SECULARISM AND THE STATE: CASE OF BANGLADESH
Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed
It was a class of third year (Honours) in political science. Professor Dr. Ferdous Hossain, a celebrated political scientist, entered timely in a very befitting mood and poise and without taking a pause said, “today I will dwell upon an interesting but sombre topic named secularism. Therefore, be attentive to and careful of what I utter and pass to you all since for a student there need under all the circumstances four things to bear in mind that is to say (a) power of attention (b) power of understanding (c) power of digestion and (d) power of delivery as and when required.”
Students started feeling excited with an unusual inquisitive bent of mind as if they were going to discover/invent something new by the grace of their respectable professor.
Professor Hossain went on saying “In fact, secularism denotes a clear separation between religion and functions of a government in a state. It is by and large characterized as follows:
“Both state and religion(s) have their respective areas of concern. One deals with the matters related to state while other(s) concentrates on the inner overhauling and purification of mind or both body and mind of an individual in accordance with certain set of principles, rules and regulations, which originate from the religion in question. Such overhauling and purification have their necessary abode in various rate and speed in groups, societies, gilds and so on ranging from micro to macro levels.
“In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of religion and government (often termed the separation of church and state). This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture (such as the Bible, Torah and Sharia law) with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to add to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities.
“Talks and treatises on secularism began from the very days of the rise and dominance of the churches over the state in Europe. But to coin a befitting word like ‘secularism’ came first from the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851 when he wrote the book The Origin and Nature of Secularism’ in 1851.
“Religion(s) aims at the well-being and salvation markedly of an individual in the next world but functions of a state are decided taking note from realities within and around a state in the activist world as mostly opposed to the next world;
“If one is ever swayed by the other then its smooth functioning gets jolted and confounded breeding excesses and irritations as a whole;
“Here two theories are important, which relate to Christianity in Europe. One is ‘king is the march of God on earth’ and the other is ‘king must be subservient to the will of God through the institutions of religion, called ‘Church headed by the chief priest There were lot of debates, tussles, intrigues and fights between these two forces, which lasted more than a thousand years in Europe for which middle age has been earmarked by Dunning, a great political thinker, as ‘un-political i.e. barren politically;
“The spirit of secularism began to dawn in the fifteenth century and later it was Machiavelli who made the issue settled politically and conceptually in a scientific manner in his book ‘The Prince’ and other writings and thus became the father of political science after a long gap of Plato and Aristotle;
“Secularism was more pointedly explained in the context of political revolution and development in France where its root was the word ‘Laïcité’ meaning ‘state shall neither foster, nurse and encourage any religion nor obstruct others to follow it privately or otherwise( but, today France is going away gradually from such water-tight separation); and
“Today it implies that the government in a state shall neither nurse and encourage it nor use it for its own purposes to retain in power. It further adds that even no political party should use religion just to get voted to power. This explanation is widely acceptable, accommodative and responsive on all accounts.
Therefore, in plain words secularism draws a line of separation between a government in a state and religion(s) therein making it sure that state belongs to all believers and disbelievers of various folds and camps in a state but religion/religions in a state belong to many folds of believers merely.
“That’s all for the time being and you may put forward your questions, if any,” said the professor.
‘Sir, is Bangladesh a secular state? asked a student sitting on the last bench in the class.
“Yes, constitutionally it is but factually it is not so seeing that religion ‘Islam ‘has been declared as the state religion by the Constitution (Eight Amendment) Act of 1989 during HM Ershad regime and, ironically enough, it was further strengthened by the Constitution(Fifteenth Amendment) Act of 2011 during the period of the ongoing democratic rule of Sheikh Hasina government. More noticeable is that there is a ministry dealing with the affairs of religions in the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. In sequence of all these, Khatib of Baitul Mokkaram, the principal mosque in the country, is appointed by the government. From these standpoints, secularism and religion together mingled at a point of squaring off, which one may logically call a compromise in practice,” came the answer.
‘Then what is it?’ readily posed another student.
