Pressured by the weight of the 2/13 (February, 2013) movement, the current regime is contemplating on imposing a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami (and in the process, Shibir). To be sure, banning the anti-liberation organizations cannot be accepted to make up for a failure to deliver due justice for the war crimes. The goal of the ban would then be to exorcise religion-based politics out of Bangladesh to ensure secular governance, a key component of the Liberation War ideals.
But was the Liberation War based on religion-based politics? No. The Pakistani regime did not invade Bangladesh in 1971 to impose religion-based governance; it was rather to sabotage the parliamentary majority of the Bangalis. Neither Bhutto's People's Party nor the military leaders in power had any affinity for the religion-based parties of Pakistan including the Jamaat. As India came forward to support the Liberation War, the Pakistani invaders stoked the pre-1947 communal tension and played the religion card to recruit local collaborators from the religion-based parties like the Jamaat.
What about the anti-liberation political stand of the Jamaat? This is the most popularly cited rationale for banning the party, but it is also the weakest one. Political environment changes over time and reasonable people do change their political beliefs. For example, many of the Awami League leaders of 1971, including Bangabandhu, were pioneers of the pre-1947 and post-1947 Muslim League and the creation of the then Pakistan along communal line; should that record of communal politics be held against them forever? While these leaders ultimately made the transition to creating a secular Bangladesh, numerous Bangladeshis of their generation (mindful of minority life in undivided India) were apprehensive of breaking up Pakistan in 1971 although they did not collaborate with the Pakistani invaders, and over time they turned out to be proud Bangladeshis. Now, should these senior generation Bangladeshis be condemned and ex-communicated in today's Bangladesh, 40 plus years later, for their 1971 anti-liberation political view? The answer is negative.
It is indeed time to redefine pro-liberation and anti-liberation in today's Bangladesh and going forward. The sovereignty of Bangladesh is not at stake and neither is the Bangali way of life. It stands to reason that pro-liberation today should simply mean current allegiance to the state of Bangladesh. An extended definition could include allegiance to the key founding ideals, namely democracy, unfettered freedom of expression, secular governance and equitable economic opportunities for all. [Notice that one (socialism) of the founding ideals had to evolve along with the world around Bangladesh]. Interestingly, using the extended definition, the Jamaat is anti-liberation because of its opposition to secular governance, the socialist/communist parties are anti-liberation due to their extremist economic and ultimate single party stand, and the AL and BNP are anti-liberation since they are the most notable and frequent violators of freedom of expression and human rights. Thus, the extended definition cannot be binding and is practically non-operational.
Is secular governance at heightened risk in Bangladesh due to the legally valid status of the Jamaat and other religion-based organizations? First, the religious right never garnered more than 12% of the popular support in the national elections. This is a rather remarkable secular feat for a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, with most Muslims fiercely proud of their belief, often demonstrating high sensitivity to global events concerning Islam and strong solidarity with Muslims in peril elsewhere.
Second, if there was ever any doubt that the nation has become oblivious to the memory and the ideals of the Liberation War that includes secular governance, it has been convincingly put to rest by the countrywide massive support across all demographics for the 2/13 movement. In an illustrious rendezvous, the nation is back to the future of 1971, the Red-green-Yellow spirit of 1971 just remained deceptively dormant all these years.
Third, the country did witness undesirable influence of the religious right in some instances such as the recognition of the majority religion in the constitution. Even the party that led the Liberation War retained this anti-secular amendment through their previous and current mandates. Strangely, the 2/13 movement also chose not to pursue the withdrawal of this amendment with any intensity. But, so far the amendment has not been used detrimentally by any party.
In terms of politics on the ground, the current ruling party did ally with the Jamaat previously and the current opposition party is in electoral alliance with the Jamaat, thus lending legitimacy to the existence and continuation of religion-based politics. Both the ruling party and the opposition party also maintain very strong and cordial relationships with dictatorial religion-based regimes elsewhere that are known financiers and promoters of extremist religious views, activities and governance. Both parties have also shown unacceptable level of inaction in arresting and punishing violence against the minority by members of the majority religion.
Despite the spate of explicit and/or tacit accommodations of the religious right by the two major parties, there is no evidence that the religion-based political organizations had any palpable impact on the governance of the country or on citizens at large. While the ruling alliance keeps blaming the Jamaat (and Shibir) for street level violence, in reality violent activism by the two major parties since 1971 has been manifold more frequent, intense and fatal.
In conclusion, the demand for banning religion-based organizations seems at best an emotional one, out of fear (of a 1971 type repetition) that is unfounded, a desire for avengement of the 1971 wrongs that is not warranted, and disappointment with the war crime proceedings. At the worst, it is a political opportunism that the nation is already plagued with.
For full disclosure, this author declares firm solidarity with the 2/13 movement's demand of due justice for the victims of 1971 and deep disapproval of the philosophy of religion-based governance.
Mo Chaudhury is a Professor at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.