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OP-ED: How can we preserve our multi-religious spirit?

  • Published at 12:23 am October 28th, 2021
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A respect for all religions starts in the classroom BIGSTOCK

Education has a major role to play in restoring our syncretic culture, and preventing our fall from grace

The recent violence surrounding Durga Puja has shattered the dream of a secular Bangladesh for many. There have been various reactions to it as well, including demands for the secularization of the state. Secularism as prescribed by Western models is a difficult proposition in South Asia. 

In Bangladesh, where most people are religious-minded, it is difficult to sever religion from statecraft. Even private organizations and international agencies operating in Bangladesh are unable to secularize themselves completely. For preserving the syncretic spirit in a multi-religious country, the retrieval of the 1972 constitution has been a recurrent ideological demand. However, ground realities necessitate serious thoughts on the efficacy of such action. 

The Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a devout Muslim, whose socialist ideology was never at odds with any religious faith. When he called for a secular nation, it was clearly not devoid of religion. He advocated a separation of people’s faith as a private domain from public or state affairs; for the latter tended towards communalism. Constitutions of most of the peaceful democracies, which are popular for their secular practices, are modelled precisely on this understanding. 

While sometimes they have a declared religion in print, their democratic practices have come to transcend the rulebook and have ensured inclusivity. The point here is, a written constitution does not always guarantee a truly secular ambience; it is rather the inscription in peoples’ minds that gives a nation its secular fabric. When the followers of a particular faith understand that others are human beings too with the same kind of flesh and blood, and they love their family and friends in the same way, and have dreams and frustrations of a similar kind, only then would “narrow domestic walls” be overcome. 

The problem is, we never think of how we can spread the message of this common humanity among our masses. The role of education, especially of primary education, is of pivotal importance. The majority of Bangladeshi children attend either primary schools or madrasas. From the first grade, we have introduced a subject on religion. Different prep schools syllabize texts by different authors. However, children learn the basics of religion from grade one. While there are textbooks on the four major religions prevalent in Bangladesh, religious festivals of the indigenous communities however find place in the discipline called Bangladesh studies. This is an irony of pedagogy that creates a difference between religion and culture at the theoretical level, while in practice the two are inseparable. 

The other problem with religious studies is that it has always remained focused on ritualistic aspects, and that too of an exclusivist nature, without allowing scope for knowing beyond one’s own religion. Thus, instead of imparting basic humanism that is intrinsic to each religion in a generalized discourse, exclusivist parochialism is what we perforce teach our children. This institutional indoctrination of a “we-they” dichotomy in the very psyche of budding citizens leads to perceptions of differential superiority of the majority and persecution complex of minorities. 

Is it for such implicit proselytization that religious studies were conceived of at the school level syllabus in Bangladesh? Shouldn’t present realities encourage a re-thinking of the primary education system in ways that can inculcate basic humanity instead of separatism? 

Handling a sensitive subject like religion is extremely critical. We employ a large section of our educated masses for primary education, but have we ever thought who they are that teach at these institutions? And who are the ones teaching religion in particular? Without taking away any respect from our primary school and madrasa teachers, how does one deny that aspirants who do not make it to the civil services, universities, colleges, or plush non-government jobs, constitute the bulk who strive for jobs at primary institutions? 

Our education system could not ensure the best payments and environment for primary educators, whereas most of the advanced countries have created opportunities for their best researchers and graduates to opt for primary teaching. The best of pedagogical research is devoted in principle for primary education in those countries whose secular models now figure in our public discussion. If we must compare with the West, we cannot go skin-deep into their secularism; let us get to what makes them transcend the communal in their understanding of religion.

This further brings us to the teaching of other disciplines in the humanities in general and literatures in particular. As teachers, we are often hard-pressed to delve into intricate connections between religion and cultural values that literary texts explore; always being on tenterhooks lest references to religion become tantamount to proselytization. We run the risk of invoking censure or even labels of bias. 

The sadder part is that sometimes we are even going to the other extreme of excluding writers from curricula for supposedly having atheistic or blasphemous tendencies. Unless we comprehend education as a continuous process of self-fashioning for the nation, our doors shall remain closed to open learning, and our dreams of going global run haywire. At 50, we are grown up enough! 

In the last few years, we have become familiarized with taxonomies of Benjamin Bloom and Max Englehart et al through the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Program (HEQEP). I have two points to contend: 1. Why has the quality of higher education alone been our concern, when the majority population gets only primary education? 2. Where is the scope of teaching humanism and ethicality in the taxonomies by these Western educators? As they always envisaged their institutions as disconnected from religion, they did not need to spare any thought as such. 

It is time to consider if we need a basic education on humanism to be able to grasp the essence of humanity. Only then can we restore a syncretic culture that was the founding principle of Bangladesh, and not fall from grace in our national life.   

Sabiha Huq teaches English literature at Khulna University.

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