Redefining secularism

Published on Friday, March 13, 2009

Redefining secularism


Md. Anwarul Kabir


Hoisting the flag of secularism by combating communalism was one of the spirits of our Liberation War. So, after liberation following the peoples' aspiration, 1972 constitution incorporated secularism as one of its salient features. However, the post 1975 politics has changed the situation and we reverted to the realm of communalism, at least at the state level. The reasons behind this U-turn are manifolds. Yet, one may argue that as the term 'secularism' was not defined objectively in our context, the handful of communal forces, over the period, could successfully misguide the psyche of the common people with a view to promoting their own political agenda. The apparent debacle of communal forces in the last election does not negate the possibility of their revival in near future. In fact, to annihilate communal forces, secular democrats must work at the policy level and redefine the term secularism.


In fact, there is no universal notion of secularism. The rationalist and atheist notion of secularism considers religion and secularism quite contrary to each other. This notion suggests that religion and secularism are rigidly incompatible as secularism is non-religious, if not altogether anti-religious philosophy. So, in framing state policy, a secular state should not care about any religious beliefs or practices of the citizens. Even in extreme cases, such secular state can debar the citizens from practising their religious obligations. The communist blocks, especially former Soviet Union, established this notion of secularism.


The western liberal notion of secularism as practised in many countries in West suggests that there is no contradiction between religion and secularism. Rather, it concentrates on the separation of the church and state. This model suggests that the state should remain independent of church and unlike medieval societies, the church has no role in framing state policies. However, church still can play significant roles in the private sphere of life until it confronts the secular state policy.


In Bangladesh, the communal forces through their ill-motive propaganda have misguided the people by defining secularism in line with the rationalist and atheist notion. For this, majority of the people perceive secularism as an anti-religious ideology and being religion oriented naturally they do not endorse this sort of secularism.     


Now the question is whether the western notion of secularism is applicable to our country or not. For this, we need to assess the influence of religion on the state affairs both in west and in Indian sub-continent from historical perspective. Throughout Europe, not only in medieval period but until 18th century the church had played crucial roles in framing and regulating state policies. During this period not the state, rather the church was the deciding factor to limit the freedom of the people and everything was determined in accordance with the biblical doctrine.  So, in real sense, the countries in Europe then were theocratic by nature. However, due to the development of natural science, rise of the Renaissance Humanists and the Enlightenment, the supreme authority of the church over the state affairs had been collapsed gradually and ultimately church and state were completely separated during the period of 17th and 18th centuries. In the context of Europe, Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD), a German theologian-professor and the founder of  Protestantism initiated the first step of the separation of state and church by introducing doctrine of two kingdoms (one is secular and other is spiritual) of the God.  Like Europe, America also witnessed more of less similar experience and in the USA, separation of the state and religion was endorsed in 1791 through the first amendment of the constitution. But the case of Indian subcontinent in this context was completely different.


Before Mughul empire, most of the regions in India were ruled by Hindu kings. As Hinduism is a broad spectrum of religion and it covers different  variety of indigenous religious beliefs (e.g.  monotheistic, multi-theistic including atheism), the ancient Hindu kings showed attitude of religious tolerance and run the state in secular manner. The Mughul emperors (1526-1857AD), except Aurangajeb (1618-1707 AD) continued to conduct the state affairs in secular mode and they never tried to establish theocratic Islamic state. Especially, the tenure of the great Emperor Akbar was hallmarked for his secular practices in running the kingdom. By capturing essence of all virtues from all major religions of his time, he introduced Din-e-Elahi with a view to upholding the philosophy of secularism. Such unification of different religions in Din-e-Elahi indeed can be viewed as an effort of establishing secularism of Indian style.  This secularism did not negate religions. Even unlike in Europe, this nurtured all religious doctrines rendering peaceful co-existence of their followers.


After independence from the British regime Jawaharlal Nehru, realising the very essence of secularism of Indian style, framed the constitution.  So, it is unsurprising that in India, in many cases the state promotes religions and religious activities (for instance it sanctions huge funds for religious institutions and education). However, the precondition for this is that such state funded institutions must not discriminate any citizen for his/her religious belief. In practice, this works great, and so in the state funded Muslim Madrasas, not only Muslims but Hindus and people from other religions also can study  without any religious prejudice. 


Now the question is what mode of secularism should Bangladesh follow? As the majority of the citizens of the country though not orthodox but religious, we must discard the rationalist and atheist notion of secularism. Again, culturally in our everyday life, the influence of religions is so immense that it is not possible on our part to separate state from religion.   So, western notion of secularism will also fail to serve our purpose. In fact, Bangladesh has to define its own brand of secularism considering the fact that the majority people of the country are Muslims and Bengali. Moreover, we have to realise that Bangladesh consists of other religious communities along with some indigenous ethnic minorities. So in defining secularism we must consider Bangladesh as a pluralist society in both religious and cultural aspects.


Our secularism may be closer to that of Indian's one but it must originate from our own soil. In this region, though the majority of the people are Muslims, historically they have been upholding and practising Bengali culture without any confrontation with  Islam. The reason behind this lies in the way of preaching Islam which began in around 14th century in this region. Most of the people who were converted into Muslims in the erstwhile East Bengal were from the lower strata of Hindu community inspired by the Peer/Aowalia who followed the Sufism contrary to the orthodox view of the Islam. This Sufism emphasised a spiritual union with God and did not require its newest adherents to abandon their traditional beliefs and practice totally. So, the influence of indigenous Bengali cultural practise is predominantly evident in Muslim community in Bangladesh.  For this, the majority of the Muslims here keep liberal outlook and traditionally believe in the principle of peaceful coexistence with other religious communities. So, implementing secularism in Bangladesh is relatively an easier task compared with other Muslim countries.


Perhaps, while defining secularism in 1972 constitution, Bangabandhu had crystal clear conception of secularism of the land. To him secularism was not to discard religion. Rather he was eager to promote all religions and bring religious harmony in the country. For instance, during his tenure recitations from all major scriptures at the opening of any state function can be cited. Besides, considering Bangladesh as one of the Muslim majority countries, albeit a secular state he was keen to maintain good tie with other Muslim majority countries and joined OIC. His decision of installing Islamic Foundation and patronising major Hindu/Buddha festivals should also be considered in line with the secularism of our brand.


Finally, in implementing secularism in Bangladesh we must emphasise on real essence of Islam. Unlike medieval Sharia-based orthodox Islam, Quaranic Islam always upholds the secularism in state affairs. So, a paradigm shift of present state of Madrasa education of the country from orthodoxy to Quaranic Islam is a must.          


(Md. Anwarul Kabir is an educationalist and a freelance writer. He can be reached at

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