Advanced science, Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Five years since Paris Accord: Are we any better?

Global warming and rise in sea level

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Accord hammered out by more than 190 countries at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). The core objective of the accord is to save humanity from the existential threat posed by climate change. To that end, the participating nations agreed to keep the increase in the average global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius while endeavouring to limit it to 1.5 degrees by the year 2100. Besides pledging to temper the rise in temperature, they agreed to restructure the global economy, phase out fossil fuels over the coming decades, switch to renewable sources of energy, embrace clean technology, and most importantly, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

The Accord gives every country the ability to set its own goals to confront the climate crisis, in line with their specific situation. Moreover, instead of demanding expeditious and deep cuts in fossil fuel usage, it allows parties to peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” followed by a gradual decrease in order to reach the zero emissions goal. It is patently evident that such a vague timetable fits the interests of the major polluters, including the United States, China and India. Nevertheless, beginning this year, each nation is required to reassess its own reduction plans once every five years. However, there is no consequence or penalty if a country fails to reassess or falls short of the pledged reductions.

The Accord also requires nations to address “loss and damage” caused by climate impacts. Since the wealthy, industrialised nations are largely responsible for the backlog of climate changing emissions lingering in the atmosphere, they should compensate poorer nations for unavoidable loss and damage. But even after COP25 held in Madrid last year (2019), wealthy nations are playing Jekyll and Hyde roles—promising to cover losses while dragging their feet on providing new finance.

We are now a full five years into the Paris Accord which, according to the former US President Barack Obama, is supposed to make the “world safer and more secure, more prosperous and more free.” Are we really on course to transform our planet into one as envisioned by Obama? Are we winning the race against climate change? Did we succeed in slowing down the damage resulting from climate change? By all accounts, the Accord did not make an iota of difference in decelerating the progression of our planet, and subsequently our civilisation, toward climatic meltdown. On the contrary, climate change and its deleterious effects are accelerating, with climate-related catastrophes piling up, year after year.

Our planet is now almost at the breaking point. The environmental changes sweeping across the world are occurring at a much quicker pace than five years ago. As the Earth warms, we are witnessing more cataclysmic wildfires turning forests into carbon dioxide emitters, not to mention calamitous floods inundating nearly half of landmasses in countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Thailand and so forth. Persistent droughts, fierce storms and an increase in extreme weather phenomena—derecho, microburst, bombogenesis, Frankenstorm and many more—are on the rise. The fingerprints of climate change since 2015 can also be seen in the exacerbation of internal and international migration patterns of climate refugees.

Scorching heat waves, of all places, in the Arctic region, are now more frequent and long-lasting. It is quite likely that 2020 will be among the hottest years ever, even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Niña. Seas are warming and rising faster, putting more coastal cities at risk of going under acidic water. Warmer waters are wreaking havoc on marine organisms forcing them to migrate away from their familiar habitats. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, thus disrupting availability of freshwater.

Climate-induced mayhem is taking a heavy toll on the Arctic region. The amount of Arctic sea ice whose whiteness normally acts as a natural reflector of heat back out of the atmosphere is dwindling so rapidly that the region may soon become ice-free. Loss of ice is also changing the Arctic terrain—making it greener and prettier, but at the expense of releasing copious amounts of carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the frozen soil, which in turn is making global warming even worse. Additionally, scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean, worrisomely called the “sleeping giant of the carbon cycle,” are escaping into the atmosphere. In fact, northern landscapes are undergoing massive change, with potential ramifications not just for the Arctic itself, but the world as a whole.

Permafrost in cold climate countries is thawing at breakneck speed, releasing, just like Arctic ice, large amounts of long-stored carbon dioxide and methane. In addition, viruses and bacteria that had been buried under the permafrost for thousands of years are being released into the environment, posing health risks to humans and other forms of life. Also, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, a vital carbon sink that retards the momentum of global warming, has surged to its highest level since 2008.

