Bangladesh: No country is safe anymore

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Religious bigotry, intolerance and the discourse of exclusivity are affecting the entire subcontinent, and not merely Bangladesh, argues Mollica Dastider.
"It is a question of ideology. We are against fanaticism while they are against secularism", claimed a shaken Sheikh Hasina Wajed, opposition leader of Bangladesh, after surviving an assassination attempt during a political rally in Dhaka.
The rally was, among other things, to protest against the government's sponsoring of religious extremist forces. Politics in Bangladesh, in keeping with the trend in the subcontinent, has taken a decisive turn towards extreme polarization on this issue. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its radical Islamist allies insist on a more explicitly Islamic identity of the Bangladeshi people, the opposition Awami League has been forced to spell out its anti-fundamentalist position.

"[It] is high time for all to offer a united resistance [to religious fanatics]," Hasina urged, "otherwise none [in] this country will ever be safe." However, Begum Khaleda Zia's political secretary told the BBC that Bangladesh remains "established and identified as a moderate Islamic country". But the recent assertions of Islamist terrorist groups in this fourth-largest Muslim majority country of the world clearly shows that battle lines are drawn between the fanatics, democrats and secularists"here.

The growing erosion of secular values is well demonstrated by the visible apathy of the BNP regime in bringing to book the zealots who indulge in terror. The alarming rise in Islamist militancy is particularly evident in north-eastern Sylhet and the Chittagong provinces, where subversive activities reached a peak in May this year. While a grenade attack injured the visiting British high commissioner at a Sufi shrine in Sylhet, the militants killed a senior Awami League leader in Satkhira, murdered a newspaper editor and, more recently, killed another Awami League activist in Sylhet. Besides threatening to stop the circulation of the country's leading daily, Pratham Alo, for reporting extremist activities in Chittagong, they have managed to back up their persecution of the Ahmadiya community with a government ban on the latter's worship and literature.

These developments, together with the apparent unconcern of the regime in expediting investigations into violence, only underscore the belief that the BNP's coalition partners Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote simply do not want the government to pursue the terrorists. The public reiteration of the jihadis to kill Hasina Wajed further exposes the immunity enjoyed by them in the country's civil and political space.

Even though the Awami League has been at the receiving end of extremist ire, its secular credentials are also open to question. When it enjoyed power in the past, the party showed a clear lack of political will to check the activities of pro-taliban Islamic radicals, apparently so as not to lose support of the Islamic constituencies in the country.

Hasina Wajed's public appearance as a devout Muslim during the 2001 general elections illustrated this aptly. Furthermore, on the eve of the elections, when systematic violence was unleashed against religious minorities in the countryside to deter them from exercising their voting rights, the Awami League did little to resist the persecution. Despite its well-entrenched support base in rural Bangladesh, the party sought to silently tide over the episode, lest it be branded anti-Islamist before the general elections. Nonetheless, its current desperation to save Bangladeshi civil and political society from fanatics calls for the urgent attention of democratic forces of all hues.

From the partition of Bengal on the basis of the "two nation" theory, to the assertion of Bengali nationalism against Pakistan to the latest refashioning of an Islamic identity the history of Bangladesh has proceeded in a strange spiral. If the native peasantry's Islamic identity was the original ground to secede from a Hindu zamindar-dominated Bengal, for East Pakistan, this identity mattered little during its struggle against the Urdu-speaking Pakistani rulers. Yet the centrality of Bengali language and cultural nationalism that so animated the liberation of Bangladesh seems powerless today to resist a return to an orthodox Islamic fold. In effect, this Islamic Bangladeshi identity aims to dissolve, once and for all, the shared space of Bangladeshi people with the Indian and Hindu Bengalis, and to deny the cultural traditions that upset all exclusive nationalist frameworks and religious borders.

The BNP is now intent on appropriating Islamic symbols for its legitimacy. But the supervening role of Islam was reiterated in the Eighties when General H.M. Ershad declared Islam as state religion. This process has met with sporadic but powerful public resistance, but has been unleashed once more in recent years. The aim is to drive a permanent wedge between the Islamic and the syncretic Bengal, erasing residues of the secular Bengali nationalism once upheld by the constitution of Bangladesh.

Of course, the rise of "Islamophobia" in the Anglo-American bloc makes it easy for fundamentalists across the world (Christian right, the Zionists and Hindutvavadis) to equate Islam with terrorism. But the appeal of Islamist militancy among the poor and marginalized in Muslim majority countries is also taken as a licence by political elites to flirt with the forces of Islamic obscurantism. The primary identity of the Bangladeshi people is an emotional and ideological battleground today, making it extremely vulnerable to intolerant discourses of exclusivity.

In fact, rather than isolate the case of Bangladesh, one needs to recognize that religious bigotry, intolerance and the discourse of exclusivity are factors affecting the subcontinent-- partitioned once on these grounds already. Such factors have not only led to a renewed and bitter polarization between the religious right and the tolerant liberals around us, but there is also a distinct parallel in the modus operandi of the forces involved. In its new avatar, religious majoritarianism has shrewdly resurfaced as a majority community-based nationalism, trying to eliminate inherent differences in our plural contexts, targeting minorities and fomenting waves of assault and subjugation in a ploy to gain political power. The overwhelming presence of the Hindutva forces in India, the first-ever electoral success of Jamaat-e-Islam in Bangladesh and the pro-taliban Muttahida Majlis-e Amal in Pakistan, are all symptomatic of this particular development. The polarization in Bangladesh between Muslims and non-Muslims is no different from that in India.

Should this be taken to mean that religious extremism in one country is in reaction to the extremism spawned in the neighbouring land? This theory has many takers even among seasoned observers who explain the developments in Bangladesh as a response to prior developments in India and in the West. Not surprisingly, Bangladeshi fundamentalists warm up to such explanations quite easily, and their representatives spare no effort in underscoring the point. No one can deny that the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 and the subsequent rise of the Hindu right in India did play an extremely significant role in the process. But the adoption of this reaction theory in effect leads one to unduly ignore the internal factors behind Bangladesh's Islamization, factors that reveal the relative lack of its development under successive regimes. More important, such a view wrongly pits the Hindu right and Islamist right as antagonist forces, missing their underlying proximity in action and rhetoric.

The factor that binds these forces together is their identical hate campaigns against the respective religious other-- Muslims in India and Hindus in Bangladesh. The so-called cultural nationalist agendas are premised upon excluding the other in each context, which becomes the self in another location. This is how they draw a positive sustenance from the mutual conflict, targeting in common the democratic ethos of the region. Thus, we are told that nationalism is another word for Hindutva by the Bharatiya Janata Party after its chintan baithak in Goa, or that Uma Bharti is a staunch nationalist fighting the "pro-Muslim, anti-national" Congress in India.

On a similar vein, the Bangladeshi Islamists adopt a nationalist pose and dismiss the minority persecution in their country as mere "anti-Bangladesh campaign" by the "pro-India" opposition of Sheikh Hasina. Together, they constitute a south Asian political fraternity, and this is what political analysts need to recognize.

The author is fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Originally published in The Telegraph, September 21, 2004