Thursday, September 11, 1997

A rejoinder from the Silent Majority

This refers to Nadeem Qadirs article, 'Let Bangladesh Not be South Asia's Algeria' in his column 'In Fools Paradise', Daily Star, Saturday the 30th of August 1997.

Nadeem's article fails to coherently deliver a non-partisan view to the serious challenge we face and indeed our very existence is threatened with the rise of religious extremism or fanaticism.

'Fundamentalism' and secularism are words most callously used by our politicians who have come to the helms of power in Bangladesh in its twenty-five years of existence and has frustrated very ordinary citizens, who would much prefer to see an alternative mind set, an alternative thought process besides the one that has been propounded by the Awami League, BNP, Jatiyo Party or the Jamaat-e-Islami over the years in the run up to our collective future. I am ofcourse speaking here for the neutrals, the ones aligned only to the non-aligned - the silent majority who have been the pawn of our ruthless politicians.

We have inherited in this last quarter century a morally corrupt political system, a bureaucracy that is completely alien to its people and a cult of intellectuals' - an infinitely minuscule part of our population - and ultimately the most damaging group of individuals who it seems, have nothing better to do, than to offer unsolicited advice to the rest of the citizens of Bangladesh. Nowhere else will you see this monstrosity: a pompous group of men or women, self proclaimed 'intellectuals' behaving in such manner. The exception is ofcourse: Bangladesh! When is the last time you heard of American or French or English intellectuals, dishing out their mind's with whatever warped or esoteric ideas they have? This elitist cult have a say in most matters with the media helping their megalomaniac offerings in form of 'statements', yet it is tragic that with so many 'intellectuals' around, Bangladesh seems not to have found any answer or solution to its problems. It seems anybody with the right political or social contacts can join this exclusive club, so that we have aspiring theater or TV actor and actresses, retired teachers or journalist, unsuccessful artist, little known poets or reciters, cosmetic models, children of 'intellectuals', children of theater artists, all masquerading as 'intellectuals'. The history of this cult is one of repetitive narrow mindedness, deceit, co-opting, division and compromise. They prefer to portray themselves as social role models - ironically they have been models for a culture of hypocrisy.

Are we to look upon these 'intellectuals' or our politicians to fight fanaticism ? The answer is NO, because fanaticism and divisions on religious line is the most convenient ploy used by our politicians and their 'intellectual' collaborators to whip up a frenzy whenever things go wrong in their handling of day to day affair. The outrages in the month of July, August and leading on to September, I believe was more a cover-up to absolve the Government's responsibility for its miserable economic failure and the endemic lawlessness - that ofcourse is a another story for another day.

For a start, I believe we have to ban use of the word 'fundamentalism' as it creates misunderstanding among the majority of the population of Bangladesh - the members of the Islamic faith. The word is a politically incorrect expression of the Western media stemming from its innate anti-Islamic bias, which has unfortunately found acceptance in our popular culture, while the rest of the word seems to have abandoned it for more correct terms like 'extremism' or 'fanaticism'. Fundamentalism is after all a belief in fundamentals. It can be anything from your fundamental belief in a political system, nature, science or more essentially: GOD. Fighting this so-called fundamentalism is also a fundamental belief as much as subscribing to Awami-fundamentalism, Jatiyotabadi-fundamentalism or Jamaati-fundamentalism.

What Muslim finds most annoying is one never hears about Jewish fundamentalist, Christian or Hindu fundamentalist - one only hears of fundamentalist, which by implication means somebody with a cap and a beard, sword or AK47 in hand, and ofcourse he must have this very difficult to pronounce Muslim name. The use of the word 'fundamentalism' in context of Bangladesh denotes a closed, parochial mentality and cannot help in our struggle for an open, free thinking, free expression, democratic society - where non regardless of his belief system can be persecuted.

There is no sane man around that will not agree that religious fanaticism has been the traditional enemy of Bangladesh and having said that, I believe there is non who will disagree when I say, that in twenty-five years we have not been able to come up with an acceptable strategy to fight this menace. Our glorious liberation war was fought, essentially as a resistance against the Pakistani mentality of looking down on Bengalee Muslims of the then East Pakistan as a race of 'Hindu illegitimates'. By some strange quirk of fate the Pakistanis discovered 'Pucca Mussalman's' from amongst the same illegitimate lot, Bengalee volunteers and workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, who formed the core of the murderous Razakars of Al-Badr and Al-Shams, to aid and abet their 'pure Muslim' brothers from what was West Pakistan in those day, to conduct one of the worst genocide of this century. The systematic rape of Bengalee women in 1971 was a tactical and psychological ploy used not only used as a weapon of war but also to promote a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' or 'ethnic purification' with the idea of creating a breed of 'Pucca Musalman Pakistanis' i.e. one created from the semen's of Baluch, Pathan and Punjabi Pakistanis! The rape of Bengalee women was considered jaiyez for the Pakistanis believed 'Islam was in danger'. The aspiration of a free Bangladesh was seen as a Hindu plot. The emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, put that inglorious misuse of religion for politics of exploitation in the back seat - or so we thought.

