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Bangladesh's slow-burning death

The country's secular culture is under threat from extremism and bigotry

Bangladesh's slow-burning death

Activists from a hard-line Islamist group shout slogans as they take part in a protest in Dhaka on Feb. 24. The protest called for the statue of a Greek goddess installed at the Supreme Court to be destroyed or removed. (Photo by AFP)

In recent times, Bangladesh has made global headlines for mostly the wrong reasons. Typically, it is for the lethal rise of Islamic terrorism, which has claimed the lives of 46 people since 2013.

The number might seem small in a Muslim-majority country of some 160 million people. However, it is not just random killing, but a meticulous campaign carried out by Islamists to establish Bangladesh as an Islamic state.  

Their targets came from different groups but all were considered obstacles in their campaign — atheist bloggers and publishers, liberal intellectuals and academics, LGBT activists, Muslim Shia and Ahmadis, religious minorities (including Hindus, Christians and Buddhists) and last, but not least, foreigners.

For decades since independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh was considered a perpetual basket case, struggling to survive an onslaught of climate change, overpopulation, endemic poverty and hunger, corruption and political unrest.

Yet the nation prided itself as the only country in the Islamic world to have 'secularism' as a fundamental principle in its Constitution, alongside nationalism, democracy and socialism. This despite the fact Islam is constitutionally the state religion; a legacy of the politically motivated tampering of the charter under military rule.

Although secularism denotes 'anti-religion' in the West, in Bangladesh it has been associated with religious harmony and respect for all faiths. Throughout the history of Bengal, religious harmony and unity were major traditions.

So, during the independence war in 1971, Bangladeshi freedom fighters fought for a country that would be based on secular Bengali identity, in stark contrast to the orthodox Islamic identity of Pakistan.

The birth of Bangladesh at the end of the war was a victory for secular, liberal and progressive values against religious extremism and bigotry. But Bangladesh has failed to keep up with the great ideals and values it was born with.

Today's Bangladesh is more intolerant than ever and it hasn't happened out of the blue. The nation has seen a revival of Islamic radicalism and politics. The principle of 'secularism' has been replaced with 'Absolute trust in almighty Allah.'

After military rule, the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and center-left Awami League exchanged power, but neither dared to change Islam as the state religion.

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Since its founding in 1978 by military ruler Ziaur Rahman, the BNP has always leaned towards right-wing Islamists. Some of its leaders have been accused of backing militants and collaborating with fundamentalists to abuse minorities.

Over time, the BNP played the religion card to consolidate support in an increasingly conservative population, forcing the Awami League to play defense.

Things got worse when the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami started to collaborate more closely with the BNP. This awful pairing allowed for the rise of Islamist terrorist groups, which killed top Awami League leaders and scores of civilians.

The nominally secular ruling Awami League, which prides itself on being a secular party, has not been actively involved with Islamists. But it has been accused of appeasing Islamists by rebuking atheist writers and publishers, as well as censoring books critical of religion, especially Islam and Prophet Muhammad.

The government didn't provide any security for popular atheist and liberal writers amidst death threats. As a result, more than a dozen atheist writers and publishers have fled the country and settled in Europe or America.

This year, the government has come under fire for attempting to 'Islamize' school textbooks, by removing the writings of popular, non-Muslim writers. This change was due to pressure from Hefazat-e-Islam, the country's largest hard-line Islamic group.

Although, the government decided to reverse the changes after a public outcry, it shows what deep sway the Islamists hold in this country.

Recently, the Islamists demanded the government remove the statue of the Greek goddess Themis, a symbol of justice and fairness, from the Supreme Court premises. For years, they have called for blasphemy laws like that of Pakistan and also objected against a highly-qualified judge chief justice because he is Hindu.

In a telltale example of growing intolerance, Islamist zealots destroyed some 10 Hindu temples and several homes in Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria district on Oct. 30, after a fake Facebook post degraded Islam.

A week later, the largely Christian tribal Santal people came under deadly attack by politically influential land grabbers.

In both cases, the administration, law enforcement and ruling party activists not only sympathized with the attackers, but were complicit in the mayhem.

Despite significant coverage in the media, politicians and an indifferent civil society did little to stand with the victims.   

We have self-serving political elites and a largely indifferent liberal class who continue to turn a blind eye, paving the way for intolerance to be institutionalized, and threatening secular culture.

And there are other significant reasons too. Foreign influence is a major cause. During military regimes, dictators courted Islamists in order to legitimize their undemocratic power grab, while states like Saudi Arabia poured money to build fundamentalist mosques and madrasas across Bangladesh. Allegedly, Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has secretly funneled funds to support Islamist politicians and its allies.

Salvaging secularism and tolerance in Bangladesh amidst the marauding threat of Islamism is an uphill battle, both politically and culturally. It's a battle for the soul of the nation.

Throughout history, Bengali people have insisted on their identity being based on secular cultures and traditions. Now the tide seems turning around.

In the coming days, Bangladeshi people will have to decide whether they will stick to the principles of secular democracy or die and be reborn as an Islamist theocracy.

Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist for ucanews.com and is based in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka.

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