By Harun ur Rashid
A question was raised as to whether political parties based on religion could exist in Bangladesh after the verdict of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court confirmed the illegality of the Fifth Amendment Act of the Constitution (judgment was released on July 28).
The matter was laid to rest when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly made it clear in one of her cabinet meetings that her government had no intention of banning religion-based political parties. Her reported statement is pragmatic, and based on sound assessment of the political environment in the country.
In Britain, Queen Elizabeth is the "Defender of the Faith," not "Faiths." meaning that the monarch defends only the Protestant branch of Christianity as distinct from Catholic Christians and other major faiths.
Furthermore, it is argued that in all Western nations religious ceremonies play a dominant role in state functions. Even academic terms in England, such as "Michaelmas," "Easter" and "Trinity" go back to the roots of Christianity.
In many European countries, political parties have prefixed the name of a religion, such as Germany's Christian Democratic Union and Christian Union in the Netherlands.
However, such religious terminologies do not compromise the secular character of laws and systems of government. Although many political parties in Europe have prefixed the word "Christian," there appears to be no intention to change the basic structure of the state's existing system and laws on Biblical doctrines.
In this context, analysts say that the core issue appears to be whether a political party wants to change the structure of the constitution and laws of a state on the basis of particular religious doctrines.
When political parties want to change the structure, system of government, judiciary and laws of a state in accordance with the principles and beliefs of a particular religion among many religions, people of other faiths in such a state perceive discrimination on the basis of religion.
Many linguists say secularism is not a good English substitute for the Bengali word dharmanirapekhata, which means that a state remains neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine and practice.
Neutrality has to be distinguished from non-involvement with religion. Neutrality implies governmental engagement with religion for the purpose of treating all religious groups fairly, equally and equitably, while non-involvement implies governmental isolation from matters of religion. Neutrality in religion, in other words, is religious pluralism.
It is argued that religious pluralism and Bengali-language based nationalism constituted the spirit of the Liberation War of 1971.
The basic fabric of the Bangladesh Constitution is the "solemn expression of the will of the people" (Article 7.2 of the Constitution), and religious pluralism is a golden thread running through the Constitution that was adopted in 1972.
The concept of freedom of religion as stipulated in Article 41 of the Constitution is as follows:
(1) Subject to law, public order and morality:
(a) Every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion;
(b) Every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain, and manage its religious institutions.
(2) No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than this own.
Article 41 is founded upon on the belief that the state neither favours nor discriminates against any religious faith. The belief may be called "equidistance."
Bangladeshis of various faiths are deeply religious, and most devoutly religious people are also the staunchest defenders of religious pluralism. If the state has the power and authority to favour one religion over another, then it has the power and authority to do the opposite as well.
Bangladesh, despite a few extra-constitutional bumps in the road, has been very successful in keeping harmony among people of all faiths, which is consistent with the long-standing political and cultural history of the Bengali people.
Pakistan fell apart in 1971 because Muslim soldiers of Pakistan perpetrated barbaric atrocities on Bengali-speaking people in former East Pakistan, about 88% of whose population was Muslim, and demonstrated that a common religion could not act as a unifier in Pakistan.
In the above context, can religion act as a bond in a nation? Many scholars argue that it cannot, because 22 Arab countries are separate nation-states although they speak the same Arabic language and their populations are overwhelmingly Muslims. Why could not they be merged as one state on the basis of religion?
Furthermore, Islam is not a monolithic religion. It is made up of a variety of strands of thought and multiple interpretations of the Holy Qu'ran. The Muslim world is arguably severely fractured along ethnic lines -- all having very different views on precepts of Islam. It demonstrates that Islamic ideology is not uniform or rigid.
The difference in the practice of Islam between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims remains. Many of the practices of Islam in non-Arab Muslim majority countries, from Iran to Indonesia, have their undepinnings on local customs and traditions that are very different from those of Arab Muslims.
Finally, let me quote former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad who said at the OIC Summit in 2003: "We are now 1.3 billion strong. We have the biggest oil reserve in the world. We have great wealth. We seem more helpless than the small number of Jahilliah converts who accepted the Prophet as their leader. Why? Is it because of Allah's will or is it because we have interpreted our religion wrongly, or failed to abide by the correct teachings of our religion or done the wrong things?"
Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.
Source: The Daily Star