Vol. 5 Num 923 Sun. December 31, 2006  

Going Deeper
The art of politics

FOR Machiavelli, a prudent Prince finds a convenient instrument in religion to rule the people in peace without giving them any worthwhile concessions. For political expediency Machiavelli insists upon his Prince to adorn the good qualities. Yet if the Prince is wise, he neither can nor ought to keep his word, when keeping it would be injurious to him.

But today the enlightened people of the world (and no one wants to live in darkness) want transparency, accountability and non-religiosity in the conduct of state affairs.

The art of politics is generally believed to gain power because for the political parties involved in wanting to do good for the people, the politicians are expected to gain power. The question is what process one should adopt to gain power. Should it be by hook or by crook, or should there be a place for principles that the political parties have pledged not only in their election manifestos but also advocated since their inception as political parties.

Though one must recognize that political parties like most institutions go through an evolutionary process. Such evolution by definition should be dictated by comprehensible circumstances and should have the consent of the adherents of the political parties.

If decisions taken by a political party is sudden and is perceived to be contradictory to its principles, which had garnered support for the political party in the first place, then such non-consultative change is likely to be seen as opportunistic and devoid of moral force.

Awami League, which leads the 14-party combine, now joined by others, in a grand coalition to fight the forthcoming parliamentary elections suddenly signed a memorandum of understanding with an obscure Islamic fundamentalist party.

They pledged that no law would be enacted that contradicts with the Quranic values, sunnah and the shariah. Government recognition of degrees given by the Quomi madrasas will be ensured and laws will be enacted acknowledging the Holy Prophet as the ultimate and the greatest prophet. Haqqani alems will be allowed to issue fatwas; and, criticism of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and his disciples will be banned.

Many of the people who were disgusted with the five-year misrule of the BNP-Jamaat government and were preparing to vote for the grand alliance were stunned by the MOU signed by Awami League and Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish. A lot of criticism poured in. The MOU was regarded by many as betrayal of the spirit of our freedom movement and the 1972 constitution that had secularism as one of its pillars.

The reiteration by the party of its secular credentials following the stream of criticism from the intellectuals and ordinary people sounded hollow. It is not understood why the Awami leadership felt at this stage to declare its Islamic credentials. This was totally unnecessary for the largest political party in the country in terms of vote, that would most likely alienate the minority communities and secular minded Muslims whose allegiance to the party had so far been taken for granted and forced them to think of their next course of action.

Should these people decide to absent themselves from casting their ballots then the Grand Alliance may lose more votes than it would get from the Islamic fundamentalists. What is surprising is that a party like Awami League felt the need to bow down to the fundamentalist's erroneous campaign.

Though we know that secularism is neither agnosticism nor atheism, but provides guarantee to all to practice their own religion in manner they see fit and that the state would not impose the religious belief of the majority population on the minority communities.

It would be prudent to remind us that religions have too often been used to "justify the violation of human rights, in part through the hierarchical and selective use of role ethics and postponement of temporal justice to divine judgment."

One would have thought that modernity had freed us from the religious emphasis put upon society by Scholasticism that people being fearful and predatory must submit to the absolute supremacy of the state in both secular and religious matters for self-preservation.

The MOU has also opened the door for enactment of blasphemy law that the world is still trying to get rid of in very socio-culturally underdeveloped parts of the world. In the developed countries, example can be given such as the refusal to entertain any complaint against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses because Rushdie's irreverence was not recognized as a crime under British law.

In the US, blasphemy runs counter to freedom of religion and freedom of expression both of which are guaranteed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. US Justice Tom Clark once observed: "It is not the business of government to suppress real or imagined attacks upon particular religious doctrine."

Gradually US state courts found prosecution of blasphemy cases unconstitutional and unenforceable. Australian Humanist Society found blasphemy law as "a relic of religious persecution, a penalty on opinion" and a defiance of hard won freedom of speech that underpins democracy. UN Commission on Human Rights had been particularly harsh on Pakistan for intolerance and commission of violence against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadiyas.

The pledge on fatwas would not only complicate the judgment of the High Court describing it as unconstitutional (though the order has been stayed by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court). It may further encourage semi-literate maulanas and imams in our mosques to issue fatwas in abandon causing unimaginable distress of the common people particularly women, the victims of injustice of the affluent landlords in the villages.

The source of law should be unambiguous and the laws should be legislated by parliament and not imposed upon society by non-elected people.

It is surprising that Awami League did not consider the image of Bangladesh abroad at a time when the Western world is deeply concerned over the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. If a political party like Awami League has to find it expedient to sign a contract with Islamists, then people start to wonder whether both Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis are correct that religion drives both Islamic culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is religious fundamentalism.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the emergence in the US of a cohesive and distinct group of people exerting decisive influence on crucial policy matters as the neo-cons do, so rarely seen in the American history, in addition to the increasing evangelical influence in the US.

Bangladesh may be a Muslim majority country but we are surrounded by Hindu India, Buddhist Myanmar and except for Malaysia a non-Muslim South East Asia. The geopolitical situation in our environment and beyond suggests that we be reticent in over-exposition of Islam as the sole dictator of our day-to-day life.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and Ambassador.