Secularism in Bangladesh and Beyond Not Secular Enough for All

Issue, National

By Nazmus Sakib Nirjhor#

In the aftermath of the gruesome murder of the American-Bangladeshi blogger, Avijit Roy, at the campus of Bangladesh’s leading university, questions regarding the nature and state of secularism in the Muslim majority country has surfaced. The images of the machete-hacked killing unfolding from my alma mater shocked me to the core. February is the month of book festivals at the University of Dhaka’s campus and probably the most secure month, presence of security forces-wise. If the killing speaks of anything it is that the overall security situation in Bangladesh is falling apart.
Bangladesh is known as a broadly harmonious home of a largely devout Muslim majority and diverse religious minorities. The population is committed to democracy albeit consistent in choosing two battling Begums in turn as their chief executives since the early 90s’. The nation is stumbling in institutionalizing peaceful democratic transitions of power, establishing rule of law, ensuring a free press and bringing an end to extrajudicial killings during both of the major coalitions’ tenures. Amidst all these, Avijit Roy, a passionate preacher of atheism and scientism, was brutally killed and, not surprisingly, garnered extensive media coverage worldwide.
It would be interesting to consider why none from the ruling Awami League party went to the vigil for Avijit, despite their proclaimed commitment to secularism. Probably this is because this time Awami League wanted to remain politically correct and not repeat the ‘mistake’ of visiting another slain active atheist blogger’s funeral on February, 2013. In this political correctness, no matter how unpleasant it might seem to our western taste, lies the nature of Bangladesh’s collective and complex psyche, one that is different to western societies. Essential to understand is while Bangladeshis embrace all faiths and none, aggressions against faith are not comfortably received. While the nation mourned the death of Avijit, in attending his funeral the government likely feared the repercussions of seemingly upholding the blogger’s anti-religious beliefs.
There is nothing wrong in discussing where Bangladesh’s secularism stands after this murder, but, to an ordinary Bangladeshi citizen–a teenage girl struggling to survive in a garments sweatshops, or a student from any of the thousands of traditional Madrasas–the ideas of the European Enlightenment are simply alien, coming from a world, culture and history apart to which they do not belong. Additionally, thanks to the protagonists of Bangladeshi secularism who have used bullets and teargas, often against the religiously devout, to make their voice heard, now we can’t help the fact that secularism is often synonymous with Islamophobia to the devoted masses.
Bangladesh is indeed secular in its centuries of coexistence among Hindus’, Muslims’, Christians and Buddhists’. Undeniably, there have been challenges with minority persecution, but research illustrates that such violence has more to do with politics and vested economic interests within the political establishment than with religion.
Bangladesh became officially secular once again, after 1972, by the 15th constitutional amendment. However, the Awami League did not state in their 2008 election manifesto that they will impose secularism in the constitution because it has political costs. Crucially, if we want to evaluate the effectiveness of secularism we must consider its efficacy to protect the minorities and to stop persecution by the state. Does this official secularism improve the plight of the minorities? Probably, not. If the official nature of secularism in Bangladesh achieved anything at all then it added momentum to further polarization, because the opposition, which represents at least half the population, prefers a Muslim identity with a provision of protecting minorities, not a de jure secular identity. There should be no space for violence or hate speech in a democracy, period. At the same time we should be prepared to accept, if decided by popular mandate, when a country chooses not be exactly the way the west is secular.
There has been a plethora of secularizing experiments in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, the results of which are at least ambiguous. Sometimes they backfired and triggered further alienation and even more animosity between these nations and the west. So, it is probably high time we addressed the political aspirations of a nation upon its own terms rather than the superimposed terms of European Enlightenment.
Secularism itself has very different branches and strands. The secularism in the US is very different from that of France, which is increasingly covering-up the ‘new visibility’ of its Muslim minority. Secularism, as pleasant as it might seem to a group of nation states who were born out of hundreds of years of sectarian war among differing denominations of Christianity, may have a very different connotation and historical experience to other nations who do not share the same historical, political, or economic background.
To the vast majority of Muslim countries secularism did not bring the promise of the separation of state and church and bidding a farewell to arms thereby. Rather, it came with dictators and a built in package of modernization of obvious colonizing flavor. So, oftentimes expectations to see Bangladesh and other Muslim majority countries in light of the historical metamorphosis that Western Europe went through might end up being just another rehearsal of the White Man’s Burden.

The Writer is PhD Student/Graduate Teaching Assistant Department of Political Science of Texas Tech University