As for peaking of emissions, there is a cavernous gap between the sharp cuts in emissions required to meet the goals of the Paris Accord and current projections. In a recent report, World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, states, “There is no sign of slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement.” Rather, emissions from just about every country are still on the rise, thereby making it difficult to close the gap so as to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

The report further notes that even the coronavirus-related drop in emissions failed to make much of a dent in the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Consequently, WMO warns that the world risks becoming an “uninhabitable hell” for millions unless we drastically cut emissions—by at least 7.2 percent every 10 years if we want to keep the rise in temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius. Otherwise, we will soon be north of 3 degrees Celsius.

The warning from WMO is corroborated by a study published last month in the British journal Scientific Reports, in which the authors assert that we have already passed the “point of no return for global warming.” The only way we can stop the warming, the authors say, is by extracting “enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The Earth’s average temperature has already risen by roughly one degree since the advent of modern record keeping in 1880. The devastation caused by one degree rise clearly indicates that an additional 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius rise before the end of this century will lock in the changes to the Earth’s climate system that will be beyond our adaptive capacity.

Five years ago, the then UN chief lauded the Paris Accord as a landmark agreement, a potent message from world leaders who had finally decided to take on climate change in earnest. Five years later, in a complete volte-face, the present UN chief, in a speech at Columbia University in New York, issued a searing indictment of our utter disregard for the pledges made in Paris. He said, “The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging a suicidal war on nature, facing new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation….”

So much for the Paris Accord! No wonder environmentalists believe that the Accord is meaningless, and with good reason. Indeed, the toothless, nonbinding, non-enforceable accord is an oversold empty promise—a gentleman’s handshake applauding the imposition of a global climate regime on humankind that is harming the planet in the name of saving it.

Finally, world leaders should realise that fixing the climate is not about making pretty promises at grandiose conferences held in glamorous cities. And if we rely on grandstanding and farcical Accords that give us false hopes, we will lose the race to keep our planet cool and habitable.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

USA – Failed States in all but name

The United States of America (USA), the self-proclaimed custodian of democracy round the world as well as being the mouthpiece of freedom of speech and freedom of opportunities is in chaotic and disgraceful state now. What happened at the Capitol Hill on the day (6th of January) when the Joint Congress session was set to confirm the election result and endorse the incoming president was not only shocking but also shameful. Even more shocking was that the sitting president under the pretext of “Save America” was about to destroy the very foundation of American democracy by declaring that “we will never concede”. What the incumbent president meant was that he would never concede to the defeat in the presidential election that took place on 3rd of November 2020. Lawless behaviour of an existing elected person, let alone the president of the country, could not be more pronounced than what the world had witnessed on 6th of January 2021 at the Capitol Building.

America had been traditionally quick off the mark in condemning any violation or presumed violation of democratic principles and practices anywhere in the world (exceptions were those countries which kowtow America blatantly). The countries like North Korea, China, Russia (bar during Donald Trump’s presidency), India, Iran, Bangladesh, Pakistan, some Middle Eastern countries, most of Africa and South America had faced severe criticism and condemnation of the American state, when they had to quell illegal or inconvenient demonstrations against the states or perceived democracy. Bangladesh in its liberation war against Pakistan in 1971 had faced the condemnation and almost the military might of America state in the form of 7th Fleet, but the 7th Fleet was not used as the war came to an end, thanks to India, before the Fleet could reach the Bay of Bengal. Iran was perpetually under the American threat and antagonism ever since the time of overthrow of Shah of Iran, an American stooge, in 1979 and no amount of compliance and adherence to the rule of international law by Iran would remove American threat and highhandedness. The Chinese government is being condemned by America at any possible opportunity for “re-educating Uighur Muslims” away from Islamic brainwashing. 

On the other hand, Israel violating more than half a dozen UN resolutions over a number of years for developing nuclear weapons had none, zilch adverse response from America. Saudi Arabia butchering a Saudi journalist in their Istanbul Consulate and then dumping the severed body in the well within the Consulate office had been told by Donald Trump’s government that there was no concrete evidence to condemn Saudi Arabia! Duplicity could not be starker than this.

But, as it is said, what happens abroad has a reflection at home. If America thought that they can preach and enforce democratic principles abroad, and practice at home the opposite of democracy, then they are blatantly wrong. Rampant inequality, total lack of fairness, social justice, subjugation of black and Hispanics etc at home had been endemic in American society. ‘Black lives matter’ is an outward expression of frustrated black lives in America.

Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, became the champion of the deprived, disadvantaged and social outcast people in the country by his deceitful campaign of ‘draining the swamp of the capital’. He tapped into the underlying discontent of the citizens against the establishment, against the rich and against oppression. Although he is a significant part of the oppressor, he manoeuvred himself as the leader of the oppressed group by populist and nationalistic slogans like ‘Make America Great Again (MAGA)’, ‘America first, America first’. In addition, he gradually brought the fascist, racist, fanatics and nationalistic groups into his wing and thereby creating an electoral base of extremists. And Republicans, seeing his strong electoral base of almost blind supporters, had to kowtow to his wishes and demands.

But America had serious historical problems too. Since the discovery of the land in the 15th century, called America, people from Spain, Portugal, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and so forth had emigrated to that country and systematically exterminated the original inhabitants. So, mass extermination was not new to the ancestors of the present inhabitants of America. Since then, black people from Africa had been brought in by the tens of thousands to do the menial tasks of building the country. As they were brought in, literally chained in the ships, they established their homes in America. The slavery was abolished in 1865, but the fruits of that abolition were not fully transferred to them.

About a year ago, when blacks were protesting in Charlottesville, North Carolina, against the killing of unarmed black men under the banner “Black lives matter”, they were suppressed with heavy hands. On the other hand, the white rioters invading the Capitol Building on 6th January were not stopped by the police, although joint session of the Congress was in progress to confirm the election results. Difference in the treatment of two groups of people could not be starker.

Voices from the invading mob of Capitol Building were ringing out, “we fought for our independence in 1776, we fought the civil war in 1860s and we will fight again. We will fight the civil war. Stop the Steal.” The voices were clear and strident. But the problem is, fighting against whom, seeking independence from whom? The incumbent president was directing the operation. Is it not an implicit declaration of civil war against the blacks, Hispanics and other immigrants?

America has serious structural problems too in the political field. Although Blacks obtained freedom from slavery under “Emancipation Proclamation” in 1863, there is still “three-fifth clause” meaning blacks are only 60 per cent of whites; that is reflected in the electoral voting system. In other words, five black men and women are counted as three white men and have three votes. This was the compromise that was made after the abolition of slavery to give adult franchise to the erstwhile slaves. The education of blacks is well below par with the whites. Yes, the blacks are doing well in sports and games as well as in pop music etc, but they are not racially integrated in the mainstream of America. Even a short visit to America will make that abundantly clear – this is the black neighbourhood and that is the white neighbourhood, I was told in the tour of the city when I visited the University of Virginia a few years back.

Obviously, American blatant proclamation of being the leader of the free world upholding freedom of speech, democracy etc and the treatment of blacks in America throws up sharp duplicitous behaviour. Any disconnect will have repercussion at home and abroad. Iran already said, “What a failure the Western democracy is and how fragile and weak its foundation is.” Russia said very poignantly, “US electoral process is archaic, does not meet modern standards and is prone to violations.”  With all these shortcomings, any attempt to pretend otherwise is bound to fail.

Years ago, Noam Chomsky, the most prominent thinker at the present time in America, had pointed out the blatant abuse of power and the assault on democracy in the country and gave the verdict that America is a “failed state”. It is not so much on economic and technical grounds, but on social, political and moral grounds. In this day and age, any duplicity is going to be flashed around, at home and abroad, and that is not a very flattering outcome for America.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Cultural, Life as it is, Religious

Mendacious claims of scientific truths in Quran

There had been innumerable claims over the years, in fact over the centuries, by the Mullahs, Islamic apologists and pseudoscientists that Quran conveys deep scientific thoughts and facts, which non-believers and even ardent Muslim believers have overlooked and ignored them. After all, they claim, Quran is the final word from Allah, the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the whole Universe and it is quite logical that Allah will pass on some of knowledge to the people of the world through His beloved Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).

Allah did send the deep secrets of scientific truths to his Prophet, as claimed by him, and those secrets were transcribed in the Quran. Now one may ask, why these Mullahs and pseudoscientists who were in the know, did not take full advantage of this secret store house of knowledge, one has to ponder for a rational explanation.

