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Bangladesh’s identity crisis


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VARIOUS Islamist groups in Bangladesh are demanding that a new anti-blasphemy law be formulated under which the death penalty can be awarded to those who defame Islam and the Prophet (PBUH).

It has been rejected by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Nevertheless, the demand and the scale of the emotion and controversy it has stirred up serve to deepen political polarisation in the country. There is little doubt that the end result will be an intensification of the divide between secularists and Islamists.

In a fresh wave of protests launched by the Islamist group Hefajat-i-Islam (‘protecting Islam’) against bloggers that they consider anti-Islam, hundreds of thousands of people held rallies in Dhaka and other cities and towns across the country.

They criticised the Awami League government for not taking severe action against those who, in the recent past, augmented their purportedly anti-Islam activities through online social networks and blogs.

Islamist groups are adamant in their demand and say that they are committed to sustaining their pressure on the government to formulate laws which can award the death penalty to those found guilty of insulting Islam.

But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has unequivocally rejected these demands. During an interview given recently to the BBC, she said that “the country is a secular democracy, so each and every religion has a right to practise their religion freely”. Where is Bangladesh headed and how is the deepening schism between secular and Islamic groups impacting the country’s political landscape? How can Bangladesh deal with contradictions in its constitution which considers Islam the state religion but also mentions secularism in Article 12 of the constitution?

On June 30, 2011, the Bangladesh parliament passed the 15th Amendment bill which retained Islam as the state religion along with ‘Bismillah’. That augments the predicament: how can it be a secular state when Islam has been declared the state religion?

In a secular state, religion is a private affair and the state pursues a neutral approach on religious matters. Having a state religion would seem to indicate the overturning of the secular nature of the state.

Expressing their dismay over the compromise made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on retaining Islam as the state religion, two senior ministers in her cabinet — A.M.A. Muhith and A.K. Khandaker — argued that the amendment contradicted the first constitution of Bangladesh, promulgated in November 1972.

This original constitution of Bangladesh focused on the secular identity of the country. In 2010, two verdicts given by the Bangladesh Supreme Court had declared the fifth and eighth amendments, made in the constitution during the regimes of Gen Zia-ur-Rehman and Gen Hussain M. Ershad, unconstitutional, null and void and restored the four pillars of the state mentioned in the 1972 constitution: democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism.

These amendments had not only made Islam the state religion but also allowed religion-based politics, which enabled the Jamaat-i-Islami and other religious parties to return to the position that had been denied to them under 1972 constitution.

The verdicts had termed the fifth and eighth amendments as having transformed Bangladesh into a “theocratic” state. But the Sheikh Hasina regime failed to completely undo these amendments. Not only has Islam been retained as the state religion but religion-based politics are also allowed.

Secularists in Bangladesh say that the Awami League government has missed the opportunity to secularise the country, particularly with the SC ruling available on the record.

Yet secularising the country by restoring the 1972 constitution to its original pillars of democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism may open up a Pandora’s box, resulting in violent confrontation between secularists and Islamists.

Already, it is possible to detect polarisation in people’s views over the ‘long march’ from Chittagong to Dhaka under the banner of Hefajat-i-Islam. In order to counter Hefajat-i-Islam, a secular group known as Gono Jagoron Moncho (‘mass-awakening platform’) has been formed, thus escalating the threat of collision between the two groups. The situation will only get more complex over the future.

Bangladesh, which has so far been considered a moderate Muslim country, certainly has meagre scope for religious extremism. But back-to-back events in the recent past, such as the attempts made by the Awami League regime to marginalise religious parties, particularly the Jamaat-i-Islami, in politics have been counterproductive.

The issue of bloggers perceived as anti-Islam has been exploited by Islamic groups to reassert their position by holding countrywide protests, many of which have turned violent. But what is obvious from the prevailing confrontation between Islamists and secularists is the country’s identity crisis. Will Bangladesh have an Islamic identity, secular identity or an identity based on Bengali or Bangladeshi nationalism?

When Gen Zia-ur-Rehman became the president of Bangladesh and launched the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, he replaced the slogan of Bengali nationalism propagated by the Awami League with Bangladeshi nationalism.

