the Mughals in the 16th century.

Notice how all of these heroes are Bengali Muslim men?

The song was written in the late 1960s.  It was a regular staple at the Shadhin Bangla Betar (Radio Free Bengal) — the resistance broadcasters that inspired the Mukti Bahini against the Pakistanis in 1971. And yet, the song didn’t include Surjya Sen or Pritilata Waddedar (Chittagong-based militant revolutionaries killed by the Raj in the 1930s).

And that’s the blind spot, the paradox, of Bangladesh’s nationalism.  Even in its most progressive form, the nationalist narrative finds it difficult to accommodate people who are not Bengali Muslim (and the inherent patriarchy means women are missing from the HIStory).

Of course, this wasn’t the only song played by the rebel radio station in 1971.  Another regular staple was a song that translated as ‘We fight to save a flower’.  That song doesn’t even mention Bengal, let alone its supposedly glorious past or its heroes.  It does, however, talk about the freedom fighters’ struggle to ensure a smiling face, a new poem, a good film.  You see, nationalism wasn’t the only ideology motivating Bangladesh’s freedom movement — the ethos of secularism and a progressive society were important to many who joined the war.

But these ethos lost in the battlefield of ideas in the liberated Bangladesh.  The post-1971 political order claimed Mujibism as its ideology.  In theory, Mujibism composed of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism — these four ‘high ideals’ were enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1972.  In reality, Mujibism was little more than a cult of personality built around the iconic leader of the freedom movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

After a macabre dance of death, deluge and massacre in 1975, Mujibism went out, and nationalism came in.  And that nationalism proved to be no more inclusive than the one described above.

In retrospect, perhaps it’s not difficult to explain how things have turned out.  For much of the past two centuries, Bengali Muslims had wrestled with their identity — Muslims first with ties to the Islamic world beyond Khyber, or Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai (ever heard of Hindu-Muslim sorority?), or children of Mother India… you get the drift.  Until that internal struggle of the majority community played out to a resolution, perhaps no other ideology — be it secularism or environmentalism or any other -ism — could have held the public attention.  This is particularly important for secularism — until the Bengali Muslims were comfortable in their own skin, perhaps it was too much to hope that he would notice others around them.

Perhaps that’s why the 1960s and the 1970s were not the time for secularism (or other progressive ideas).  Perhaps those ideas had to wait until a politically stable and economically viable Bangladesh emerged for the Bengali Muslims to relax.

Perhaps.  But the story is more complicated than that.

In addition to articulating Bangladeshi nationalism, the regime of Gen Ziaur Rahman replaced secularism with ‘trust in the Almighty Allah’ as a ‘high ideal’ in the constitution through a martial law decree.  As Zia was a key freedom fighter in 1971, the idea that secularism was an integral part of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle was dealt a severe blow by this act.

His successor, Gen HM Ershad, amended the constitution to make Islam the state religion. Ershad was never particularly popular among the country’s urban populace, and by the summer of 1988 — when the amendment took place — was facing regular street protests.  He was overthrown by a people power uprising in December 1990.

His successors amended the constitution in August 1991 to establish a parliamentary form of government.  But no one ever made a promise to restore secularism.  Mujib’s Awami League, which paid lip service to secularism, allied with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami in the mid-1990s, and in 2006 promised another fundamentalist group that it would make fatwa legal and pass a blasphemy act once in power (these promises were later retracted).  Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party never claimed to believe in secularism, and ruled in coalition with Jamaat between 2001 and 2006.

Even in December 2008, when an Awami League led alliance won a massive landslide promising to root out militant and fundamentalist Islamism and restore the ‘spirit of 1971’, hardly a word was said about creating a secular republic.

It seemed that secularism had no supporter in Bangladesh.

Then two things happened last year: one of which has restored secularism in the country’s constitution and has been greeted with much hoopla; but it is the other, less noticed one, that may make secularism an enduring idea.

In July, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the 1979 constitutional amendment that deleted secularism from the constitution was illegal because it legitimised actions and decrees of martial law regimes.  This meant that secularism was once again a ‘high ideal’ in the constitution.  It appeared that Bangladesh was once again a secular state.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving.  The constitution of Bangladesh, as it stands today, says that secularism is a ‘high ideal’ upon which the republic is founded, but Islam continues to be the republic’s state religion.  The government has formed an all-party parliamentary committee to amend the constitution in light of the Supreme Court judgment, but the Prime Minister has explicitly promised that Islam’s status as the state religion will stay in the constitution, as will Allah.  Nothing will be done to hurt the sentiment of the majority, but Bangladesh will be a secular state.  In Pakistan, Zulfi Bhutto promised Islamic socialism.  It seems that Sheikh Hasina promises Islamic secularism in Bangladesh.

It’s not, however, all bad news as far as secularism is concerned.  The current government has a large number of ministers who once belonged in the left movement.  Nurul Islam Nahid, the education minister, is one such.  He was a senior member of the Communist Party of Bangladesh until 1991.  Upon becoming the minister, he made a new education policy one of his key priorities.

A committee comprising of progressive intellectuals and educators drafted a policy promising a secular and humanist education system.  This draft was released in late 2009 for public consultation. In the ‘top down’ political tradition of Bangladesh, this was novel.  Whereas none of the court judgment, the prime ministerial promise, the martial law decree, or the original constitution of 1972 left any room for public discussion about what secularism is and isn’t, all stakeholders debated the ‘secular education policy’ for over a year.  In this time, Mr Nahid and his committee took on board recommendations from pro-BNP experts, and his predecessor in the last BNP government publicly endorsed the new policy — a bipartisan rarity in the hyper-partisan Bangladeshi polity.  The policy was formally adopted by the parliament late last year.

Most importantly for the prospect of a truly secular Bangladesh, the education policy seeks to modernise the country’s madrassahs.  In this, Mr Nahid has sought and received support of a large section of Islamic scholars.  Once the policy is fully implemented, even the madrassah students will be taught secular and humanist values.

Much more important than the Supreme Court verdict, which is effectively nullified by the politicians, it is Mr Nahid and his education policy that can one day create a secular state in Bangladesh.

4 Responses

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  1. Diganta said, on January 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Was Isa Khan a Bengali … he was probably an Afghan with no or little knowledge of Bengali.

    • jrahman said, on January 19, 2011 at 10:30 am

      Bangla probably wasn’t his first or preferred language, so he probably wasn’t probably Bengali in that sense. But he was Bengali in the sense that he was ‘of Bengal’ — at least that’s how the nationalist imagination portrays him.

      Also, didn’t he marry the sister of Pratap and Kedar Roy of Jessore? Come to think of it, someone should make a Bangla epic about the anti-imperialist Hindu-Muslim unifier of Sonargaon. Shouldn’t be too hard to improve on this:

  2. […] Rahman at Mukti opines that the new education policy of Bangladesh, which seeks to modernize the country’s madrassahs, can […]

  3. […] Rahman at Mukti opines that the new education policy of Bangladesh, which seeks to modernize the country’s madrassahs, can […]

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