With a great interest and a heavy heart, I’ve been following the media analysis of Ramu attack. The reason for my interest is based on my present research work where I am examining the scholarly debate of religion and politics and its relevance to South Asia. On the other hand, being a proud young Bangladeshi who always dreamt of raising his kid in Bangladesh, the news of Ramu attack was heart wrenching, even though not surprising, considering our political context.
However, what is more worrying for me is the limited view taken by most of the analysts on Ramu Attack. It is not an exaggeration, if I argue that one of the dominant narratives coined in by the media analysts as well as influential civil society members including Dr. Mizanur Rahman of National Human rights Commission, is based on the identification of the secular-religio philosophical foundation of Bangladesh as an instrumental discourse behind the Ramu attack. A brief summary of this narrative underpins the need for a religion free political context where religion based political parties should not be allowed to operate.
From an idealistic point of view, this recommendation looks fine. Nonetheless, if one looks closely, the danger of this narrative is that, it does not even go close to addressing the real problem. Overall, it has three major limitations: a) it fails to take notice the identity dynamics of people and local-central dynamics of political parties; b) it ignores the nature of our political context where people are used as a mean to achieving power and c) it fails to understand that philosophical foundation of Bangladeshi state is not real the problem, the problem is the political culture of Bangladesh.
Firstly, a number of news reports finding underpins involvement of all party members (Jamaat, BNP, Awami League) in this heinous and shameful assault. In my opinion, it’s an important finding in widening our perspective in understanding Ramu attack. A major point that requires attention from this finding is to noticing the identity dynamics of people and local-national paradigm of contemporary politics. What I mean by this is that, for example, it would be too naïve to consider that all Awami members believe in communal-harmony and all Jamaat-BNP denounce communal harmony. In reality, a person can be a Muslim, a father, a neighbour, a son, a husband, an Awami League or BNP activist who could believe or not believe in communal harmony. Now it is hard to define which identity determines their specific actions every day. Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen deals with this identity dynamic in his book ‘Identity and Violence’ in greater detail. Therefore, wholesale blame game on specific political party activists not only will jeopardize the hope of receiving somewhat objective findings regarding the situation but also such mentality only legitimizes illegitimate actions taken by people who publicly belong to the parties which theoretically believes in communal harmony.
Ramu attack further underpins the local-national dynamic featuring our politics today. There is no doubt that the major decisions regarding party policy and actions are taken at the capacity of major leaders, if not few influential ones. However, what constitutes actions of party wings or activists in everyday life in local areas, situating miles away from the capital city, is the dynamics of local context where political identities become less significant. The coordinated attack on the Buddhists’ temple participated by all party members, as claimed by the news reports, underpins the local-national dynamics of politics today. This brings me back to my original point which says accusing Islamists, fundamentalists only will ignore the reality of the situation on the ground, because it seems, secularists-nationalists-Islamists all were involved in this case. Ignoring such important factor only underpins the paucity of insightful analysis on the attack.
Secondly, reactions based on blaming rivals from major political figures in our country expose, yet again, the true nature of our politics. Peoples’ development and protection seems not the end goal of politics here. Rather people are only used as the mean to achieve power at the time of election. The result of such hypocrisy includes, increasing corruption, nepotism as well as events such as arson at Buddhists temple, MC College and the list could go on. It is noteworthy to remember that this is a country where political contest between elites resulted in number of killings of the elites in home and in streets where masses are caught between false paradigm of ideological distinctions and promises of real independence. The politics here is dirty and there should be little disagreement about that. However, that does not necessarily mean all politicians are dirty and in my opinion the real hope beams on the team of young politicians.
Finally, would anyone believe that against the backdrop of no change in current political culture, secularization of Bangladesh will not see any more assault on minorities? What is secularism anyway? Most people underpin the state neutrality in terms of religion and separation of religion from politics. In fact it does not exist in most of the world, including the western democracies. However, that does not necessarily mean that people are engaged in assaulting minorities in those places. On the other hand, inclusion of religion in state politics does not necessarily mean that secular institutions of a state will somehow influence religious discrimination.
In support of this point, I like to highlight a research findings published in the Comparative Politics, one of the influential academic journals on political science in the world (Synopsis available here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20072892). In 2005, two political scientists, Jonathan Fox and Shumel Sandler examined ‘five aspects’ of the separation of the religion and politics in the western European countries, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Muslims majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Turkey, Israel and Iran. Those aspects are: a) the structural relationship between religion and the state (the existence of an official religion or the legal position of religion within the state) and the status of minority religions, b) restriction or banning of or provision of benefits to some religions but not others); c) discrimination against minority religion and d) regulation of the majority religion; and e) legislation of religion. In the findings, they find Muslim countries are lagging behind the western liberal democracies. However what is striking for Fox and Sandler is that ‘there is clearly a significant amount of government involvement in religion in western democracies’ as according to their findings 80.8% of western democracies support some religion over others either officially or practically; half restrict at least one minority religion or benefits to some religions and not others; 61.5% engage in some form of religious discrimination and every western democracy …legislates some aspect of religion. The only type of religious practice eschewed by most western democracies seems to be the regulation of the majority religion.
This finding only strengthens my argument that says problem is not the philosophical foundation of the state; problem is not the religion, the major problem here is lack of political will, good governance and the dirty politics. Therefore, analysis and recommendations of the Ramu attack must keep an open mind and consider the identity formation of people and local-national dynamics in our politics. Once the behaviour of political context will change, debating about religion-politics-secularism would bring more conclusive result unlike now which seems gullible by all means.
Mubashar Hasan is a doctoral candidate at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia.