M. Serajul Islam
Before Shahabag, the country with all its imperfections and problems was managing well on all fronts except politics. Even in politics, there was hope that the two mainstream parties would reach and understanding and move the country forward. Thus the Hefazat phenomenon is nothing less than a very bad nightmare that the Shahabag Movement (SM) and the secular forces have gifted the country. The million plus Islamic fundamentalists that Hefazat brought to Dhaka’s Shapla Chattar despite the determined efforts of the Government and the activists of the ruling party and SM to stop Hefazat activists from coming to Dhaka, dwarfed the SM in terms of numbers that had earlier led the media to term the latter’s gathering as the largest in Bangladesh for a long time. Although the Hefazat did not resort to violence, not yet, the 13 demands they made and the manner in which they made it, there is apprehension in minds of the majority of the people that the Hefazat nightmare is a real one.
The spokesman of the SM, Imran Sarkar, now at odds with the Government that has arrested some of his close comrades, has called the Hefazat “hyenas”. He probably does not have the sense either to comprehend what is happening around him or to realize that the that the movement he has led has unleashed forces that have the potentials to take a nation that had for centuries kept the Islamic fundamentalists (the hyenas by the term he has used; hyenas he had tried to negotiate with but was spurned) away from any major role in politics by liberal Islam, towards a major catastrophe. Our fathers and our forefathers successfully kept the Islamic fundamentalists at bay without the need of the constitution, the laws of the land or the government. Tampered by Sufism and other liberal traditions, they did not allow the Islamic fundamentalists any role in society other than those that they voluntarily gave them.
Thus while we have historically allowed our personal lives to be guided by the Maulanas, Maulvis and the Imams (even among these religious peoples, there are many who do not hold rigidly fundamentalist views), we have kept other facets of our lives, for instance our political and socio/economic relationships, out of the influence of religion and the religious leaders, not deliberately or by force, but by the way these relationships have evolved. When a child is born in the house of a Muslim family, the tradition is to find a Maulana or Maulvi or an Imam to recite “Allah hu Akbar” into the newborn’s ears. Our liberal traditions allow us to recite this call to Allah in Arabic into the newborn’s ears by an elder in the family where a Maulana or a Maulvi or the Imam is unavailable.
We need the “services” of these Maulanas/Maulvis/Imams in many other activities of our personal and social lives on a regular basis that to argue that Islam can only be a private matter in the life of a Muslim is irrational in a predominantly Muslim society such as ours or any society for that matter because a great deal of the culture of any people is deeply embedded deeply in religion. We thus hold milad mehfils and other religious functions at our homes to which we invite our relatives/ friends/neighbours to observe/celebrate many events in our lives such as the death anniversary of someone in the family or a happy occasion, etc and in such events, we also invite the Maulanas/Maulvis/Imams and their associates to our homes with a great deal of respect because without them we cannot hold these events. We pay them, give them plentiful sweets/food and send them away with great respect. But when the same Maulanas/Maulvis/Imams want our votes for a political office, we have seldom obliged.
This is how we have for centuries kept our society and ourselves from falling into the stranglehold of the Islamic fundamentalists. Since the final days of the British Raj when various political groups were vying for political power in a post-British South Asia, the Islamic fundamentalists did not lag behind. The Jamat-e-Ulema –e Hind, the precursor of the Jamat of Bangladesh and the Jamat in Pakistan, used religion/Islam to get a piece of the cake of political power after the departure of the British. In secular India, the Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Hind still exists but has changed its stance to adjust to secular India. It now believes that Muslims and non-Muslims have entered into a contract in the post-British India to establish a secular state. In Pakistan, the Jamat has gone to political power using Islam and is still a major force in the politics of the country. It, together with other Islamic fundamentalist groups, is also a major reason for the country being just a step away from being a failed state.
The people of Bangladesh have rejected Jamat comprehensively every time the party has participated in elections based on the legacy of liberal Islam that Bangladesh inherited. Thus, although Jamat as a party is older than even the Awami League and in a society where the people are poor, where religion is to them a social insurance against their daily miseries, where people still go to the Maulana to bless water in the name of the Allah that they take as alternative to medicine because they cannot afford to buy it, the Jamat and the religious fundamentalists have never found political favour. In fact, only in 2001 when Jamat allied with the BNP, it won 14 seats in a 300 seat parliament. Otherwise, Jamat, despite the country being overwhelming Muslim and having other characteristics that should have favoured fundamentalist Islamic parties, has never won seats more than in the lower single digit in each of the elections in which it has participated.