Where are we today in 1997 - close to event leading up to our silver jubilee celebrations? It's the same hate mongers, the same petty use of religion taking up most of our time. We are blissfully unaware of the fact that the fanatics are more organized and more extreme in their resolve, then they were prior to events leading on to 1971. We continue to ask ourselves where we went so wrong, why did this happen - importantly, what are we to do?

Secularism is a philosophy that is more misunderstood than understood - and it becomes all the more exasperating when the citizens of Bangladesh appropriated with the responsibility of educating an uneducated mass contributes to that very same confusion. The Bengalee race is a blend of the best of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, this evident from the way we dress, what we eat, our culture as also our religious rites. Most of our rituals are a blend of the three and therefore it is no denying that we have inherited some elements of paganism. I believe all of it is harmless, as this has been a cumulative cultural tradition for thousand of years, much before the belief in a monotheistic GOD emerged anywhere in the world. If we are to restrict religion to what it is - a personal matter - it is possible to be a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, a Buddhist and still be secular. Our 'intellectuals' have unfortunately used secularism to expound 'atheistic' belief, a very modern belief system - which has never been our tradition, and therefore the fanatics have been merciless in condemning them as nastik or murtads.

In rural Bangladesh where our so called 'secular forces' do not exist the grass root level of cultural and political awareness has the Mosque and Madrasah at its epicenter - where thanks to a syllabus - a legacy of our English colonizer - divide and conquer remains the driving force, with the kut mullahs calling the shots with impunity. Just as much our city bred 'intellectuals' have failed to educate us about 'secularism', the rural kut mullahs have failed to teach us Islam. Both these divisively parasitical mind set have a lot in common, therefore what our 'intellectuals' refer to as 'statements' in the city - in the village it is the fatwa - the same deceit, the same division, the same confusion - and yes the same hypocrisy!

The Shikha Chirantan a supposedly secular symbol of our liberation war is a case in point. No effort has been made to explain this symbol in our cultural context and some of the 'super patriot's' who think it is patriotic enough to die for the Shikha Chirantan - haven't the faintest clue about what the fire is all about. The Government has no official description - and whatever has been reported in the press is pretty much on partisan lines. An eternal fire symbolizes the fire that is alive in the heart of every citizen, a fire that asks us to keep the struggle on, the struggle that will lead on to emancipation in our quest for a exploitation free society - not necessarily the remembrance of the martyred - as we have a grand memorial in Savar for that explicit purpose. To equate this symbol to 'fire worship' is vulgar and the only way we can make this an acceptable symbol is to have similar fires all over Bangladesh - not Dhaka alone. After 1952 the fanatics had equated the Shaheed Minar for the language movement martyrs to 'pillar worship'. Now that we have similar Minars all over Bangladesh, that propaganda is no longer valid, nor do we hear or have threat for their demolition. Nadeem's article credits the Ekatturer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (The Committee for the Elimination of the Killers and Collaborators of 1971) - hereinafter referred to as the Nirmul Committee - for their yeoman's service to ensure that the fanatics now have three as opposed to eighteen seats they previously held in Parliament. Nadeem opens his article by stating we Bengalis have never been identified with any form of extremism - yet he overlooks the fact that the Nirmul Committee sounds pretty much like an extremist, even a terrorist outfit. On face, Dalals or Collaborators would have never ever have evolved if we did not have the Ghatak's i.e. killers, that have since been pardoned and are safely ensconced in Pakistan. Logically we are to pursue the killers and eliminate or nirmul them before we can touch the collaborators and make them suffer the same fate, before this so called committee can meet with a semblance of success. The Nirmul Committee does not represent the people of Bangladesh, rather it represents that utopian fringe of our 'intellectuals' and the Awami League, who wants to dupe an unsuspecting 'post independence' generation to believe that the war is on - or atleast they are doing something about it. In reality what they are doing is baloney.

