Friday, July 26, 2013

Hefazat and the high art of lying

by Maqsoodul Haque - Mac

"The only thing worse than a liar is a liar that's also a hypocrite!" Tennessee Williams

We have reached close to a point of no return in our political shadow boxing and hence the mainstream parties have decided to hire sidekicks to keep us entertained, as the going has gotten clearly rough. These sidekicks in the form of Hefazat on the other hand have conveniently taken on the subject of Islam, knowingly fully well its implications; i.e. our general citizenry is averse to discuss or debate this in public.

It is not because citizens do not want to, but its selective anathema on the subject stems more from ignorance as to the history of political Islam, as well as the flimsiest knowledge about the strength of Sufi Islam, the dominant strains in our culture that has been in existence for over 400 years, with records of fighting bigotry and intolerance. It has therefore helped bigots to stamp the word 'sensitive' before the subject, and by default, has made them the 'sole authority of Islam' in the public perception.

We have therefore been thrust into frustrating and predictably inconclusive debates on God and our respective iman (faith/belief) and who is or isn't a 'better Muslim' forgetting quite placidly, that it is not Allah that will come in to run things for us, bring in order from anarchy, or sort the mess we are in; but us humans.  Never ever, has our polity and propriety combined been dragged down to a level lower than what we are now witness to.

The recent disgusting video from the Hefazat supremo Ahmad Shafi of Hathazari has kept us thoroughly titillated, and what is obvious is more than our politics, secular values, women or even our culture, it is Islam in Bangladesh that has been maligned in more ways than we may imagine. If there has been any damage done thus far, it has been to Muslims who for centuries have lived in peace and amity in this country, despite fact that ultra-conservative strains among some religious groups have been omnipresent.

If we need to assign blames, first we have to point fingers at sections of our morally bankrupt politicians that have moved us out of the ambit of discussing ways and means as how the nation can prosper, as other than divisions they have nothing else to offer. That done, we also need to point many more fingers back at ourselves for permitting our commons sense to take leave, and in the process create further fodder for disquiet in the desh.

For reasons ominous and best known to the powers that be, Hefazat an inconsequential group on the lunatic fringe is being primed to center stage of our attention as one among 'powerful factors' that caused the debacle of the ruling Awami League (AL) in the recent City Corporation elections. However, is that the truth, or is Hefazat just another expendable 'bogeyman' that is being used not only by the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) but also by the AL in the run up to Polls 2013? Is this to create an aura of a force much 'larger and powerful' than both and one we have to perforce align ourselves with ..or else?

In both cases, a reality check brings into forefront massive errors of our collective judgment. We have been conned into believing that Hefazat with all pretensions of being 'defenders of Islam' will make a change to our political landscape and in turn, the fate, 'faith' and fortune of Bangladesh is a lie of the highest order. Hefazat is surely not the last word for Islam in Bangladesh, nor is there any truth to the ruse of their 'massive support' all across the length and breadth of the country.

Evidently, there is a sinister pattern emerging this Ramadhan in Afghanistan and Pakistan where unheard of clerics are handing out vitriolic fatwas (edicts or decrees) targeting women and ones their respective governments are shockingly acquiescing to. No different is the case of Bangladesh.

Taking a cue from an article 'Spare the faith' in New Age Xtra of 19th July 2013, the writer states "The point is that there are 65,000 quomi madrassahs in the country and their reach is all over the country. Their institutions are growing by the day and more and more children are getting into these madrassahs as they provide food, lodging and Islamic education all at the same time" - yet the most important points were missed out as these are presumptions, and not ones based on facts or ground realities.  

Firstly, is there any convincing evidence that Hefazat's perverted zero-centricity and misogynist mindset 'reach', to each and every one of the above 65,000 madrassahs? NO they do not, for this is a case of fear psychosis driven stereotypical profiling by our city based elite about madrassahs. It is in our criminal ignorance in not knowing the workings of these institutions that in the end leads to monsters like Hefazat to multiply. Also, our failure to see through the web of lies and falsities these elements have traditionally woven around us, are ironically ones we do not take lessons from.

Secondly, what is the demography of quomi madrassahs? The figure '65,000' is purely speculative (read lie) and not based on any hard evidence or fieldwork whatsoever, neither are any data available as to the numbers of actual students in these institutions. Thus for argument sake, if we add in 200 people on average (i.e. direct beneficiaries/stake holders of the quomi madrassah system) and multiply that by 65,000 madrassahs we reach numbers not exceeding 13 million. This in effect is too paltry a figure for any serious demographic judgment when we consider the total population of Bangladesh currently at 160 million people!

The bottom line is , Hefazat despite all our fear psychosis has no clouts whatsoever as a political or even social movement and despite the 'paramount importance' showered on them by sections of the media, in the hungama everybody seems to have overlooked the financing methodology of this obscurantist entity, that has suddenly become the 'talk of the nation'.

The pertinent question is; who pays for the upkeep of children in quomi madrassahs? The answer to that is the quomi madrassahs in themselves do not pay a damn thing. If anybody does, it is us, the communities i.e. the 'Islam sensitized' overwhelming part of the citizenry, who support them to the hilt, and are its ultimate patrons. Quite simply stated, quomi madrassahs unlike aliya madrassahs are not supported/financed by the Government.