Thus in Bangladesh, Islamic fundamentalist forces have been successfully contained politically and the country did not suffer the fate that has befallen Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Shahabag Movement has given a body blow to this legacy and gift of liberal Islam from generations that have gone to the present generations of Bangladesh, a legacy that countries being destroyed by Islamic fundamentalism would have considered an answer to their dreams. It is this legacy, this gift that the Shahabag Movement has ruffled very badly and pushed Bangladesh towards the path that Pakistan has followed with disastrous consequences. It would of course be not fully fair to put the blame entirely on the Shahabag youth among some of the bloggers among them are the immediate cause of the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist forces such as Hefazat as a consequence of the anti-Islam postings on their blogs. The share of blame must fall more forcefully, on the so-called secular groups that were there with the SM from the very moment the youth landed in Shahabag.
These leaders of the secular forces have been active in the country for a long time. They are mostly from the politically defeated communists who have joined the AL as late comers and part of the civil society/cultural activists with links to the ruling party. The discredited left used Sheikh Hasina’s distrust for the so-called reformists in the party like Tofael and his colleagues to move close to the centre of political power. These erstwhile left forces with the part of the civil society and cultural activists (who have a strong pro-Indian bias) used their closeness to political power to further their favourite agenda, namely secularism. They worked from the Marxian belief that religion is “the opium of the masses” and hence had to be separated from public life if not altogether banished. To further this objective, they made the restoration of secularism in its pristine glory the very essence of patriotism and pro-liberation sentiments and did not show any inclination to allow Islam a space in the Constitution or in public life. They thus demanded the removal of the Islamic provisions placed in the Constitution after 15th August 1975 to restore the sanctity and glory of the 1972 Constitution that they thought had been contaminated by insertion of “Bismillah” and mention of Islam as the state religion. They refused to accept that these two provisions that did not in any way affect the secular and non-communal nature of society we inherited. They also refused to accept that once placed there, their removal would affect the sentiments of the majority of the people of the country.
These groups (in fact it would be a misnomer to call them groups because they eventually come down to an amalgam of individuals with well known public faces but no public following) went public when the Government refused to accede to their demand for removal of the Islamic provisions after the 13th amendment. On Islam as a state religion , the ruling party refused to remove it from the Constitution but added a sentence to give all other religion the same standing as Islam that failed to appease these groups. Looking at this provision objectively, this is no more than just a sentence that was placed in the Constitution after 15th August 1975, albeit with intent not honest, but political that did not in any way give Islam any special status vis-à-vis the other religions.. It is in fact the most benign use of Islam in politics. As far as “Bismillah” is concerned, it is the equivalent of “In God we trust” which is the official motto of the United States since 1956 and appears in all its currency notes as a public commitment to the Christian religion against the opposition of some secularists in a country that is officially secular. Is there an issue with Islam here for the secular forces of our country who cannot tolerate two benign insertions on Islam in the Constitution? Perhaps there is.
These individuals have also brought to the public domain the view that curiously went unchallenged that secularism is the most important of the principles for which Bangladesh war of liberated. In doing so, they deliberately switched non-communalism (oshamprodaeek-ota) for secularism, two concepts that are fundamentally different. In oriental societies such as ours, it is just not possible to keep religion and politics apart. In fact, it is impossible in any society. The citizens of United States faced this reality when President George Bush unashamedly used Christian fundamentalism and Evangelical Christianity to reach the voters and succeeded in defeating his democratic/liberal/secular opponent. He did not let the constitutional necessity to keep the state and religions apart bother him. In next door India, despite the emphasis of secularism in its Constitution, the Hindu fundamentalist BJP, the Hindu Mahashabha and the RSS are not only allowed political role, the BJP was in government between 1999-2024 and again promising to return to power with no less a Hindu fundamentalist as Narendra Modi as the leader, a politician who is still denied US visa because of his direct involvement in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.