The suspicions of this generation becomes all that more pronounced when we note that if at all, it was the Nirmul Committee's heroic idea to 'eliminate' the 'killers and collaborators' of 1971 - why then did they go for a 'public trial' of the Jamaat chief Golam Azam ? Having done that - why has the 'judgment' of the 'public trial' i.e. death to the Jamaat chief not been carried out? The least the Nirmul Committee could have done was ask for volunteers to form a suicide squad and blow up the Jamaat chief - if they do not have the balls to do that, they could have hired the LTTE to do it for them? The truth is we have the worst kind of post-liberation 'dalals' or collaborators within the Nirmul Committee and that organization is in essence a covert and indirect publicity organ of the Jamaat and its chief Golam Azam - a man who was literally pulled into limelight from political oblivion by these opportunist elements, these so called 'patriots'.

Democratic elections as conducted in 1991 and 1996 were mere spectator sport, with 'numbers' being juggled on the eve of polls. The mandate of the people has never been wrong, what has been wrong is that the leaders on whom we had reposed our trust and confidence have historically betrayed us. This is mainly because of the shadow machination of the other post-liberation Razakars - the 'black money' interest, together with the fanatics. Both BNP and Awami League would have never made it to power without the overt and covert support of this unholy alliance. Both parties and their leaders have played the religion card, more correctly the 'Pucca Musalman' card mainly because of their lack of grass root support, which the fanatics enjoy. Please do not forget that in the eve of the two elections, the terms Razakars, Collaborators, Spirit of '71, fundamentalist, secularism, rin khelapi etc evaporated from our popular vocabulary. Our 'intellectuals' went into tactical hibernation and both the BNP and Awami League leaders spiced their speeches and and fashioned their dresses towards a more 'Pucca Musalman' stance. Indeed it appeared before the last election the race between the two ladies was ultimately to prove who was the better Musalman ! The Jamaat lent its complete and absolute support to the Awami League in their bid for power as an ally in the anti-BNP agitation's and its ultimate win (timed well with a failed miliktary, but succesfful civil service coup) - much as BNP sees in Jamaat a natural ally in its bid for power today. Therefore the Nirmul Committee had nothing to do with the low seats of fanatics in the Parliament - rather the Awami League succeeded in breaking the so-called 'Muslim sympathy vote bank' - by their hypocritical misuse of religion.

Till such time our so-called 'pro-liberation' party does not stop indulging in adultery with the Jamaat at the expense of the people and its future, we cannot afford to remain complacent and slap our backs with the false notion that the fanatics have been marginalised. Indeed the real winners in our last elections have been the fanatics and the Jamaat and they have since been able to paralyze the country for two days with hartals and we could not do a damn thing about it. When twenty thousand fanatic took over Manik Mia Avenue with exhortation for a Taliban style revolution, invoke GOD in Heaven to make Bangladesh an Islamic state, made caricature of Sheikh Mujib's speech of 7th March 1971, and most dangerously when seditious statements were made to fight the Army in the Cantonment to destroy the Shikha Aniraban, our 'patriotic pro-liberation force' - have preferred to rest at home - together with their 'intellectual Godfathers'.

Ofcourse we had a 'call' from the Nirmul Committee (the God ordained sole agent for the Spirit of the Liberation War!) asking the people of Bangladesh to assemble in front of the Press Club with 'whatever arms you have, because from tomorrow the liberation war will resume' and 'we shall remain in the streets'. The fact that only a few thousand 'hired' people, and some who genuinely believed in the 'call' showed up, and NOTHING happened only goes to show how hysteria together with hypocrisy has been fine tuned to a 'high art form'.

Nadeem's assertion that Sheikh Hasina has made her position clear and that 'for the first time challenged the fundamentalist' is completely untrue. The people of this country are not interested with what 'position' the Prime Minister or the Awami League takes, but what 'actions and proofs' she can come up together with an acceptable 'action plan', in support of her so-called 'position'. For instance can she publicly declare her distance from the Jamaat ? Can she prohibit the use of religion in politics?

I guess we all know the answer?

Till such time we have set our own house in order, till such time we have discarded our 'rubber spines' national character, and ofcourse till such time our leaders start realizing that our 'respect' for them does not necessarily mean that we 'trust' them - I believe we have not seen the last of the fanatics. The fear of Bangladesh becoming South Asia's Algeria is a possibility looming in the horizon, the difference being that in Algeria the Army stepped into the arena to stop the Islamist from a sure election win. In Bangladesh where the Army as a national institution has never been transparent, the worst fears are of an Islamic coup. Wake up one fine morning and hear some low ranking officer with the help of hundreds and thousands of fanatics in the street declaring Bangladesh an Islamic State?

That last point for 'intellectual' rumination!