By Ziauddin Choudhury
07 June 2017
We Are Supposed To Be A Democracy, Not A Theocracy
In March 2001, six months before September 11, the Taliban destroyed the famous Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, calling them idols and therefore unIslamic.
They cared little about the heritage or culture of Afghanistan. In 2015, the soldiers of the so-called Islamic State in Syria destroyed hundreds of invaluable sculptures from Roman times in the ancient city of Palmyra, because they found them unIslamic. The world was aghast at such savagery. Is Bangladesh on the way to becoming such a country?
I am not here to debate the issue of whether Islam forbids sculpture as an art form and whether sculptures are to be treated as idols. I am also not here to argue about claims made by some of the proponents of our religion that all sculptures of a living being are ipso facto idols, and that such objects have no place in a Muslim country. I am here to pose a question.
Is banning or destroying a sculpture the only way to establish Islam in the country’s governance, or is it a harbinger of more dire things to come?
The opposition that comes from a certain section of religiously inclined people to many of our cultural traditions and practices is not new. In the past, we have seen negative utterances by heads of some religious institutions against celebrations of Bengali New Year, bestowing of flower wreaths in monuments on national occasions, female participation in processions, etc. Even music and dancing have been deemed unIslamic by some of these orthodox critics.
But these utterances were previously mostly confined within cleric-friendly circles of religious seminaries, or religious gatherings in far-flung areas of the country. Such criticism was mostly ignored by the majority of our people, and our politicians also overlooked them (as they should) since these did not represent mainstream views in the country or a threat to the country. But that is until now.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric of the religious right that was earlier confined to the seminaries and seasonal religious gatherings has reached a new level.
It is now a voice that even our government is forced to listen to, and appears to respect.
Is this simply because the religious right is gaining popularity, or because there is an invisible shift in the government’s stance toward this group? In either case, we have serious causes for concern, because this is not why we fought for our liberation.
To say that what we are witnessing in our political scene today is simply a cacophony of some religious zealots is not only an understatement, but it is tantamount to shielding ourselves with naive denialism.
What we are witnessing now did not just begin with the demands of the religious right for the removal of a statue from the gates of the Supreme Court. Nor is it going to be peak with the overt threats of physical harm to a well-known activist and social leader for her defence of the secular values of our country. The clouds of radicalism formed long ago and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
How did it come to this?
The growth in the religious right movement and radical ideas did not happen overnight. It has happened over years with collusion from home and abroad.
At the home front, it happened with the co-option of religious leaders into the country’s politics, starting with heads of religious institutions and their acolytes, in pseudo-democracies of the military leaders who overthrew our first democratic government.
From abroad, it began with the pumping of money from oil rich Arab countries to old and new religious institutions and importing a rigid version of Islam through expatriates.
But there are core values of freedom of expression, equality of all religions, and rule of law that are also part of our constitution
One expected that with the rebirth of democracy in the country after the mass upheaval in 1990, the tilt toward religious fundamentalism and the country’s gradual shift away from secularism would be halted.
But instead, we witnessed a more menacing form of radicalism that spawned militants who would terrorise some parts of the country in the beginning of this century.
This was possible partly because the party in power at the time had aligned itself with forces that were anything but secular in their political ideology. In fact, following the removal of secularism for all practical purposes as a state principle from the time of the two military leaders, there was no attempt at rehabilitating the secular image of the country either through overt or covert action.
We have witnessed the spread of extremist thought and action in many activities in our country since then. In the last five years we witnessed the murders of numerous individuals — writers, journalists, activists, minority priests — that were carried out by unidentified people in the name of religion.
A Buddhist temple was razed to the ground on an unfounded report of affront to Islam by its priest. The horrendous list of crimes would culminate in the most terrible tragedy of death of twenty innocent people in a restaurant in Dhaka last year at the hands of terrorists.
We Must Protect Freedom of Expression
Is there a link between the tragic happenings of last few years and the spread of intolerance that we are seeing now? Is there any commonality between the people who have been killing innocent people in the name of Islam and those who think that secular ideas have no place in a Muslim country?
Probably no, as the former requires a type of mentality and brainwashing that a garden variety religious person will not have. However, both kinds are intolerant — a basic tenet Islam asks its followers to have.
Political, religious, or social issues that pose problems for a government are best resolved through discussion in a forum where people can participate.
In democratic countries this forum is the parliament where people’s representatives debate the issues and come to a resolution.
The question about where a statue should be located is not an issue for the parliament, but whether a country should have statues at all is a state policy that a parliament can decide.
On the other hand, the expression of a person’s view on it in a public forum is that person’s fundamental right which does not need a parliamentary nod. In fact, that person should be given state protection if he or she is threatened for expressing their views. And such threats need to be dealt with seriously by the state.
I can understand our government’s dilemma in tackling the religious right in a Muslim country.
It is difficult to shore up secular values in a religiously biased community. It is more difficult in a country where the constitution proclaims one particular religion to be the state religion.
But there are core values of freedom of expression, equality of all religions, and rule of law that are also part of our constitution. In giving quarters to a vociferous section of people, we should not undermine these core values.
Political alliances are not unusual. But such alliances should not compromise these core values that guided our war of liberation. The mistake of mixing religion with politics is what broke Pakistan.
Let us not repeat such mistakes. Indulgences of one demand on religious grounds will lead to other, and soon our democracy will turn into a theocracy.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.