Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Secular is Very Religious

Any almanac, such as the Britannica, will tell you that around 85 per cent of the people of ‎Bangladesh are Muslim, that Hindus trail at about 10 per cent, with Christians, Buddhists, ‎animists…bringing up the rear. My concern here is with two religions – and one of them ‎is Islam, and the other? Nationalism! No almanac announces this surreptitious religion in ‎the body politic, but its tokens and totems are as visible as those of the more run-of-the-‎mill variety.

‎A secular religion? No, not an oxymoron, but an ascertainable fact. How does one define ‎‎“religion”? According to Ninian Smart, in his book The World’s Religions (‎(Englewood ‎Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989, pp 10 - 25‎), every religion has seven characteristics, or ‎dimensions. We tick them off one by one, with respect to nationalism: (1) the ritual ‎dimension: speaking the language, saluting the flag, national holidays, pilgrimages to ‎sights considered important (the Shahid Minar comes readily to mind); (2) the ‎experiential or emotional dimension: nationalism has a powerful emotional side, a fact ‎that seems to me to explain why children are peculiarly susceptible to it, as during the ‎Chinese May 4th Movement, or the 21st February 1952 students’ movement in the then ‎East Pakistan; these emotions are always kept simmering below the surface through ‎patriotic or heroic songs, dramas…(3) the narrative dimension is obvious in nationalism: ‎the history of the nation; the stories (fictionalized, or embellished) of great men, women ‎and even children who made the nation what it is; (4) unlike the emotional dimension, ‎nationalism lacks a strong doctrinal dimension, reinforcing my observation that the power ‎of the emotional aspect renders nationalist sentiments peculiarly appealing to children; ‎however, nationalism can appeal to a set of doctrines, such as democracy, individual ‎freedom and rights (or it could appeal to purely religious doctrines as well); (5) the ‎ethical dimension of nationalism refers to loyalty to the nation, martial values needed ‎during defense (or offence), family values; (6) the social and institutional aspect of the ‎nation-state consists in such public figures as the head of state, the army and its military ‎ceremonies, the education system – a formidable apparatus for collective indoctrination – ‎and even in games (the Olympics is the egregious example); (7) finally, the material ‎dimension of religion are the physical monuments and artistic objects that have been ‎created by the “nation-builders”.

‎There are those in Bangladesh who are proud to be “secular” and perform ‎‎“secular” pilgrimages to the shrine of the language martyrs every 21st February, promote ‎the language at fairs and cultural soirees, in short, place themselves diametrically ‎opposite the religion of Islam, which, naturally, has its own, sharply differentiated ‎dimensional contents. In fact, of course, the “secularists” are not secular at all: they have ‎a religion, just like the people they despise (and who despise them).‎

Now, to what extent are these dimensions shared across the nation? To a very ‎minor extent. The Bangladesh Television interviewed crowds of ordinary people about ‎such seminal events as 21st February, asking them what the day meant, and nobody could ‎reply. I write “21st February”, when in fact I should write “Ekushey February”, for that is ‎how the day is commemorated. The ordinal number occurs in Bengali, and the month ‎belongs to the international calendar, not the corresponding Bengali month. It is the same ‎with other “national” dates: “sholoi December” (16th December), “Chabbishe March” ‎‎(26th March)…Other dates are entirely in the Gregorian calendar: “Martyred ‎Intellectuals’ Day (13th December)”, “Homecoming Day (10th January)”, “Asad Day (20th ‎January)”, “Declaration of Independence Day(7th May)”…. These considerations would ‎indicate that the language and nationalist movement has been a purely elite, urban ‎phenomenon, highly influenced by western ideas and totally divorced from the people. ‎

As anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah has observed: “In India, Pakistan, Sri ‎Lanka, and Bangladesh, the attempt to realise the nation-state on a Western European ‎model has virtually failed. The nation-state conception has not taken deep roots in South ‎Asia or generated a wide-spread and robust participatory “public culture” that celebrates ‎it in widely meaningful ceremonies, festivals, and rituals”.‎

That brings us to a major point: Sheikh Hasina as the symbol of nationalism is ‎largely an elite symbol.

The Dhaka University teachers who wore black badges and ‎abstained from work are members of the elite. ‎

Not a single member of the hoi polloi has voiced any protest at her arrest – or at ‎the house arrest of the other leader. ‎

Why then, this appeal to "the people"? ‎Newspapers and newspaper readers, teachers, student politicians are not the whole ‎‎– or even a small fraction – of "the people".

‎In the name of the People, as in the name of God, or Dialectical Materialism, or the Herrenvolk, ‎anything goes. ‎

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