Opportunities and danger both present itself in the scenario. The danger is in unsolicited funding by vested interest in connivance with political elements make them a potent yet 'inexpensive force' for rise in Islamist militancy and its twin, nihilism. The post-80's influx of Saudi petro-dollars has actually seen the upsurge of the phenomenon, the rest is history.

The opportunities are; we as communities, the contributors and patrons, can demand greater change in the madrassah curriculum, as well as embed awareness building mechanisms that can lead on to negating and marginalizing the likes of Ahmad Shafi. We can also demand public accountability and transparency as to how the money we donate to madrassahs are spent. If Hefazat claims, it is a force that respects 'democracy', they should have absolutely no problems in accepting the above proposal!

The irony nonetheless is despite the communities overwhelming support in cash or kind to the quomi madrassahs for as long as we can remember, what at all has been their 'productive' output? Ahmad Shafi demonizes women working in garments factories, considers them 'lecherous adulteresses' simply because they have to work anywhere between 12 to 14 hours to feed their children and families, and has clearly spelt out women as the 'nastiest things' that Allah has created. Yet have any of us enquired about Shafi or his cohort's actual 'contribution' to the national economy, the exchequer, to our prosperity and wellbeing? Nothing whatsoever - in fact they have lived all along on freebees, turned slothful and his idle mind and those of his cohorts have no doubt become the 'devils workshop' and advocate.

Put plainly, the first breach of trust on part of Hefazat to Allah and the nation is by being so supremely ungrateful to their patrons, and in the same token the sin in demonizing women, our mothers and sisters who the Qur'an commands us deserve our unqualified respect and honor. By mobilizing vulnerable children who we pay for support and upkeep in these madrassahs for 'march of Iman' and bringing them to Dhaka NOT for a show of force against an 'atheist Government' voted in by a 'brute majority', but threatening us with insane violence, based on their scurrilous misinterpretation of Islam, has proved beyond reasonable doubts that their intentions were anything but peaceful.

Clearly, Hefazat wants to reduce Bangladesh to economic and moral bankruptcy.  All that they wanted to project themselves was a 'menacing threat' which may have earned them accolades from an unenlightened few, but overall condemned  by the vast majority as unworthy of either respect or hospitality, regardless of their Alem status.

In addition, what about their lies? Here is a list worth considering:

Lie # 1: Hefazat was born as a 'spontaneous rejection' to the Shahbag 'atheist movement': the truth - it was born as a B team of the Jamaat-e-Islami/BNP axis to create indirect pressure on the International War Crimes Tribunal and scuttle the ongoing trial of war criminals of 1971. By eulogizing that anyone disagreeing with them is an 'atheist', their 'our way or the highway' analogy fell through over time, not without thereby creating unrealistic and unnecessary fissures in our society, that will take a much longer time to heal and seal.

Lie # 2: The hundreds upon thousands who 'marched' into Dhaka during the siege program on 4th April '13 did so 'spontaneously': the truth – billions of takas were pumped in for the mobilisation by vested interest, Free Masonic enterprises fermented with black money and usury,  thus disparaging the ideals of Islam and the words of the Qur'an.

Lie # 3: Hefazat is a non-political spiritual 'movement of the people' with Ahmad Shafi as the head: the truth is Hefazat's real politico-spiritual-philosophical 'ideologue' has since been identified as a former atheist and leftist intellectual, with strong leanings to JeI/BNP who in recent days has veered sharply to the far right 'core of believers'. As early as 2011-12 he had predicted in TV talks shows about the 'rise of a force unseen and one worthy of our fear' and mixing it with Marxist jargons of 'class war' to make his point. Yet it was not a prophecy nor a forecast, but one he had  been conniving for long supported by intelligence operatives,  some well known as double even triple 'agents', close to several corridors of power.

Lie # 4: The AL Government in its crackdown on Shapla Square on 5th May '13 killed 2500 Hefazat supporters and transported the corpses by truck to India for disposal: the truth is the claims were so bizarre and unsubstantiated, that international human rights bodies who in the early days bought the story and chastised the Government, at a later stage (while not exonerating the AL) acknowledged its mistake and censured Hefazat for 'manipulating figures with gross exaggeration'.

Lie # 5: Hefazat's 13 point charter of demand is not 'anti-women' nor against garments workers: the truth has been corroborated convincingly in the video of Ahmad Shafi that sent shock waves and went viral three weeks ago. This despite the fact that scores of JeI/BNP 'intellectuals' including the extreme-left-turn-extreme right turncoat as well as his wife, had penned reams of pro-Hefazat article and its supposed 'pro-women' policies. Their silence since the video has been deafening!

Lie # 6:  The Government to 'humiliate' Shafi doctored the video in an apparent 'media coup': the truth became evident in the force of public scrutiny on the one hand, as well as the hostile reactions of a supremely uncouth and foul-mouthed BNP women MP in parliament. It however speaks volumes about Hefazat's fragility and cultural inadequacy that it was left with no option but solicit a 'women' in a failed attempt to protect its own sullied reputation. When public demands for Hefazat to produce the 'un-doctored video' peaked following the furor ..the set was stage for the last, if not the least of their lies….

