I have witnessed the diabolic acts of the 1971 Liberation War collaborators mostly hailing from the then Jamaat and am deeply opposed to their political philosophy of religion-based governance and violent tactics. But to me, the ultimate guiding and overarching principle in a secular democratic society must be the unfettered freedom of expression and tolerance for dissenting opinions including those that are extremist. It is the contest of ideas that the secular and progressive forces must win in a democratic manner. Fascist/repressive means to a noble end would make us no different from the very fascist/repressive forces that we aspire to defeat.
Wisdom of banning Jamaat-e-Islami
In pursuit of the Liberation War ideal of secular politics and governance, the 2/13 (February, 2013) movement demanded and the current regime is considering to impose a ban on the Jamaat (and Shibir). This commentary explores the wisdom of such a ban.
Do bans work? Human history is replete with examples that show that killing institutions, organisations and people never kills (gets rid of) the idea behind them. This applies to religious, political or ideas in other dimensions. In fact, the risks of the idea re-emerging stronger than before grows over time under maintained suppression.
Look no further than at our own history, the Pakistani rulers also thought they could get rid of the Bangalis in us through various bans and means of suppression, and what happened? Hosni Mubarak tried for 30 years to get rid of the Islamists of Muslim Brotherhood (Jamaat of Egypt), what happened? The Shah of Iran wanted to get rid of the Iranian Jamaatis, what happened? The European fascists tried to annihilate the Jewish people there, what happened? The Soviet socialists of Europe wanted to eradicate democracy and free enterprise, what happened? The Romans wanted to get rid of Jesus and his message, what happened? The Meccans drove Prophet Mohammed and his followers out, what happened? The list goes on and on to show that banning does not work. Banning your out is indeed a fatal fallacy, a dangerous course to travel.
How desirable is banning as a means? Secular authoritarian states (socialist/communist or dictatorship) have historically placed bans on religion-based political parties. It is rather uncommon to see mature or emerging democracies in today's world that overtly ban domestic religion-based political parties in an effort to advance secular tolerance and governance. Many religion-based organisations, national or international, have, however, been banned when their links to terrorist activities was evidenced to an independent judiciary.
Bangabandhu himself did not ban the parties that opposed the Liberation War either. Are we to say that Bangabandhu was any less wise or pro-liberation? Even in the midst of the coldest moments of the cold war, the USA never banned the ultra leftist, communist or anti-government parties. Canada, in fact, had the separatists of Quebec as Her Majesty's loyal opposition in the parliament. Has India banned the communist parties or the religion-leaning Bharatia Janata Party (that even came to power federally)? Even in the wake of the tragic 9/11 event, did the USA ban religion-based politics?
The principal reason democratic states do not find bans as a worthy means to silence or neutralise religion-based politics is that the bans constitute a gross violation of the greater ideal of freedom of expression and association. Surely, a state imposed ban on religion-based politics would enforce fascist secularism as in the communist, former soviet style, and Bathist dictatorial style states (like Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Ghaddafi's Libya or Assad's Syria). It is also the religion-based (like Sharia law based) states that would ban dissenting organisations.
Besides, once the precedence of banning is set, the majority may decide to use bans to prevent various practices that are not to their liking. It is an ominous path that may severely erode freedom of expression and human rights in general. For example, after banning the Jamaat as a political organisation, the current or a future government may decide to ban religious schools, sermons, garbs (like hijab, niqab) or even mosques (under ultra leftist government). Bans may also extend to non-religion spheres like the use of internet, clubs and eateries, etc. It is also possible that an ultra-right government may ban minority festivals and cultural practices in the name of social integration and ban communist parties because of their extremist views on political economy and due to the fear of reverting to an authoritarian single party system. Where does it stop once the floodgate is open?
What are the unintended consequences of banning the Jamaat? First, it is expected that initially a large number of organisers and activists of the Jamaat (and Shibir) would go underground in fear of retribution. It is worthwhile albeit painful to recall here that Bangabandhu and key political leaders of the Liberation War were assassinated when the Jamaat (and Shibir) went underground, not when they were active on the political scene.
Second, over time, the post-liberation generation of the Jamaat (and Shibir) leaders and activists would camouflage themselves by joining the right of centre leading parties such as the BNP or any other such variant/amalgam that may emerge in time. Ironically, although the right of centre alliance may weaken immediately following the ban, a party like the BNP will be the long-term beneficiary of banning the Jamaat. The BNP then need not accommodate the Jamaat base as much as under no ban to garner their electoral support and hence may be in a position to move more toward the centre, claiming the swing centrist base in the process. Further, the BNP will be freed from the stigma of allying with a party that opposed the Liberation War.
Third, the mighty external patrons of the religious right may become less generous to Bangladesh in banking, development finance, energy supply/finance, etc. Bangladeshis may conceivably face greater restrictions on work abroad, tourism, business and religious travel. While these direct and indirect costs may be worthwhile in the long-term in order to weaken dependence on religion-based regimes and organisations, the nation nonetheless should be aware of the potential steep price of a ban on religion-based politics, banking, medical and other NGO efforts.
In conclusion, bans rarely worked elsewhere other than in authoritarian states, they can open the ominous floodgate of opportunistic and repressive future bans, and their unintended consequences can extract a steep external price. Above all, in direct and gross violation of the Liberation War ideals, the banning of religion-based parties unequivocally usurps the freedom of expression and association for the segment of the post-liberation prajanma that is sympathetic to the cause of religion-based governance. The nation thus has to ponder seriously whether the unclean (undemocratic, fascist) means of banning to the noble end (of a more tolerant society) is justified. A country of believers (of various faiths, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim) cannot be made more secular than admirably it already is by political bans and policing of sermons; such zealous efforts may ultimately backfire by widening and reinforcing fears of losing religious freedom.
This author strongly supports the 2/13 movement's demand of due justice for the victims of 1971, but does not find banning religion-based politics as an acceptable, effective or beneficial means of protecting and promoting secular governance.
Mo Chaudhury is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.