Commitment to Secularism
Modern manifestations of secularism focus on its influence in maintaining an equal distance between all religions without allowing one faith or belief system to dominate others.
Communal violence against Bangladesh’s Hindu communities during the Durga Puja festival in October 2021 has revived debates surrounding the country’s ambivalent stance on secularism. At this critical juncture, rights activists have demanded the restoration of the 1972 Constitution that visualized a secular polity. However, insiders in the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government believe that efforts to restructure the body politic by removing Islam as the state religion will incite civil unrest and derail economic growth.
These concerns aren’t entirely unwarranted as religion remains a delicate matter in Bangladesh and cannot be easily extricated from state affairs. Even a cursory glimpse at the country’s history would reveal that religious factions have continually attempted to elbow away secular values.
In 1971, Bangladesh declared itself a secular state insofar as no one faith would be permitted to assume centrality in government affairs. The preamble to the Constitution stated that secularism was among the four basic pillars of the state along with democracy, nationalism and socialism. Even so, secularism remained a somewhat contentious ideal and Islam continued to exert a strong influence in the political realm. For instance, the Education Commission in 1973 discovered that a vast majority of the country’s Muslim population wanted access to religious education. As per credible reports, the number of Qawmi and Alia madrassas operating within the country have grown exponentially over the decades.
The seeds of Bangladesh’s Islamization process were sown under the tenure of military dictator Ziaur Rehman. The roots of this transformation in statecraft were nourished and solidified when his successor Hussein Muhammad - another military ruler - declared Islam to be the state religion in 1988. Despite this adjustment to the country’s constitutional framework, secularism continues to remain a vital - albeit tenuous - blueprint for the functioning of the state.
Under the incumbent government, secular ideals seem to have been flouted as hard-line religious groups have fuelled bigotry and fundamentalism. Driven by political expediency, the Awami League government has only sought to reach compromises with these radical forces and done little to curb their influence in eroding the secular space. As a result, these elements have been emboldened by the tacit support they have received from the ruling elite. It is, therefore, not surprising that they have managed to subtly push the boundaries to facilitate their ideological agenda. Elements of state policy that are believed to be inconsistent with Islam have been vociferously rejected. In recent years, secular content in school textbooks has been removed and replaced with seemingly religious material.