Thursday, September 12, 2013

Playing politics with Islam

September 13, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The 15th amendment has re-established secularism in the Bangladesh Constitution. Yet it has left provisions in the Constitution that are based on Islam and conflict with secularism, intact. For instance, Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim or “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”, Islam as the state religion and the right to form religion based political parties are still in the Constitution even after secularism has been made one of the four state principles. The country’s secular forces have strongly urged the Government to delete these Islamic provisions and demanded that Jamaat be banned to resolve this conflict.

The government has not shown any inclination to ban Jamaat. It has also not shown any interest in deleting the other Islamic provisions because it knows it could do so only at its peril. In fact, far from drawing the line between Islam and politics, the Prime Minister and senior leaders of the Awami League (AL) have been accusing the BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat as enemies of Islam because they are aware that using the force of Islam would help them achieve their political objectives. In recent times, the Prime Minister and AL leaders have accused the BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat of committing the worst possible act against Islam. They have accused them of burning the holy Koran “in thousands.” The Prime Minister and her party leaders are thus knowingly using Islam to turn the people against the BNP/Jamaat and Hefazat.

Religion and politics
Are the Government leaders guilty of violation of the Constitution that prohibits using and arousing the religious sentiments of the people to achieve political ends following the re-establishment of secularism in the Constitution? Yes, they are. The ruling party leaders, in fact, are guilty of committing the same unconstitutional acts that they regularly accuse the opposition political parties of committing. They are fanning hatred against the opposition by appealing to the religious sentiments of the people. The ruling party is using Islam to turn the people against the BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat after the three had used Islam to push it into a political corner in the country’s politics. Thus, the Constitution and its provisions and spirit notwithstanding, both the ruling party and opposition are liberally using Islam for their respective political objectives.

The AL leaders are using Islam to get out of a corner where they find themselves as a result of the Shahabag Movement that led the opposition to accuse the ruling party of taking stand against Islam. It looked almost certain that the BNP was about to become history when the Shahabag movement exploded and turned the country’s politics on its head. The Awami League cleverly owned the movement that should have been an anti-government one because it was the government that had messed up the trials of the war criminals upon which the youth had gathered at Shahabag. In fact, in the early days of the Shahabag movement, also called the Gonojagoron, the BNP was at a loss about what to do; whether to support the Shahabag movement or go against it as its ownership was taken over by the ruling party.

BNP’s lifeline
In retrospect, the revelation of the anti-Islamic blogs offered BNP a lifeline at a time when it was sinking into a political black hole. The Awami League, immersed in the feeling that it had the BNP in political quicksand, went into denial over the humungous damaging potentials of the anti-Islamic bloggers among the Shahabag youth. Thus when Rajiv Haider, a Shahabag youth leader was killed, it embraced him as the “first martyr of a new liberation war”. It was however not the BNP that saw the potentials of the anti-Islam blogs first. It was Hussein Mohammad Ershad, ironically an ally of the ruling party, who saw it first and accused the Shahabag movement as one of Murtads and infidels. The BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat merely followed former President Ershad. It was nevertheless the ruling party that turned the accusations of HM Ershad/BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat into a knot around its neck by going into denial over the anti-Islam blogs. 

The anti-Islam blogs spread like wildfire. Before the Awami League could realize its mistake in owning the Shahabag movement and going into denial over the anti-Islam blogs, the Hefazat emerged on the centre stage of the country’s politics. When it did, it was not the BNP that went to the Hefazat. After the Hefazat arrived in Dhaka on April 4 to show their numbers and then threatened to come back to Dhaka again on May 5, it was the ruling party that sent emissaries to the Hefazat. Ministers went to meet Huzur Shafi and were spurned. When the Hefazat made its outlandish 13-point demand that was a prescription to take Bangladesh back to medieval times, government ministers assured the Hefazat that the government had already met many of their demands!

The government failed to win over the Hefazat. The Hefazatis arrived in Dhaka on May 5. It was then that the BNP awoke to the potentials of the Hefazat in its political game plan to force the Awami League to accept its demand for elections under a neutral caretaker government. It also made what was a big mistake. It spurned the ruling party’s offer for talks and served it a 48-hour ultimatum to step down. That did not happen. The million plus Hefazatis who had parked at Shapla Chattar and demanded that they would not go home till the anti-Islamic bloggers were hanged were sent home running by a two-hours long operation carried at dead of night of May 5-6 by the Border Guards/RAB/Police.