These individuals who think that the true spirit of 1971 is embedded in secularism thus misrepresent history of our liberation by switching oshamprodaik-ota (non-communalism) for secularism. They also do not properly explain what they actually mean by secularism. A casual reference to secularism as described/explained in text books would reveal that it is a hugely complex concept that has existed in history from as early as the ancient Greek and Roman and can be traced in the writings of the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rusd. In modern times, secularism has emerged as a consequence of the Renaissance where the conflict has been between the State and the Christian Church and hence of no consequence to Muslims and Islam. British writer George Holyoake, an agnostic himself, first used “secularism” in 1851, in his writings that today has adherents from diverse backgrounds and includes agnostics and atheists. The essence of secularism is knowledge “founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, concludes to the welfare of this life, and is capable to being tested by the experience of this life.” Thus, secularism as knowledge or practice of a principle contradicts Islam at its very core because in Islam, the life in this world and the life hereafter are inseparable; in fact that the life in this world is temporary and the real life is after death is the fundamental belief of Islam, Christianity and Judaism .
The insistence of these individuals to force the Prime Minister to delete any mention of Islam in the Constitution suggests that they have an issue with Islam and those who uphold and speak of Islam in pubic and in politics. The Prime Minister did not relent but that did not stop these forces from speaking in various forums about the contradiction between the state principle of secularism and the two Islamic provisions in the Constitutions. These are the individuals who saw in Shahabag their golden opportunity to further their view of secularism minus Islam. So focussed were they on defeating Islam that they did not see the dangers of the anti-Islamic blogs. At first, they blamed it on Jamat but even when it became evident that some of the Shahabag bloggers were the culprits, they failed to see what was coming and did not either alert the Shahabag to deal with the matter seriously or they themselves did not acknowledge anything wrong in such postings!
The government/ruling party, overawed and worried out of their wits by the Hefataz phenomenon, made gestures to this extreme fundamentalist forces in utter disappointment of the secular forces. It even assured Hefazat that it would look sympathetically into its 13 demands that could not have been more an anti-thesis to secularism as understood by the secular forces! Thus forced by the power of Islam, the ruling party has taken a stand directly against Shahabag and the secular forces. Unfortunately the SM and the secular groups are still in denial about the problems they have created for the nation. One leader whose hanging has been demanded by the Hefazat (under Hefazat’s pressure, even he has been heard on TV quoting verses from the Quran to pacify the Islamic fundamentalists!) attacked the government’s law enforcing agencies for not protecting his life against the Hefazat activists. He said in the media angrily that had the Shahabag activists not helped him run away from the Hefazat activists while opposing their Long March, he would have been killed! The SM and these secular forces still believe the best way to tackle the Hefazat is the strong arm tactics; only now the Government is no longer obliging to treat them with any degree of importance.
Shahabag was only a small section of the country’s Projonmo. The media deliberately led the nation to believe it is the entire Projonmo that would revive the lost spirit of 1971. The Hefazat too is only another section of the nation. In between Shahabag and Hefazat, there are the overwhelming majority of the Muslims of Bangladesh who are liberal minded Muslims who fear the Islamic fundamentalists who believe that these forces are too few to de-stabilize the liberal Bangladesh they have inherited. It is the duty of all, the mainstream political parties, the civil society and the media to reach to them to set back the fundamentalist forces that have now landed at the centre of our politics with nightmarish prospects. Side by side, all right thinking people of the country who want Bangladesh to come out of its present predicament must take a serious look at the mistakes at Shahabag and the real intentions and agenda of the secular forces (individuals) that helped the fundamental forces to telescope time and land at the centre of politics and hold them responsible for trying to destroy the liberal, non-communal but Islamic Bangladesh that is our pride.
The ruling party has a more important reason to look seriously at SM and the secular groups because they have landed it into a l predicament that could be politically more disastrous to it than the issues of the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny and share market scam. It has the powers to restore the country to its pre Shahabag status to tackle the dangers from the Islamic fundamentalists. A free and fair election to help the nation choose its next government would go a long way to restore the nation’s position vis-à-vis the Islamic fundamentalist. A failure to do so will create more instability and would be the natural breeding ground for the fundamental forces that SM and the secular groups have unleashed.
He writer is a retired career Ambassador