Like every other Bangladeshi kid, I also had to study the Islamic religion throughout my high school years while my Hindu friends were studying the Hindu religion. The Christian boy in class, Bobby Di Costa, was the only exception, as the school did not have a Christian teacher.
During that 45-minute class on religious matters, the students in our class were separated between Hindus and Muslims and were taken elsewhere while Bobby was made to sit in the corner, alone, disallowed from participation, or, often made to sit outside in the simmering sun.
But, it was even worse for Setu, whose family followed the Qadiani Muslim tradition. He had to learn Sunni Muslim belief as he couldn’t disclose his religious affiliation in public.
I really felt sorry for Bobby back then. But now, after all these years, I have finally come to realise that Bobby was, in fact, the luckiest one.
Bobby never had to learn intolerance, religious superiority, or sexual discrimination in his early childhood.
He, unlike us, was free to believe in the theory of evolution -- about which the school maulana taught us that those who believe in evolution instead of creationism are sinners damned to an unsavoury fate.
However, the cases of Bobby and Setu raise a serious concern about a fundamental aspect of our country’s public education system -- that, irrespective of race, religion, or sex, being a liberal democracy, Bangladesh is obliged to facilitate equal opportunity for every citizen of the country, and the size of the population is completely irrelevant in this debate.
It is only a reasonable expectation from a country such as Bangladesh, that claims to be a liberal democratic state, to protect individual rights when it provides services as fundamental as education.
It should be done in a manner that does not discriminate among the citizens based on race, religion, or gender.
Even a very small group of the population such as Christians, Santals, or Qadianis are rightfully entitled to be treated as equally as the Muslims majority.
Evaluating my long years of religious studies, it was disturbing for me to realise that, apart from divisiveness and usage of terms as derogatory as kafir, murtad, mushrik, etc from my early childhood, I was also taught by the state that my Hindu friends and neighbours were destined for eternal hellfire, just because their allegiance belonged to a God different than mine, or just because they prayed differently.
Bangladesh is a diverse and multi-cultural society, an assembly of over 45 ethnic groups and multiple religions -- this was supposed to be a matter of national pride. But instead, little too often, reports of violence inflicted by religious intolerance indicate how deep a crisis our society is actually in.
In times of crisis, on the verge of collapse, a sensible nation like Bangladesh has a duty to scrutinise and investigate its actions thoroughly. And, doing so, many would agree that the way religion is taught to Bangladeshi children is playing a part in this crisis.
The advocates of secularism would have reasons to believe that the state must not promote any religion in any manner and religious education should not be funded by the state.
However, from a realistic point of view, it can be understood that it is too much to ask from a society as conservative as Bangladesh.
Bangladesh cannot have both a 21st century economy and a medieval-era religious education system. The sooner our society realises this, the better it will be for the entire nation
But, considering the recent tension and communal hate crimes, can Bangladesh at least try a more progressive approach to this?
Realising that education is an opportunity and schools should become a place for enlightenment not ignorance, scholars from around the world are now arguing that, in order to generate higher levels of inter-faith awareness, respect, understanding, and social inclusiveness, young students in school must learn of diverse religions instead of a single faith.
More preciously, in order to engage with people in a society as diverse as Bangladesh, people should learn to be respectful and tolerant from a very young age by seeing life from the perspective of others.
If we believe that the true purpose of a school education, as it is accepted universally, is to develop a child’s ability to understand critical issues and to prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead, then we must also acknowledge that it can only be done by encouraging them to ask for reasons instead of forcing them to accept views uncritically.
Thus, for the benefit of the future generation, it is a matter of utmost importance for Bangladesh to design an ethics and religion-based education program.
In other words, a multi-faith, non-confessional, carefully designed program for all students that will allow pupils to critically discuss diverse religions and ethics-related issues without causing harm to those with whom they disagree.
Bangladeshi society just cannot afford to bury its head in the sand and ignore new world views as this is not just about religion and social harmony -- it’s also about the country’s economic future. They cannot be taught that believing in evolution is a sin, or that one religion is superior to another, or that their friends from different faiths are to be punished in hell, or that women are weak.
Feeding a child with ignorance and views that are contrary to universally-accepted democratic principles such as inclusiveness, pluralism, and respect is counter-productive to our very national interests. I would go as far as to say that it is a violation of children’s rights.
Children are the key to a nation’s future. Their minds must be prepared in a way that effectively allows them to connect with people from diverse backgrounds and views to be able to achieve the desired outcome.
In the near future, India, China, the entirety of South-East Asia, as well as Western countries, could become the largest stakeholders of the Bangladesh economy.
Bearing that in mind, Bangladesh needs to create an education system that promotes 21st century values and effectively makes her a part of the world community at large.
Bangladesh cannot have both a 21st century economy and a medieval-era religious education system. The sooner our society realises this, the better it will be for the entire nation.
Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger and an online activist.