Religion cannot have state boundaries

Dhaka,  Wed,  23 August 2017
Published : 13 May 2017, 19:34:24

Religion cannot have state boundaries

M. Serajul Islam
The Chief Justice of Bangladesh Surendra Kumar Sinha must be congratulated on a wide range of issues on which he has been speaking in public for quite some time. At a time when the opposition forces have been given very little space to express their views and the media is unable or unwilling to stand up for the political rights of the people, the Chief Justice has been telling the government in many instances bluntly where it is going wrong.

In his most recent statement made in a seminar arranged by the Buddhist community, relevant to the country, he spoke of religion in general. He said clearly in a manner that both the intellectuals and the common man could understand without any problem that religion, be it Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, is there to serve humanity. Therefore, there cannot and should not be any attempt by anyone, the state or at the non-state level, to restrict a religion within any specified borders. All religions must be allowed the freedom to spread anywhere and everywhere because they all are for the betterment of the humankind.

In the same breath, the Chief Justice also said that the state must not have a religion. If the state had a religion or, in other words, allowed to become a theocratic state based on a single religion, then it would logically and naturally restrict the freedom to the other religions to do good to the people. 

In advocating freedom to all religions to preach not just within the state but also beyond, the Chief Justice has dealt with one major problem in the country's politics contributed by the secular forces. His advocacy for freedom of all religions also extends to Islam and gives it the right to be preached not just within the homes and the mosques but also in the public domain.

By stating that the state must not have a religion, the Chief Justice has answered the Islamic fundamentalists that want to transform Bangladesh into the theocratic state to be ruled by the Koran and the Sunnah that would not allow the other religions the same benefits as Islam. He has also spoken strongly against politicians like HM Ershad who had made Islam the state religion when he was the president of the country for achieving his own political objectives.

The Chief Justice without going into much details has laid bare the most fundamental problem in Bangladesh's politics as well as its solution. At present, Bangladesh is being torn apart with a group claiming to be the secular forces in the country asserting that secularism must become the most fundamental element upon which Bangladesh must be based. To establish such an assertion, they further claim that the hundreds of thousands who became martyrs in 1971 had laid down their lives to establish secularism. 

The secular forces further claim that the Islamic fundamentalist forces led by the Jamaat had opposed the independence of the country. Since independence, these forces have continued to oppose the birth of Bangladesh. They, therefore, demand that these forces should be eliminated and the best way to do that would be to make the country secular. 

The Islamic fundamentalists have not made their case for fundamentalism in a manner the secular forces have done. In fact, the secular forces have been given an almost free hand by the Awami League to preach their case. In the context of the Islamic fundamentalists, their case about what they want to do in politics has been deduced from the ideology they preach where they believe in a universal approach and defy that their religion could be restricted within state boundaries.

Ironically, the Chief Justice also believes in a similar approach although his similarity with these fundamentalists ends there. The fundamentalists and the secular forces in Bangladesh have one point of agreement: they want their respective ideology to become the only one in the public domain if they have their ways to run the country. That is, of course, a way of thinking about an ideology that is to put it simply and mildly, undemocratic because, in a democratic environment, no one can be forced to follow an ideology about which they have reservations.

In pursuing their case, the secular forces have made a fundamental error of judgment. They have lumped those who used Islam against the country's liberation war and Islam into one and blamed the latter for the misdeeds of the former. The error is similar to the West claiming Islam as a religion that encourages terror for the misdeeds of a few who have used the religion for their terrorist acts. The secular forces have also made another claim that is not correct. Secularism did not figure in any way in the country's war of liberation; non-communalism did and the two are not by any means one.

Thus in the most fundamental document related to Bangladesh's war of liberation namely the Proclamation of Independence issued on  April 10, 1971, secularism has not been mentioned in any way at all. It declared the objectives for Bangladesh's independence to be to "ensure for the people of Bangladesh, equality, humanity and social justice". Further, in all his public utterances, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had strongly advocated non-communalism.

Nevertheless, the fight of the secular forces and the Islamic forces has done Bangladesh a great deal of damage. Ironically, it has strengthened the fundamentalist forces. In doing so, it has endangered the predominantly Muslim but largely liberal and non-communal Bangladesh that our forefathers had handed down to us. 

The Chief Justice has shown Bangladesh and the politicians the way out to save the liberal Bangladesh we had inherited. It is the time the secular forces realised that their ideology is elitist about which the common Muslims, the vast majority of the country's population, know very little. These common Muslims love their religion but do not accept the fundamentalists as their saviours. Therefore, the secular forces must be careful that these common Muslims do not get the impression as it seems they are getting now that they seek all the space in the public domain for themselves and none for Islam.

The teachings of all religions are the same; to make the lives of human beings better in terms of ethics and morality. Therefore, it would be unwise to suggest that any religion is good enough when it is kept out of the public domain. And, no religion is good enough to claim that it is the best. That is an individual's choice and that is the democratic spirit. Therefore politicians must pay heed to what the Chief Justice has said, take it to heart and follow it in their politics for therein is embedded the way for Bangladesh to come out of the political stalemate in which it lies at present. 

The writer is a former Ambassador.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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