Shapla chattar mayhem 
How many people were killed that night is still unclear. There have been wild numbers from the opposition of many thousands against government’s claim of only a few. The Government has seriously contested Odhikar’s claim that 61 were killed for which the human right organization’s chief is now in jail and is being held there without bail. The controversy over how many were killed that night notwithstanding, the news that spread across Bangladesh was that many Hefazatis were in fact victims that night. What was damaging for the ruling party was the fact that ordinary folks all over Bangladesh believed that the supporters of Hefazat were killed in the cause of Islam.
The news spread by word of mouth as the million plus Hefazatis returned home to tell their story. For this, the ruling party must blame its over-zealous secular activists who under estimated the strength of Islam in the country. It must also blame itself for its failure to realize the potentials of the anti-Islamic blogs. It had formed a Committee to look into the anti-Islamic blogs after there was a national outcry over it but belatedly when the damage was done and the ruling party was caught on the wrong side of Islam in the perception of the public. The Committee has never submitted its report although the government blamed Jamaat for writing those blogs! After a few flip flops that damaged its credibility on Islam, the AL led government arrested four Projonmo leaders, gave them bail and only recently said that their trial would start in November.

Therefore, the ruling party, for its own mistakes, is today confronted with an issue that is growing into one more damaging than many other issues it faces as national election draws close, issues like the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny, share market scam, law and order, etc. The ruling party is facing the dangerous prospect of being perceived among the people as a political party that has issues with Islam. To state that the BNP has pushed the Awami League to such a predicament would be giving the party credit it does not deserve although it goes without saying that the BNP would have liked the ruling party to be in such a predicament in its dream. It is for this reason that the leaders of the ruling party have gone on the offensive and accusing the BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat as enemies of Islam. However, in choosing to use the Islam card against the opposition, the AL is making its predicament worse and sinking more into the political quicksand over Islam.

Koran burning
It is now repeating it’s mistakes in blaming the BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat for burning thousands of Korans. It is fanning religious sentiments in a manner that many are seeing as the most blatant violation of the use of religion for achieving political ends. It is also showing disrespect for the country’s judicial process for which it blames the opposition regularly. The AL led government has already filed a case in the court against Jamaat for burning Korans during the disturbance in front of Baitul Mukarram on May 5. The case is now pending and therefore, public discussion on it is not only against the Constitution; it is clearly a case of contempt of court. The more serious matter is the conclusion that people are drawing from the Koran burning accusation. It has been quite some time that the ruling party has spun the accusation of Koran burning against BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat.

So far, there is no outcry among the people against the three that the AL wanted and it is unlikely that they would. The people have no love lost for the Jamaat. They agree with the ruling party over a host of its accusations against the Jamaat. In fact, they would perhaps not even care if Jamaat were banned as a political party. However, they are not ready to believe that Jamaat would burn Koran. That accusation against Hefazat is more unacceptable to the people who know that the Koran is everything to them. The people also know that this accusation against BNP is nothing but an absurd political ploy.

In fact, the people outside AL are unhappy that the ruling party would be accusing fellow Muslims of burning Koran “in thousands.” They feel it would boomerang on the ruling party for reasons that the ruling party has not convincingly proven the grave charge. Unfortunately, the accusation has the potentials to seriously damage Bangladesh’s national interests that those making it are not even caring to consider. If news that the Prime Minister has been accusing her fellow citizens of “burning Korans in thousands” were to spread to the Middle East countries, as it must have, they would not take the matter lightly. They would not care who made the accusations and against whom; they would hold it against Bangladesh.

These countries employ millions of our expatriates who remit billions of US$. Certainly, they would not want to employ people from a country where the Koran is burnt. It is a wonder how a ruling party would be so oblivious to such a simple equation in diplomacy and foreign relations. Since this government came to power, export of manpower to these countries has declined. UAE has not imported manpower from Bangladesh in the last 2 years although the demand for manpower of the sort that Bangladesh could supply has increased greatly. Saudi Arabia, that recently relaxed the Ikama issue that the government had claimed as a success of its diplomatic efforts has not worked at all in favour of Bangladesh. The AL led government has further complicated Bangladesh’s case with the Middle East countries by bringing the accusation of Koran burning against the BNP/Jamaat/Hefazat.

Political use of religion
The bottom line nevertheless is that both the ruling party and the opposition are using religion for their political ends. View expressed by secularists notwithstanding, this is normal and logical. It happens in all countries; even in USA where the country’s Constitution prohibits use of religion in politics. In his elections, President George Bush unashamedly admitted he heard voices from Heaven guiding him to the White House and openly sought support from Christian fundamentalists for his political objectives. In next door India, whose Constitution we copied for giving secularism a place in our Constitution, a party like the BJP that is based on Hindu fundamentalism and openly espouses Hinduism political ends has gone to power in the past and waiting in the wings to go to power again.

Therefore, that the political parties in Bangladesh would use Islam, the religion of the majority of the people, for political ends is something that no constitutional provision could prohibit. This is realpolitik. It is now the ruling party that is using Islam to corner the opposition for political objectives. Unfortunately for the ruling party, it is falling victim to the very religious sentiments that it is attempting to raise against the BNP. It is only helping revive in the minds of the people the fact that it did not take action against those who had humiliated and disrespected Islam and its Prophet in a manner that even those who hate Islam profoundly would not dare.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and can be reached on email:

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