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Bangladesh’s identity crisis

April 16, 2013

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.