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8 February, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Is secularism under threat?

Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education and law
Monaem Sarker
Is secularism under threat?

Contemporary global phenomenon that has engulfed nearly many corners of the globe resulting in a state of uncertainty for innocent mass who are victims of extremist violence and radical religious fundamentalism particularly exploited by religious bigotry and blood thirsty politics .

The latter half of the 20th century relatively calm since the end of the Second World War and more so by the demise of the Cold War era. As a Writer and observant Political worker in alert witnessing 9–11 when the Twin Towers were hit by terrorists disguised as passengers by two aircrafts subsequently killing about 3000 innocent people caught in the catastrophe , history shall forever remember. As a writer and member of the civil society I have a question ? Presumably the world has not taken a conscious precaution in spite of first hand experiencing the fall of the twin towers more noticeably known as the World Trade Center a stone throw from the United Nations Building . One of the most tragic incidents of our time.

In the beginning I have a question rather a dilemma ! Propagating my mind , heart and soul on the belief of Secularism regarding our National Interests presently at odds of divided contemplation of the masses . This great principle is under attack by Terrorists and Fundamentalists in Bangladesh and other vicinities of the world.

Secularism is nothing but a way of life which is one of the proud pillars of our nation . Spare some moments , in one recent book of mine with collections of studied excerpts from else where depicting History of the religions and spiritual traditions of the world. There is ready reference to be distributed to you here for your understanding and positive outlook on this serious issue. Regarding reference you shall discover collection of background information compiled in a book of my work now in progress on Revival of Religious Fundamentalism, rise of Extremism and clash of humanity unsettled but revisited.

Over the first decade of 21st century Christianity grew from 2 billion to 2.2 billion, Islam from 1.2 to 1.6 billion, Hinduism from 0.8 to 1.0 and Buddhism from 0.36 to 0.5 billion.  This demographic statistics certainly shows that Christianity and Islam have been fast spreading all over the world, while India and Nepal remain as the home of Hinduism, and South, Southeast and East Asia have remained as the homes for Buddhists.

Revival of Religious Fundamentalism

The synonyms of the word revival are bringing back, re-establishment, reintroduction, restoration, reappearance, resurrection and so on and so forth. The religious fundamentalism is back with much adieu.  Past historians, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists examined 75 movements on several continents.  A book called ‘Strong Religion’ has recently unearthed “family resemblances” on fundamentalism among self proclaimed within major religious groups in most parts of the World.

Let me mention here the paradox of Fundamentalism of past and present reference of Reverend Jerry Farwell founder of the ‘Moral Majority’ movement in the US in 1979, while in the same year considering context of Islam, Iranian students took 52 American citizens hostage within the US embassy in Tehran. Recently followers of Bin Laden and Talebans of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan are branded as fundamentalists. Elsewhere in India and Nepal the Hindu fundamentalism is prevalent while very recently Bangladesh is besieged by Rohingyas and Tamils after being persecuted by Burmese Buddhist Fundamentalist Monks in collaboration with the Government Regime causing massive genocide, history revisited. In assessing the theory and practice of Fundamentalism literature of Religious Fundamentalism few viewpoints points out to some questions such as who are these people, what religious and political sentiments motivate them to commit such atrocities. In other words it can be clearly stated that ‘family resemblances discerned in differing varieties of religious revivalism be described usefully as a “fundamentalist phenomenon”?

Not much to ponder as it is quite clear to many it is more useful to understand fundamentalism from the context of ‘family resemblance’. What is family resemblance? As mentioned earlier, this indeed is the differing varieties of religious revivalism which also described as “fundamentalist phenomenon”. As stated earlier Fundamentalists have been referred to the “enclave culture” meaning the movements see themselves as beleaguered minorities in a hostile world. The so called, Islamic State or ISI and its splinter groups in Iraq and Syria immediately strikes us at present times. This is hard to understand from the sociological narrative whether Fundamentalism is religious, political  or simply out there to grab intention of Fascist Ideology?

We do not have to feel or look for the Myanmar regime is aiding the Buddhist Fundamentalist Monks to cause genocide against Muslim Rohingyas out of their homeland in the pretext of  some Rohingya militants killed 8 police and border guards of Myanmar to make known their presence in the region and protest the atrocities of Myanmar’s Quasi Civilian government.


Out of all the ‘isms’, capitalism, communism (Marxism, Leninism, Maoism), socialism, fundamentalism and so on, Secularism, does relates to way of life. What is it? Indeed, there is a vast literature on this topic. Short of space let me provide a brief overall meaning of Secularism.

Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the rights to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not imping disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.”

In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else. Secularism champions human rights above discriminatory religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities. These equality law ensures non-believers have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief.

It is essential that the public services such as hospitals, schools, transport etc are secular at the point of use so that none is disadvantaged or denied access on grounds of religious belief or non-belief.

In summary, Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education and law elsewhere for believers and non-believers alike. Secularism protects free speech and expression. Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs. Religious beliefs, ideas and organizations must not enjoy privileged protection from the right to freedom of expression. In a democracy, all ideas and beliefs must be open to discussion.

Having defined the term Secularism, let us see now how the fundamentalist attacks on principles of secularism and how they are a major threat? True it is that the religious fundamentalism or movements become “militants and highly focused antagonists of secularization”. Most of the fundamentalist movements are undoubtedly hostile to much of modernity, in turn hostile towards secularism and now a major threat. The global upsurge of religion unfortunately did not help to reign in to counter this threat.

Politics The global politics at this moment is unfortunately reached to such a point, in my view it becomes much worse than the cold war period existent before the disappearance of Berlin wall and unification of Germany took place in 1992. Presently, however in our next door, Korean peninsula in particular, has reached dangerously close to another threat of a Great conflict between the US and allies in East Asia and Oceania, and North Korea and it’s allies. Under this condition if third Great World War eventuates along with secularism is going to be the first casualty.


How would the present economic order contribute to threat to Secularism? It is indeed a great question. The economic order existed over the last half a century in Europe with the formation of European Union (EU) has entered into a period of great disturbance with Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU.

The NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico is also entered into a period of destabilization under the Trump administration. Hard to say how the ultimate shape of this trade integration in the region unfolds with Trump being an anti integration President.  An extreme right movement in the US against the minorities in several fronts is in order now. This is indeed a major threat to Secularism in the region.

The ASEAN in Southeast Asia seems lost its momentum for the action of some of its member countries. In recent years particularly in Myanmar escalating the Rohingya crisis since last year. The strong ASEAN members like Indonesia and Malaysia are unhappy on Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing plan and wiping out Rohingyas from Rakhain state over the years. In the process, we are forced to provide shelter to almost a million refugees from Myanmar.

In our region, SAARC is not going anywhere. The present relations between India and Pakistan have been worsening day by day. Meaning, the political environment is not conducive to keeping secularism in a healthy and steady path in South Asia. In view of the above, global picture is grim. To mention the least in the Economic front and certainly would be in a great crisis with a rise of any of the political crisis mentioned earlier.

Corruption and Values

This is indeed a major problem in the sub-continent particularly in Bangladesh. Almost two hundred years of British rule of the Greater India the three large nations of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are now the home of more than 1.5 billion people which is one-fifth of the world population. Huge population together with diminishing moral values is a matter of major concern in this region. In the pretext of terrorism and insurgency in some parts of the subcontinent the Nation States have been running after reviving a culture of religious extremism. In India, revival of Hindu extremism led politics is making the nation to abandon Secularism soon. In Pakistan, Talebans and other Islamic extremists have become a threat not only to the integrity of Pakistan but also a threat to the whole region. In Bangladesh although Islamic extremism is under control due to government’s zero tolerance to terrorism, there is indeed an emergence of a byproduct such as corruption gripping all walks of life. This cannot be ignored. Corruption not only in monetary term thriving in this nation, morale values are also taking a toll and a nasty turn. Why? It is a subject which needs very close scrutiny, however I have no time today to touch this in a meaningful way. Having said that, I am convinced the present environment in political arena is not conducive to reign in corruption, in turn the Secularism is likely to be a major casualty of political developments in the years to come.           


I would like to make five Observations out of my assessment of the present threat to Secularism.

•     The threat is unavoidable unless the progressive political governments of the world are showing commitment and resolve in strengthening Secularism and it’s practice in the era of new world order.

•    Religious fundamentalism needs to be addressed in a meaningful way instead of encouraging directly or indirectly by nation states.

•     There is no room for state sponsored terrorism or spread of weapons of mass destruction. The world expects this to diminish.

•    The right wing Governments of the world must come to terms within arresting rampant corruption gripping some emerging nations more importantly our region.

•    Twentieth century was not a replica of ninetieth century and twenty first century will be quite different from Twentieth century. In the Twenty first century people will look forward to a more humane world order in all respects.

The writer is Director General, Bangladesh Foundation for Development Research



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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