However, without further ado, let us try to decipher those scientific truths and knowledge that the Prophet transcribed in the Quran and examine them against the science that we the ordinary human beings have learnt through our education system. Only two very simplistic and almost mundane scientific issues will be examined here and, in the future, more challenging issues will be dealt with. The two issues considered now are (i) Quranic version of Sunset and Sunrise and (ii) Quranic version of resting place for the Sun. In the description below, the first number in the list is the Sûra number and the second and subsequent numbers are the Ayat numbers.         

Quranic version of Sunset and Sunrise

18: 84 – 86

84: Verily We established his (Alexander, the Great. In Quran he was referred to as Zul-qarnain, see below) power on earth. And We gave him the ways and the means to all ends.

85: One (such) way he followed,

86: Until, when he reached the setting of the Sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water; near it he found a People; We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority) either punish them or to treat them with kindness.”

18:90

90: Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We provided no covering protection against the Sun.

Comments

Is there any scientific basis, as claimed in the Quran, that the Sun sets in a spring of murky water and where it sets there were people (as if that was at the end of the world)? Moreover, does Sun rise at exactly the same place?

Scientifically these are total nonsense; only a totally ignorant person can say these things. The Sun does not set in a spring of murky water, although a wayward Bedouin may have viewed it at one point that it is setting in a spring of water or even in a sea or seen the reflection of the setting Sun in a sea. To find people where Sun sets is described as if it is an amazing thing; as it would be if it were at the end of the world (flat Earth). And then the Sun does not pop out (rise) over certain number of people always and hence the question of providing protection is totally irrelevant. The Sun rises over all the people of the world at various locations at various times.

From various references of Zul-qarnain in the Quran, one can make a good guess that Zul-qarnain is none other than Alexander the Great, although there are controversies. However, whether Zul-qarnain was Alexander the Great or not is irrelevant in the present context, except that he was empowered with authority to punish people or pardon people, as was Alexander in the conquest of Western Asia, Persia and India.

Quranic version of resting place for the Sun

36: 38 – 40

38: And the Sun runs unto a resting place for him (Sun); that is the decree of Him, the Exalted in Might, the all Knowing.

39: And the Moon – We have measured for her stations (to traverse) till she returns like the old (and withered) lower part of a date-stalk.

40: It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day; each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit.

Comments

The above Ayats are from Sûra Yâsin, which is considered to be “the heart of the Quran”, as it is the Revelation which Mohammad brought to this Earth. It is the central doctrine of Revelation and the Hereafter (meaning after death).

Now can somebody make any sense out of these totally nonsensical Ayats? If somebody tries to say that these are scientific facts which Mohammad brought as divine Revelation, then that man must be considered as barking mad. Admittedly, nearly 1400 years ago when Mohammad was trying to pass on these messages as Revelations, Earth was considered to be flat and at the centre of the universe and the Sun and Moon were considered to go round it in their own orbits. But to proclaim, in the name of divine decree, that Sun goes at the end of the day to its resting place and Sun and Moon were in a sort of race with each other are sheer lunacy. Even by the standards of knowledge at that time, these races and resting places etc would be considered as sheer stupidity. What is even more disorientating is that there are Mullahs and block-headed Muslim apologists now, at the present day and time, who try to claim that these are scientific truths given by the all-powerful all-knowing Creator of the Universe!   

Hadith confirmation of Sun setting

According to Sahih al-Bukhari Hadiths: Abzur Ghifari narrated: One day Prophet Mohammad asked me, “Abzur, do you know after setting where Sun goes?”  I replied, I do not know, only Allah’s apostle can say better. Then Prophet replied, “After setting, the Sun remains prostrated under Allah’s Aro’sh (Allah’s throne) and waits for Allah’s command for rising again in the East. A day will come when Sun will not get any more permission from Allah to rise again and Qeyamot (dooms day) will fall upon earth”.

Conclusions

Reading all these ‘Revelations’, one gets the distinct impression that he is reading the delirium of an ignorant egoistic man who was trying to sell his garbage as the dictum of the prophet of the Creator of the Universe. The most unscientific facts in the Quran are:  

The Sun and Moon are not going round the Earth.

