Politics, religion and partisanship
POLITICS and religion are, by their very nature, contentious and divisive, and as such hotly contested and debated. This commentary explores what could make such contests over politics and religion conducive for all contestants, that is, the society at large.
Both politics and religion require membership or subscription to ideology, of governance and divinity respectively, thus making the political or religious faithful a partisan in the related sphere. A partisan is "a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance." The word "adherent" suggests conviction or steadfastness of the support; it is not casual or temporary support as in the case of selecting to vote for a party in a given election. Further, extreme partisanship is characterised by blinding bias, emotion, prejudice and irrationality, known as fanaticism, "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion." Importantly, thus, there are more political fanatics, ethnic fanatics, etc., than there are perhaps religious fanatics.
What would make partisan debates and contests over politics and religion fruitful or harmful for the society? First, for focused and orderly formation of public opinion, the major political parties should offer reasoned articulation of their partisan visions. For example, on the issue of interim government, AL should advocate why the caretaker government (CTG) system is no more suitable and the new constitutionally amended system is better. Similarly, BNP should explain why the CTG system has now become so indispensable.
Second, vital for a vibrant democracy, is the ability to debate freely. Democracy works well on the basis of consensus developed via engaging contests of competing visions of the nation. The prime minister and the leader of the opposition are to protect and promote the rights of all citizens, not just their respective partisans. Filling up jail cells and clogging up courts with dissidents and partisan dissenters cannot be beneficial, and neither can be ceaseless disruptive efforts to bring down an elected government.
Importantly, the political nonpartisans must also support the right of all to voice dissent. Here, it was a pivotal mistake for the Projonmo Movement to vilify critics of the movement as neo-razakars and anti-liberation forces. It is equally unfair for Hefajat-e-Islam to demand (capital) punishment for atheist bloggers and thus deny them the right to express their views. Further, punitive actions in the name of protecting the honour of government and historical leaders might have strengthened the Hefajat's demand for religious blasphemy law.
Third, the anti-partisan form of partisanship is by definition adversarial and divisive. The Projonmo Movement started in pro-partisan form demanding long awaited due justice for the victims of 1971. But as the Movement strayed into anti-partisanship (antagonistic to non-secular forces as well as their secular but religious partisan allies), the cause of justice was lost as the contest was permitted to be defined along the line of religious partisanship.
Fourth, most religions prescribe a way of life and a system of values, and as such issues related to religion are bound to crop up in national politics. Such religion-cum-political debates are a no win situation for the nation as the differences can rarely be reconciled. It thus makes sense to avoid hostile anti-partisanship and to show sufficient enough sensitivity to religious values.
Fifth, religion based politics is to be distinguished from the politics of religion. While religion-based politics aspire to institute state governance according to the divine codes, politics of religion exploits religious sentiments for popularity. In a society committed to freedom of expression, religion-based politics and partisanship is legitimate. But politics of religion is cheap and opportunistic, and the nation is better off having less of it.
Unfortunately, politics of religion aggravated the recent political turmoil in Bangladesh. Clearly, the atheist belief of some bloggers has little to do with the demand for justice for the war crimes. On the other hand, the Liberation War had little to do with religion-based politics. Similarly, alliance with ultra-secular parties does not make AL anti-religion, and alliance with religion-based parties does not make BNP anti-secular or anti-liberation. The two camps, however, keep hurling these unfounded allegations as part of their political propaganda.
Sixth, while political partisanship is a necessity, partisan politics is detrimental as it sacrifices the nation's interest for perceived gains to the party and/or its leaders and activists. The Padma Bridge fiasco, dealing with the Grameen Bank, the railway scandal, and the handling of banking and financial scams are some recent examples. Such partisan politics has historically been a nagging and debilitating phenomenon since liberation.
Lastly, but most crucially, moderate partisanship is the most conducive and fanatic partisanship is the most harmful to a democratic society. Allegiance and fervour turn into fanaticism in the absence of critique and reasoning, as suggested by the dictionary definition. In recent times, fanaticism has become synonymous with religious fundamentalism, especially that of the Muslims. Meantime, people have become complacent with political fanaticism (fascism, communism/socialism) that has historically done enormously more harm to human societies including Bangladesh.
To come out of the present dire state of affairs in Bangladesh, the narratives of the principal contestants and the citizenship at large have to change, keeping in mind that there is no greater ideal in human societies than the freedom of expression and association for all. The words "freedom" and "for all" are the all important words, because together they define tolerance of dissenting views. With such tolerance (flexible mindset) comes reasoned partisanship instead of emotional fanaticism, be it political or religious, and hopefully also less of politics of religion and partisan politics. The key is to learn to agree to disagree in a respectful manner.
The writer is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
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