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Flirting with religion-based parties

Shahedul Anam Khan |

Religion-based parties have a canny method of making political space for themselves and becoming a part of the mainstream political system eventually. This has been the trend since the germination of religion-based groups in the Middle East with political aspirations, in the early 20th century following the end of the caliphate. The idea was transmitted to several other parts of the world, including South Asia.

In Bangladesh, the signs were obvious from the early 1970s with the change in the political dynamics. Unfortunately, its ominous portends may have been either lost on the government of the day or they were unwilling to acknowledge its creeping accretion in the society. It could even be that they were reluctant to act hoping that this particular force would accord the ruling party a political dividend. Little did they realise that such a position makes them complicit to the enlarged footprints of the religious parties in the country’s politics.

Is it a coincidence that when these parties were seeking political rehabilitation, their extreme version was seeking traction in other ways, with a specific political aim—assuming power or dictating to those that are in power to fulfil their ideological agenda, from behind the scene? Just for the record, it was on 24 August 1976, that the then political leaders of Democratic Party, Nejam-e-Islam Party, Khelafat-e-Rabbani Party and Jamaat-e-Islami formed a new political platform titled as “Islamic Democratic League” (IDL). The rest is history.

These religion-based parties were lucky to receive political patronage, and political space was only a matter of time. They received the benefaction of all the major political parties at one time or the other, particularly after the resurrection of democracy in 1991, having been validated during the tenure of the military rulers, who thought that the shortest way to the heart of the majority is by exploiting the popular psyche that was naturally disposed towards religion.

The gross contradiction in our politics, and the character of the political parties is that the major political parties, particularly those that flaunt secularism as the loadstone and who castigated the military rulers for rehabilitating the religion-based groups in politics, resorted to the same strategy when it came their time to contest the elections.

Secularism was given the short shrift when it came to the question of garnering votes, and religion was exploited, particularly in its external manifestation. The much-reviled religious groups were sought after and eventually taken on board during the anti-Ershad movement.

They were accorded even greater relevance when they joined the anti-BNP movement led by the AL between 1994 and 1996. Not known to many is the fact that the idea of caretaker government was the brainchild of the Jamaat, one of the several religion-based groups that political expediency helped strut up. Eventually, the BNP, which was really an agglomeration of multifarious people with disparate political views but driven predominantly by anti-secular disposition, strengthened the religion-based party’s political clout by making it a part of their electoral alliance.

But this is a phenomenon not unique to Bangladesh. Such has also been the strategy of religious groups with political proclivity in the Middle East in the very seminal stages of their germination. The first of these was the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or the Ikhwan-e-Muslimeen, which emerged after WW-I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

The nation states that emerged as a consequence were soon to be colonised by the West, and experience under the colonialists acted as a catalyst for the revivalism of religion-based parties. Without going into the causatives of its germination, suffice it to say that the prevailing socio-political and economic situation with experience varying from that of being under kingships to colonialists, provided the ground for its incubation.

The religious parties work under a common charter no matter which country they are in. They involve in humanitarian and social activities initially to establish a foothold amongst the masses. The political flux gives them the perfect foil to exploit the popular psyche against the current order of things. And when opportunity arises, they join hands with the forces fighting against a common enemy, just as the MB did in allying with Nasser in their movement against King Faruk.

The common feature is that they eventually fall out when their interests clash, as had happened with MB and Nasser, ending up in the religion-based group being banned. A similar vein of things happened in the case of Bangladesh too after August 1975. And unfortunately, the state acted in similar manner vis a vis the religion-based parties, particularly the Jamaat. Interestingly, nearly all the major political parties have a religion-based appendage of their party.

Ours has also been a sad history of compromises with religious groups. Not only were they made an integral part of the political process for the sake of votes, in the most recent example, compromises have been made by the ruling AL with even a non-political religious group, the Hefajat, at the expense of its secular credentials.

Are we to understand that sharing the same platform with a religious group, that acts as the umbrella of all the Qawmi madrasas in the country, is an endorsement of its 13 points that it published in 2013? Expediency and compromises with these forces do not pay. Give them an inch and they will take a mile.

Eventually, they become a Frankenstein and tries to destroy the existing order of things. This is just the thin end of the wedge, and the crack will be pried wider eventually if we fall for their ruse just for temporary political benefit.

The Daily Star/ANN.