Lie # 7: The video was addressed and catered to a 'village audience': the truth that evolved from the statement is Hefazat and Shafi are pathological liars, hypocrites and have dangerous double standards, human traits that the Qur'an terms munafik, i.e. a person who pretends to be a Muslim but in the heart is not one.

As more dangers loom in the horizon for the nation, it is entirely left to us as who to believe. Is it going to be the AL Government, BNP, Jamaat or Hefazat? The truth is nowhere in between, neither will it ever be black or white, but then if it is going to be Allah who we believe will decide for us, it is best that we leave everything to His judgment instead of entrusting  our resolve behind farcical and violent 'Godmen' or pretentious clerics who we in our ignorance have permitted to proliferate.

That Islam does not permit a clergy or any human intermediaries in our 'ultimate relationship' with the Creator must not be forgotten. Hefazat needs to be damned and eradicated. The strength and resilience of our culture, 'secular' or otherwise and our faith in Allah should be good enough for the job.

New Age Xtra Friday 26th July 2013


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Secrets of sawm, and our gluttonous depravity

by Mac Haque 

"Be honest about what you do not know, modest about what you do,
Stick with what you know today, the tried and true, is the best for you" Anon

RAMADAN, the month for practicing sawm (seyam in Bengali) or abstinence and restraint has commenced. As many of us go on a diurnal fast routines that last fourteen hours or more, depending on which part of the world we live, the stereotypical understanding among Muslims is: it is the month of compassion and benevolence showered on us by Allah and only appropriate that we ‘please’ the Creator by all means possible.

Therefore, other than fasting, the list of rituals we go through are quite extensive. Pre-dawn sehri, prayers all five, recite the Qur’an and the special taraweeh prayers at night. In between, just at dusk the sumptuous iftar when we formally break our fast. The concept of fasting and abstinence, other than ‘pleasing’ the Creator, in general perception is also about ‘feeling the pangs of the poor’. 

However, fasting is not an anomalous phenomenon, and there are hardly any religions, or belief systems in the world that does not include it as an incorporated rite of faith. In Buddhism it is a ‘penitential discipline’ not limited to particular days or months, but an ongoing act of faith that has far-reaching significance than those that meet the eye. Some monks for instance fast not for days, but months surviving just on water!

It is believed that in fasting, humans reach a level of meditative transcendence that is otherwise impossible to attain. That in turn leads to contemplative bliss and ‘sparks’ a nearness to the infinite Creator — the Supreme Being. Scientifically stated, wilful yet systematic starvation does more to provoke metabolic reactions in our system that helps us gain insight into avenues of ‘access control’ — and a new beginning in a life full of discoveries. Those discoveries, however, are not limited to our physical being, but are also mind-specific. 

Fasting, if done with the right intention and earnestness, changes our mindset. Its effect on the brain has, therefore, manifold importance, and practices of ascetics and mystics dating back thousands of years only reaffirm the same. For Muslims, sawm is an ascetic practice that is virtuous and, other than cleansing the system, is in theory meant for believers to rise above human pettiness and intolerance — in other words, to attain ‘God consciousness’ or taqwa.

Ramadan is the month when the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), yet little is known about his contemplative, meditative or penitential practices in seclusion at Mount Hira. We may, therefore, surmise that the practice of sawm passed on to us some 1,500 years ago is a snapshot of the extensive physical and mental conditioning that the prophet endured in the scorching hot, barren and impassable deserts of Arabia. 

His proximity to the archangel Gabriel came because of his penance that prepared him to handle the burden and preaching the complete message from God — meant not just for Muslims, indeed for all humanity. Yet fasting was nothing new. For all monotheistic prophets from Abraham, Moses, Jesus and their respective followers, fasting and other rites of penance was an integral and, in fact, overriding aspect of faith. Preceding them, fasting was common even in pagan rites and rituals.

The baffling question is why? Why should a group of men and women starve themselves for the abject purpose of ‘pleasing’ such a difficult to explain or define entity called ‘God’? In addition, what are the immediate evidences available to validate that the act of ‘pleasing God’ benefits us in any way? Also, what conclusive proof do we at all have that ‘Allah is pleased’ after a month spent literally on a ‘hunger strike’? 

Without the need for implied, overt or covert pontification, researching lofty volumes of religious books, theological texts, or running to the nearest hujur or pir sahib for clearer understanding, if we can simply put the faculty of our common sense to appropriate use — the answers are closer at hand. While we are doing that, it may actually be a good idea to dispel the thought of ‘pleasing God’ and start looking at more human and ‘humane’ answers. 

Since the Qur’an was revealed for the guidance and benefit of mankind, the emphasis is surely on humans, ashraful makhlukat or closely meaning the ‘best of His creation’. What is of no benefit to man cannot be the focus, criteria or prerogative of any religion whatsoever and there are precisely three things that are undoubtedly ‘acts of God’ in our existence. 

