DEMOCRACY sometimes puts enlightenment at risk. Sure, one will not question the idea that for all its flaws, democracy remains the best form of government that a nation might choose for itself. But that thought suffers a jolt when you see a democratic movement, such as the one that deposed the despised Shah in Iran in 1979 swiftly commandeered by clerics whose take on democracy is vastly removed from ours. But why go so far? The recent city corporation elections in Bangladesh, while they are putatively a triumph for political pluralism and of which some of us may feel quite proud, have thrown up a queer situation.
And the queer is in the brazen abandon with which religious fanatics went around telling people that the elections were a choice between believers and atheists. Now, that begs the question: is Bangladesh a secular state in the real sense of the meaning? If it is, how did these right-wingers, at this point so much of an overpowering influence on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, so freely and without any check play the religion card against the Awami League at the elections? They went from door-to-door with copies of the Quran, asking voters to swear by the holy book that they would not vote for atheists. No one — not the Election Commission, not the law enforcers, not the courts — stepped in to warn these campaigners that they were in violation of election laws. More tellingly, no theologian appeared to be there to inform these clerics that the Quran is not a book you carry lightly, that it is scripture whose purity must not be trifled with.
But, yes, it all came to pass in the democratic scheme of things. The state, despite officially being secular, remains weak to a point where it is unwilling to deal with bigotry head on. Much as the Awami League would like you to know that it believes in secular democracy, you remain appalled at the invocation of religion you often spot on the posters it puts out on the streets. That, as many will inform you, is one way of reassuring voters that it too is respectful towards religion. Of course it is. But the point here is something else: in the scramble for votes, the party is not ready to fall behind those elements whose blatant use of Islam has brought this country to this present sorry pass. The communal basis of the BNP is something you understand, for its founder happened to be the military ruler who swiftly did away with the sovereignty of the people as enshrined in the nation’s constitution and replaced it with belief in Allah. But what you certainly have a hard time getting used to is this new reality of the Begum and her party falling under the shadow of the Jamaatis and the Hefajatis. The BNP might think it is on top of things. The truth is something else: the Islamists have taken over the BNP.
The portents are dark and therefore uncomfortable. If so many people in this country truly believe that secularists are really atheists, that indeed the peddlers of faith are Allah’s chosen ones, there is a deep malaise abroad in the land. And it calls for purposeful, even harsh handling, in the way that Kemal Ataturk handled obscurantism in Turkey in the 1920s. He remains relevant, and not just for Turkey. His legacy of the creation and preservation of an absolutely secular Turkey has endured, with the country’s army on standby to ensure that the principle is not trifled with. You may have the Islamist Recep Tayyep Erdogan in power; you may have a section of Turkey’s women taking to the hijab. But none of that has affected the country’s secular nature. No one, not even Erdogan, will tamper with the Kemalist interpretation of politics in Turkey.
Which makes you wonder if Bangladesh at a certain stage will throw up an Ataturk to retrieve itself from the grasping, fanatical hands it has been falling into. The prospects are dim, unless the nation’s secular forces — the Awami League, the communists, the Workers Party, et al — are willing to give themselves a heave-ho and decisively turn Bangladesh back on the path to social decency and fundamental political morality. That is a necessary job. With the Hefajatis calling forth the audacity to hurl a so-called thirteen-point demand at the nation, it is neo-medievalism which threatens our visions of a luminous future. You accept the thirteen points. Or you appease the men behind these points through ludicrous promises. And what you are then left with is a nation without a future. That future is already under threat, now that with the Hefajatis the BNP-wallahs have, or think they have, stormed the citadels of secularism and rushed in through the gates of four cities.
So how much of democracy is enough for this country for it to live in good health and good cheer? The response is patently clear: we will have democracy all the way. But democracy is again a political process which has no room for militants or fanatics or bigots of any and all kinds. If you want democracy, you must first convince yourself that the principles of your life are secular. Democracy which looks the other way when a mob of fanatics cheerfully denounces a huge crowd of liberal and decent people as atheists, is democracy one is hardly in need of. You cannot have democracy and yet indulge sections of the media that offend citizens’ sensibilities through indecent exposure. It is not pluralistic politics you promote when the state has little authority to bring Qawmi madrasas to heel. Democracy dies a painful and shameful death when your Hindus, your Christians, your Buddhists, your indigenous people are pushed to the fringes because you are part of a brute majority, because you have appropriated God to yourself.
These city corporation elections are, yes, a wake-up call to the powers that be. More ominously, they point to the darkness that might, sooner rather than later, loom over this land of poetry and songs and Sufism and a multitude of faiths. The lights are going out. Must they?
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.