Published:  02:07 AM, 30 June 2020

Sectarianism, communalism, secularism and racis

Recent developments in various countries have prodded me to reflect on the denotations and connotations of constitutional rights, sectarianism, communalism and secularism as an evolving phenomenon.

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, regional or factions of a political movement.

The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviors labeled 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 organization, 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 organization 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. Racism can also play an important role in this regard.

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, 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 MP's 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% of Pakistan's Muslim population is Sunni, and another 10 - 20% 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 organizations 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.

In Lebanon they have 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 the Parliament and Druzes to be Defence Minister. Despite some problems arising from within the Shia community, this equation has worked quite well till very recently.

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 centered 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 till the end of the 1970s. It had tapered down by 2000 all over South Asia- but has started showing its ugly face once again in different parts of this region.

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. After August 1975 there were multiple efforts by Ziaur Rahman and Ershad to remove the principle of secularism from our Constitution.

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. 

Article 12 of Part -II of the constitution, restored by the 15th amendment inter alia also stated that - the principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of communalism in all forms including the granting by the state of political status in favor of any religion.

Despite terrible attacks emerging because of racism, we have to understand that we must all work together, forsake religious hatred and ensure that such violence do 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. We need to remember that Islam- follows the principles of justice, human rights, tolerance and peace.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He is a regular columnist of the Asian Age. Email: [email protected]

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