Firstly our birth (hayat) or the times we live, secondly death (mauwt) and third sustenance (rizik) — and life, as we know it, revolves around these unfathomable realities. These realities are again ‘time critical’, yet it is a time that is beyond the calculative faculty of man. It is the third element, i.e. sustenance or how a square meal will be placed on the table for us and our families, and under what circumstances shall we be fed, is an equation that has of course to be worked out by humans. 

We may well place our open mouth faced skywards and pray all day long, but the truth is Allah is unlikely to drop a morsel of food from ‘heaven up high’, regardless of whether we are saints or sinners. Human have to labour for food both physically and mentally, and call it work, call it profession, the exact ratio as to how much labour will result in amount of sustenance is unknown to us. 

Sadly, it is in this one explicit duty to Allah that we have failed Him, guarantee sustenance for mankind. The issue at the end of the day is food, and hence we have been condemned to our penance and punishments, as quite clearly all our depravities began here, when we decided to deny others what was ‘common property’. 

Imagine the first humans on planet earth; let us put aside the gender-biased tautology associated with who came first, Adam or Eve, and instead ask ourselves who or what gave them sustenance. Did the earliest of humans purchase food? No they did not, because quite simply there was no ‘well stocked’ departmental or convenience store available anywhere in the near vicinity! 

Planet earth as a biological laboratory had more than enough to sustain life during the times of the first humans, as much as it is today. The Creator’s food chain was created evenly to balance out sustenance for every living creation; animals, plants, insect, beast as well as humans. Yet, somewhere down the line, things went terribly wrong. Whether it was an act of God, i.e. natural extremity such as drought, flood, storms or pestilence, the balance of the food chain was severely challenged and compromised. 

What makes us the ‘best creation’ of Allah is that He blessed us with ‘consciousness’, the understanding of right from wrong, the difference between moral and immoral, the uniqueness of being fair as opposed to being unfair, the propriety in being just from what is unjust — for these are the quintessential and compassionate traits of the Creator, that of ‘reason’ passed on to us.

However, the difference between man and beast is also very thin, and ironically, it was man that acquired territorial traits of beasts and not vice versa. Creativity too is one of the most important blessings on man from the Creator. Man used its creative faculty and acquired skills in agriculture, in hunting down animals, but on the flip side also went on to make food a ‘commodity’ for profit.

It resulted in the God-given natural food chain to be stretched thin, and whether it was hoarding by criminal intent or sheer bad luck, food shortages and hunger threatened humanity. Yet animals, plant life, insects and others continued to thrive and still do. The foreboding yet humiliating realization we have is human’s are the only species on planet earth that have to ‘buy’ food. When that happened, the terms ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ entered mankind’s vocabulary. 

A reminder: food like air and water came free to mankind from the Creator.

Today in these so-called ‘enlightened times’, we talk about ending the ‘vicious cycle of poverty’ and therefore patronisingly extend ‘credit to the poor’, while some of us even want to ‘condemn poverty to museums’ without considering that by so doing, we only demonstrate the depraved poverty of our own souls. We ourselves are responsible for our own fate — in that our Creator is neither vindictive nor evil. In our ritualistic attempts at ‘pleasing’ the Creator the attributes of benevolence, compassion and mercy eludes us. 

Man therefore is man’s biggest enemy and extending ‘credit’ as a birthright or even ‘human right’ to end poverty is not only a farcical supposition but also an affront to human dignity. ‘Credit’ is not charity and credits are extended today to as a lien to the marginalised, as a means to an end, as a tool of commerce, which leads to lewd profiteering and exploitation that spirals up to usury that no known religion or belief system on earth permits. 

So what are the lofty ideals of Ramadan and the practice of sawm that Muslims are supposed to aspire for? Is it merely going to be fasting all day that ends with gluttonous binging on food in the early evenings until night? If it is the ‘pang of the poor’ we are supposed to feel, do the so-called ‘poor’ have the luxury of indulgence of a kind we the ‘well-to-do’ or affluent most arrogantly tend to believe is an act of faith that ‘pleases’ our Creator?

Our so-called ‘religious sentiments’ are more easily ‘bruised’ than our human sentiments when rational questions are asked. Islam condones blind faith and superstitions, yet there is no denying that very few who indulge in the penultimate rites of penance sawm have even the faintest notion about its significance. All we get to read in newspapers, and all we get to see in discussions by alems and ulemas on television are about the dos and don’ts of rituals that have anything at all to do with Islam or the injunctions of the Qur’an. 

It is all about finding excuses about how not to fast, about health implications and complications, or as bizarre as whether or not, whether we can break wind in public, whether it is permissible to copulate with one’s partner during the month etc, etc. In fact, our enquiries, and even well-meaning curiosities, are meant to address anything and everything that is sickeningly carnal, as opposed to the spiritual. And it is here that we commit our gravest sin during the month of Ramadan. It is the display of our wanton greed that leads to consumerism and avarice of an unimaginable magnitude is the crux of our dilemma and we have no business to blame Allah for the same.

