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Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Secularism in Bangladesh is ‘religious neutrality’

Professor Anisuzzaman chose ‘dhormo niropekhota’ to define secularism and it means religious neutrality in the affairs of the state.

Muslims offer Friday prayers in front of Baitul Mukarram, Bangladesh’s national mosque, in Dhaka. REUTERS

or you is your religion, and for me is my religion says Surah al-Kafirun (a verse from Quran)

These days secularism seems to be under fire from many different quarters in Bangladesh.

In addition to the attacks on secularism from the usual suspects — that is, those who want Bangladesh to be an Islamic theocracy and believe that it is the secular character of the state that is the root of all our ills — secularism has also come under an intellectual assault of late from scholars and social scientists.

Here the discourse revolves around the identification of secularism as an ideology imposed on post-colonial societies as part and parcel of the contested discourse of modernisation and westernisation, and impossible to divorce from the power relations inherent to such an understanding.

As such, there now exists a rich vein of scholarship that seeks, in the words of Prof. Ali Riaz, in a noteworthy recent lecture on the subject: "to offer a critical interrogation of the concept of secularism," from which the "point of departure is that secularism should be viewed as a contested and contestable concept."

In short, secularism is now no longer considered an unalloyed good by the liberal intelligentsia.

It seems to me that much of the current discourse surrounding secularism is a semantic one, and that much depends on how we define our terms.

First, therefore, it is necessary to define exactly what we mean by secularism in the Bangladeshi context and to fully appreciate the difference between secularism and secularisation.

If I understand correctly, secularisation refers to the relegation of religion to the private sphere and the ultimate decline of religion's influence in society, and secularisation theory holds that secular government policy will inevitably lead to secularisation in society, and that secularisation is a desirable social outcome that is indispensible to the transformation of a society from a traditional one to a modern one.

But I am not sure that secularisation was ever the project of secularism as a government policy in Bangladesh. In short, it seems to me that one can have secularism without wishing for secularisation to be the eventual or even the desired outcome.

What, then, is secularism, in the Bangladeshi context?

Perhaps the best way to understand it is to return to how the word is rendered in Bangla in the Bangladeshi Constitution. It was National Professor Anisuzzaman who translated the original English text, and the word he chose was "dhormo niropekhota" which translated back into English means religious neutrality.

It was an inspired choice, and, I believe, gets to the heart of secularism as it is understood by Bangladeshis and as it was intended as a guiding principle for our nation.

It does not relegate religion to unimportance or seek the diminution of religion as a part of life as a goal.

The scholarly definition of secularism that best tracks with the original Bangladeshi understanding of the term is perhaps offered by Jose Casanova as:

"some principle of separation between religious and political authority, either for the sake of the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis each and all religions, or for the sake of protecting the freedom of conscience of each individual, or for the sake of facilitating the equal access of all citizens, religious as well as non-religious, to democratic participation. Such a statecraft doctrine neither presupposes nor needs to entail any substantive 'theory,' positive or negative, of 'religion.'"

It seems to me that the above definition captures it perfectly. Bangladesh cannot wait for our society to secularise before establishing secularism as a principle of statecraft, nor indeed is the secularisation of society even desirable or a goal of secularism. Nor, it is clear, under this definition, is there any connection between secularism and atheism or hostility to or disrespect for or dismissal of religion and religious faith and religious thought.

To critics of secularism, I would ask: What is the alternative?

In fact, secularism is the only principle of statecraft under which religion can flourish as it is the only one which allows for the existence of multiple understandings and practices of religious faith.

The alternative, which is theocracy, by definition, only allows for the practice of a single, singular, interpretation and understanding of religion, that endorsed by the state, and any alternate or heterodox expressions of religious faith or belief are cast beyond the pale.

In the context of Islam, the imposition of a theocracy would equally oppress those Muslims who do not subscribe to the version of Islam that the state would seek to impose, almost as much as it would oppress those of other religious faith or no faith.

One only needs to look at the other religious theocracies around the globe to see the truth of this statement and the danger inherent in such a system to all people of faith and people of all faiths.

As for whether secularism in Bangladesh is an alien or western creed, imposed as part of a neo-imperialist, post-colonial project based on the problematic concepts of modernisation and enlightenment: only if respect for equal rights and freedom of conscience and freedom of worship are concepts that are alien to Bangladesh and imposed from outside.

POSTSCRIPT: I am indebted to Prof. Ali Riaz for his lecture "The Future of Secularism," given at IUB on June 14 as part of the Professor Salahuddin Ahmed Memorial Seminar, from which all definitions of secularism and secularization hereinabove are taken. Any misunderstandings or misrepresentations are mine alone.

Zafar Sobhan is the Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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