Published:  12:32 AM, 10 October 2018

Religion-based politics is a risky gambit

Religion-based politics is a risky gambit

The purpose of a faith is to promote people's morality and spirituality. Reli-gion doesn't mix well with democracy. The combination of religion and politics is always lethal, in every society. 

When the people of East Pakistan created Bangladesh, we wanted to have a secular country, where the state and the religion of Islam would always remain two separate entities. 

Our dream was of a secular Bangladesh because we had witnessed the mounting economic chaos and exploitation of the Pakistan era, when the military junta used Islam to insult and subjugate the Bengalis, alleging that, unlike the "true" Pakistanis, we were not "pure Muslims" but "slaves". 

Thus, the founding father of our nation declared that Bangladesh would be a secular nation, where the state would not try to control people's faiths. Also, religious political parties were banned. 

The East Pakistan Awami Muslim League had, in 1951, trimmed the word 'Muslim' from its name to make the party more politically acceptable to all stripes of people. This party maintained its distance from the religious and right-wing political parties for decades. 

Under the leadership of this party, Bangladesh achieved independence. But over the past couple of decades, the Bangladesh Awami League has been trying to woo voters with promises of giving religious parties undue advantages over others. In some cases, these advantages have already been given to them. 

There did not, at first, appear to be any real threat from the rising Islamic fundamentalist party Hefazat-e-Islam, but, seeing that this party was becoming more popular among the madrassah-educated students and some other observant Muslims, the AL has been intimidated into conceding some of its most appalling demands.

The AL has been a secular party for over six decades. It has received support from people at the grassroots level. So the AL has evidently been successful in achieving its goal of maintaining its popular support by compromising its secular values under pressure from this radical party. The British introduced a modern education system in the Indian subcontinent long before the Darul Ulum Qawmi madrassah introduced their Islamic education system there. 

The madrassah education is no way compatible with the modern education system, though some mathematics and English are being taught in the madrassah. In the madrassahs, students basically learn Hadiths and other Islamic lessons aimed at meriting rewards in the afterlife. 

But giving these students the equivalent of a master's degree certificate for their Takmeel or Hadith degree, without overhauling the Qawmi madrassah education system, is too much! They can't compete with those receiving a modern education. 

Some analysts say that this practice by the ruling party is one of its policies of appeasement of the religious parties and leaders who run the Qawmi madrassahs, which have been instituted despite its long history of maintaining a safe distance between those parties and itself. 

The general elections are around the corner. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been a pioneer in making alliances with the ultra-religious parties such as Jamat-e-Islam, which use religion to woo practicing Muslim voters. It has also made alliances with some minor socialist parties.

Bangladesh is not alone in suffering from the effects of the influence of religion in politics. The western countries suffered similarly for many centuries. For this reason, most of them took action to separate the state from religion a couple of centuries ago. 

Most of these countries became very successful after that, working to develop a pluralistic society based on tolerance and justice for all. What have we learned from their mistakes? It seems we have learned nothing from them. Political developments in Bangladesh threaten to put the secular nation into a reverse mode. 

Most Bangladeshi Muslims are observant but not radical or fundamentalist. Before the India/Pakistan partition, Bengali Muslims once overwhelmingly voted for the Muslim League. But they never ever voted for the religious parties in hordes under Pakistan, or in the early post-independence period. But nowadays both the major parties are leaving no stone unturned in radicalizing their proclamations. 

Religion and religion-based political parties gained momentum after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which was performed with the help of the military junta. 

Over the years since, BNP, Jamat-e-Islami, and Hefazat-e-Islam have been using a brew of politics to try to replace the secular democracy with an Islamic theocracy. Seeing their partial success, the ruling AL party has also begun to incorporate some radical elements into its party proclamation, which now appears to be non-secular. 

Countries which don't separate religion from the state suffer from many troubles. In these countries, minorities don't feel safe and secure. The political parties, such as BNP, which were born in the cantonment, have been using religion in politics and the tactic has brought them some success in the post-independence period. That doesn't mean the AL also needs to crib the tactic to cheaply gain some cheap popularity. 

In recent years, Secularism has been pushed into a corner by other political parties wanting to get popular support from observant Muslims, as well as financial support from the Arabian countries. In recent years, AL and BNP have been getting support from Hefazat-e-Islam, and Jamat-e-Islami, respectively. 

Both the major parties are trying to appease the radical parties without considering the general people's woes and demands. Suffice it to say, both the major parties should be doing a better job for the people, instead of bending under pressure from the radical parties. 

The writer, a Bangladeshi freethinker, is based in Toronto, Canada

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