“Interestingly enough, Bangladesh is known in the world as a ‘moderate Muslim state. More thrilling is that all our governments, starting from HM Ershad to Begum Khaleda Zia to Sheikh Hasina, feel proud of being so,” replied the professor serenely.
‘Is it not a great contradiction after the spirit of secularism?’ now a girl student questioned in the fullest mood of wonder and protest.
“Dear students, Let me repeat honestly that it is rather a kind of reconciliation and harmonization between religion and politics after the model of politics in Bangladesh. That’s why I think Bangladesh is a secular and moderate Muslim country. Hence, we should be proud of creating a model in the domain of politics and political science even in the face of diverse nature and categories of crises hunting us internally and externally.”
He said to recall the recent saying of Sheikh Hasina, sitting prime minister of Bangladesh, who, having been faced with the rise and 13-point demands of Hafazat-e-Islam, the largest organization of Islamic pundits (Alems), grown-up and growing, in line with Quran and Sunnah, in a bid to pacify the majority people in the country belonging to Islam, assured right away that ‘In future Bangladesh shall be run in accordance with Madina Charter’. It was, in fact, made by Prophet Hazrat Mohammad, peace be upon him, in 620-622 AD through threadbare discussions with the contemporary warring sects and communities in Madina where the main theme was belief in the oneness of Allah and nothing should go against this very spirit, where remains no possibility for a lady/female either to become the Head of Government/State or even to become the leader of a group. body/organization comprising of male and female. This must be termed as a kind of bare and shameless use of religion to gain politically.
Interesting enough, rise and wave of religion in a rejuvenated mood and mode in Europe has started plaguing leaders and statesmen at large. In United Kingdom it is laid down in documents that’ the Head of kingdom shall be a protestant by faith at the same time being the ex-officio Head of the Church of England. More interesting is that the necessity of religion has desperately further been echoed in the voice of David Cameron, sitting Prime Minister of UK, on 16 December 2011. Britain is a Christian nation and should not be afraid of standing up for Christian values to help counter the country’s “moral collapse”, Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday.
In a rare foray into religion by a British premier, Cameron said “live and let live” had too often become “do what you please” in Britain. The “passive tolerance” of immoral behaviour had helped fuel the August riots, excess in the banking industry and home-grown Islamist terror, he said.
“We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so,” Cameron said at an event in Oxford to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
“The Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend. The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option.”
Cameron described himself as a committed but only “vaguely practicing” member of the Church of England, who was “full of doubts” about big theological issues.
“We’ve got to stand up for our values if we are to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations,” he said.
“Moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore.”
Cameron said that along with the works of William Shakespeare, the King James Bible was a high point of the English language. “The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country,” he said.
“Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities — these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all — to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.”
All these testify on record that religion in its many manifestations is inherently tied to life, society, politics and state but the real teachings and lessons are not properly reflected in life, society, politics and state. Why the half-done initiative and performance? Isn’t it true that a half truth is more dangerous and negative than a lie?’
‘Then Sir, isn’t it giving an apparent signal that secularism is gradually losing its appeal in reality because of the natural power of religion over individuals, groups, societies, politics and come what may not?’ put forward another student sitting in the front desk.
“You may have lot of queries and conclusions under the given circumstances. Even so, dear students, bear in mind all the time that conceptually and practically secularism has seriously been distorted, and ill-applied in Bangladesh perspective; Yes, you should satisfy yourselves with the proposition that the answer is better known to those who are in politics and to those who make law in Parliament,” concluded the Professor in a haste and left the room ten minutes before the scheduled time of termination.
In the end, the students were really at a loss as to what to understand, what to digest and what to say if a question is ever put to any of them about the secular standing of Bangladesh. Should they then resort to the definition and interpretation of secularism in line with the lecture of the professor or should they strictly follow the Constitution of Bangladesh? It would seem whatever choice they make, it would not be free from confusion and misapprehension.
Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed, Chairman of Leadership Studies Foundation, Member of International Political Science Association and columnist.
NOVEMBER 27, 2014