Humayun Kabir

Dr Humayun Kabir teaches at Canada’s Thompson Rivers University. He has researched on Islam and religion in South Asia, the Muslim community, their culture and politics, and the madrasa system of education. In an interview with Prothom Alo’s Rafsan Galib, he speaks about these issues in the Bangladesh context.

Through much struggle and the liberation war, we emerged from a religion-based state and formed a separate state based on secularism and democracy. Has this led to a crisis of the religion-based identity that existed in the society?

There are many historical factors involved here, including the partition of the country. We can divide these into three paradigms – integrated paradigm, disintegrated paradigm, and rhetorical fusion paradigm.

The integrated paradigm is basically associated with the formation of the Pakistan state. At the time it was felt that religion was the prime means of uniting the Muslims, who were divided by region and language, in order to stand up against British colonialism and Hindu dominance. But we witnessed the disintegrated paradigm after the formation of the Pakistan state. Stark cultural differences surfaced, accentuated by economic and political deprivation. As a result, the link between the state and religion gradually subsided.

While drawing up the constitution of Pakistan, leaders like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said, “Do you all want to betray us by forming such an Islamic state?” But how did the people view this paradigm that prevailed for a long 23 years? There was a matter of class involved too. The initiative and aspiration of a nation state actually was sparked off from within the Bengali middle class, educated and urban people.

A study conducted in 1970 showed that even then many people in the villages considered themselves to be Pakistani. Religious forces participated in the 1970 election too. They secured 12 per cent of the votes. So till the end of the seventies, Islamic political forces did have a position to a certain extent. That had not completely diminished with the liberation war. During the rule of Ziaur Rahman, the rhetorical fusion paradigm emerged, where religious elements were inserted in the constitution. At the time, these didn’t influence the state structure in legal terms. After the liberation war, the religious identity was tucked into the background, but wasn’t lost completely. Religion was always important to the common man.

After that identify had been tucked away, how did it enter our politics and society again and what are the indications we see?

Bangabandhu wanted Bangladesh to be a secular state, but also pointed out that secularism did not mean the absence of religion. He did not deny the influence of religion on social and cultural life. He was against the manner in which the Pakistan religion-based state exploited the people and margnalised them.

In later times there was a simultaneous propensity to remove secularism, a rise in military politics and rise in Islamic politics. Religious politics then gained legitimacy here. The existence of Jamaat-e-Islami was precarious because of their stance against the liberation war. The Qawmi madrasa alems and ulema came forward to fill that vacuum of Islamic politics. They had been divided during partition and even during the liberation war. The name of Hafezzi Huzoor certain arises when we speak of this rise on the Qawmi. In his old age he made a shift from being a religious personality to a political personality. He not only attracted the traditional Muslim community, but also the pirs like that of Sharshina and Zakir Manzil. Jamaat was with him on various platforms too. We saw Ziaur Rahman inserting religious components into the constitution and Hafezzi Huzoor lauding him for the move. Hafezzi Huzoor even contested twice in the presidential elections.

The platform that he created was later divided into several factions. We saw the formation from there of Saikhul Hadith’s Islami Oikya Jote and other parties, as well as the spread of their influence. This religious politics gave Jamaat the scope to reorganise. In other words, the influence of religion on society and politics increased in the lack of democracy. And we are still witnessing that now too.

Up until the eighties, the leftists had considerable influence too, outside of the two centre-leaning parties. But later the rightists and Islamic parties took over that space from the leftists. How did this change take place?

The leftists had a significant role in the cultural movements here from the sixties, leading to the formation of a nation state. They managed to merge the cultural movement with the political movement. But did those leftists dwindle away after in post-independence times? There are certain ground realities here. The war-torn country was riddled with problems and political unrest. Then again, on the international front there was the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. The US had adopted a pro-Islamic stand the world over. The leftists were dependent on cultural movements that related to the cultural lives of the educated urban middle class. There are questions as to how far the leftists tried to understand the aspirations of the common Muslim people and the changes that had taken place. Maulana Bhasani had that understanding. He had brought about a fusion of leftist and Islamic values. Later, though, that trend didn’t last.

Meanwhile, the Islamic groups always had an influence on the society due to the large madrasa-based institutional structure that existed. The madrasas were linked to the rural people and the people who were marginalised in various ways. We see this at present times in the case of Hefazat-e-Islam. The culture-oriented leftists failed to appeal to the tradition Muslim society of the rural areas or to organise them in the manner that the Islamic groups could. The gradual forging of diplomatic ties and linkage with pro-Islamic states also had an influence here. Also, at various times the non-state secular forces compromised with the ruling political party of the government and so the people developed a sense of mistrust towards them.

Our history and heritage points to a coexistence between Islam and the culture and traditions of this region. Does that face a challenge now?

Over the past few centuries, this propensity for coordination or coexistence created a sort of identity of the Bengali Muslim society here. Various historical and social changes played a role here. As change is a continual process, this coexistence also sees changes and transformations. The question is, does that mean the previous sense of tolerance no longer will exist? Just a couple of days ago I visited the Imambara of the Shia community in Old Dhaka as part of my research work. I saw Sunni Muslims offering their prayers there too, handing out food offerings. In Brahmanbaria I saw Hindus and Muslims all gathering at the place of a ‘sandhu’ Manmohan Dutta. Others would visit mosques and mazars (shrines) too. That coexistence has decreased. The Hindu fairs no longer take place in the villages.

