Saturday, August 02, 2003

"Challenges" to the Qur'an: Banning our intolerance

It is not as if this is the first time the Muslim holy book Al-Qur'an (The Recitation) has been challenged - neither will it be the last - as anybody with the faintest inkling of Islam's history of 1500 years know for a fact that such challenges have been made at repetitive junctures, even during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

The inherent strength of Islam in confronting such challenges lie in its tradition of debate, examination and rational enquiry which has made it all but possible for Muslims to reinforce the infallibility of their holy book as passed on in its unedited form for ions.

The Bangladesh Governments ban therefore on Monday of the 28th July 2003 issue of NEWSWEEK for carrying the article Challenging The Qur'an four days after Pakistan chose to do the same, raises alarming questions as to the level of tolerance prevailing in our society, specially in the closet mentality of power brokers managing the day to day running of the country - and who have effected the ban order in the first place.

It is noteworthy that no other Islamic nation has desired to replicate our vainglorious example and as of now we have no reports of religious sentiments of Muslims being badly bruised anywhere in the world - and who may or may not have read the objectionable article!

It is ironic that the frailty and fragility of so-called religious sentiments of our decision makers ruefully belies the aspirations of our Islamic population entrapped between hostile and depraved media onslaughts masterminded in India with labels of a fundamentalist-Taliban, communal terrorist State hurled its ways with routine and reckless abandon on the one hand, the so-called image crisis that perennially haunts successive Bangladesh Governments on the other as also the flirtatious and little understood moderate Islam in-betweenie stature it wishes to harp over at every conceivable opportunity to counter slanders.

The moderate Islamic status - an American coinage mouthed in magnanimity by awe inspiring likes of Bill Clinton, or George Bush or least of all the Dhaka based cheer leader of the US pack in the recently departed Ambassador, Mary Ann Peters apparently places Bangladesh in the very envious position of being a U.S ally in its fight against Islamic terrorism worldwide - also a roundabout acknowledgement that Bangladesh is the tolerable example that the US tolerates and wishes others Islamic nations to emulate!

The banning of NEWSWEEK is therefore a millstone, as in the bellicosity displayed - it sharply brings into focus as to what it is that ideally constitutes religious sentiments (blamed for the ban) and inevitable enquiries as to WHO it is in Bangladesh that has access to this quixotic nanometer to gauge such vague human sentiments of a majority?

It also does not portend well among the Pan Islamic pantheons of the Ummah (brotherhood) which Bangladesh claims to be a part of, as the very act of banning (solely because of a article by an obscure German linguist scholar who hides behind the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenburg while peddling hate, in his interpretation of the Qur'an) - sends undesirable supremacist signals about these two South Asian nations being among the purest of pure Islamist's - and leaves hollow any strategies that could have well emerged from within the Islamist intelligentsia of the two countries, as how to deflect future challenges.

To imagine Bangladesh citizens being barred from reading, and thus commenting or debating the issue in this millennium information era is a shock, especially as now is the time for the followers of Islam more then ever before to stand its ground and confront challenges to their religion or the Qur'an intellectually - overriding innate provocations from extremist on the lunatic fringe on both end of the spectrum.

Hurtful also is a realization that unlike Pakistan which is by composition a half baked quasi-military-theocracy-democracy run by a Dictator, Bangladesh is a fledging democracy and one its population regardless of social, gender, religious or political differences wishes to uphold in all seriousness.

The back to back banning order imitating Pakistan, which is no example of an ideal Islamic state in the first place, is indicative that the decision was flawed. hasty, arrogant and judgmental, and at once points to the internal pressure exerted on the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) by its uneasy and intolerant coalition partners, the Jammat-e-Islaami, a party which is no champion nor a credible example of Islam as practiced by the majority Muslim population in Bangladesh.

It also lays bare that politics in Bangladesh is captive to blackmails of half educated myopic mullahs who have expanded their political powerbase over the last 32 years exploiting the woeful cultural inadequacies of mainstream political parties in their failure to interpret, understand, acknowledge or practice cultural Islam of the Sufi tradition understood and practiced by the majority Muslim's of Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia.

