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The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away

  • Published at 12:42 am June 27th, 2018
  • Last updated at 03:26 am June 28th, 2018
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What do the elections change? MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

We are at that time again 

What does it mean for a country that was founded upon the basis of secularism as one of its fundamental principles to have a state religion? 

I know I know, I’m dragging “that” old discussion back again, but bear with me on this one.

The Cliff’s Notes edition of the history of secularism in Bangladesh can be summed up like this:


• Bangladesh is founded on the ideas of socialism, nationalism, democracy, and secularism -- each basic tenet etched into the constitution

• The secularism clause is gotten rid of by the country’s military rulers in 1977 (switched with the zinger that the country is to have “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”)

• Islam gets established as the state religion in 1988 by the country’s authoritarian rulers

• Intermission

• The Bangladesh Supreme Court, under the auspices of a democratically elected government, restores the secularism clause in 2010 -- but also making certain that the nation has a state religion in the form of Islam


In short, it’s likely that this “neither here nor there” state of affairs (at least when it comes to secularism) is because we don’t know what the hell we’re doing with this whole “sovereignty” thing. But the less comical and more realistic explanation might be how, despite lacking any of humility, charity, and humanity, somehow, a sizeable majority of Bangladeshis still feel compelled to identify themselves as Muslims -- which makes them the de facto vote bank to try and pander to, of course.

But these are all obvious talking points which I’m sure you don’t need me to reiterate.

It’s that time again

Our nation is currently on the cusp of the next general elections, and it wouldn’t be that bold a claim to say that no one is deluded enough to believe we won’t be seeing the sitting party remain comfortably sat come next year.

A recent report on the Dhaka Tribune regarding Islamist political parties and their plans for the coming elections (sounds rather ominous, right?) revealed a rather interesting development: While it’s nothing new for political parties to court Islamists and for Islamists to reciprocate to said courting, the rose water-drenched pendulum is steadily beginning to swing towards the Awami League as opposed to its historic pull towards the BNP.

It’s possible for you to have never heard of the Islami Andolon Bangladesh. While the spotlight has always been on the rather gung-ho Jamaat-e-Islami or the comparatively tamer Hefazat-e-Islam, Islami Andolan Bangladesh has been around for close to 30 years now, and their head honcho, Muhammad Rezaul Karim, recently made the following statement: “We will form a coalition with parties that accept our proposal for an Islamic country.”

Hold up -- I thought Islam was already the state religion of Bangladesh? What does this “proposal for an Islamic country” seek to change when the overwhelming majority of the population (90.39% according to a 2011 census -- lord knows what that figure is now) already identifies as Muslim?

That’s where the problem lies.

A wishy-washy amendment that is basically the constitutional equivalent of the phrase “having said that …” (and is just as useless) only further deepens the divide. And yes, our country is divided, it always has been. 

Unfortunately, a vocal minority in our society subscribe to a retrograde version of Islam that is still stuck firmly in its roots as an expansionary, political religion -- these are the types of people to whom the very notion of there being other faiths or even systems of belief is anathema, the sort of reprobates who are enterprising enough to pretend to be representatives of peace all the while stoking the fires of communalism.

I realize that I’m beating a dead horse here. The constitution is fickle, but it is much easier to make changes to it than it is to take those changes out. And as things stand now, the large print ensures that our country has the freedom for individuals to practice whatever faith they choose, while the small print basically takes that away.

And in times when religious and ethnic communalism are manifesting in some of the ugliest possible ways in the history of our nation, would it be asking too much from our current-and-would-be leaders to make a call already?

The right call, of course -- who in their right mind wants to actually live in an all-Islamic state, anyway?

Rubaiyat Kabir is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.