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20 May, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Was secularism ever practiced in the world?

Almost everywhere in the world now secularism is a retreating force
Abdul Gaffar Choudhury
Was secularism ever practiced in the world?

Recently I attended a seminar in London on the future of secularism in the world. The learned speakers tried to define the characteristics of secularism from Martin Luther to the present times. The majority opinion in the seminar was that secularism is a declining force in face of rising religious fundamentalism along with racism and fascism. In the conference hall there was a poster on the wall listing the names of secular countries in the world. I did not find Bangladesh's name on this list of the secular states.

I asked an organizer of the seminar why the name of Bangladesh was omitted from the list, but India and Turkey were shown as secular states. The organizer replied, that Bangladesh was listed as a secular state after its independence. But soon after there was a military coup and the military rulers changed the constitution arbitrarily by declaring a religion as state religion. Since secularism was omitted from the constitution as one of the four principals of the state, naturally, Bangladesh lost its status as a secular one.

I raised the question if Bangladesh is not a secular state for adopting a religion as state religion then what about some other countries. After a communal party BJP took over the power in India, its stand from a secular to Hindutava state is very clear. The Muslims, Christians and Dalits are being discriminated and communal tensions are on the rise in India. The same is true about Turkey. Kamal's strong secularism is now replaced by old religious rules. But still India and Turkey remain as a secular state on the list of the seminar.

Although the constitution of Bangladesh has lost its secular character by the arbitrary decision of the military rulers, the people remain non-communal and against fundamentalism. The strong base of non-communal Bangla culture is a safeguard against extremism. That is why the present Hasina government could prevent the tide of Jihadism more easily than Pakistan and Afghanistan and could execute the leader of violent extremism in the country.

Almost everywhere in the world now secularism is a retreating force, and the countries which profess secularism, they are also clouded by anti-secularist forces. Even, the so-called leader of the democratic world, America and its present president are characteristically anti-secular. This worldwide anti-secular trend has reached the shores of the Bay-of-Bengal also and Bangladesh cannot be singularized alone.

Secularism is not an anti-religion force, but it gives every religion equal rights for existence and safety and does not discriminate among faiths. But the ruling class in almost every country in the world did not accept the true spirit of democracy and secularism. They used it as a mask to hide their real faces. Secularism was never truly practiced in the so called developed secular states also.

Long ago the daughter of late professor, Dr. Khan Sarwar Murshid, Tazeen Murshid published her thesis on secularism under the title The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses (1871- 1977). A discussion on the book was held in a meeting in London where some renowned professors of Oxford participated. Dr. Sarwar Murshid also attended and participated in the discussion.

Dr. Tazeen was very kind to me. Though I was not equal to those scholars, I was invited to participate in the discussion. There I said that though at one time it was a fashion to become a secularist, it was never practiced from the old to the new world. In reality the unification of religions was practiced in the name of secularism. If we go back to the ancient India, we will see that Emperor Ashoka was a follower of an old and very rigid Hindu religion. He killed 5 lakh Buddhists to keep his country's purity, but within a few years he became so repentant that he himself became a Buddhist and tried to combine the two faiths-Hinduism and Buddhism.

The great Moghul emperor Akbar who was described in the history as a secular emperor, in reality he was also a preacher of a combination of religions. Combining the basic ingredients of Islam and Hinduism he preached a new religion called Din-e-elahi. The fundamentalist Muslims and a section of Ulema called him a kafir and his two great associates Abul-Fazl and Faizi were killed by the Muslim fundamentalists. Akbar like Ashoka was not a secularist but a believer in religious unification.

Now if we look at modern India, MK Gandhi was the leader of the All-India Congress, known as a secular political party, but he preached for Ram Rajya (the kingdom of Ram). He used to sing a prayer song in his ashram, which says 'Allah and Bhagavan are the same and that God will lead everyone for good deeds'. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a western educated leader. He never practiced religious rituals and opposed the movement for the revival of Khelafat in India.

Gandhi gave his blessing to this movement but Jinnah opposed it saying that this is a movement for re-establishing the old Muslim Kingdom, which would be detrimental to the modernisation of the Indian Muslim society. The irony of fate is that within a few years Jinnah became the President of Muslim League, a communal party and demanded the establishment of Pakistan dividing India. Though he said Pakistan will be a democratic country but Pakistan became a theocratic country not a democratic one.

Those who think that communism stands for secularism are not right. Communist governments took an anti-religion stand and closed all religious places. That policy failed and the people of communist states like now defunct Soviet Union and China pushed towards religious faiths again. Even in Cuba people revolted against the government's policy. Now China and Cuba both communist countries are not following anti-religion policy and have started opening doors to churches and mosques.

To establish a truly democratic and secular Bangladesh Sheikh Mujib fought and died for his dream. After his death like Pakistan the mosque and military collaborated to make the country a shadow of Pakistan. People are against this axis of power. But to keep their vested interests the privileged elite class and a section of civil society are trying to prevent the revival of secularism and but they cover their face with the mask of secularism only to weaken the advance of the two ideals of democracy and secularism.

 We cannot establish democracy, secularism or even socialism in our country not knowing its true tenets and without a united effort by people and the patriotic professional class. The present Hasina government is fighting tooth and nail to keep democracy afloat against the tide of fundamentalism, communalism and fascism. If this struggle can achieve victory then Bangladesh can look forward to achieve true secularism. This is true for other developed and developing countries also. Our aim should be to follow secular policy in its true sense with a strong stand against religious fascism but not against religion itself.

London, Thursday 17 May, 2018


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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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