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Steps to secularism

  • Published at 09:40 am May 19th, 2015
Steps to secularism

The systematic murders, one after the other, of free-thinkers, have touched a deep, emotional chord within progressive actors in the country.  Not only do the heinous acts by Islamist outfits remind us of their medieval vision for our socio-political space, it also compels us to revisit the pertinent question -- can Bangladesh impede and defeat the rise of a radical, Islamist political order?

Of course, the incompetence of the law enforcement agencies in bringing to book the individuals or organisations concerned have raised eyebrows all over the world as it is slowly and steadily undermining the presence of a fundamental human right: The ability to think, speak, and write freely.

However, there is also an interesting divide that has surfaced, which demands our sincere reflection and scrutiny, namely between progressive secular thinkers and secular political actors concerning how one should react to such events and the intensity with which one must condemn such heinous acts of insanity. This is perhaps best reflected by Professor Zafar Iqbal’s criticism of Sajeeb Wazed Joy by mentioning that his reaction to these issues will facilitate fundamentalism and militancy.

Earlier, Sajeeb Wazed Joy pointed out that the government was walking a fine line as it did not want to be perceived as patrons of atheism, and thus the prime minister had offered private condolences to Professor Roy after his son Dr Avijit Roy was murdered. He also noted that, given that some major political actors within Bangladesh, especially BNP and Jamaat-e-Islam, continuously try to cast AL as an anti-Islamic political outfit, it becomes increasingly challenging for the AL to fight that propaganda and perception, and to defend their ideological position on secularism.

The truth is that such tension between secular thinkers and politicians are not new in this continent. Rabindranath Tagore often criticised Mahatma Gandhi -- both ardent supporters of secularism -- for using religious reference to explain the nature of “Swaraj.”

More precisely, when Bapu visited socially backward Hindu villages, he often argued that Swaraj was a style of governance that was put in place by Lord Ram when he came back from Lanka to Ayodhya. Similarly, when he visited Muslim villages, Bapu argued that Swaraj was a political order that was established by Prophet Muhammad when he returned from Medina to Mecca.

Of course, one can understand that the primary objective of Gandhiji was to speak in a language that was understood by the common man -- irrespective of their religious differences. Thus, there is a difference between strategies that politicians consider to be useful in addressing a particular social issue, and responses and political activities that a secular thinker feels a politician ought to undertake.

Moreover, it is my sincere belief that such a heterogeneity in strategies and responses between secular politicians and thinkers do not undermine the fundamental cause -- as it makes the socio-political organisations supporting a particular value more adaptive to the needs and sentiments prevailing within any particular country.

Thus, we need to deconstruct the oversimplified and naïve lens that demands politicians and thinkers to have a similar role in society, as their respective constituencies and constraints do not allow them to harness similar responses and reactions to any event of importance.  

To conclude, there is no denying that Professor Zafar Iqbal is a well-meaning advocate of progressive values. However, there is an acute disconnect in advocating what needs to happen and implementing them in reality. Political personalities operate in that realistic realm and not in some abstract space of ideas, and that is why they have to weigh their action with caution.

Even Abraham Lincoln could not publicly argue that he believed blacks should have the right to vote, because he knew the US was not ready for such progressive changes. But does that mean he was encouraging a racist political order?

Hence, we have to appreciate that there is a difference between a secular thinker and a secular politician. While the former has the freedom and scope to advocate and scrutinise the most progressive values, the latter has to believe in the process of incremental change by dealing with political realities of his or her time so that he or she can make necessary alliances to move forward.

Consequently, secular forces must find more unity and understand the constraints each face; since we all believe in making Bangladesh progressive, liberal, and secular, we must also accept and appreciate that the journey forward is difficult. 

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