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The Two Religions of Bangladesh

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Any almanac, such as the Britannica, will tell you that around 85 per cent of the people of Bangladesh are Muslim, that Hindus trail at about 10 per cent, with Christians, Buddhists, animists…bringing up the rear. This article concerns itself with two religions – and one of them is Islam, and the other? Nationalism! No almanac announces this surreptitious religion in the body politic, but its tokens and totems are as visible as those of the more run-of-the-mill variety. 

A secular religion? No, not an oxymoron, but an ascertainable fact. How does one define “religion”? According to Ninian Smart, in his book The World’s Religions, every religion has seven characteristics, or dimensions. We tick them off one by one, with respect to nationalism: (1) the ritual dimension: speaking the language, saluting the flag, national holidays, secular pilgrimages to sights considered important; (2) the experiential or emotional dimension: nationalism has a powerful emotional side, a fact that seems to me to explain why children are peculiarly susceptible to it, as during the Chinese May 4th Movement, or the 21st February 1952 students’ movement in the then East Pakistan (today Bangladesh); these emotions are always kept simmering below the surface through patriotic or heroic songs, dramas…(3) the narrative dimension is obvious in nationalism: the history of the nation; the stories (fictionalized, or embellished) of great men, women and even children who made the nation what it is; (4) unlike the emotional dimension, nationalism lacks a strong doctrinal dimension, reinforcing my observation that the power of the emotional aspect renders nationalist sentiments peculiarly appealing to children; however, nationalism can appeal to a set of doctrines, such as democracy, individual freedom and rights (or it could appeal to purely religious doctrines as well); (5) the ethical dimension of nationalism refers to loyalty to the nation, martial values needed during defense (or offence), family values; (6) the social and institutional aspect of the nation-state consists in such public figures as the head of state, the army and its military ceremonies, the education system – a formidable apparatus for collective indoctrination – and even in games (the Olympics is the egregious example); (7) finally, the material dimension of religion are the physical monuments and artistic objects that have been created by the “nation-builders”.

There are those in Bangladesh who are proud to be “secular” and perform “secular” pilgrimages to the shrine of the language martyrs every 21st February, promote the language at fairs and cultural soirees, in short, place themselves diametrically opposite the religion of Islam, which, naturally, has its own, sharply differentiated dimensional contents. In fact, of course, the “secularists” are not secular at all: they have a religion, just like the people they despise (and who despise them).

Now, to what extent are these dimensions shared across the nation? To a very minor extent. The Bangladesh Television interviewed crowds of ordinary people about such seminal events as 21st February, asking them what the day meant, and nobody could reply. I write “21st February”, when in fact I should write “Ekushey February”, for that is how the day is commemorated. The ordinal number occurs in Bengali, and the month belongs to the international calendar, not the corresponding Bengali month. It is the same with other “national” dates: “sholoi December” (16th December), “Chabbishe March” (26th March)…Other dates are entirely in the Gregorian calendar: “Martyred Intellectuals’ Day (13th December)”, “Homecoming Day (10th January)”, “Asad Day (20th January)”, “Declaration of Independence Day(7th May)”…. These considerations would indicate that the language and nationalist movement has been a purely elite, urban phenomenon, highly influenced by western ideas and totally divorced from the people. 

As anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah has observed: “In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, the attempt to realise the nation-state on a Western European model has virtually failed. The nation-state conception has not taken deep roots in South Asia or generated a wide-spread and robust participatory “public culture” that celebrates it in widely meaningful ceremonies, festivals, and rituals”.

 “Last month, at a public meeting at Rajshahi University (RU), activists of Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, threatened to cut up Hasan Azizul Haq, professor of philosophy at the university and eminent writer, and throw his body into the Bay of Bengal. Haq had spoken at a seminar on secularism, and his speech was misconstrued in some newspapers as being offensive to Islam.” Thus began an article in the “secular” Star Weekend Magazine; as we have seen, “secular” here doesn’t mean unconcerned with religion, but anti-religious, and, especially, anti-Islam. If this secularism had been hostile to all religions, one would have given its proponents credit for consistency. Bengali nationalism shows a fervent love of Hinduism, and all things Indian! The reason, of course, is that the language is shared across the Indo-Bangladesh border with West Bengal, and so those who identify with Bengali tend to identify with the “other” Bengal and, by extension, with India. So when a professor speaks up for “secularism”, the subtext of his message, in fact, carries a series of statements guaranteed to raise the hackles of anyone who regard themselves as staunchly Muslim.

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And how sincere is our love of the language? A letter from a young student of a prestigious English-medium school appeared in a magazine. His cousin had come from the United States for a brief visit. He liked everything about Bangladesh. ‘"But," he went on, "Something is still missing here, especially amongst the people in this country. People here are not very patriotic." This state­ment of his got to (sic) my nerves and I was a little rude when I asked as to why he thought that way. "Everywhere I went people asked me about the US, and expressed their feelings (sic) to go there," Sakib explained. I later realised that what he was saying was partially correct. Every now and then we hear people say,  edesher kichu hobena (this country has no future) or edesh chere palate parle bachi (I will be relieved if I can leave this country). I wish we Bangladeshis could (sic) realise the fact that there is so much to be proud of in this country.’

As a teacher of English, I can vouch for the feelings of superiority of those who can speak English over those who can only speak Bengali. An editorial in the Bangladesh Observer had the following comments to make (21st February, 2006) : “What matters most is, if the language is used in all areas of people's life and if they feel proud to use it. The Pakistanis imposed Urdu on the Bangalees but now no one is there to dictate terms. And it is at this point we have failed ourselves miserably. We are in a mad rush for learning English.” I have left the language unedited. The writer concludes: “It is because of this lack of love for or commitment to the land of birth that we find now two extreme types of mental deviation - one all set to reshape the country in line with conservative religious theocracy and the followers of the other eating the cream but living a migrant life in their own country. Both are dangerous.”

UNESCO has, for mysterious reasons, seen fit to elevate 21st February to the level of International Mother Language Day. The organization seems to be oblivious to the fact that violence among students dates from that fateful day, and today student politics has become the scourge of schools and colleges throughout the country. While this elevation may serve to enthuse some members of the elite with feelings of patriotism, it will do nothing to repair, but everything to reinforce, the divisions of a botched identity.               

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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