By Muhammad Zamir
09 Nov, 2015
The recent violent attacks on two foreign residents in Bangladesh, the hurling of bombs and grenades on Shia worshippers in front of Hussaini Dalan in Old Dhaka and the killing of one person and injuring of some others associated with the publishing industry have drawn attention once again to several wrong things taking place in our country. These incidents have occurred in a chronological framework and have followed the unfortunate earlier murders of some bloggers who had posted comments which were denounced by certain groups as controversial. Their killings have been interpreted as abuse of human rights and also of freedom of expression. Some have however unfortunately tried to explain away such criminal acts simplistically as a consequence of misuse of digital freedom.
These developments have prodded me to reflect on the denotations and connotations of constitutional rights, sectarianism, communalism and secularism as it is evolving in different parts of the world and also in a normally peaceful and tolerant Bangladesh.
Sectarianism is generally understood to be a form of bigotry, discrimination or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion, nationalism, class, region or factions of a political movement.
The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviours labelled as sectarian are extraordinarily varied. Members of a religious, national or political group may believe that their own salvation, or the success of their particular objectives, requires aggressive seeking of converts from other groups. Adherents of a given faction may believe that for the achievement of their own political or religious project their internal opponents must be converted or purged.
Sometimes a group that is under economic or political pressure will also kill or attack members of another group which it regards as responsible for its own decline. It may also more rigidly define the definition of orthodox belief within its particular group or organisation, and expel or excommunicate those who do not support this new-found clarified definition of political or religious orthodoxy. In other cases, dissenters from this orthodoxy will secede from the orthodox organisation and proclaim themselves as practitioners of a reformed belief system, or holders of a perceived former orthodoxy. At other times, sectarianism may be the expression of a group's nationalistic or cultural ambitions, or exploited by demagogues.
The phrase "sectarian conflict" usually refers to violent conflict along religious or political lines such as the conflicts between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland (religious and class-divisions may play major roles as well). It may also refer to general philosophical and political disparity between different schools of thought such as that between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
As against this format, non-sectarians espouse that free association and tolerance of different beliefs are the cornerstone to successful peaceful human interaction. They espouse political and religious pluralism.
Analysts have observed that wherever people of different religions lived in close proximity to each other, religious sectarianism was often found in varying forms and degrees. In most places where Protestantism has been the majority or "official" religion, there have also been examples of Catholics being persecuted. In countries where the Reformation was successful, this often led to the perception that Catholics retained allegiance to a 'foreign' power (the Papacy), causing them to be regarded with suspicion. Sometimes this mistrust manifested itself in Catholics being subjected to restrictions and discrimination, which itself led to further conflict. For example, Catholics were forbidden from voting, becoming MPs or buying land in Ireland. However, in most Christian areas, religious sectarians now exist peacefully side-by-side.
It may be recalled here that the civil wars in the Balkans which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s were heavily tinged with sectarianism. Croats and Slovenes have traditionally been Catholic, Serbs and Macedonians Eastern Orthodox, and Bosniaks and most Albanians Muslim. Religious affiliation served as a marker of group identity in this conflict, despite relatively low rates of religious practice and belief among these various groups after decades of communism.
Within Islam, there has also been conflict at various periods between Sunnis and Shias; with many inspired by Wahhabism and other ideologies declaring Shias to be heretics and/or apostates. A classic case in point has been Pakistan. One of the largest Muslim countries in the world, it has seen serious Shia-Sunni sectarian violence. Almost 80- 90 per cent of Pakistan's Muslim population is Sunni, and another 10-20 per cent is Shia, the second largest Shia population of any country after Iran. Human Rights Watch has stated that in 2011 and 2012 Pakistan minority groups Hindus, Ahmadi and Christians "faced unprecedented insecurity and persecution in the country". Those blamed for the sectarian violence in the country included mostly Sunni militant groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (affiliates of Al-Qaeda), and Jundallah (affiliate of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has claimed responsibility for most attacks on the Shia community.
Certain elements of the Iraqi insurgency and foreign terrorist organisations that came to Iraq after the fall of Saddam have also targeted Shias in sectarian attacks. Analysts have however seen this as a response to the discriminatory manner in which the Sunnis were treated in Iraq after the fall of Saddam by Iraq's Shia majority government.
Sectarianism has also been described as a characteristic feature of the Syrian civil war. The sharpest split has been between the ruling minority Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, and the country's Sunni Muslim majority, mostly aligned with the opposition. The difference however lies in the manner in which Lebanon has tried to overcome their sectarian issue. They, on the basis of the numerical percentage of the composition of their population have decided on the government hierarchy - Maronites from the Christian faith to hold the Presidency, Sunnis to be Prime Minister, Shias to be Speaker of Parliament and Druzes to be Defence Minister. Despite some problems arising from within the Shia community, this equation has worked quite well.
Communalism has traditionally been a South Asian problem. It has been viewed as an attempt to construct religious or ethnic identity, incite strife between people identified as different communities, and to stimulate communal violence between those groups. This process is assumed to have derived from history, differences in beliefs, and tensions between communities. In South Asia, it represents ideologies centred on particular communities, especially religious communities. Communal conflicts between religious communities, especially Hindus and Muslims, were a recurring occurrence in the decades immediately before the Partition in 1947 and continued in this fashion until the end of the 1970s. Despite the 2002 Gujrat riot, such incidents have now tapered down in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Secularism as a concept entered into the ethos of Bangladesh by being part of the four fundamental principles adopted through the Constitution after 1971. This was a reflection of the demographic map of the country which included, in addition to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other indigenous communities. This gave us the freedom to practise the faith we follow without being subject to any form of state or communal discrimination. The principle of secularism was however removed from the Constitution in 1977 by Ziaur Rahman. In 1988, the country's second military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad declared Islam as the state religion in Bangladesh. This country's largely secular establishment saw this as a betrayal of Bengali nationalism and also opposed to mainstream Bengali culture and society, both of which are remarkably pluralist and progressive. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored secularism as one of the basic tenets of the Constitution but Islam remained as the state religion (Article-8 of Part-II). Article 12 of Part-II of the Constitution, restored by the 15th amendment, inter alia, also states that the principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of communalism in all forms including the granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion.
Consequently the recent attack on a Shia ceremony was not only a sectarian attack but also smacked of a sinister attempt to destabilise the country. I have lived in Dhaka since February, 1950 and do not recollect such terrible anti-Shia attacks taking place before.
We have to consequently understand that we must all work together, forsake religious hatred and ensure that such violence does not happen again. Those guilty of advocating religious hatred, inciting discrimination, hostility, violence and trying to restrict responsible use of freedom of expression need to be identified and adequately addressed. The Government must also take every step to ensure the security of members of all religious minorities and their places of worship so as to prevent any recurrence of a similar dreadful incident.
Misguided people must stop violent activities. Such atrocities as that perpetrated on Faisal Arefin Dipan and others associated with publication are not allowed in any civilised society or religion, particularly in Islam which follows the principles of justice, human rights, tolerance and peace. Unfortunately, such acts appear to be recurring because cases of similar nature are not being solved satisfactorily conforming to judicial requirement. This is unacceptable for us Bangalees, nurtured on secularism and justice. It would also be pertinent at this point to stress that all concerned need to be careful in their comments so that such observations are not considered as sufficiently irresponsible to hurt another's feelings.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.