by Dr Mubashar Hasan
CONSTITUTIONALLY Bangladesh is a secular state where the state’s religion is Islam. To many, this approach may seem contradictory. However, Bangladesh’s prime minister has defined the nature of secularism in Bangladesh by repeatedly stating that Bangladeshi secularism is inspired by the Medina Charter — a seventh century document — considered by many as the constitution of the first Muslim state founded by the prophet Muhammad.
Still, to many, Hasina’s statement would make little sense because we live in a world where our views are mostly constructed by western pedagogy that is firmly rooted in the legacy of the European enlightenment. Therefore, to an average person, who does not have enough understanding about Muslim history and politics, it is a hard task to connect the dots — how secularism — rooted in European history is connected to the Medina Charter — rooted in Islamic history? This article is an attempt to unpack the puzzle.
One should note that, secularism is a contested term and it has multiple meanings. From European perspective, the paradigm of secularism is based on three concepts: differentiation, rationalisation and worldliness. Differentiation means separation of religion and state and is at the centripetal for the evolution of secularism theory. According to this perspective, secularism enables various institutions such as education, politics, and economy to differentiate from religion.
Rationalisation has two implications in human society. Firstly, rational worldview facilitates the emergence of science, which proposes a new interpretation of the world that competes with the religious worldview. Secondly, when this rational and scientific interpretation of the world is applied to human affairs, we witness a process which attempts to determine social life in a rational fashion.
Political secularism, keeps the public democratic sphere free from religion in a state. This is the basis behind any secular state doctrine. Jose Casanova in his essay ‘The secular and secularisms’ opines that as a statecraft doctrine, every secularism has two principles: principles of separation (religion and state) and the principle of regulation of religion in the society (free exercise of religion). One could see that the latter — free exercise of religion — fostering pluralism-is a key essence of secularism.
The idea of secularism in the west had emerged against the backdrop of tyranny of Roman Catholic Church towards European societies — an implication of which later culminated through the emergence of modern nation states — physical and sovereign manifestation of being free from oppressive regimes of religious authorities. The very word — religion — is then — has different meaning in the west and Muslim societies. Religion in the western world denotes a long history of power and authority of Church and struggles in those societies to break free from an authority — an establishment, which legitimised its power based on religion.
By contrast, in Muslim societies there was no such authority like Church. Therefore, religion — doesn’t refer to a religious establishment to Muslims because there is dearth of evidence to claim that Mosques played the role of authority over Muslim societies. Rather, to Muslims, Mosques are spiritual places where political sermons may have taken place at times. The point is that the evolution of the word religion follows a trajectory in Muslim societies different than western societies.
So how than, the word — secularism emancipated from the western history could make sense to Bangladeshi society, which is predominantly a Muslim majority society where 90 per cent of its population identifies them as Sunni Muslims according to 2011 census? Due to its religious demography, it is pertinent to argue that western secularism, which proposes a strict separation between religion and state, makes little appeal to its majority population. At least, facts say so.
For example, over 98 per cent of Bangladeshi Muslims in 2009 said in a Gallup poll that ‘religion plays a very important role in their lives’. A Pew Survey in 2013 found that 82 per cent of Bangladeshi Muslims favour making Islam as the official law of the country and 71 per cent said they wanted religious judges deciding family and property disputes. A Gallup poll in 2006 came up with similar findings which stated that 91 per cent of Bangladeshis wanted the constitutional and legislative framework of the country infused in religious values.
Within this social mindset where — Quran and prophet Muhammad are dear to majority, what is best way to promote the essences of secularism —pluralism and free exercise of religion? It is obvious that the European reference of secularism would make little sense here. Therefore, defining secularism through Islamic reference is a key and the prime minister has done exactly that. Even though the Medina Charter was framed in the seventh century; it still is a progressive document fostering pluralism.
The charter came into being after the Hijra known as prophet Muhammad’s emigration to Medina from Mecca. Even though Medina at that time was inhibited by many Jews, prophet Muhammad through the article 30 of the Medina Charter affirmed that that ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’ Article 12 of the Charter states that, ‘a Believer will not kill another Believer, for the sake of an un-believer’ whereas article reiterates, ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever’. One could see that the essence of the Medina Charts is founded upon protecting rights of minorities and freedom of religion as throughout the charter through various articles, that charter defines the political rights and duties of the members of the newly established political community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The Medina charter, therefore, promotes many essences of secularism even though it is framed by a religious authority of Muslims.
Considering Bangladesh’s religious demography, it is, therefore, appropriate to argue that Sheikh Hasina has shown pragmatism in defining secularism in the spirit of the Medina Charter by disassociating Bangladeshi secularism from European history. By doing that Hasina on the one hand is aiming to delegitimize Islamic justification behind Islamists’ violence against non-believers and minorities and on the other reaffirming her Muslim identity in order to reassure the population which she governs that she is one of them. Islam’s call of Shura, ‘Adl and Haqq’ which refers to socio-political justice in society, however, is largely missing from this regime. Therefore, Bangladesh is not truly reflective of the Medina Charter at present.
Mubashar Hasan, PhD, is an assistant professor, Department of Media Studies and Journalism, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
Source: New Age, May 24, 2016