When I visited the country last time, this time too, I wanted to have a milad in the name of my deceased father in the village mosque, but the milads are no longer like before. New Islamic concepts and influences have been introduced which did not exist in the Muslim communities here before. This is leading to a new crisis in the long-standing heritage of harmony or the integrated Muslim society. This may make our Muslim society more intolerant and lower its levels of acceptance.

It is noticed that the moderate, centre-leaning parties are taking in elements of the religion-based parties. Is this because the influence of religion is increasing in the society?

The secular concept within the liberal democratic parties here is very different from the European secularism. From the very beginning of the formation of the state, we note that these parties started taking in various religious elements. We see these trends in such parties in Turkey, Malaysia and even in Pakistan. This is in the hope of winning more votes in a Muslim majority country. As a result, an elite political class has emerged among the ulema and Islamic groups and this has an influence on mainstream politics. This synthesis has bought about a change in liberal democratic parties and their ideological stand is undergoing a change. They are placing more emphasis on populist ideology and values. They are even declaring that if they go to power, they will not enact any laws that go against the Quran or Sunnah. And in this manner, secularism or democratic values are gradually diminishing within these parties.

Is it possible for us to establish a non-communal, inclusive and democratic state, along with this religious identity? The western countries have internalised such religious identity and created that position.

We must understand the relationship between secularism and religion. We must see how these were assimilated in history. The concept of a state and secularism are basically European concepts. Now, are these concepts only for Europe or can they be applied in all countries? Many historians say that these systems which emerged in Europe may not be congruent to all societies. Even so, this European model is the most discussed. After all, it is this model so far that has proven to be most viable for the coexistence of people of various identities. Actually, more than internalising religion, Europe has managed to separate religion from the state. They had to go through much structural reforms for this. These may have distant links with religion. They have set up a science-based society and various structural systems that are still a far cry for us.

We see that the matter of secularism was introduced into the Indian constitution in 1976 during the rule of Indira Gandhi. At the outset Nehru or Ambedkar didn’t want that in the constitution. Perhaps they felt that the people’s aspirations for a nation state were not connected to the European model.

How are geostrategic or regional political elements working to increase the strength of religion-based political forces in Bangladesh? Many believe that the rise of extremist religious politics in India has led to the increase of religion-based politics in Bangladesh in recent times. What do you think?

The religion-based society or politics in this country was never free of the influence of regional or international politics. The Deobandi Qawmi school of madrasas here was always involved in some religious or social movement. The manner in which the Deobandis in Pakistan built up the Tahaffuz-e-Khatme Nabuwwat movement was seen here too. As a result the minority Ahmadiyas here are under threat. The Islamic political parties are demanding a blasphemy law as they have in Pakistan. Meanwhile, while the rise of Hindutva politics has a certain impact here too, there is doubt if religious forces here will be able to ascend to state power in the rapid manner that they went to power in India. I do not think religious forces will be accepted in state power here as it has been in India. They will remain as auxiliary forces to the mainstream political parties. The long-standing cultural heritage and strength here will also remain as an obstacle.

There exists a multiple education system in Bangladesh – Bangla medium, English medium and religious medium. There is also a demand for a unified education system. What do you thing about this?

A multiple education system can naturally exist in a state, but that should be on a national consensus. That should be based on diversity, not division. Canada has a Catholic Christian Education Board. There are religious studies there too, but not isolated from the mainstream. In our country, there is a sort of class difference in the multifaceted education system. It is for the state to address this, to build up a consensus. In line of my research, I have seen in certain Qawmi madrasas that the national flag is not raised, not is the national anthem sung. These factors exist. There are all sorts of criticism about English medium schools too.

The madrasa education system in the country is divided too, run with different syllabuses and under different boards. Why can’t the mainstream society or state institutions give space to madrasas students?

Many believe that there has been no change in the Qawmi madrasas and these remain steeped in old concepts. That is not true. If you study the history of the past 100 years or so, you will see the steady changes, basically a self reformation. One must also understand why the Qawmi madrasas and the Alia madrasas are separate. There could have been a single madrasa system. Actually it was the British who made this divide. They wanted to bring madrasa education to the mainstream by mean of Alia madrasas, where they could establish their control. But it wasn’t possible to draw in the Deoband madrasa Qawmis there. A section of them were involved in the anti-British movement. Even in post-colonial times, they eyes the state or the authorities with suspicion and a crisis of trust remains.

In India, though, Qawmi madrasa students can get admitted to Aligarh Muslim University or universities like Jameya Milia. Over here, the Qawmis do not want to recognise Alia madrasa education. They think they are the main followers of Islam. There are also various levels within the Qawmi madrasa system which has created a sort of hierarchy. The leadership feels that those the state has recognised Qawmi madrasas, there is politics at play here. There is still a lack of clarity in that recognition. The Alia madrasa students, on the other hand, can easily get admitted to university, but we do notice certain incidents of discrimination they face in Dhaka University.        

Thank you too.