While most media attention lately has focused on the divisive conflict of ideology between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular parties in Egypt, there is another such conflict going on in another part of the world, albeit with far little global press coverage.
This is happening in Bangladesh, a country with a population of more than 150 million, of which 90 per cent is Muslim. The conflict has become increasingly violent, with lines drawn in blood. It centres around which ideology the country should adopt: Secular or Islamist?
While Shaikha Hasina’s government has been credited with pushing ahead reforms, there are roadblocks set by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — the main opposition. This political party has been accused of encouraging radical and fundamental groups to exploit the religion card to oppose some of the government’s decrees.
One such group is the Hefazat-E-Islam, which came into focus in 2010 to counter the government’s promotion of a secular education policy. More recently, its demands have become even more direct. In March this year, the group released a 13-point list of demands to the government. Included in the list were:
1. Abolishment of all laws in conflict with the values of the Quran and Sunnah, enactment of a blasphemy law to prevent defamation of Allah, the Prophet (PBUH) and Islam with the death penalty as the highest form of punishment, and prevent the spreading of hate against Muslims.
2. An end to all alien cultural practices like immodesty, lewdness, misconduct, culture of free mixing of the sexes, candle lighting in the name of personal freedom and free speech.
3. Abolishment of the current ungodly education policy, and making Islamic education compulsory at all levels — from primary to higher secondary education.
4. Halting the installation of more statues at road intersections and educational institutions to prevent Dhaka, the city of mosques, from becoming the city of statues.
5. The government must immediately refrain from preventing the faithful from carrying out their spiritual duties. Specifically, all the hassles and obstructions at Baitul Mokarram and all mosques in Bangladesh must be removed which prevent the faithful from offering prayer. Also stop creating obstruction for people to attend religious sermons and other religious gatherings.
6. The government must stop the spread of Islamophobia among the youth through depiction of negative characters on TV plays and movies in religious attire and painting negative stereotypes of the beard, cap and Islamic practices on various media.
The group has been emboldened by the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party whose platform has always been to run the country on Islamic principles and the Sharia. Together they have allied with the BNP.
Power and religion do not and should not mix. Faith is individualistic, and we have seen in other countries how religion is often distorted for personal gains or triumphs. Today’s events in Egypt are a prime example of how a democratically-elected government began to adopt fundamentalism in its governing doctrine and eventually lost the capacity to govern. Historically, there is no success story of governments that adopted rigid religious values to rule.
It is not the religion that is not palatable. It is not lack of faith. It is often the interpretation and application of extreme ideology that is rejected by most people. That ideology is also used to promote the party line and deviates from the simplicity and peace promoted by religious doctrine.
The current state of Islamophobia around the globe must also be attributed to the rise of religious fundamentalists who seek to promote their hardline creed from the corridors of power and will not hesitate to use violence to spread their message.
Swadesh Roy, a respected and renowned journalist in Bangladesh recently expressed alarm at the rising movement of religious parties. He writes, “The two Islamic fundamentalist groups have remained afloat mainly due to the support of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — the main opposition in the country’s current government.
All they want is to win the elections, and hold the seat of power, making it so that no development takes place, and change present-day democratic politics into something that works in their favour.
“If Islamic fundamentalist groups come to power through the election, it will be disastrous for the country. Bangladesh will stop continuously developing; its society will be in a state of chaos. Politicians, business leaders, and development partners of the country have to think seriously about the use of the ‘religion card’.
“Now is probably the best time to try and keep religion and the state separate. Many countries have strong laws against using religion in elections. Bangladesh too, should introduce a similar law with the help of development partners.”
I couldn’t agree more, Roy. Religious freedom should be left to the individual to exercise and should not be governed through rules developed by a party whose fundamentalism is in question.
Faith is personal and not a mandate.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena