Struggle for the Soul of Bangladesh

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Struggle for the Soul of Bangladesh

Posted on: 5th December 2014
Lailufar Yasmin
University of Dhaka, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations

Tensions between Bangladesh's secular establishment and supporters of its largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami have continued to rise over recent years. They have been been exacerbated in recent years by verdicts of the International Crimes Tribunal, a special court set up by the government in 2010 to try those accused of war crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

The tribunal has so far passed 12 guilty verdicts on senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the majority of whom have been sentenced to death. The fallout from the trial and accusations that it is politically motivated are symptomatic of the wider struggle between secular and religious currents that have long competed in Bangladeshi politics and society. 

East Pakistan distanced religion, stressing an ethnic Bengali identity.

Bangladesh was born out of a violent conflict between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan in 1971, and is the youngest but the first constitutionally secular country of South Asia. However, religion played a decisive role in the formation of its identity during the Pakistan period. As the West Pakistani elites attempted to impose Urdu as the only national language, and later Islam as the common binding factor between the two geographically disconnected wings, with 1,000 miles of Indian territory stretching in between, the people of East Pakistan embraced secularism as an urban-introduced areligious concept. This was epitomised in the distancing of religion (read Islam) by emphasising an ethnic Bengali identity, for example by reincarnating Bengali cultural festivals with the aim of creating a conscious separation from the Islamic identity proposed by the West Pakistani elites.

Despite the adoption of secularism as a determining factor of identity, the politicians of East Pakistan did not hesitate to use Islam during political campaigns to attract the masses. This is evident in electoral leaflets and campaigns from the very first national election of the united Pakistan in 1954 until its very last held in 1970 which carried the declaration: Quran o Sunnah birodhi kono ein pass kora hobe na (No law will be enacted against the Quran and Sunnah). The background of Bengali nationalism is thus set upon this contradictory version of secularism, which culturally projected areligiosity but politically embodied both cultural aspects of Bengaliness and Islamic religious ideals. The Awami League, the present ruling party in Bangladesh, championed this brand of politics, initially establishing itself as the 'Awami Muslim League'. It later shed 'Muslim' from its name only due to the insistence of the leftist elements of the party.

Bangladesh as an independent country started its journey with this convoluted understanding of secularism but did not hesitate to proclaim the country as officially secular in its very first constitution adopted on 16 December 1972, just one year after its birth. The embodiment of secularism as one of the four state principles created a backlash, not only at the social level but also by political rejection in the form of protests carried out on the streets of Dhaka. However, with its gradual failure in governance, the regime of the first president Sheikh Mujib aimed to placate the masses, with state patronisation of Islam such as through the provision of financial grants for the establishment of an Islamic Foundation. At the social level, Islamic commemorations and festivals like Muharram, Shab-e-barat and Milad came back to Bengalis' everyday life after liberation as a backlash to the official imposition of secularism. Therefore, Islamisation unfolded as a reaction to the embodiment of secularism as a state principle both at the social and political level.

Secular Bengali or Muslim Bangladeshi?

As the political scenario in Bangladesh rapidly changed after the 1975 military coup, the new regime sought to instill political legitimacy by introducing an identity that encompassed the missing elements of Bengali nationalism. It brought in a territorial limit of imagination by introducing a Bangladeshi nationalism that differentiated between Bengalis living in the independent Bangladesh and Bengalis living in West Bengal, India, with special recognition to the predominant Muslim religious identity of Bangladeshis. Ever since, the citizens of Bangladesh are trapped between the two versions of identity – secular Bengali or Muslim Bangladeshi?

Secularism was restored as a state principle in the fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of Bangladesh in 2011, but the use of religion for gaining political leverage has not abated. Islam remains the official religion, introduced in 1988 through a constitutional amendment. It has been alleged that the issue of war crimes retribution has been used by the ruling Awami League for the political purpose of weakening Jamaat-e-Islami. While the trial was successful in creating an urban-based anti-Jamaat feeling, participation in strikes and demonstrations organised by Jamaat-e-Islami show how they retain strong grassroots affiliation and support.

Alongside this, changes in the social fabric of Bangladesh, and their implications, have been largely overlooked by urban-based academics and politicians alike. The traditional greeting of khuda hafez has been replaced by Allah hafez (good-bye in the name of Allah). The sari, the Bengali women's traditional attire, has been replaced by salwar-kameez on the ground that the latter is not only convenient to wear but also covers a woman's body more appropriately. There has also been a significant rise in women wearing the hijab, especially among the urban middle class. In an agrarian-based country with a low rate of urbanisation, the reach of the mullahs is infinitely greater than that of the politicians, leading to a simplistic view of secularism as an absence of religion rather than its more nuanced conception. Moreover, the proponents of secularism have failed to notice a wider social change that has been quietly happening throughout the country over the years: the introduction of a conservative Islamic culture by the vast migrant community that works periodically in Middle Eastern countries.

In Bangladesh's 43 years of existence, constitutional measures were needed to propagate secularism. Due to a lack of a state-building process, the state has often been synonymous with party politics, where the latter carried and established their ideals using state machineries. The official identity of Bangladesh as secularwas imposed without democratic negotiation and disregarding the changing social fabric of the country. Secularism has therefore acquired a negative connotation. However, despite a rise in religiosity and observable changes in society, the majority of the people of Bangladesh have also rejected fundamentalism. Altogether, a struggle to find the soul of the people of Bangladesh can be identified, amidst a Bengali and Bangladeshi tug of war over 'secularism'.

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