Ideally, sawm is meant to bring back the balance of the food chain which man has indeed compromised and reduced to a farce. It is corrective penance for mankind’s first collective crime against humanity and one that continues, and has therefore been deemed mandatory on Muslims for one month of the year. If billions of Muslims realised for once while fasting that more than ‘pleasing’ the Creator, it is a simple act meant for the welfare of mankind — of humanity, I think many of our shortcomings on faith and religion would have been addressed.

In fasting if there is any way at all we may ‘please’ our Creator, is to understand that the savings on food, due to our fasting and penance will lead on to food being stockpiled somewhere else on earth or ‘food security’ as we know it today. That in turn will guarantee that deserving humankind, whether they are Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhist, Christians, whether they are theist or ‘atheist’ may live without the pangs of hunger, without any man-made famine. 

Thus, if there is anything at all that ‘pleases’ the Creator — it is in the continuation and survival of the human species. The Qur’an (5:32) states unequivocally ‘killing one human is killing of all humanity’; therefore, in annihilation or killing, nothing can compare with one who is killed for want of food, or ‘starved to death’ as we call it.

It is not only abstinence in food that results in sawm becoming a complete cycle, the lofty ideals of restraints is correlative and comes in forcefully. Simply put, sawm exemplifies the earnestness in practice of ‘see no evil, hear no evil and commit no evil’. All three injunctions are addressed to control not just of our ‘carnal desires’ as is the popular misconception, but also put a check to greed, and the most hazardous of all, gluttony. It is perverse overconsumption of food that creates the initial conditions of greed to seep into our beings. What happens thereafter is a vicious cycle that turns to envy, lust and corruption. 

For instance, much as sawm emphasises on fasting, if we just take a stock of the amount of food we consume during iftar, (even those lavish ‘parties’ sanctioned by the government and the opposition) the food and money we waste is more than enough indicator to the state of institutionalised vulgar corporeal ‘zombies in faith’ that we have been reduced to. 

It is only in our desire to go on unrestrained food binges during Ramadan that results in price of food to skyrocket. It is evidently the sole reason as our demand for food actually outstrips supplies during the month, which is otherwise not the case in the eleven months that we do not fast! In fact, more than contributing to food chain, we create more diabolical pressures, which indeed leads on to more food shortages. Ideally, sawm is meant to bring back the balance of the food chain which man has indeed compromised and reduced to a farce, and not the other way around.

All of the above happening in a month that we are supposed to be ‘feeling the pangs of the poor’ is not only laughable, but is indicative of the innate ‘hypocrisy of modesty’ we indulge in while practising sawm. We quite shamelessly do the opposite of what we are directed by Allah to acquire. The virtues of modesty, of being able to survive and to do with the bare minimum, are lessons from Islam we conveniently forget.

The idea of ‘pleasing’ the Creator is a notorious misnomer for in reality we aim to please our olfactory and sensual desires, which translates to nothing more than greed, lascivious conducts by individuals, foul mouthing and a wanton display of the superiority of our social status. All of this contributes to downright demeaning the ideals of the piety, plurality, restraint and tolerance that Islam teaches us. The objective of attaining taqwa therefore is narrowed and boxed-in to meaningless and insensitive cultural rituals, which have absolutely no connections with Allah, the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Moreover, how more ruthless we are in our pursuit of ‘pleasing’ the Creator is all the more demonstrated during the maniacal shopping spree we jump into in the last days of Ramadan. Anywhere else in the ‘infidel West’ or even in neighbouring ‘Hindu India’ whether it is Christmas, Easter or Puja the discounts offered at retail shops and departmental stores before any major religious festival is heart rendering. These are perhaps the only times in the year, when ‘Godless profiteering’ is never the foundation of any commercial transaction.

Yet it is quite the reverse in Bangladesh. Like price of food, everything else quadruples. The latest ‘Eid fashion’ will compel or cajole you to buy dresses and accessories at insane prices and yet none seems to object or even think once that its neither dresses, nor our caps, nor the Essence of Arabia attar, or our flashy sandals that ‘pleases’ Allah. If there is anything at all that Allah will be ‘pleased’ and will judge us, it is in our intentions. 

Let our intentions therefore be pristine and pure.

With that, here is wishing everybody a rewarding Ramadan. Happy fasting and sensible feasting please!

New Age Op-Ed Thursday 18th July 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

PAPER: The Baul Movement and legacy of Fakir Lalon Shah


The social, academic and intellectual construct given to the Baul movement  of Bengal for centuries have been attempts by the elite status quo to box-in the music, lifestyle and philosophy of Fakirs, Sadhus and Sages of our time, thereby limiting them to easily explainable parameters and expected norms, practices of spirituality. Baul philosophy is however unique in that it challenges these constructs in the epochal tangents setting it apart from other ‘religions’ or beliefs. Our dominant heritage culture, especially those practised by the marginalised majority, the construed ‘subalterns’ has therefore traditionally been in conflict and at odds with the city centers. 

The objective of this essay is to give readers a concise yet coherent understanding to the basis of the Baul creed, its history, philosophy, complex spirituality and lofty ideals. It also aims to present us an opportunity to appreciate why the teachings of Fakir Lalon Shah has become so pertinent in present day Bangladesh which is beset with sectarian strife of an unimaginable magnitude, and perhaps lessons we may inculcate to the way forward.

