Separating state and Islam

28 years after the Constitution was Islamised by military dictator Hussain Muhammad Irshad, Bangladesh is mulling a verdict over unadulterated secularisation by removing Islam as the state religion. The Dhaka High Court will hear the case for the official state religion’s removal later this month.

Even though in 2010 the Sheikh Hasina Wazed led Awami League (AL) government had reinstated secularism, one of the founding principles of the Bangladeshi Constitution, Islam was paradoxically retained as the state religion. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment from 1988 had been declared illegal by the High Court in 2005. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court six years ago.

These six years have witnessed a further hike in Islamist violence, which began surfacing in the aftermath of 9/11. New Year’s celebrations were jolted by blasts in both 2001 and 2002, with a communist party gathering – dubbed as a get-together of ‘non-believers’ – and movie theatres being targeted as well.

In 2004, jihadists tried to kill Sheikh Hasina through grenade attacks in a rally. The next year a Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) orchestrated synchronised blasts in 63 different districts of the country.

JMB was banned following a double suicide bombing three months later, but its movement for an Islamist revolution simmered on, before exploding eight years later. During these eight years Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and recently ISIS, has cashed in on the rise in Bangladeshi jihadism.

Furthermore, the International Crimes Tribunal’s (ICT) trial against 1971’s war criminals has aggravated the divides in the Bangladeshi society. The February 2013 verdict against Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leader Abdul Qader Mollah alienated both secularists and Islamists, with the former wanting the life imprisonment to be converted to capital punishment, while the latter saw it as the autocratic AL’s clampdown against JI – the traditional political ally of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Following the Shahbag protests – and the counter-protests – the JI leader was hanged to death in December 2013, amidst condemnations from Islamists in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The farcical 2014 elections, which the AL government organised without any opposition participation – the voter turnout was 20% and half of the seats were uncontested – further carved the Bangladeshi society into secular and Islamist camps, with the ‘war against Islam’ idea being sold at a soaring frequency.

Meanwhile, the war crimes tribunal has kept sending radical Islamists to the gallows. The latest being Obaidul Haque Taher and Ataur Rahman Noni, the verdict against whom triggered a diplomatic feud between Dhaka and Islamabad, with both states interrogating each other’s diplomats last month. And while the war crimes tribunal is sentencing militant Islamists to death, their supporters have formed a parallel justice system dedicated to executing secularists.

In February 2013, amidst the Shahbag protests, Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed outside his home by a machete-wielding jihadist. The same modus operandi was adapted for the execution of eight other secular bloggers, including Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das, in the next three years. Following the Shahbag protests a group going by the name of Hefazat-e-Islam or 'Defenders of Islam’ published a hit list of 84 secular Bangladeshi writers/bloggers, many of whom self-identified as atheists. Nine of them have been killed.

Amidst this secular-Islamist divide other religious communities, which form nearly 10% of Bangladeshi population, have been targeted by the jihadists as well. The expulsion, conversion or extermination of the local Hindus, Christians and Buddhists is high on the radical Islamists’ agenda as they vie to establish a caliphate in Bangladesh. And just like in Pakistan, Bangladeshi jihadist groups are gravitating towards ISIS by pledging allegiance to the terror group, which has taken responsibility for the Ashura attack in October, and the killing of an Italian and a Japanese worker last year.

It is in these conditions that Bangladesh is deliberating over removing Islam as the state religion. With a shared past, and glaring similarities between the two states’ present, there are lessons for Pakistan as it treads the path leading towards religious tolerance as well.

In a 2011 Bangladesh Enterprise Institute survey on the reasons a Bangladeshi might join a terrorist organisation, around 40 percent participants identified ‘the use of Islam to gain political ends’ as the biggest cause, while 20 percent cited ‘lack of democracy’. Both of these issues self-manifest in a prodigiously more perilous form in Pakistan.

The separation of state and religion is instinctively shunned as un-Islamic in the conservative quarters, with secularism deemed synonymous with atheism, nay anti-theism. But why would the world’s third most populous Muslim-majority take an ‘un-Islamic’ step, by going back to its original Constitution that established a Bangladeshi state without any official religion? Once one understands the rationale behind that move, one would also be able to comprehend why the long-term solution to Islamist extremism can be found in the same direction.

Separation of religion – any religion – from the state is not a verdict against it, but is a step to undo its potency as a tool for organised violence. For, once any state has an official religion, its adherents automatically become superior to the rest of the populace, regardless of any token reassurance of religious equality. While Bangladeshi Constitution is almost entirely secular, Pakistan has codified an Islamist dream inside its Constitution by giving sovereignty to Allah, Islamic scriptures, and adding Shariah laws to the Penal Code, spearheaded by the blasphemy law.

Religious supremacism – like any other ideology that promotes the supremacy of a particular group – has a nasty tendency of evolving into ideological violence, as radical Buddhists are manifesting in Myanmar near the Bangladeshi border, and the Hindutva are exhibiting in India, where the secular federal Constitution has been tarnished by restrictions on cow slaughter ban in 24 Indian states. It is no coincidence that Hindutva violence has overlapped with the beef ban that establishes Hindu supremacy over Muslims.

But of course, as ghastly as the Hindutva radicalism and Buddhist extremism are, jihadism is the most far-reaching ideological threat both in terms of global reach and ambition. And so, any Muslim state that has ambitions to counter jihadism, currently spearheaded by ISIS, needs to embrace secular ideals as the long-term solution to curbing Islamism, which eventually metamorphoses into jihadism.

JI-affiliated Hefazat-e-Islami demanding blasphemy law and legal restriction on women in Bangladesh under the garb of ‘defending Islam’ is the natural corollary of religious supremacism. It’s this idea of defending Islam from an imaginary, but perpetual, foe that lays the foundation of jihadism whether it’s Dhaka or Damascus.

While Pakistan might be a few years away from openly using the ubiquitously misunderstood S-word, it needs to start from the very bottom of the pit, and reform the blasphemy law, the deadliest arsenal for murderous Islamist mobs in the country.

Not only that, both Bangladesh and Pakistan would have to understand that any maneuver for long-lasting pluralism would have to be coupled with untainted democracy, for there to be a tangible sense of equality.

Autocracy – whether spearheaded by the military or civilians – aggravates fault-lines that make the masses more vulnerable to the parallel justice system offered by jihadism. Few states should understand this better than Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a former member of staffHe can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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