Bangladesh killings bring tensions between Islam and secularism to the fore

Bangladesh killings bring tensions between Islam and secularism to the fore

Violent extremists are exploiting the tensions and paradoxes of secularism in Bangladesh

Bangladesh, a South Asian Muslim majority state with the fourth largest Muslim population, has seen a spate of religion-based killings since 2013.

With especially the murder of an American citizen of Bangladeshi origin, Avijit Roy, in 2015, there has been unprecedented global media attention on the country, climaxing with the recent murder of a gay rights activist.

A culture of impunity, sustained by an ineffective political system mired in authoritarianism, has been cited as one of the main factors behind the killings. However, the spate of violence cannot be fully understood—or perhaps even explained—without taking into account the tensions and paradoxes of secularism in Bangladesh.

Violence is endemic to the political culture of Bangladesh. More people are killed in strikes and violence unleashed by the security apparatus, but religion-based violence is not new. Between 1999 and 2005, for example, there were 156 deaths related to religion.

There is, however, something different about the current spate of violence, as there is an apparent pattern to it. But this pattern—the targeted, serial, individualistic, and gruesome nature of the killings—alone does not explain the current attention. It’s what these killings appear to ultimately represent—a clash between Islam and secular liberal modernity—that seems to drive it. As well as a gay rights activist, the victims have been atheists and secularist freethinkers.

Prelude to killings

As the killings are also happening in the context of the so-called war on terror and the rise of Islamic State, they appear to give further credence to the view, and are seen through, the dominant discourse of secularism vs. Islam. This sort of discourse has in fact been the prelude to the killings in Bangladesh. Hence, there is a great deal of truth to it as it has been discursively played out by various actors, now increasingly with deadly ends.

Self-claimed IS and al-Qaeda affiliates, who see themselves as true Muslims, have taken responsibility for a number of the recent killings. For them, atheism, secularism, gay rights and democracy in general should have no place in a Muslim state. While impunity and ineffective security provision have allowed the killings, the discursive metaphysics—partly interpreted from religion—of these groups has justified and normalised the violence. And some of the prominent secularist voices, on their part, see these groups as representative of the true face of Islam and its holy book.

These dialectics and now the spate of killings cannot be fully understood or even perhaps explained without taking into account the larger paradoxes of secularism in Bangladesh. After all, these militant groups are less interested (at least immediately) in achieving political ends through effecting a change of course by the state. The state, in this case, undercuts any such ends by tending to blame the victims. It is partly the secular state through its attempts to define, shape and limit identities and political action for various religious and secular groups that has exacerbated violence in Bangladesh.

An exclusionary conception of secularism that wants religion in general privatised has dominated the political public sphere of Bangladesh. This secularism is rooted in the very foundation of Bangladesh and continues to be understood so.

Secularism, along with socialism, nationalism and democracy, was one of the four main principles of the original constitution. There is some disagreement among scholars about what exactly it meant, some even arguing there was no clear understanding. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh, had famously pointed out secularism did not mean absence of religion—i.e. secularism provides religious liberty. But he also added nobody could use religion as a political weapon—i.e. there cannot be political parties based on a religious platform.


Bangladeshi secularism is often likened to Indian secularism, with its purported goal of religious harmony. Yet a major paradox at the heart of Bangladeshi secularism was how the ban on religion-based politics—thereby, denying an equal political voice to various religious actors—could square with its purported goal of religious liberty. This was not a mere constitutional or discursive issue in Bangladesh. Religious actors increasingly competed in politics especially following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Hence, this secularism’s denial of equality of political voice to religious actors also was in tension with the goal of religious harmony.

Secularism in Bangladesh has generated tensions through its attempts to remake Islam as the basis of national identity

Secularism in Bangladesh has also generated tensions through its attempts to remake Islam as the basis of national identity. This claim may appear implausible, because secularism is usually understood to separate religion from the state. Jocelyne Cesari, for example, has recently argued Muslim majority states such as Tunisia, Indonesia, and even Turkey, are unlikely to be secular democracies.

Her main argument is that because of the unique conjunctures as a result of nation-building inflected through Islam, Islam was very much part of the nation–state. The outcome is that the very rights in question in Bangladesh—i.e. religious liberty and sexual rights—have become a problem for all Muslim majority states. However, in a state like Bangladesh, and more so in Turkey, one can interpret this making of Islam by the state as a project of the secular state—that is, to generate secularism, the state remakes religion on its own terms.