Download or read full paper at this link

Saturday, July 13, 2013

আল্লাহ আলেক: সবার 'ধর্মীয় অনুভূতির' প্রতি শ্রদ্ধা রেখেই বলছি........

১. 'সিয়াম সাধনার মাস ' - তবে সবার ভেতরে 'খাই খাই' রব দেখে, দোকানের ভেজাল খাদ্যর গন্ধ সুঙ্গে, মানুষের সেই দোকান গুলোতে উপচেপড়া ভিড়, পয়সা খরচের হিরিক, 'ইফতার পার্টি' দাওয়াট, 'আপনি রোজা করছেন তো?' প্রশ্নবানে জর্জরিত হয়ে ভাবছি :  'রোজা রাখা' কি কেবলি সৃষ্টিকর্তাকে 'সন্তুষ্ট' করার উদ্দেশে ? 

২. না ! সিয়াম/রোজার সাথে সৃষ্টিকর্তার আদৌ কোনো সম্পর্ক আছে কি না, বা থাকতে পারে কি না, তা আমার গভীর সন্দেহ | সকল ধর্মেই কম বেশি সিয়াম/উপসনার চর্চা আছে এবং এর মূল কারণ: 'মানুষ' সহ সৃষ্টিকর্তা সকল প্রাণীর জন্য যথেষ্ট ভাবে খাদ্য ও পানীয় সদা প্রস্তুত রেখেছেন ও রাখবেন | তবে এক মানুষ জাতি ছাড়া, অন্য কোনো প্রানীকে 'পয়শা খরচ' করে খাদ্য/পানীয়ে ক্রয় করতে হয়না | তবে এটাও হবার কথা ছিলনা | প্রকৃতির খাদ্য ভান্ডারে (natural food chain) মানুষের কোনো কমতি ছিল না - আগামীতেও তার কমতি হবেনা | আমাদের সৃষ্টিকর্তা নির্দয় নন |

৩. তবে যেদিন মানুষ লোভে পড়ে খাদ্যকে 'পণ্য' বানালো, সেদিন থেকেই খাদ্য অভাব, দারিদ্রতা আমাদের উপর ছেয়ে বসলো | সৃষ্টি হলো মানুষের স্তর বিভেদ - ধনী, দরিদ্র, হতদরিদ্র ইত্যাদি | সিয়াম/উপাসনার মূল লক্ষ্য ও উদ্দেশ্য এক বেলা আমরা যদি না খেয়ে থাকি তা কেবলি 'সঞ্চয়' - নিজের জন্য না - মানুষ জাতির জন্য | অর্থাৎ প্রকৃতির খাদ্য ভান্ডারে ধারাবাহিকতার (continuation) সাথে নিজেদের একত্র করারমূল লক্ষ্য ও এক ক্ষুদ্র প্রয়াস | সেই প্রয়াসে মানুষ জাতি ছাড়া অন্য কেউ ভাগীদার না, হতেও পারেনা |

৪. রমজান মাসে কোটি কোটি মুসলমানগণ সিয়ান সাধনার থাকার মর্মঅর্থ হলো - পৃথিবীর অন্য কোনো প্রান্তে কোটি কোটি মানুষ সেই সঞ্চয় দ্বারা উপকৃত হবে, ও খেয়ে বেছে থাকবে | তারা মুসলিম, কি হিন্দু, কি বৌধ্য, কি ইহুদি, কি খ্রিস্থান কি আস্তিক বা 'নাস্তিক', তা মানুষের বিবেচ্য নয় | আমাদের কর্তব্য মানুষজাতি কে বাঁচিয়ে রাখা, এবং যদিও সৃষ্টিকর্তা সব কিছুই ভালো জানেন, ও বোঝেন - উনি কোনভাবেই মানুষ জাতির 'দুশমন' না | মানুষ জাতির বড় দুশমন - মানুষ নিজেই | 

৫. তাই যারা সিয়াম/রোজা করছেন তাদের কাছে একটা অনুরোধ, সিয়াম/উপাসনা সম্পর্কে ভালো করে জানুন | যদি অন্যদিনের তুলনায় আপনারা ইফতারে বেশি খাচ্ছেন, অতিরিক্ত খরচ করছেন, মানুষ দেখানোর জৌলুসে, 'সাচ্চা মুসলিম' সাজার ব্যর্থ চেষ্টাই লিপ্ত হচ্ছেন, মনে রাখবেন, ভোগবিলাস/ভুরি ভোজন কেবলি পাপ/গুনাহ নয় - এসকল কুকর্ম মানবতা বিরোধী অপরাধ | প্রকৃতির নিয়ম কঠিন | প্রকৃতি আমাদের এই মানব সহনভুতি বিবর্জিত 'ধর্ম চর্চা' কোনো ভাবেই ক্ষমা করবে না | প্রকৃতি প্রকৃতির নিয়মেই নিষ্টুর প্রতিশোধ নেবে |

সকলের সিয়াম সাধনা সার্থক হোক - পৃথিবীর সকল প্রাণী সুখে থাকুক | 

Friday, July 12, 2013

The corporate usurpation of cultural icons - Part 1

by Mac Haque

‘Cultural icons do what brands strive to do: to be imprinted in our consciousness. Icons are irreplaceable, incomparable and timeless, whereas many brands are commonplace, inconsistent and indistinguishable. Brands can learn a lot from cultural icons.’ Harvest, Lessons from Cultural Icons

In any discussion on culture, we narrow it down by common understanding to regimes confined to specifically fine art forms, its components, proponents or their visible exponents in our social and national life. While the broader definition of culture could easily overlap each other and get mired by definitions alone, culture as we know or identify with immediately, is no more than the dynamic interactions of our sixth senses.