Bengali nationalism promoted the ethnic identity of Bengalis while undermining the existence of other ethnic groups and religions. Bangladeshi nationalism contained a blend of culture and religion so as to differentiate it from secular Bengali nationalism.

The erosion of the secular character of Bangladesh deepened when Gen Ershad declared Islam as the state religion. However, the promotion of Bangladeshi nationalism and the declaration Islam as the state religion by the martial law regimes of Gen Rehman and Gen Ershad aimed to provide legitimacy to their undemocratic rule.

The use of religion for political purposes, while undermining democracy and secularism, served the purpose of the country’s military dictators but provided enormous space to Islamic forces. The legacy of generals Zia and Ershad still haunts Bangladeshi secularists in terms of promotion of religion and allowing religion-based parties to enter the mainstream political arena of Bangladesh.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the University of Karachi.

Comments (34) Closed

malik Apr 16, 2013 03:51am
Islam remains the only religion in the world that needs to be saved all the time under one pretext or another. And whereever there are Islamists they make sure that it ramains a vulnerable religion. We need to understand that our reigion is not so week that it needs protection. We needs counter narrative and not violence or statutes to spread this message.
Aman Apr 16, 2013 03:57am
The author clearly does not know what he is talking about. Otherwise he is deliberately disseminating false information. I do not, however, know which one is true. Hefazat-I-Islam did not start things. It all started when they started so called 'Gono Jagoron Moncho' led by some self proclaimed atheists who openly was abusing Allah and his Messenger in their blogs in worst filthy languages under direct patronage of the Hasina government with full police protection. They assembled 10/15 thousand people and thought they secularized the nation. That is when Hefazat-I-Islam was formed by concerned Islamic personalities from all wakes of the society and they demonstrated the largest showdown in the history of the country with over a quarter million people assembled in Dhaka. This was even after Dhaka was completely isolated from the rest of country by halting all means of transportation and communications. As Hefazat moved in, the so called "Go Jagoron Moncho' went into hideout. Hefazat believes that these atheists had the nefarious audacity of openly abusing Allah and his messenger because of removal of Islamic identity of the nation from the constitution. That is the reason they are fighting fiercely to get things back on track. Just wait and fun for Hasina regime will not stop here!
AM Apr 16, 2013 04:03am
Bengali should be Bengali first and care and live with Bengali people. Arab religion is dividing then as all other religions do....
samrat Apr 16, 2013 04:14am
Bangladeshis have huge Burden of vast literature which is majorly by Hindus and a culture which is Indian. A bengali cn harly relate himself to a turk or arab. Urdu the lingua franca of Indian muslims is untouched by Bengalis which isolates them from Urdu speaking Muslims which has a cultural factor. Alas Bangladeshis like most of the Converted Muslims will face conflict with their past as Islam comes with Arabization.
BRR Apr 16, 2013 04:27am
The Islamic militants are itching for a fight - and they will proclaim Islam is under threat, call themselves saviors, and then riot through the streets intimidating people.
Aldi Lahh Apr 16, 2013 04:43am
Maybe the "blasphemy" favoring folks need to learn about their religion from people like yourself. I think there migt something else going on. Since Bangladesh (as part of Pakistan, then in 1971) has suffered two state divorces and the vestiges of anti-India remain, soem folks might be feeling isolated. One way is to adopt oil-fueled Saudi version of Wahabiism and all the baggage that comes with it. At least then Bangladesh's need for belongingness is met with the Ummah.
Ali Arslan Syed Apr 16, 2013 05:01am
Mr. Moonis What about Pakistan's Identity? I guess u choose Bengladesh because u believe Pakistan is a hopeless cause.
Gopal Patel Apr 16, 2013 10:11am
Cultural root a people is more important than religious affinity. Bangladesh will go Pakistan way if it allowed itself to live on borrowed culture of Saudi Arab's Islam.
Nandakumar K Apr 16, 2013 11:23am
Pakistan is crumbling under the impact of Islamisation. Today there Ahmadias and Shias are non muslim. God knows tomorrow if anybody claims to be a Sindhi or Balochi he may be declared a non-muslim. Let the peace-loving Bangladeshis decide for themselves whether Bangladesh has to be re-transformed into East Pakistan. If Bangladesh has to consolidate its 40-year progress, it has to resort to science and democracy and not to dogmatism and obscurantism.
