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Salafi secularists of Bangladesh

  • Published at 08:07 pm August 1st, 2015
Salafi secularists of Bangladesh

Recently, the editor of Dhaka Tribune wrote an op-ed which said the AL government should desist from its manifestly open program to eliminate BNP as a political entity for the sake of democracy and development of this country.

Mr Omar Shehab, in response, wrote an amazingly partisan and dogmatic response to that op-ed arguing that, not only should the AL and the country be “agnostic” about the existential fate of the BNP, but also a party like BNP does not deserve to exist in Bangladesh in the first place because of its heretical stance towards some foundational principles of Bangladesh. This is a response to that response.     

The disingenuous argument begins with elections. Mr Shehab faithfully toes the AL party line that BNP missed the bus by boycotting the elections and a political party should not boycott elections. He makes no distinction on the mechanism and context of elections and conveniently omits that his own party boycotted the elections held under the Ershad regime, the February 1996 elections, and had announced that they would boycott the January 22, 2007 elections, which, fortunately for them, were never held.

All kinds of elections are okay for him, as long as they are held under his own party’s thumb. There is a case to be made that BNP made a mistake by not participating in the January 5 elections, but the mistake was not due to a disengagement from the democratic process. The mistake was a failure to seize the best possible opportunity for political balancing under a regime that was ruthlessly controlling and using every facet of state power.

BNP’s stated reason for not participating in the January 5 national elections was amply validated by the widespread and documented rigging in the April 28 municipal polls, a point made bluntly by the newspaper’s editor in his first post-election analysis in May.

Mr Shehab parrots the favourite “domestic opposition” trope of AL intellectuals by saying that the need for an external opposition is superfluous, as the AL itself will provide its own opposition by capitalising on popular anti-incumbency. He unashamedly ignores that, without fair elections, anti or pro-incumbency, popular opinions do not matter at all; the ruling party always wins.

An open Facebook page of a cabinet minister cannot replace free and fair elections, contrary to the fond hopes that Mr Shehab holds out for an AL-style “democracy.” The AL has amply demonstrated that it has no intention of giving up power. It will do anything to try to hold on to the massive power and wealth advantage that occupying the halls of government provides. And politicians know which side of the bread is buttered.

In Bangladesh, was there ever anyone successful after breaking away from an incumbent party? In fact, other than being rudely thrown out, no one leaves the gravy train.

A main strand of Mr Shehab’s case against BNP is the party’s culpability in the atrocities committed during both 2013 and 2015 anti-government agitations. Yes, the large-scale vehicle-arson and people-burnings represent an unprecedented abyss in Bangladesh’s history of generally abysmal politics, but these are not new additions to the litany of political violence. Although not in the same scale, buses and people being set on fire also happened when BNP was in power and AL was agitating anti-government movements. One suspects that Mr Shehab is in no hurry to prosecute those past cases of political violence. Since the AL government wiped the slate clean after it came to power and dropped all ongoing cases against itself, Mr Shehab can now pontificate freely against political crimes like a righteous old-testament prophet.

AL doesn’t owe BNP the latter’s assured existence. BNP must live or die on its own. Bangladesh has a dark history of attempts of political annihilation by violent means. BNP’s last government will be forever tainted by the black day of August 21, and no patriotic citizen can take exception to the demand that all perpetrators of that incident must be brought under justice.

But while that dark incident is disavowed and condemned by all, with varying sincerity, ALs current prosecution of BNP leadership goes beyond the conventional political-legal process; this is a transparently eliminatory program using the full extent of legal and physical power that the state possesses, with the goal openly proclaimed by AL leaders .

A religion-like conviction is the source of the takfiri zeal that compels people of Mr Shehab’s ilk to dismiss as deserving of existence a large and repeatedly democratically elected party like BNP. People like him believe that Bangladesh was founded on some “principles” in 1971 that were subsequently articulated in the 1972 constitution -- democracy, secularism, socialism, and Bengali nationalism.

Any party that does not fully adhere to these principles does not have the right to do politics in Bangladesh. Well, the actual importance of these “farz” principles to the Awami supporters is well known: If any one party in Bangladesh deserves to be banned for directly working against democracy, that party should be AL, given their Baksal record and current clear and outspoken opposition to multi-party, participatory, democracy.

As for socialism, which sane and viable political party or personality in Bangladesh believe in socialism today? Demanding to pay even lip-service to socialism would be a ridiculous exercise, and the AL government’s continuing, though inefficient, efforts at privatisation amply show what it really thinks of socialism. The less said about Bengali-Bangladeshi nationalism is better; there is little hope of gleaning any coherence from that morass of a debate.

The four principles of the 1972 constitution were put there by meritorious young men imbued with the spirit of the times and planning grand social engineering. These are not commandments set in stone by the god of the Bengali tribe.

Actually, contemporary AL supporters believe that Bangladesh was founded on one principle: Secularism; a unique and a peculiar secularism at that. There is no scope here for an excursus on secularism but it suffices to say that in no democratic and “secular” country of the world, doing politics based on religious values or religious identities is banned. Repeat for emphasis. India, Britain, France, Sweden, Germany, USA; you name a secular country and you will see political parties based on religion or religious identity. A democratic country recognises that doing politics according to own value, ideology, or identity is fundamental political right, unless the specific ideology has been implicated for past crimes or directly instigates physical violence.

Contrary to the made-up ideologism of AL supporters, its leaders know very well of the artificiality of that principle. Its own website proudly showcases traditional Muslim slogans and it has steadfastly refused leftist demands to scrap the constitutional provision of Islam as the state religion, a provision put into the Constitution by the pen of AL’s coalition partner, the former military dictator HM Ershad.

Why do AL supporters try to propagate such an exclusive and idiosyncratic vision of the secularist foundation of Bangladesh, when they know very well that religious identity and religious values have been playing an overwhelming role among an overwhelming number of people currently and throughout our history? The answer is, once again, elections.

Their peculiar version of secularism gives their party and their leaders a sacred exclusivity to rule over the pavitravumi of Bengalis. They know very well by now that their claims of exceptionality do not resonate with a decisive majority of the people in this country. That is why they hold on to their Salafist creed of secularism to ward off all the claims emanating from democracy, rationality, and sheer common sense, and continuously hark back to a pure, wondrous time.

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