For instance, it is more than likely that in their confusion of being willing and comfortable captives to political Islam non of the enforcers of the ban have ever had the privilege of witnessing all night 'Kobi Lorai' (minstrels duel) in Bangladesh villages - for if they did, they would have learnt to their horror that topics far more controversial and provocative than what appears in NEWSWEEK are routinely enacted to thousands upon thousand of tolerant rural denizens.

This has been a huge part of the cultural mosaic of the population of Bangladesh - whose faith in their faith regardless of their faith, is not as weak or susceptible to the kind of fragility that allows for it to be demolished to smithereens, merely because of some construed challenge in a western weekly - neither do we hear of any form of censorship, official or otherwise.

Deliberately denied respectability and demeaned a sub-ordinate culture, by the snobbish Dhaka based politico-cultural piranhas, jousting for space in the political hierarchy with very limited understanding of Bangladesh's culture in its philosophical context - the Islamic culture of engagement and debate we witness in rural Bangladesh is not only exemplary but one that can make any German scholar pale in comparison.

The inescapable tendency of rulers to capitulate and play to the gallery un- accommodative views of ignorant and spiteful mullahs who raise a huge ruse out of religious sentiments indicates the catastrophic cultural ill-health of our ruling echelon, regardless of the side of powers they are conveniently positioned today.

It is therefore not surprising that all the way from the Opposition Members of Parliament to the so-called progressive Left or the highly hypocritical weekend civil society club/s of know all-ers and do-gooders have made the slightest of noise following the ban and the news made any press if at all, in Bangladesh.

This notorious silence stems not from a desire as not to exercise the right to free speech or opinion - the truth is, in matters of religion any noise at all other than one that ensures political capital is hazardous is the underlying yet far reaching prognosis. Grave is our ignorance and unpardonable is our city bred naivety and gullible idiosyncrasies.

The ban order will undoubtedly provide credible ammunition to the propaganda of Pakistani and ISI links of the BNP Government and this time around, as we are already witnessing, will not be limited to South Asia alone or the lively yet inconsequential debates in Bengali e-forums on the Internet - the stature of NEWSWEEK will mean the controversy going International (more than a hundred world publication circulated the good news of Bangladesh banning NEWSWEEK) and one Bangladesh will have few backers even in the Islamic world and one that will come rebounding at the first available opportunity ......"Remember the NEWSWEEK incident?"

End of the day - Bangladesh will once again be consigned to the back bench of progress - once again the repudiation and scorn that it sees itself routinely pulverized in its half hearted placement of its IMAGE, subject to more challenges than it can handle - and it will have no one else but itself and its manipulators and defacto monitors of religious sentiments to blame for the quandary.

Leaves us wondering if we should not be banning the word IMAGE as MollaIslamically any image is sacrilegious - worse, when translated from the Bangla word Bhab Moorti it reads Image Idol ?

As for figuring out whether "houris with swelling breast" mean "white raisins and juicy fruits" (apologies for the impropriety - metaphorically it sounds the same - doesn't it?) - it is best that such challenges be dealt by folk philosophers who will have far more arousing and colorfully stimulating answers ready to shame Christoph Luxenburg - that ofcourse, if he is willing to travel to a Bangladesh village to check out things for REAL!

First Published 2nd August 2003

Alochona: Joi Ai Asom

n response to:

Dear Alochoks,

This is indeed a very useful circulation by the writer and I more or less agree in principal his news analysis and commentary and thank him profusely.

Nontheless, sadly what is lacking here is an insight of an Assamese from Assam - Muslim or Hindu is a very small matter - because Assam in its culture has always been secularly agnostic and no major communal violence can be reported to have divided the fabric of communal harmony in that beautiful land.The one in Nellie in the seventies was engineered by Indira Gandhi to break the back of the student led oill blockade agitation and divide the state on communal lines - but time has proved that it was a cosnpiracy that backfired.

I am honored to have to inform the esteemed readers of Alochona that I am a second generation Assamese born in Bangladesh and my parents were both from Jorhat in Assam.

They migrated then to what was East Pakistan in 1952 (and I was born in 1957) and this was no Muslim exodus. They left their homelands because they knew Assam would never be free - and in their genes they possessed the spirit of the Muslims, Buddhist and Hindu fighters that fought never to allow Assam to be conquered.