The Sun does not set in a spring of murky water.

The Earth is not flat.

The Sun and Moon are not racing against each other.   

The Sun does not lay prostrated besides Allah’s throne from Sunset to Sunrise.

A Paxman is a freelance writer on socio-political and religious matters.

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

An Open Letter to Humans from COVID-19

The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, sends an open letter to Humans on the occasion of Christmas 2020:

COVID-19

Dear Humans,

I am totally astounded and flabbergasted by the audacity you have displayed so far to my strength and ferocity. I may be small, a very small strain of coronavirus, but I am not weak. About a year and half ago, I evolved in your planet in the most populous nation on Earth. I thought I would have a fun time jumping from one to the other of 1200 million of your species. But Chinese government reacted very promptly, to my utter disgust, forcing me to stay within the confines of only 10 million or so Chinese. I will never forget or forgive the Chinese.

You know that I am a virus and hence I cannot live on my own. I need a body, preferably, a sick human body – a body with underlying problems like respiratory illness, diabetes, weak hearts having transplanted or bypassed, kidney problem, dementia and a lot of other problems, as my host. I do not want to go to anybody who is not prepared to be my host. After all, who does not like an easy prey, an easy meal? I hate going to a strong healthy body and fight it out with his or her body protection system.

You call your body protection or defence system an immune system. There is nothing immune from my attack. I am smaller than the smallest of a bacterium. You cannot normally see me or detect me unless you take me to an electron microscope. Even then, you have to be very careful detecting and photographing me. You take the shot from a wrong angle and you miss the point.

As I said, I need a host. I am not even alive on my own; unless I find a live cell in a live body like yours as my host within few hours, I would die. Once I get a host, I seek out the weak organ or tissue where I will have an easy task. First, I go to an organ of your body as an innocent bystander, observe how strong your organ is and how efficiently it is functioning. If the organ I am in is very efficient, then I tend to slip away to another organ. After all, I don’t want to sacrifice my life fighting a losing battle with a strong organ, whereas I could have a very comfortable life in another organ where I can flourish, multiply and even take over the whole organ!

When I multiply in an organ or capture the whole organ, I do not want to rest on my laurel. I want to go from your body to another body and keep capturing bodies. I use your cells as my hosts, your body as my survival machine. Before I make you inert (you know what I mean), I want to send some of us to some other human beings. I make you sneeze, make you cough, touch mucous membrane with your hands and pass it on to another person. I need your helping hand, literally. In fact, the more the merrier.

I hear that you have invented a vaccine against me, you want to kill me. It is then going to be an all-out war with me. I have lots of tricks up my sleeve – actually, up my spike to be precise. You think you can catch me by my spike, sort of catch a bull by the horn? No way. I will change my morphology such that as soon as you plan to bolt on to my structure, I will metamorphose to something else. Actually, I do not like the word metamorphose, as if I am doing a literary piece of work, I call it mutate. I mutate, I make your body cells mutate until those cells fail to function.

Mutation is the word I like most. As soon as you make something to catch me, you would find me that I have changed, I have mutated. It’s a cat and mouse game. And then you start the whole process all over again, back to square one. It goes on and on.

In all of this battle of wits, you forgot that I and my cousin called bacterium were the seed corns from which you were made. From the single cell bacteria to multicell bacteria and then to complex bacteria with RNA, DNA and mitochondria, that is how you came into being. Don’t forget all that of your past.

During the long evolutionary period of nearly four billion years, my cousin bacterium had done tremendous amount of work for you. You, all types of animals from antelopes to zebras, plants, fungi and algae were all made from innocent bacteria. My role was to terminate any unworthy species. Your fellow man, a very clever guy called Charles Darwin, very succinctly said, “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest.” I make that struggle as hard as possible and so don’t underestimate me.

May I remind you that during the last 450 million years when conditions on Earth were getting progressively favourable to you, as many as five times, 70 to 75% of all species of all living animals and plants had been wiped out. In addition, about 250 million years ago, nearly 99% of all life forms on Earth were obliterated. It was nearly going to start from a blank slate again. About 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were wiped out completely and that created conditions for life forms for you to evolve.

