Friday, February 05, 2010

Religion in politics

Photo: Islamist rampage after deadline expires to implement Sharia law and also declare the 160 million secular nation as an Islamic state
IN A move aimed at reviving the spirit of Bangladesh’s original 1972 constitution which barred religion in politics, the Bangladesh Supreme Court recently lifted a four-year stay on an earlier ruling. As a result, the country’s dozens of Islamic political parties can no longer campaign under the banner of religion, and are likely to be forced to drop the religious reference from their names. The court declared as void ab initio the relevant fifth amendment to the constitution, which was carried out in 1979 during a Bangladesh Nationalist Party government. It allowed religion-based politics — which then flourished.

Given that Bangladesh has amongst the world’s largest Muslim populations, this is a quantum leap forward. The court decision, if upheld during appeals, will affect scores of powerful political parties and their voters, including the BNP now in the opposition. Yet it is worth noting that the verdict does not affect Islam’s constitutional status as the state religion or religious text that was incorporated in the constitution. Implicit, therefore, is the recognition that whatever the dominant religion, the business of the state and politics must be conducted independently; and that far from yielding benefits in terms of just and legitimate governance, the confluence of religion and politics can wreak havoc on a country’s political fabric.

Pakistan would do well to dwell on this. Religion, when enmeshed with politics, can deepen polarities and derail the examination of issues from the perspective of logic and the aggregate national benefit. We have seen, for example, how politics and state policies underpinned by religious diktat can lead to laws that are discriminatory and can be used as tools for victimisation. The Qisas and Diyat Act, the Hudood and the blasphemy laws are cases in point. At the very least, a political fabric woven from religion will either dismiss minorities and their rights, or polarise politics between dominant and minority religions. Pakistan made the state the custodian of religion through the 1949 Objectives Resolution, which was later made the preamble to the constitution by the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government and added as an annex by Ziaul Haq. Although religious parties have not historically fared well in elections, Pakistan’s politics have, over successive decades, been coloured by religion. The separation of religion and politics will, of course, neither automatically ensure justice nor guard against the misuse of religion. But it can be a first step towards delineating the private and public spheres. This may be a good time to revisit Mr Jinnah’s 1947 address to Pakistan’s first constituent assembly, when he eloquently stated that religion had nothing to do with the business of the state. #

Editorial published in The Dawn, Pakistan, January 08, 2010