The human species, unexplainable and intangible sixth sense in turn creates the stimuli as how we instantly identify, accept or reject ideas and concepts that in most cases are construct of the human mind. Other than our physical beings, humans since the dawn of civilisation have been provoked, made passionate, and have also artificially induced urges, whereby it craved and capitulated to a yearning for things that may or may not have had any number values assigned whatsoever. 

Yet when it comes to our national cultural life, many of these cravings and product of the emotion or intellect are often invaluable, priceless and precious. What therefore is identified as cultural icons in ideas or concept is; no individual or a community owns them, in fact proprietorship of such icons are owned by the public at large, the citizens of a country and to a large degree by the state, who in today’s world shoulder the gravest of responsibilities in protecting them.

What is a matter of great pride is when it comes to conflict of interest; on national cultural icons, there is usually none. It is the beauty of joint ownership by all, of such icons, the commonalities of our instant appreciation that gratifies our senses of well being and makes culture such a delectable ‘commodity’ as such.

Historically, patrons of culture – specifically those of the fine arts were hemmed in from three strata of our society, the nobility, the communities and the common man - with all contributing to nurturing its appreciation, growth and promotion. With the dawn of modern nation states, governments in turn took on and enlarged the scope, field, participation and development of culture and its many varied components. 

The support to culture leads on to aesthetic developments of individuals or groups of citizens, who then as a matter of praxis acquire a higher level of creative output in getting things done or are organised and executed, in precise, acceptable terms of reference of the masses expectations. The acquiring of talents for precision delivery of ideas in high order and sophistication is the ultimate and indispensible regime of cultural exercises of any kind.

In Bengal, until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was the nobility, the Maharajas, Kings, Emperors and feudal landlords that supported and patronised the fine arts and the components were expansive. From music, dancing, painting, drama and dramatics, literature, poetry, astrology, cosmology, agriculture, history and its recording, sculpture, to tapestry and architecture as much as food, recipes, drinks and cuisines – the list is long.  

What we have comprehensibly and collectively acquired in our beings, over the centuries is a contextual record of how culture has helped us acquire and expand our common sense of belonging and pride – and what is termed our value system or mulyobodh in Bangla. Those values in numbers were not limited as doles or a one-off cash handouts to a particular cultural component, but were distributed across to skilled people in the field for generations, and who went on to become seasoned professionals thereafter. They were largesse offered to artists, musicians, artisans etc cash grants, stipends, scholarships, land, cash and jewellery and outright purchase of artwork, holding of concerts and recitals at palaces as well as fairs and exhibitions where artwork could be bought and sold. 

The nobility and emerging elite class in turn made culture a religious discipline by encouraging contributions in promoting and constructing opulent Temples, Mosques and Minarets, Shrines, Khankas, Monasteries, Pagodas, magnificent buildings and by commissioning statues, artworks, and welfare of pilgrims etc thereby leaving a firm physical imprint of ways and means as how culture ought to be promoted, practiced and preserved for posterity. Culture soon evolved into a social byproduct and not one merely guided by rituals, but importantly in the preservation of values in society. Moral and ethical values or noitik mulyobodh evolved in our culture and took firm roots.

The outreach of the nobility and elite promotion of culture resulted in its reflection and replication down to the communities and the common man, who in turn promoted and patronised cultural regimes as well. Events having socio-religious-cultural and even commercial significance such as Pujas, Melas, Shadhu Shongo, Kirtan, Baul, Murshidi, Ma’arefoti, Jari, Shari music, funding of libraries, schools, Madrassahs, Makhtabs, to exhibitions, became part of the communities cultural value system or shamajik mulyobodh which went on to fashion socially acceptable behavioural patterns, where ethics and aesthetics both played a significant part. 

Local functions, neighbourhood talent contest, publications, stipends and scholarship became part of a community supported cultural activities and this led to newer avenues of cultural phenomenon’s and components being added specifically from our vast folklore – and the transformation and acceptance of the dominant heritage culture was completed.

However, it is the richness and diversity of our culture that also contributed to our own doom, and the advent of the early colonialist to the soil of South Asia, whether they be Portuguese, French or the British, it was our culture with its immense potentialities that enamoured them, that later turned to greed. From initial curiosity and later its real, intended or imagined promotion and patronisation to outright loot and plunder of cultural commodities and icons, history teaches us how dangerous it is, if preservation and conservation routines are not included into the regimes of culture or for that matter even ‘cultural policing’. 

