Faith, dissent and extremism: how Bangladesh is struggling to stay secular
The recent violent attacks on a Hindu temple in Bangladesh’s Netrokona district, and previous assaults on temples and homes in October in Brahmanbaria are a troubling illustration of Bangladesh’s struggle to protect two of its fundamental values: secularism and pluralism.
The country is still recovering from the brutal July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, when five armed young men claiming to represent ISIS barged into a café in an elite area of Dhaka and killed several foreign nationals and Bangladeshis; others were taken hostage.
Though it was shocking, the Holey attack was not unique. Over the past three years, a string of attacks have targeted bloggers, atheists and free thinkers.
The event that marked the beginning of the spate of violence was the 2013 Shahbag-Hefazat debacle, when liberal youth demanding capital punishment for several Jama’at-e-Islami leaders (on trial for war crimes in 1971) clashed with a religious but non-political Islamic group called Hefazat-e-Islam. They fought over freedom of expression and religious and moral injury.
But the Holey attacks did redirect focus onto the privileged class – both as targets and assailants. The bakery was a popular hub for young, wealthy Bangladeshis and foreigners, and at least two of the killers were from educated, well-off families, debunking the myth that madrasas (where children from poorer families study) are the sole breeding ground for religious extremists.
The decline of the privileged
The Holey affair’s elite trappings caused both panic and an awakening to the reality that transnational terror outfits have a presence in Bangladesh. This was worrying, since government officials had previously affirmed that past attacks were the result of homegrown political opposition.
It was disconcerting, not just from a security perspective but also because the incident had implications for Bangladeshi secularism. According to the latest data from Unicef, 79% of men and 83% of women age 15 and 24 embrace a secular ethos.
Secularism was a foundational tenet of Bangladesh’s 1971 constitution. Islam became the state religion in 1988, but this move has been challenged through petitions and in the courts several times, including earlier this year.
The secular vision of the nation enshrined in the Constitution had long been mistaken as one that did not care for religion, or, in particular, for Islam.
In recent years, liberals have tried to amend this misconception by arguing that the secular vision draws, as it always has, on a tolerant and syncretic form of Islam nurtured by Sufi settlers from the 13th century onwards. The intolerant Islam of ISIS does not tally well with this idea of the past and vision for the future.
People also questioned why, if indeed intolerant Islam had made inroads in Bangladesh, it would hold appeal for young boys for whom the world was otherwise open. Something must be terribly amiss in their homes for radicalism to take root.
Have modern aspirations and modernity at large failed Bangladesh’s families, with time constraints and other challenges leading to a certain anomie, a breakdown of social bonds? Has radicalism become the new opiate?
Coercive politics and mismanaged Islam
After two decades of authoritarianism and dictatorship post-independence, Bangladesh’s democratic turn in 1991 was safeguarded by a non-partisan caretaker system that would ensure the holding of free and fair elections. But this constitutional guarantee of democracy was removed in 2011, raising suspicion about the electoral process.
Elections held since have either been boycotted by the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), or seen allegations of rigging. The BNP blames the ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for a lack of transparency and accountability at the 2012 polls. The BNP responded to that election with violent protest.
Some argue that electoral suspicions and conflict between the government and the opposition has created dissidence and allowed radicalism to thrive. Others suggest that violence, especially in the name of Islam, was the BNP’s forte all along – even before the caretaker system ended.
The party’s inability to sever ties with the Jama’at-e-Islami has certainly allowed a certain narrow version of Islam to gain momentum in the public sphere, and the BNP must shoulder some responsibility for its flirtation with violent extremism.
This narrative has allowed the Awami League to play a lazy blame game whenever terror strikes. Prior to Holey, the government responded to each attack on freedom of expression and speech by pointing to the BNP and Jama’at’s attempts to destabilise the regime. This view also helped the Awami League reinvigorate “Bengali nationalism”, which in its current incarnation proposes a Muslimness framed by the syncretistic, or blended, Islam of Bengal, and recalls the movement that fought Pakistani state oppression.
Bengal had a vibrant syncretistic tradition. It was also a land where orthodox movements of the 18th century mobilised peasants for redistributive justice and where the leftist leader Maulana Abul Hamid Khan Bhashani used religious ideals to demand rights and democracy.
What will the Islam of modern Bengali nationalism deliver? It remains to be seen.
An unclear commitment to secularism
What’s clear is that the state is clamping down on a good number of Islamists and beefing up on security. No doubt tighter security controls are comforting to citizens. But they won’t greatly alter realities on the ground.
Despite some efforts to restore peace between the communities, including deposing party members and law enforcement officials, critics say that the government is not working hard enough to nip such intolerance in the bud.
It seems that Bangladesh’s secular aspirations have stalled in the face of power struggles. When politics thrive on a failure (intended or unintended) to moderate and regulate such power plays, it takes tenacity to achieve religious peace – not just moving some administrators from one position to another.
Recent thinking that has discredited the classic concept of secularism as the separation of church and state, redefining it as a state-building project that uses the illusion of separation to regulate and define religion to maintain state sovereignty. In this context, the Awami League has work to do.
If modern Bengali nationalism is to leave its imprint on this constitutionally secular country, it must disentangle its many political projects so that freedom of religion and minority rights can thrive.
Only by creating a political sphere in which people can differ on private matters and still feel represented by their government can the state recreate the tolerance that secularism foresees.
Beyond just meeting the imminent security threat, such measures would help spur the great expectations of growth and development in Bangladesh.