The Mughals for instance could never invade Assam - so fierce was the resistance. Assamese history tells us about the exploits of Azan Fakir and Lachit Phukan - both Assamese patriots and both had a large role to play in today's Assam's secular agnostic make-up.

Muslims were the ones that taught the Assamese military warfare (the canon was made by them) and foreign policy through the Farsi Foraz (Persian readers in the court of Assam) whose roots I can trace back to my family on my paternal side are only few of the many Muslim contribution in Assamese history.

Consequently what I am trying to argue here is Muslims as a community is not as if it occurred by migration only in recent day - Islamic history traces back Muslims arriving through the Sufi saints as late as 1400 years ago. The popular Brahminist propaganda will of course tell you that Muslims of Assam were `offspring's of captive Mughals' - but that is far from the truth.

Without disputing the arguments so meticulously put forward by the author of this piece - let me be so astute as to remind everybody that Bengalees from what is now Bangladesh have been migrating to Assam from times immemorial.

Unknown to the author of this piece is the fact that the soil in Assam is very fertile - so fertile that the under populated Assamese would harvest only one crop a year - allowing for the land to remain fallow for the rest 8 months of the year or so.

The harvest of one crop a year would be sufficient for an Assamese farmer not only to sell part of it and make a profit to last him for a year - but the surplus would feed a family and there would still be enough reserve to make up for any failed crop, pestilence or disease breaking out in a lean year.

The Bengalees from our part of the world opted to go to Assam because the pressure of population on land was getting far too intense and poverty came hand in hand.

They were certainly economic migrants and they had theadvantage that it was a fertile land with hardly any population. My family history for instance recounts association with Bengalee Muslims of Mymemensigh district and they go back more than a century long before the Republic of India was established.

What attracted the Assamese to the Bengalee migrants in the days of yore and as they do even today despite the many communal provocation - was that they never begged for a living and all they wanted was to use the fallow land the rest of the month to harvest and share crop/profit with the landlord.

This not only endeared the "Mia's and Munshi's" as the Bengalee are called even to this day but over time, Assamese agricultural production went directly into their control.

Therefore the Bengalees of Assam or "Noe Ghorias" (or newsettlers) as they stand today have been there for more than a 150 years and have assimilated so well with Assamese culture it is very difficult to differentiate them from the native Assamese.

Their size population wize is estimated to be somewhere in the 3-4 million bracket and together with the Assamese Muslims the demographic mix of Assam has therefore become a source of worry to communalist elements like the BJP/RSS/VHP combine who neverever had a foothold in Assam.

The Muslims of Assam contribute to a precarious mix of around 36% of the total population of Assam.

Why I say it is `precarious' is the overall majority of the Hindus in Assam are followers of the agnostic school of thought of Shri Shankararcharya.

Strange as this may sound the majority of such Hindus in Assam do not perform idol worship and they do not have temples. Indeed what they have is what is called "Naam Ghar" where `Naam kirtan" is sung everyday and where members from all religious community are welcome to participate. In my now and in between travels to Assam (The last been in 1996) I personally make it a point to attend atleast one evening at the "Nam" singing.

Surprising as this may sound the "Naam Ghar" is constructed by followers of both Hindu and Muslim religion yet it is only a token of Assam's communal harmony that the central pillar or the "Lai Khuta" is one that is erected by non else but by the Muslims, and where recitation from the Koran is de rigueur in the function. The construction of the "Naam Ghar" is done by subscription and all communities donate generously.

"Naam" as the words suggest is singing the praise of the monotheistic God the powerful and all compassionate Maker of this universe and the guide of human destiny no different than the Muslim God -Allah.

Having said all of the above if you have to delineate the demography of Assam into the many divisive caste of Hindus, Hindus as such become a minority and explains the demographic paranoia of the BJP/RSS and their propaganda for Hindutva.

I am therefore firmly of the belief that no matter how much the communal forces in New Delhi try communalism in Assam will be defeated because Assamese history suggest that anybody trying to peddle the poison of religious division in the tranquil land have been dumped in to the Mighty Brahmaputra, by the sheer force of the culture practiced by the natives.

With that I thank everyone reading this rejoinder.

"Joi Ai Asom" or Long Live Mother Assam

First published 1st August 2003