Our faith-bred politics

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The most exclusive of all identities are religious ones as they can’t admit two Truths.  Religion is divine and divinity can’t be split. So generally or overwhelmingly religious people follow only one faith and commitment is total.  Although certain ideas maybe shared, supremacy belongs to only the one followed. To do otherwise would be to reduce the unique nature of a particular faith. There is only one path, one route, one truth.

It also means that a challenge to the faith only comes from a faith enemy, the worst kind. Response must be swift and immediate. There is no intermediate space and that is why the reason for inter-faith hostility is high.  It is based on exclusive polarization as fundamental for survival of the faith group itself.

Can religious social behavior be useful to understand some aspects of politics when political science is found wanting? In Bangladesh, politics is often mysterious and doesn’t often follow set patterns but demands and gets total loyalty. Can there be a situation where both religion and politics can be seen as belonging to the same theoretical space?

A five pronged / category approach is sometimes used to study religion in general. These are considered to be common in all faith groups irrespective of regions. One may try to be familiar with such concepts to see if it applies to the political behaviour in this state or not.  If nothing else, it may make us understand politics better.

Metaphysical core

The core of a religion is its essence which means total acceptance or surrender to the primary idea.  This can’t be challenged.  Now anyone familiar with any of the two major parties will know that this element is common with both. It is held that truth resides alone with the party in question. The other party is therefore the enemy. And thus hostility is fundamental and there is no question of any accommodation over time. To understand the position of the other is to betray.  Hence the space for two faiths living together peacefully in a common space has not been possible.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, when applied to the Bangladeshi body politic?

Foundational “myth”

In any religion, the foundational myths are sacrosanct and beyond question. It doesn’t matter if there is any challenge of facts or not. The are taken to be true and for granted.  Similarly anyone challenging the foundational myth is an enemy and must be attacked. No discussion is allowed and no matter what it states must be accepted in the faith structure. This is because foundational myths are the key to seek legitimacy.

Any political discussion is always about the issue of foundation though to a historian there is no conflict.  But in politics, it can often mean the defining role in  1971, 1975 or later. Essentially  its not even about who did what but that its pushing the matter into a space in which the contest can occur for exclusivity using foundational arguments not governance.

Sacred-Profane matrix

This means that all realities, facts and matters are split between either sacred or either profane. The framework has wide application. For example place of worship are considered sacred and behavioral guidelines follow that matrix. So one must also perform cleansing before prayer which is a sacred task and avoid contact with anything that may pollute the sacred. This includes both objects and people.

This is easily observable in our political culture. For example under the current  regime, words like rajakar and  freedom fighter mark the boundary lines just as BKSAL and anti- BKSAL become identity markers which are not negotiable.

Taboo

There are things, matters and acts which are not permitted and totally forbidden. In some cases, there may be a middle space but usually not so. Hence, goat meat is halal, pork meat is haram and prawns are mokruh or in-between.

However, most practices belong to one of the two fact sheets and can’t be converted. The almost unwritten rules whereby our party cadres blindly adhere to some do’s and don’ts (e.g. a BNP supporter or activist can never praise India’s role in our Liberation War).

Rituals and Code

The most common rituals and code refer to prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, etc which must be performed or obligatory. People of faith generally tend to defend each other apart from the faith framework itself till the end as their own identity is based on that. And when they stick together the chances of their survival as a group are more assured since legitimacy is drawn from faith. Hence the question is not of defending or attacking the perceived enemy, but to which length and why. It’s also about self protection.

Any large gathering of one of our two main political parties, the AL and BNP, would demonstrate several instances or behaviours incorporating such elements.

Analyzing the structure

As it can be seen from above, the structure has been formalized over many centuries and has acted to sustain societies and even states. In the pre-state phase, it functioned as the glue which held social and political systems together. Which is why so many religious founders were also political personalities. This was only natural and organic.

But there were periods of transition when such direct links declined and we see the rise of the surplus driven state where more complex arrangements had to be made. A good example is the nature of pastoral societies when they move to agriculture. New gods and goddesses rose in ancient North India while in the Middle East, Christianity itself travelled to Europe and became transformed giving birth to the Roman Catholic Church.

For us in Bangladesh, the question therefore would be to ask if we can see traces of that sort of history or not influencing our political party behavior and if so why.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Issue 8
  • Our faith-bred politics
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Focus

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