Bangladesh: Josh tones and suicide bombers

South Asia Citizen's Wire
"Because of the prohibition of all organisations in opposition to the "party" of the Shah, the opposition tended to gather in the mosques.
This is particularly so for the peasant, the middle class, and even for the merchant class opposition to the regime of the Shah.
Because of the failures of the Communist Party and radicals, even to attempt to organise opposition within the ranks of the [Iranian] working class, discontent surfaced at the mosques. Radical sermons were preached, which though cloudy and nebulous, were interpreted by the masses in their own fashion." - Ted Grant, February 9, 1979

Violence-- nihilistic and escalating-- is not new to our society which has oscillated between dictatorship and democracy for 34 years. But the nature (suicide bombers) and the source (militant Islamist groups) are perceived to be a "new equation". Evidence points to groups like JMB, but some parts of the puzzle remain unresolved. I abhor paranoid conspiracy theories, but the current crisis will not end with mass arrests and confessions from "JMB cadres". The real puppet-masters remain hidden.

At the same time, responsible activists cannot engage in these debates for too long-- because we quickly discover that our government is using the "hidden forces" theory as a justification for inaction. In the interest of pushing this administration to do something, anything, focus has to remain on the factors that are visible and in our control. That is to say: militant groups, unmonitored funding, arms smuggling, and madrasa education curriculum and post-madrasa unemployment.

Pause for a second to consider the psychology of the suicide bombers. Regardless of who has trained them, on an individual level they have rejected the escalating "modernity" project represented by the mushrooming of an aggressive consumerist culture (or you could argue consumerism has rejected them). The militant recruits can't afford to drink Coke, have Josh ring tones, buy bar-coded fruit at Agora or wear jeans from Westecs. Within their violent, anarchic program (what Tariq Ali calls "Islamo-anarchists") is also fury at an economic system that has left them behind.

It is tempting to dismiss militants as "mindless robots." On December 23d, I was with a group of activists who were witness to the latest anti-Ahmadiya rallies by the (now divided) Khatme Nabuwat. It was easy to comfort ourselves by looking at the faces and categorizing them as bribed or coerced. But what about those who truly believe they are in a war against jahiliya, represented by today's Bangladesh?

Mere patronizing or stereotyping is not enough to deal with this growing faction. These groups are getting stronger precisely because we have provided no alternative. However JMB, Khatme Nabuwat, Harkat-ul-Jihad, Amra Dhakabashi, Allahr Dal, Lashkar e Taiba or other groups have sprung up (external funding, internal manipulation, neglect by government, ex-Shibir cadres who move on to more radical groups), we need to look at the failure of secular and/or left politics that has led to young, angry, poor men looking for answers elsewhere.

The rise of Political Islam is filling the vacuum left by the collapse of progressive politics. Today's left is toothless and fossilized (go to any party meeting and survey the average age of the room). For angry young men who want to fight an unjust society, the only remaining destination seems to be Political Islam. And for those who are impatient even with Jamaat's methodical Islamization program, militant groups offer armed uprisings to speed up the arrival of the Caliphate.

There is an ironic parallel between racial profiling of Western Muslims after 9/11, and our own profiling of Muslim militants. Bearded men in crowded public spaces seem to be cause for immediate alarm these days, as at a recent Public Library film screening where a musolli wandered in while looking for the namaj ghor. While we support law enforcement stopping militant groups, we must also make sure human rights are not violated in this process. If we start brutalizing every madrasa student as "the other", we will only drive them further into the arms of the militant groups. I was relieved that recent police action prevented Khatme Nabuwat from attacking the Ahmadiya mosque. At the same time, I worry that photos of Khatme workers being beaten by police (like the bloody photo Inqilab printed) will make them martyrs and attract new recruits. It is worth remembering how the Egyptian state's brutal repression of Muslim Brotherhood gave them hero status and increased their support. We must firmly stop violent militant groups, but we also have to make sure that our actions don't result in these groups getting sympathetic support.

On the surface, it appears that "mainstream" Islamist parties like Jamaat are hurt by all this. In the past, they always had to deal with the taint of 1971. But as time passes and memories fade (aided by an official policy of erasure), the rajakar label has lost edge as a political weapon. Today's Jamaat is well on its way to rebranding itself as a "moderate Muslim party." But, the theory goes, if bombings discredit Islamist politics Jamaat will pay the price at polls. But is that really true? Note how carefully Jamaat, through its political apparatus, and affiliated satellites like the Baitul Mokarram khatib, has spoken out against bombings. On a recent Friday, I found myself in the middle of a rally coming out from Katabon mosque. Post-Jumma prayer musollis raised loud chants: "bombaji kore jara/islamer shotru thara" (those who throw bombs/are enemies of islam). An emboldened Jamaat just held a mammoth anti-bombing rally in Paltan, advertised by rickshaw mikes blaring "Jamaat e Islami Jindabad!"

So now we have "factions" within Political Islam: you have Jamaat positioning itself as "good Islam" to differentiate from the "bad Islam" of the militant groups. The ground beneath our feet has shifted dramatically. All debate is happening within the paradigm of Islamist politics. Even secular politicians now feel obliged to quote from the Quran and say, "bombers are doing un-Islamic things". So militant groups have already succeeded-- the terrain has transformed to one where political rhetoric is confined within the Islamic framework. If Islamist politics is the all-encompassing box, the JMB bombings can benefit Jamaat as the "moderate" Islamists that speak "against" bombings. Recall a time in the near past when Jamaat meant Shibir which meant rajakar, rog-kata and ramda. Now all those signifiers of violence and intolerance have been neatly transferred from Jamaat to groups like JMB. Even the anti-Ahmadiya movement, which was Jamaat's first success in 1950s Pakistan, is now linked to Khatme. Jamaat's militant, street action model of the past has now been taken up by newer groups, and they are free to reinvent themselves as "tolerant democrats"!

As the debate bounces between "good" and "bad" Islam and the left fades out, the politics of economic justice have been obliterated. To give only one example, thousands of workers were fired when Adamjee Jute Mills closed down, but newspapers were dominated by debates over Arabization of Zia airport, French hijab ban, Ahmadiya Muslims, and Guantanamo Quran desecration.

In the middle of an unprecedented crisis, we are still stuck with the motifs of hartals, statements, blame games, and stalled investigations. BNP is already cornered by the current situation, but AL doesn't understand that if the country collapses, they won't be able to run it either. If a third force emerges that no one can predict or control, Bangladesh could turn into an international war zone. Unless we wake up to the need for national unity to stop the militant groups, even this far-fetched scenario could come true. If that happens, we will be living in a country where all the wrangling about strikes, parliament boycott, and caretaker government will seem like relics of a more innocent time.

Naeem Mohaiemen is director of, a film/art installation by a group of artist-activists on post 9/11 civil liberties of Western Muslims.

Originally published by Naeem Mohaiemen in the Daily Star (Bangladesh)
December 29, 2005