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Bangladesh: The defenestration of secularism

Tuesday 26 April 2016, by siawi3


Dhaka Tribune - April 21, 2016

by Ikhtisad Ahmed

Atheism has become a derogatory word

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina knows the pain of loss better than most. She has lived with it since the slaughter of her family on August 15, 1975. Her promise to bring the murderers of Rajib Haider — an architect and atheist, secular blogger killed in Dhaka for his views February 15, 2013 — to justice, had the honesty of someone who deeply empathised with his family, whom she was visiting to offer her condolences and grieve with in person. Three years later, Bangladesh still awaits fulfilment of that promise.

Two days after Bangladesh turned 45, the High Court took two minutes to dismiss a petition that had been a nuisance to the country’s fiercely independent judiciary since 1988.

Following the same court’s ruling in October 2010, secularism, enshrined in the constitution as one of the four founding principles of the nation, was revived when the document was amended for the 15th time by a legislative branch committed to keeping the nation and its laws from becoming archaic.

The compromise of retaining Islam as the state religion, however, meant that the constitution was rendered incongruent and toothless due to its inherent contradictions.

The March 28 decision upheld Islam’s standing, thereby allowing Awami League’s version of a Bangladesh built on the solid foundations of compromise to continue unabated.

The trouble with compromise is that it allows those in power to garner support from diametrically opposite views as required to remain in power, with devastating consequences for average citizens. Nazimuddin Samad, a secular activist who was one of the few voices to take issue with the baffling legal ruling, was butchered by Islamic fundamentalists on April 7.

Vast swathes of conversations on the day and the one after centred on the impending Pohela Boishakh celebrations being anti-Islamic, while the government investigated whether Nazimuddin had hurt religious sentiments.

The government concurred with the loud vitriolic voices of intolerance in looking to blame the victim and make murder acceptable, legal.

In her Pohela Boishakh address after Nazimuddin’s murder, the same prime minister who had so passionately showed solidarity with Rajib, secularism, and the oppressed secularists, chose to be on the wrong side of history.

Dictated by perceived realpolitik, she denounced indecent statements about religion and declared the government could not take responsibility for their heinous consequences. It matters little what else she said since she had expressly endorsed censorship, intolerance, and the violent vigilantism of narrow-minded fundamentalists.

A correct version of Bangladeshi history does, indeed, show Awami League’s claims of military dictators, Zia and Ershad, introducing the scourge of Islamism in independent Bangladesh to be true.

The claims of Jamaat’s historic fundamentalism and violence also hold water. The party in government is less candid about contemporary history, however.

The current battle over religion in politics has come to pass because Awami League brought these historic political divisions that had simmered under the surface and adversely affected the country to the fore in 2013. The government dishonestly played the secularism and patriotism cards when those values were needed to keep it in power.

The prime minister’s heartfelt actions in the aftermath of Rajib’s murder and her son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, going to Shahbagh with an entourage, are lasting images from that time.

Repeatedly saying that the AL is the only thing that stands in the way of Bangladesh being engulfed by the flames of Islamism, prompted and nurtured by BNP and Jamaat, does not make it true. Under the government’s watch, “atheism” — which is not proselytised like Islam and Islamism, or any other religion and its extremist offspring — has become a derogatory word worthy of brutal punishment, and “secularism,” “freethinking,” and “heresy” have become its interchangeable synonyms.

Self-censorship, once patronisingly encouraged as good sense and practice, has become mandated by the state. Even the prime minister’s brave refusal to bow to the demands of extremists and enact new blasphemy laws in 2013 has been reduced to a political manoeuvre by a government that has a natural affinity with existing blasphemy laws dating back to 1890, a remnant of the British imperial penal code, that characterise the undefined and indefinable concept of hurting religious sentiment as a criminal offence.

The British zeal for a divine right to rule manifested itself as Bengal being divided along religious lines to be conquered. The only conceivable reason for the government not to take any responsibility for drawing similar lines, encouraging communalism — Islamism versus secularism and all else — and being a supportive bystander to intolerance and violence, is that this is precisely what it wants.

The Islamist terror narrative bruited about the world is believed more easily than the planet Earth being older than 6,000 years. The promulgation of the campaign against it allows domestic and imperialist autocrats to subdue it by any means necessary. The real danger to any regime, however, is dissent stemming from secularism and socialism.

The AL’s ideologically paradoxical compromise is an attempt to be three moves ahead in a game of chess of its own making. Islamism and secularism may have been defenestrated, but the government is not above using them when necessary, and the populace will be left to peck at the crumbs the thrusts and parries will inevitably leave behind.