All governments, including the secular Awami League, have attempted this. Despite the exclusionary impulse behind secularism, Islam has remained very much part of identity construction in Bangladesh. These limiting identity constructions based on State Islam further exacerbate issues of harmony with its majoritarian bias. As it is State Islam that underpins the identity construction project, it also contradicts the goal of equality of voice to various religious actors even within Islam, further disintegrating Islamic voices.

The dominant discourse in the public sphere also envisions this strand of exclusionary secularism. The exploitation of Islam by political elites in West Pakistan since the partition and the role of Jaamat-e-Islam in siding with the West Pakistan army, and the atrocities during the independence war of 1971, may have created the political space for secularism to be included in the constitution of Bangladesh.

Enlightenment influences

However, secularism has also to be positively, discursively conceived. Some have, in fact, traced secularism to discourses of certain Bangladesh intellectuals influenced by the Enlightenment. Several Bangladeshi contemporary intellectuals also see the political history of Bangladesh through the rise and fall of secularism—however exclusionary it is—with regret. They see secularisation of culture and public sphere as necessary for secularism as a statecraft principle. Certainly some of the secularist victims of the current violence aspire to this Enlightenment-informed secularism that wants to empty public spaces of religion—which they see as a false human invention, or worse a virus.

None of this is to say that violent extremist groups such as Ansar al-Islam or IS would necessarily see an alternative, more capacious secularism, more palatable. But assertive secularist projects with their underlying discourses may not even square with popular views, much less mainstream Islamist actors. Most Bangladeshis want a public role for Islam.

Many religious figures and Jaamat-e-Islam, the main Islamist party, were on the wrong side in the war for independence. Yet as Irfan Ahmad argues, Jamaat has been very much part of the struggle of and for democracy, not to mention the millions of people who vote them—in the December 2008 elections, for example, Jamaat won only two seats, but received 3.16 million votes.

Any ban on religion-based parties or prosecutions through processes that are seen as politicised, unfair, and unjust, such as the 2010 International Crimes Tribunal, would further undermine and delegitimise secularism.

These broader paradoxes and tensions of secularism and the resulting failure to forge a ‘principled secularism’ to which even the main parties could agree have generated multiple ethical, political and discursive spaces of crises. It is these crises that violent extremists exploit for deadly ends.

Featured image
An urban congregation for Eid-ul-Adha prayers in Dhaka. Photo: Mohammed Tawsif Salam, CC BY-SA 4.0

Azim Zahir is a PhD Student at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia.

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3 thoughts on “Bangladesh killings bring tensions between Islam and secularism to the fore”

  1. Zahir provides a rather abstract picture of Islamist violence in Bangladesh. Does he have any comment on the actual perpetrators, their social origins and location, whether they are linked to existing legal political parties and the kind of support base they draw upon. Jamaat is a religious party and so can operate in public space. AL and BNP have moved to the right politically to accommodate elements of the religious right. Where do these killings figure in this changing political scene?

  2. Thank you Professor Pokrant for your comment and important questions I haven’t tried to discuss in that very short commentary. I certainly agree with you that the background issues I have discussed — themselves in rather limited way — may be relatively abstract compared to the questions you have raised. Several commentaries have discussed some of those questions. I think it is not entirely clear who exactly are behind the current killings in terms of the data you are looking for. Islamist violence and groups in Bangladesh are a “complex web” to use Prof Ali Riaz’s phrase — there are several groups with several social bases, including madrasas and universities, and some with links to main political parties, and links to regional and global militant groups. In the current killings, as we know, Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi affiliate of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and affiliates of IS have claimed responsibility for the killings. But killings of minority groups and secularist people have been going on in Bangladesh, suggesting this kind of violence doesn’t have to be caused by groups with more recent incarnations. This is not an area I do research directly. However, I think the background issues of State stances, polices, and practices, the discourses of officials and the large public sphere, and the discourses of the relevant groups in question — secularists and militant Islamists — aren’t too abstract that they aren’t important contributing factors to militancy. Also, I think the dominant narrative, certainly projected in the media, sees the killings through the erosion of secularism in Bangladesh. I discuss how secularism from the beginning isn’t innocent either and the tensions it creates exacerbate issues of violence.

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