Life on Earth is a perpetual struggle. I quote again, Charles Darwin’s dictum, “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest” and this struggle and survival come from evolutionary process. If you, the human beings, think that you are clever enough and smart enough to override the evolutionary process, then you better think again.

One last point I would raise is that do not, not even in your dream, think that you are going to live on this Earth for ever. Since the dawn of life (any life) about 400 million years ago, 99% of all life forms have gone extinct. You came to Earth evolving from chimpanzee about 4 million years ago, less than 1.8 million years ago as Homo erectus or only about 200,000 years ago as Homo sapiens.  A species on Earth lives, on the average, 4 million years and so your time is very much nearer the end. You had been destroying the fabric of Earth, massacring the environment, causing extinction to many species. Probably you had been creating conditions for your own demise. SO BE WARNED!

On behalf of COVID-19   

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary

Secularism in Bangladesh: The troubled Constitutional pillar

The ubiquity of the word “secularism” (it is mentioned in more than 75 of the world’s Constitutions as an ideal the State promotes, or an organising principle that it affirms), and the passionate discussions it generates throughout the world, sometimes distracts us from the fact that its origins are relatively recent.

It was only after the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries; after the bloody inter-denominational conflicts in Europe, or the clashes between ecclesiastical and temporal authorities, which eventually led to the sovereignty of the State (occurring between the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815); after Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between Church and State”, and Voltaire’s “privatisation of religion” found a welcoming environment in the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century, did the idea of secularism become well entrenched in European literary and political consciousness. The English writer George Holyoake was the first to use it in a systematic manner only in 1851. It was during the French Third Republic (1870-1940) that it was declared to be the “defining ideology of the State”.

Not only is it a relatively new concept, it was also delimited by geography. It was essentially a European phenomenon, both in terms of the intellectual tradition that generated it, and the military conflicts that necessitated it. Hence for the rest of the world, which did not share that reality, it was a foreign concept where its relevance was dimly understood, its meaning fuzzy, its embrace clumsy.

It may be argued that the idea of “democracy” is similarly alien. But democracy was easier to explain, it animated the anti-colonial struggles, and it was reflected in some concrete practices and institutions that were identifiable and populist. Secularism was not. But, more importantly, while democracy did not challenge deeply held commitments and values, secularism problematised the core of their belief systems, and sometimes even their identity. It should be pointed out, as Karen Armstrong has done, that the notion of “religion” understood in the West, is subtly but substantially different from what the Arabic word “deen” or the South Asian word “dharma” connotes.

It was expected that the road to secularism would be rocky in South Asia, perhaps more so in Bangladesh. There were pre-existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims (mitigated to some extent by Sufi teachings, some syncretistic cultural practices, and the moral economy of the peasantry) which were aggravated by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 that conflated class and religion and sharpened earlier divisions. There were the machinations, and sometimes the confusions, of the British. There was the emergence of a middle class in both communities (a little later, and weaker, for the Muslims) which led to a competition for political power and economic favour from the British, and provoked the self-conscious exploitation of religion, the creation of the dreadful “other”, and the divergence of the faith communities. And finally, there was the Partition of India in 1947 which appeared to confirm the primacy of faith as the very basis of personal and national identity.

Nonetheless, its journey in independent Bangladesh began in some optimism and apparent clarity. The constitution of 1972 unambiguously accepted secularism as one of the four foundational pillars of the State. This was entirely expected. This followed the logic of linguistic/cultural nationalism that had challenged the earlier Pakistani formulation, as well as the defeat of the Pakistani military which had pursued an overtly religious agenda. They lost. While the other pillars, such as democracy and socialism, were going to entail further negotiations and struggles, this issue, it was felt, had been settled. That confidence was seemingly misplaced.

Secularism was not killed with Bangabandhu’s brutal assassination in 1975, but it was dealt a crippling blow. The subsequent leadership did not pursue this ideal with the courage, commitment or the charismatic authority that he had represented. Religious groups and leaders, who had remained defensive and tentative initially, were allowed and, at times invited, into the political arena, gradually began to assert their presence, eventually emerged as critical players in bargaining-based and alliance- oriented “democratic” arrangements, and steadily pushed back against earlier secular guarantees. Even its location in the constitution became far less settled than had been originally assumed.