While we go about promoting culture, do we even have the flimsiest of knowledge as how culture can be usurped and what contextual historical records available have repeatedly taught us or have left many a disappointing examples? If we trace back the history of Dhaka muslin for instance, a fabric that evolved around the 9th Century in Bangladesh, we may be able to focus on how and why we lost this most precious cultural commodity of a kind unknown anywhere in the world. 

The Greeks are slated to be among the first to trade in muslin and by the time the British arrived in our soil, after praising and eulogising the fabric for decades on how Persian and European nobility purchased them in ‘price of gold’ and its multiple use i.e. funnel for decanting wine vessels, separating mush from any fruit, and cheese making,  beekeeping, to use in defusing lights at theatres, or still photography as well as stopping bleeding during neurosurgery – it set about a destruction of this priceless cultural icon by criminally amputating the fingers of the finest Dhaka muslin weavers!

And the plain reason for such horrific cultural crimes was the British wanted to popularise and promote Manchester – then churning out machine made yarns and fabrics at a fraction of the cost of muslins. Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence of weaving and wearing handlooms fabrics set the tone and standards of cultural resistance to the British as much as that of Independence after nearly 200 years of domination. It also heralded the dawn of the Industrial age, and warning bells were sounded on the ultimate demise of cultural commodities that evolved, or were developed over centuries by our own people. The impending threats to traditional knowledge and the culture they represent was never, ever so pronounced.

As a continuation of cultural icon’s usurpation and pilferage; by the time the British left the soils of India, most of what we have treasured including the Kohinoor diamond (originally from mines in Andhra Pradesh) or the Peacock Throne of the Mughals were looted and taken to Britain as ‘spoils of war’ where it remains as even today, sitting shamelessly on the pretty head and throne of the Queen of England.

Whatever may have been our historical millstones to cultural aspirations, there is no denying that we Bengalis as a race have always been at the forefront of major cultural renaissances in South Asia. The Bengali’s natural creative instinct is not only sophisticated and of very high order, they have been aptly and repeatedly demonstrated in all our major political struggles, resistance and the revolutions, which we have been pitted into for centuries. An idyllic race that produces poets, philosophers, artisans and musicians, Bengal has always been the defacto cultural capital of South Asia, a hub that bridged the expanse to Europe and Persia in the West as well as to South East Asia in its heydays.

Despite all of the above, the cause for our culture often being brutally compromised is our racially self-degrading penchant and ‘love’ for anything foreign – and/or foreigners, and a frustratingly paralysed inability to understand the fine and thin line that cuts through culture and commerce. When it comes to marketing ourselves, we have only heralded disasters. 

Least recognised yet highly relevant is the point that be it the French, British or even the Pakistani colonisers, their first thrust at occupation of our land and eventually the reasons for our misfortune is their entry were for innocuous reasons – trade and commerce.  Bengalis have traditionally been good sellers of produce, they were never marketeers, consequently it never evolved as a ‘mercantile race’, and there has always been a serious paucity of good business Managers too, yet an abundance of clerks and lowly intermediaries – agents and brokers. 

History therefore records and reveals the inherent naivety of our ancestors, encouraged the occupiers to take away much more than what was merely tangible. The agenda for cultural hegemonies of outsiders was never recognised or understood and one seriously doubts, whether we do so now. 

The independence of Bangladesh in 1971 was just not the culmination of a political struggle against oppression by our then Pakistani masters, but precisely a cultural struggle of a dimension that is rare, almost non-existent in the history of the world. The Pakistanis pursued the policy of divide and rule of the British in its oppressive policies, in the loot and plunder, and those attempts at divisions were essentially to thwart the historical march and strides of our culture. 

First, it was the Bengali language, which rubbed Mohammad Ali Jinnah the wrong way, and in arrogantly demanding that Urdu be declared the national language of Pakistan, he argued that Urdu was necessary for forging national unity among the Muslim population of Pakistan. Ironically, Jinnah himself could neither speak Urdu, nor was there a shred of evidence available that he was a scrupulously practicing Muslim! 

What was uncorked thereafter were double genies, the first led to the Language Movement in 1952 that eventually saw the demise of the geographical absurdity, East Pakistan and birth of a new nation Bangladesh, in 1971, the first of its kind in South Asia after the British inevitable departure from South Asia, in 1947. 

The second genie was that of communalism, a British invention and until their arrival in India, a mindset that was unknown and unthinkable in our culture. 1971 proved the strength of Bangladesh’s culture in somewhat stemming and ebbing the flow of communalism and sectarian hatred.

What needs to be understood is the 1952 Language Movement incorporated and introduced by default, two specific cultural components into our national life. The first was the immortal song amar bhai er roktey rangano Ekushey February, ami ki bhulite pari (my brother's blood drenched day 21st February, can I ever forget) which reverberated across the length and breadth of the fertile delta and still does so sixty one years later – was the intangible aspect to the movement. It is unconceivable to imagine Ekushey in the Bengali psyche without the song.

The second was the emplacement of a tangible aspect to the movement. The Shaheed Minar – a secular Minaret to the Martyrs – and the formal induction of the first of many cultural icons into the heart of Bangladesh was completed. be continued

New Age XTRA, Friday 17th July 2013