The Debate | Opinion | South Asia

Bangladesh’s Ambiguity on Religion Has Been Expensive for the Country

The lack of a clear position on where Bangladesh stands vis-à-vis state and religion has helped breed fundamentalism, extremism, and anti-West sentiments in that country.

By Shafi Md Mostofa for
Bangladesh’s Ambiguity on Religion Has Been Expensive for the Country

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Credit: Flickr/Number 10

Bangladesh declared itself a secular state with its birth in 1971. Secularism was chosen as one of the four pillars that were to guide official policy. To what extent Bangladeshi people were “secular” to begin with is a matter of considerable debate, although by secularism in Bangladesh one means pluralism of religious faiths as opposed to more expansive definitions of the term. Bangladesh’s polity could not come to a well-defined position as to what kind of state it would be.

Under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — Bangladesh’s first prime minister and considered father of the nation — secularism faced an initial setback when the Education Commission of 1973 found that the majority of the country’s citizens were in favor of religious education. From 1975 onward, after Bangabandhu’s term in office, Bangladesh has yet to fully settle on the principles that would govern it. This has led subsequent regimes to play around with political Islam as well as secularism.

The original constitution was changed in 1978 with installment of the phrase “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” by the Ziaur Rahman government in order to replace secularism as a state principle. Rahman’s government also built fraternal relationships with countries in the Middle East. The military dictator who followed Rehman, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, went one step further to declare Islam as the state religion in 1988. These military regimes resorted to religion to legitimize their power, which they had usurped unconstitutionally.

The subsequent democratic regimes since 1991 also followed the path of expedient politics and opportunism. These regimes also failed to ensure basic human rights, political stability, economic sustainability, and to establish transparent institutions. Rather, corruption in Bangladesh grew and the country fell behind on the Human Development Index. Cronyism became rampant.

Bangabandhu’s party, the Bangladesh Awami League, once again came to the power in January 2009 with the promise to restore the 1972 constitution. They partially did so through the 15th Amendment to the constitution in 2013 but they kept Islam as the state religion. There are questions around why this was the case, and what stopped the government, still in power, from restoring the provisions of the 1972 constitution. Moreover, the current government has acknowledged the “Qawmi Dawrah” degree (an Islamic religious qualification) to be equivalent to the Master’s degree, has enacted the Digital Security Act in 2018 to prosecute those deemed to be hurting religious sentiments, started building 560 “model mosques,” and corrected textbooks to fulfill demands of the “Hefazat,” a coalition of several Islamist parties.

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So, the question becomes: Why this apparent oscillation between Islam and secularism in Bangladesh, and to what end? The simple answer could be that there are pressure groups, within the state and outside, for and against that principle. The state could easily resolve this issue by simply replacing the word “secularism” with “humanism,” which Professor Emeritus of University of Toronto, Joseph T O’Connell, suggested by way of an analysis of  the character of Bangladeshi secularism in 1976.

By toying with secularism, fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh have been empowered, and have also provided them with a strong reason to seek the transformation of a Muslim-majority country into an Islamic state. The politics of expediency and opportunism have made Islam a tool of legitimacy for ruling elites. This has further boosted fundamentalists in their  ultimate goal of establishing a Shariah-based state by addressing the failures of mainstream political parties; Bangladesh’s history since 1975 makes it evident that religious fundamentalists have been kingmakers for a long time. Simply put, the interplay between Islam and notional secularism have helped the rise of fundamentalism.

Not just fundamentalism but Islamist extremism too, since the late 1980s. Some might wonder how the interplay between Islam and secularism is connected to the rise of extremism. Before the countrywide bombing in 63 out of 64 districts on August 17, 2005, the rise of radical groups and their activities were welcomed by the state and society alike. For example, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh was formed through a press conference in 1992 and Bangla Bhai, the leader of an extremist group, had ties with local political party leaders and the local police.

Between 2013-16, when secular bloggers were being killed due to their views about Islam and Prophet Muhammad, high officials reminded: “Don’t hurt religious sentiments.” The Digital Security Act was designed to make sure the establishment could punish those doing so. Populist politics and politics of expediency have made Bangladeshi regimes resort to an ambiguous position when it comes to secularism.

The trope of secularism has also helped anti-Western and anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh. It is a popular perception that the West in general, but also India, are supporters of secularism in Bangladesh — something that is evident from the narratives of Islamic State and al-Qaida. The Holey Artisan Bakery attack in July 2016 demonstrates the growth and severity of anti-Western sentiments in Bangladesh. However, the rise of anti-West feelings is not simply because of the pursuit of secularism. Other, global, factors have also contributed to negative sentiments about the West and India, including the United States’ role in the Middle East, Indian security forces’ killing of Bangladeshis along the border between India and Bangladesh as well as other contested bilateral issues between the two countries.

The lack of a clear state policy when it comes to secularism has helped accelerate the rise of fundamentalism, extremism, and anti-West sentiments in Bangladesh. I would suggest along the lines of Professor O’Connell to consider “humanism” instead of secularism as a guiding philosophy for the country. It also goes without saying that the Bangladeshi state needs to avoid using religion for political purposes and instead address the basic needs of its citizens.

Shafi Md Mostofa is an assistant professor of World Religions and Culture at Dhaka University’s Faculty of Arts. His special interests lie in political Islam in Bangladesh. He is about to complete his Doctor of Philosophy from the University of New England, New South Wales, Australia with a dissertation on Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. His publications have appeared (or are forthcoming) with Routledge, Springer, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Palgrave Macmillan; and the journals Politics and Religion, Perspectives on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Terrorist Analyses, and Peace and Conflict Review.