raika45 Apr 16, 2013 12:15pm
In Malaysia which is a multi religious country encompassing such religions as Islam [ the majority],Christianity, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and people with their own local religion. Islam is the official religion.Yet no other religion suffers.The Government gives millions to them for their religious practice.We are at peace here as far as this religious nonsense in Bangladesh and Pakistan is concerned.We keep our beliefs to ourselves and we respect all religions.When will you muslims in your countries realise that you cannot stuff your religious prominence down the throats of people of other faith?What is with this Islam of yours that has no tolerance for others?
S.H.Akbari Apr 16, 2013 12:47pm
As you sow so shall you reap. BD has now reached that stage.
K G Surendran Apr 16, 2013 01:16pm
And the winner is............, because this winner has muscle power and religion backing him. Bangladesh's experiment with secularism seems to be all but over, the writing is on the wall, another migraine brewing in the neighborhood.
skeptic Apr 16, 2013 01:53pm
Nonsense. Despite all the superficial gloss and pretensions to 'respect all religions', Malaysia is at heart a theocracy. Religious discrimination, along with racial discrimination, is institutionalized and entrenched. While no doubt Pakistan and Bangladesh need massive and drastic change, so does Malaysia.
arvind Apr 16, 2013 02:15pm
Bangladesh is at cross road, one way is religious state and other a secular liberal state. The secular forces had won in 1972 but with west's help religious forces could oust secular forces in a bloody coup. After 40yrs things have changed, west is against religious forces so they allowed Awami league to come to power. Let us see how situation unfolds.
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Apr 16, 2013 02:40pm
Indian Bengal must join Bangladesh to create a huge Bengali country. Together the united Bangladesh will become super power in no time.
syed Nazim Apr 16, 2013 03:01pm
In these days of internet and blog, it is impossible to stop peoples comments on democracy, dictatorship and religion, so we have to learn to live with this reality and develop tolerance. Blasphemous comments are more frequent in a non secular regime. There is nothing anti religion in adopting secular constitution because there is complete freedom in leading personal religious life. Why don't Muslims in Muslim majority state think of Muslim minorities in other states. We may however develop world opinion against blasphemous actions and writings and get a resolution passed in United Nation.
Karachi Wala Apr 16, 2013 03:34pm
I believe the writer is sympathetic and does not want Bangladesh to follow in the footsteps of Pakistan. What a pity it would be, the East and the West Pakistan as once known, again join hands for a combined losing cause.
Krish Chennai Apr 16, 2013 03:50pm
Malaysia is remarkable because it kept rabble-rousers of every community in check with a firm hand. And even though it is a democratic society with one-person-one-vote, with an Islamic populace in majority, it has built up a society that could be not just envied, but emulated, even though there are obvious tensions. Muslims in Malaysia too, tend to live a life of continence, following the original tenets of Islam, instead of flaunting it to be followed by others, or else..... I visited Malaysia several times, and when I went to Melaka just once, learnt about a Sikh celebration every year, where thousands would converge on the city not just from Malaysia and Singapore, but worldwide, in commemoration of a Sikh Sant. Though the economic parameters of development have benefited the citizens, the government has still had the will and vision to ensure that the benefits accrued to all sections of the populace. Coming to Bangladesh, during 1971, on a cold December evening in Calcutta, as a toddler, I had wandered into the Calcutta Maidan, and as dusk was setting in, Sheik Mujib-ur-Rehman was on a mike, with millions assembled there, started his speech with the words "Amar Shonar Bangla" ( My Golden Bengal ), and as the millions roared to the maximum capacity of their throats, the ground literally shook under my feet, far more than any earthquake could possibly induce. Scratch a Pakistani or an Indian, the first draw of blood may reveal some form of religious proclivity, before getting to nationalism. But scratch a Bangladeshi, and especially if you simultaneously sing some Tagore or Kazi Nazrul Islam, you will surely get exclusive Bangladeshi nationalism. I do hope that this comment gets published in Dawn. And if it does, I would encourage readers to see the movie "Chittagong", as we celebrate the anniversary of the armory raid in that city, and we may yet see some people there today, who in spite of the overwhelming problems that beset us, can still show the way with quiet firmness.
