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What is secularism?

  • Published at 12:04 am October 23rd, 2019
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Secularism as a modern concept is aligned with the concepts of equality, freedom, and democracy. Secularism anywhere in the world works is the antidote to communalism, which is required to check the growth of religious fundamentalism and inter-religious conflicts. 

The function of secularism is also to eradicate the persecution of religious minorities, promote cultural pluralism, religious freedom, and establish social harmony. 

Broadly, there are two types of secularism -- political or assertive secularism which promotes equality and freedom for the religious, and non-religious and contextual, or passive secularism in which government policies are acceptable if their purpose is to eradicate social injustices attributable to religious practices.

Although secularism is a universal concept applicable throughout the modern world, existing realities and historical events can influence its meaning. For example, in Turkey, secularism is an official ideology, and an identity of the state, rather than a functional legal principle describing the rela-tionship of the state with religion. 

The understanding of secularism may depend on a particular historical and cultural context. For example, in Western countries, secularism is the establishment of a separation between religion and state institutions, whereas in Bangladesh, secularism implies anti-communalism where every religion is equally respected.

In order to examine secularism in Bangladesh, apart from focusing only on the text of the constitution, it is important to consider the values surrounding the constitution. 

The primary function of secularism as described in the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh was to restore communal harmony between religious communities and to keep the national unity intact in the war-ravaged country. There was propaganda against the principle of secularism to undermine Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government. 

To give secularism a pro-Indian stamp, thus favouring Hindus, the anti-liberation forces and pro-political Islamic groups propagated the idea that secularism meant the absence of religion, and that the survival of Islam was at stake in the hands of the secularist government. 

Elements of communalism and communal ideology disrupted the peace and order in the war-ravaged country, therefore, the most important step of the Sheikh Mujib’s government in regard to stopping the abuse of religion for the political purpose was the constitutional prohibition of forming any religion based communal political parties in Bangladesh (Article 38). 

Bangabandhu’s understanding of secularism was characterized by the recognition of equal respect for all religion rather than rejection. He understood religion as a matter of ideology and believed that Islam or any other religion could be performed and given equal respect within the spirit of secularism. 

After the Liberation War of 1971, Bangladesh tried to walk this secular-democratic path, but his aspirations could not succeed. The assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, was followed by 15 years of military rule that halted the progress of the secular nation-building process. 

The military rulers eliminated secularism from the constitution and from the socio-political order in all practical sense to establish their hegemony. In 2011, the 15th amendment of the constitution brought back secularism. The constitution underlines the need to establish an egalitarian society and contextual secularism. 

Secularism or “dhormo niropekhohta,” means neutrality, where the state does not intend to disassociate itself in matters relating to religion; rather, it acts neutrally towards various religious communities to ensure equal status of all religion and aspires to eliminate communalism, echoing the 1972 constitution. 

The basic feature of the constitution is that all citizens are equal -- this quality asserts that, in the matter of fundamental rights, the religion of a citizen is irrelevant. 

The state does not grant political status to any particular religion. Rather, it gives equal freedom for all religions, and holds that the religion of the citizen has nothing to do in the matter of socio-economic problems. 

In the context of Bangladesh, secularism is justified to ensure a dignified life for all, to build communal harmony, and the intermingling of religion and politics is permissible so long as it helps to meet these objectives. 

For example, the state intervened in religious matters by enacting laws on the marriage registry, by making polygamy illegal, introducing the right to divorce, abolishing child marriage, and by introducing laws on domestic violence. This intervention of the state in religious or personal law matters is justified to protect the dignity and equality of the people.

The character of secularism in Bangladesh is shaped both by democratic and by contextual need. The aim is to secure equal respect and rights for all, ensure freedom of religion, check religious bigotry, and erase communal conflicts. 

Farzana Mahmood is Executive Director, Bangladesh Manobadhikar O Poribesh Andolon.