In fact, the 5th amendment (1979) removed secularism from the constitution, and the Divine invocation (Bismillah-Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim) was inserted at the beginning. By the 8th amendment (1988), Islam was declared the “State religion”. In 2005, the Supreme Court invalidated the 5th amendment (not on the religious question per se, but on the unconstitutionality of the Martial Law that had been promulgated and hence all laws, acts and amendments passed at the time were deemed to have been automatically nullified). In 2011, Part II, Article 8 of the 15th amendment restored secularism as a fundamental principle of State policy, and Article 12, Part II specifically indicated the elimination of communalism, the non-privileging of any religion, or any discrimination based on faith. However, in Article 2A, Part I, Islam was retained as the State religion, and the invocation remained unchanged. Thus, the constitutional position of secularism became a bit murky.

The increasing influence of the religionists was reflected in other areas as well. First, in education, Prof Abul Barkat reported that between 1970 and 2008, the number of alia madrasas increased from 2,721 to 14,152, and the number of qawmi madrasas went up correspondingly. By 2015, the government indicated the existence of 13,902 qawmi madrasas (though, largely because of definitional imprecisions, some estimates could be several times higher).

Moreover, in 2017, the qawmi madrasas, which had always resisted any government interference in terms of academic substance, quality or control, was able to get its Dawrah degree recognised as equivalent to an official MA degree.

These forces, spearheaded by Hefazat-i-Islam, were also able to influence the curricula of the official education system. In 2017, as many as nine chapters were quietly deleted from school textbooks (which included contributions from Lalon, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sarat Chandra, Satyen Sen, Humayun Azad and Rabindranath Tagore) and substituted them with more religious-minded pieces (from Shah Ahmad Sagir, Alaol, Golam Mostafa, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Habibullah Bahar). Similar other texts were added. Further changes were demanded and remain under consideration.

Second, such groups, and others emboldened by them, carried out various acts of repression and violence against religious minorities. Odhikar (a Human Rights based organisation), reported that between 2007 and 2019, 12 people belonging to minority faith communities were killed, 1,536 injured, seven abducted and 19 raped, while 62 pieces of land and 40 houses were grabbed, 1,013 properties and 390 temples were attacked, and 889 idols damaged or destroyed. It should be pointed out that the victims were mostly Hindus, but also included Christians, Buddhists, and Shia and Ahmadiyya adherents. Minority organisations report numbers that are understandably higher.

A large number of minorities have felt compelled to leave the country. According to the official census reports published by the government, in the 1951 census (i.e., after the early exodus forced by the Partition), Hindus were 22 percent of the population of East Pakistan. By 1961 it had come down to 18.5 percent, by 1971 to 13.5 percent, by 1991 to 10.5 percent and by 2011 to 8.5 percent. Some of this may be partly explained by economic and family factors, but it would be quite implausible to deny that the atmosphere of threat and vulnerability they faced did not contribute to this migration.

Third, these groups have also been successful in creating an intimidating environment that has caused a “chilling effect” on free speech. They have assassinated secular and atheist writers and bloggers, attacked teachers and editors, and threatened artists and performers on the pretext that their religious sentiments and sensibilities had been hurt or offended. Even the suspicion or accusation that someone had done so may lead a Hindu principal of a school to be forced to do sit-ups in front of an entire assembly of students and citizens, or a person being burned to death.

The Digital Security Act vastly expanded the arsenal of weapons available to the politically or religiously hyper-sensitive. With its sweeping generalities and lack of clarity about the meaning of “religious sentiments” or what constitutes being “hurt” or “offended”, legal harassment was added to public humiliation and physical attacks as a relatively safe and seductive tool in the service of intellectual and religious intolerance.

It must be pointed out that the most serious and worrisome challenges to our democracy do not come from wild-eyed, bomb-throwing fanatics who can attack a cultural programme celebrating the Bengali New Year’s Day and kill 10 people (April 14, 2001), cause more than 400 simultaneous explosions in 63 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh (August 17, 2005), or slaughter 28 people, including 17 foreigners in an upscale Dhaka restaurant (July 1, 2016). These are dramatic and dangerous manifestations of Jihadi militancy. But, they can be, and have been, largely contained. The much greater threat, more insidious and more far-reaching in its consequences, is the creeping advance of religionists in the country through a process that has been deliberate, organised and strategic.

It must be emphasised that there is a distinction between the concepts of being “religious” and becoming a “religionist”. The first refers to a commitment to personal piety, rigorous practice and spiritual salvation, the second indicates an interest in attaining political power, dictating government policy and dominating the public discourse. The first is perfectly compatible with secularism, can embrace modernity and scientific progress, and peacefully co-exist with other faiths and persuasions. The second is skeptical of science, judgmental about other faiths, and ready to retaliate against any questions about their own. Secularism is integral to, and a precondition for, democracy, while religionist absolutism is a threat.

This does not mean that secularism automatically ensures democracy. History is replete with examples of very secular authorities being cruelly illiberal and authoritarian. This only refers to the fact that unless there is tolerance for other ideas, respect for other faiths, acceptance of questions and criticisms, openness to science and evidence-based enquiry, trust of the will of the people (and not merely the assertions of dogmatic clerics) to make right decisions and judgments, and a strict separation between the private sphere of individual faith and the public space for civic engagement—unless these “secular” values and practices are upheld, democracy cannot be sustained.

The secularist argument, hence democracy itself, has been under considerable stress. The anxieties and uncertainties created by technology and global dislocations, the increasing inequalities everywhere, world-wide conflict particularly the instabilities in the Middle East (and the feeling that Islam is under siege), and the corruptions and inefficiencies in so many countries, have all contributed to a widespread skepticism about the West, a hostility to its traditions and examples, and a turning inward among Muslims.

Reinforcing this anti-secular backlash here has been India’s unfair and selfish pursuit of its interest (in relation to Bangladesh), and the increasing bigotry and viciousness it has displayed against Muslims. Moreover, financial patronage and Salafi indoctrination flowing in from Arab countries provided support and direction to the religionists. Finally, the stereotypical dismissal of religious people as backward, misogynist, violent, one-dimensional and unpatriotic has been arrogant, counter-productive and polarising. Instead of helping the cause of secularism and democracy, it has only strengthened its enemies.

But, more importantly, the leaders of supposedly secular parties in Bangladesh have probably been complicit in creating this Frankenstein. It is not a question of apportioning blame, as the parties are now childishly doing. Almost all parties had probably tended to this poisonous plant (perhaps some more readily than others), and helped it to flourish through compromise and accommodation.

It may be argued that compromise is part of the democratic process, and hence should be supported. But compromising what, and with whom, is relevant. This was the fatal fallacy of the (in)famous policies of “appeasement” pursued by the Allied powers in dealing with Hitler. Throughout the 1930s he consistently violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles—building his armed forces, remilitarising the Rhineland, stopping reparation payments, reuniting with Austria through the Anschluss, and finally claiming the Sudetanland (at that time a province of Czechoslovakia). The Allied Powers, desperate to “secure peace for our time” once again, gave in. Hitler not only occupied the province, but the entire country. And then he demanded Poland, and invaded it in 1939. World War II, preventable earlier, became inevitable.

“Appeasement” was destined to fail. To a bully, a compromise is a capitulation. It does not make the problem disappear, it only encourages the next demand. The religionists kept on steadily advancing their agenda (affecting the constitution, education, public policy, free speech, etc). The parties in power did not confront them. In this sense, our “Sudetanland moment” was perhaps the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the High Court premises. That crucial “victory” may have paved the way for the unimaginable and unforgiveable audacity of the religionists in defacing Bangabandhu’s sculpture in Kushtia, and demanding that none others be built.

If we care for Bangabandhu, the spirit of our Liberation War, our obligation to our own constitutional principles, and our commitment to democracy, we must be bold, decisive and resolute to protect secularism in order to consolidate democracy. A Faustian bargain with the religionists may provide political gains that are illusory and temporary, but moral losses that are substantive and permanent. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who forsake their constitution for the sake of power, deserve neither.

Dr. Ahrar Ahmad is Professor Emeritus at Black Hills State University, USA.