It would be easy to suggest that Senator Chuck Grassley's remarks on religious persecution in some countries merit serious consideration. Indeed, when he speaks of Russia and Sudan as places where authoritarianism is the order of the day and a vehicle for the persecution of religious minorities, he may have a point.
The problem is not that the senior US lawmaker is worried about the troubled state in which religious minorities happen to carry on with life in certain parts of the globe. But there is certainly a problem when the Senator arbitrarily decides to lump Bangladesh with every other country where he thinks people who pursue faiths that are not the calling of the religious majority are in trouble. No, let there be no misunderstanding here. No one is even remotely suggesting that Bangladesh's people lead lives that are fundamentally ideal. They have a thousand and one worries they must contend with every livelong day.
But to suggest that this constitutionally secular state looks the other way when people demonstrating fealty to minority religious beliefs are pounced on, or actively promotes a hounding of men and women who are not of the majority faith is a little too rich, even for an American with a long career in politics. Grassley has let it be known that in line with the practice followed elsewhere, religious minorities live under an authoritarian regime in Bangladesh and that they are persecuted for the religious beliefs they hold dear.
Senator Grassley has got his understanding of Bangladesh wrong. Observe his observation of politics in Bangladesh. We do not suggest that perfection underpins Bangladesh's politics. There are all the hurdles we confront and all the deep holes we skirt around every day. But to describe the country's government as an authoritarian entity flies in the face of reality. Authoritarianism is but a reference to a closed society, a state where citizens are cowed into silence or voluntarily stay away from discussions of national issues. In simple terms, an authoritarian government certainly does not permit any questioning of the exercise of power. In an authoritarian set-up, elections are not the norm. In such conditions, it is Big Brother who takes centre stage, compelling citizens into frightful silence.
Chuck Grassley certainly needs to take a long, hard look at Bangladesh and its politics. More to the point, his staff should be briefing him on the long legacy of secular politics the country has upheld not only in the constitution but also in the practical application of constitutional provisions. And the provisions are simple yet fundamental to the nature of the state. They speak in clear terms of the right of every citizen of Bangladesh to practise his/her religion without any degree of coercion from either the government or from the broad masses of citizens. Grassley has perhaps missed out on the realities of life, in terms of an observance of cultural tradition, in Bangladesh. Religious occasions straddling all faiths in the country are meticulously observed. Eid, Durga Puja, Bouddho Purnima and Christmas are today no more circumscribed by parochial frontiers but are collective celebrations of Bengali culture.
The Senator speaks of his concern over the consequences of blasphemy laws where the interests of religious minorities in majoritarianism-inclined dispensations are under threat. His concern is well-taken. And yet one must politely inquire as to how he came by the idea that blasphemy laws were in operation in Bangladesh? And how did his staff brief him on conditions in Bangladesh? Even better, how did he zero in, for little rhyme or reason, on the thought that Bangladesh was a fundamentalist Islamic state which has scant respect for those who do not subscribe to the Islamic faith?
Yes, there are incidents of vandalism perpetrated by criminals against the followers of faiths not Islam. But one wonders if Senator Grassley has observed the state machinery in Bangladesh swinging into action to tackle these irritants. The state has not sponsored persecution in the name of religion. Bangladesh's citizens take a dim view of the politics of communalism. Besides, a secular polity was one of the four fundamental articles of faith in the nation's constitution when it was adopted in late 1972.
That idea holds.
Perhaps Senator Grassley would do all of us a whole lot of good had he applied his forensic political skills to studies that speak of countries that are not Bangladesh. Translation: back in December last year, the US State Department spoke of nine countries as being of particular concern where a preservation of minority religious rights was concerned.
Bangladesh did not figure among those nine countries.
The State Department, worried about the behaviour of governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, placed some countries on what it called a watch list.
Bangladesh was not on that watch list.
Sweeping generalizations, especially when they are indulged in by powerful politicians in the powerful West, take the shine off politics. Senator Chuck Grassley ought to know.