ikram Apr 16, 2013 05:12pm
Bengaldash is Islamic State & its people are Muslim. We will all protect it together. You can go back to India if you are not happy in the Muslim country.
Muhammad Abul Hossain, PhD Apr 16, 2013 05:26pm
Bangladeshis do not have any identity crisis-they may have varying ideologies. Can the religionist change their ethnicity? Religioists or secular or liberals- all of them have one common identity-Bangalis. Some believe religion based constitution-that does not make them Arab. A secular Bangali does not become anti islamic by espousing non-communal atttudes. A secular Bangali may be a deeply religious person without being communal. Madrasha students and their sponsors are muscle flexing in the name of Islam. We had been awaiting this. They cannot go too far. Good sense will prevail upon them. Naming a country secular does not chanage the religious characterstick of any country-with more than 80% Hindus Indai is a Hindu religion dominated country and Bangladesh with more than 80% Muslims is a Muslim dominated country.
kulukku baba Apr 16, 2013 06:45pm
How True. The only religion that needs to be saved by its followers!!?? Instead of the other way around with all other religions! And we call it the religion of peace and religion of truth etc!! If the god of Islam is so powerful why should he be defended by mere mortals? Have you got no confidence in your belief?
rkm Apr 16, 2013 07:41pm
Apparently, you haven't kept up with facts. There is a huge discrimination problem on the non-muslim minorities in Malaysia. The problem is getting progressively worse over the past few years.
sri1ram Apr 16, 2013 07:50pm
Bangladesh and B'deshis are now where Pak was in the eighties. We have to realize that this may be a flawed democracy, but it is still a democracy that will think thrice to repeat the grave mistakes of it's estranged brother like bringing hatreds and faith to school texts, promulgating religious ordinances that can never be overturned etc. With no army grabbing power, B'desh people will decide and remove the Islamic parties by the root and the people will vote out ineffective, ineffectual leaders.
Syed Amanatullah Apr 16, 2013 08:19pm
It seems there is a knowledge deficit in understanding religion Islam which you termed as Arab religion. Islam does not reflect any particular region or nation, it belongs to whole humanity and it is upon the followers how they portray it so please study first then make comments.
Mohinder Apr 16, 2013 08:26pm
Bangladesh is going the Pakistan way. India should try to evacuate Hindus from Bangladesh and deport over 10million muslim illegal immigrants in India.
Rajiv Apr 16, 2013 08:35pm
True man...when i read group named "Hefajat-i-Islam"... i thought it was height... a human can claim to protect a religion that is suppose to protect all humans... its biggest blasphemy around i guess... If i took out my quran and read i can easily give verses that would easily prove this name to be anti islamic..
Kausik Apr 16, 2013 09:41pm
This really tragic to allow the amendments to constitution to go through parliament by by PM Sheik hasina and say she is secular is a Bangladesh is going the way of Pakistan may be they can hook up again and form a Islamic state however Bengali nationalism and their allergy to Punjabi dominence may come in the way so predictions made by Maulana Abdul kalam azad coming to be true.
suneel Apr 17, 2013 01:14am
oh really? why Islam is state religion in Malaysia?
Deb Apr 17, 2013 05:49am
Nope! You are wrong mate. If you actually read the Quran dispassionately, you will no doubt come to the conclusion that Islam is an Arabic religion with Arabic rituals and culture.
Devil Apr 17, 2013 08:27am
:-) Whom are you talking to Bro ? Is anyone left there now ?
Shaha Apr 17, 2013 09:05am
ha ha ha.... good one Muhammad bhai...
arvind Apr 17, 2013 02:48pm
Bangladesh is not going Pakistan's way but it is trying to come out of control of religious fanatics and let us hope secularism would prevail.
anwar kamal Apr 17, 2013 03:24pm
Bangladesh is not a Muslim state.Muslim ,Hindu ,Buddha and christian live here.The majority are muslim .But that does not mean ,it is a muslim state.Its a secular state.We will defeat the fundamentalist.
Kaly Apr 17, 2013 05:25pm
Kris from Chennai..hats of to you know so much of Bengal, being a Bengali from Jharkhand, I don't know all these, Yaah in 1971 I was probably one year you know...