Connecting Regions of Asia.

Bangladesh Will Stay Secular


With a spiritual commitment to Islam and a cultural affiliation to being Bangalee, Bangladesh is a nation where the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Founded on secular principles, Bangladesh has been heralded by the western world as an example of a model Muslim country, whose people have taken great pride in its unique syncretic nature. In fact, ethno-nationalism conflicting with Islamic religious nationalism was the very embodiment of the creation of Bangladesh.

Although there have been occasional drifts towards religious extremism, the secular character has never been threatened seriously. The original constitution was secular. But after Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975, successive governments chipped away the secular edifice. Secularism was removed from the constitution in 1977 by the 5th amendment of the constitution by Ziaur Rahman and Islam was declared as the state religion in 1988 by HM Ershad. However, the concept was reinstated when in its 2010 landmark decision the Supreme Court of Bangladesh scrapped the bulk of the 5th amendment which had allowed religion-based politics to flourish in Bangladesh. By making religion-based political activities a punishable offence, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court ensured that secularism remained the cornerstone of the constitution. The Election Commission of Bangladesh demanded the religion-based parties in the country to amend their charters as they conflicted with the supreme law of the land.

While there has been criticism for it retaining “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” and the provision for Islam as the state religion, the fact is that the amended constitution has endeavoured to give non-Islamic people a sense of belonging by rephrasing the Islamic provisions of the constitution: second translation of “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” was added that reads: “In the name of the Creator, the Merciful” . In place of the Article 2A that reads: “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic”, the amended constitution reads: “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.”

While the Islamisation of certain section of Bangladeshi society has dominated the headlines, secularism as a sustainable common platform has always withstood these challenges. Bangladesh has a highly sophisticated civil society, a population that strongly believes in capitalism (and thinks highly of the United States – according to a 2014 poll, 76 percent viewed the US favourably) and a strong religio-cultural tradition grounded in a secular political platform.

The world’s third largest Muslim country marks a crucial departure with the trend amongst some other Muslim countries in South and Southeast Asia where an Islamist agenda has become more apparent or prominent. In the case of Bangladesh, not only has Islamist militancy failed to take root, but indeed the country’s secular state and civil society have retained its strength and resilience. Muslim nationalism, which was the basis for the establishment of Pakistan, tried to rear its head in Bangladesh during the turbulent years from 1999 to 2005. During this period Bangladesh was swept by a wave of Islamist militancy that triggered considerable media and academic concern that the country would fall prey to extremism. The Islamist extremism that it experienced during those years was largely the result of an ideology and tactics brought back to Bangladesh by returnees of the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Those returnees believed that the radical Islamist ideology they encountered (and imbibed) in Afghanistan could be transplanted to the Muslim community of Bangladesh. They tried to radicalise contemporary Bangladeshi society and politics, competing against Bangalee ethnicity, language, culture, and secularism (‘Bangalee nationalism’). This was a serious miscalculation. The relative ease by which the Bangladesh government’s anti-terrorism campaign crushed this outbreak of Islamist militancy demonstrated how seriously the militants had misunderstood Islam in the Bangladesh context, a context in which Islam is intimately interwoven with deeper traditions of tolerance and secularism in that culture.

Coinciding with the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Bangladesh also witnessed an escalation of deadly attacks on secular activists. Throughout this period, members of Bangladesh’s vibrant civil society, including publishers, bloggers, and media personnel, continued to receive death threats. Like in other theatres, violence as a political tactic is used by Islamist parties and groups in Bangladesh to silence dissent. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami encouraged the forces responsible for the radicalisation, legitimising violence as a political tactic to silences critics and opponents. The new Islamic identity took hold in at least some segments of society, evident in the effectiveness of the Islamists casting Shahbagh protesters in 2013 as “atheists” and their agenda being “anti-Islam,” successfully conflating three concepts: secularism, atheism, and anti-Islamism. Islamists try to disperse a discourse in which the rallying call is that “Islam is under attack” or “secularism equals atheism equals anti-Islamism” and within this they try to delegitimise and dehumanise outspoken secularists. This discourse is completely distinct from the traditional understandings of Islam in Bangladesh and appeals to a very narrow audience.  Consequently, the vast majority of Bangladeshis are held hostage by a small number of domestic violent networks, some of whom have linked up to global dynamics of transnational Islamist activism.

The current administration has taken some serious measures against Islamist militant outfits, especially in response to the recent targeting of the blogger community. It has taken laudable measures in countering militancy and pushed for the War Crimes Tribunal where the defendants come from the Islamist ranks.

Bangladesh is a paradox that Pakistan failed to understand during the 24 years that the country formed its eastern wing. Bangladeshis from all sections of society fast during Ramadan but also celebrate Puja; they pray at the mosque and also sing Rabindra sangeet, seeing no contradiction between the two activities, and indeed, there need not be any. Addressing a function during her visit to the Durga Puja Mandap at Ramkrishna Mission in Dhaka in 2019, PM Sheikh Hasina said, “Bangladesh is a secular state and we all irrespective of religion, caste and creed are moving together along the same road. We all are celebrating festivals including religious ones together which is the best achievement for us.” This embodies the essentially secular spirit of Bangladesh as a nation. 

The Bangladesh Awami League government’s slogan, “Dhormo Jaar Jaar, Utshab Shobar (religion as per one’s own, but festivals common to all)”, portrays the nation’s secular face. The sentiment is being implemented on the ground, with Hindu community people taking the charge of security of Eidgahs during the Eid congregations and Muslim youths guarding the Puja Mandaps during prayers.

Pahela Baishakh, which marks the first day of the new year according to the Bengali calendar, is observed by Bangalees in Bangladesh irrespective of their religion. Celebrated across Bangladesh with splendor and revelry, the festivities on the occasion are an affirmation of Bangalee culture that transcends religion, and a fitting reply to radical Islamists and their designs.

Thus, in any political rhetoric and history, it can never be forgotten that the war in 1971 was formally articulated in terms of a struggle for a secular state based on the existence of a unified Bangalee cultural identity that superseded religious identity. A competitive democratic system of politics which accommodates aspects of secularism, language, Muslim identity and Islamic ethical–moral codes continue to be retained in the political discourse for forming and consolidating the country’s multi-racial, multi-religious national identity as a sovereign state.

The author is an international security studies analyst, and former consultant at National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) of India.

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