Geography lessons from a bygone era teach that Bangladesh is the land of rivers and mosques. The rivers have waned and shrivelled, but the mosques have thrived, many assuming a nefarious cloak. Like his idol Anwar al-Awlaki, Jashimuddin Rahmani, the spiritual leader of Islamists in the country, delivered many an influential sermon at his prominent mosque, diligently attended by a growing horde of followers. His station gave him credibility, enabling him to promulgate and proliferate hate speech as religion. He was not alone. The radical bent of Salafi and Wahhabi Islam has become institutionalised at these monoliths as the propagation of an increasingly conservative ideology has gone unchallenged. Preachers lacking proper education and sound theological footing are accepted as infallible authorities on a religion that the majority of the population neither understand nor wish to. The glorification of Islam, made absolutely, and its superiority above all else, have established intolerance as a commendable value in Bangladesh, to be cherished and practised by society.
The academic world has not guarded against the conflation of religion and extremism. Education focuses on the end product rather than the process, geared not towards learning, understanding and growing, but perfecting the retention and regurgitation of information in pursuit of a better pecuniary life. This system, absent nuance, complements the circumscription being enforced by the fundamentalist approach to religion. Common sermons during Jumu’ah prayers attribute the invention of the wheel and mathematics to Islam. The lines between religion and science do not exist as it is asserted that the Quran can never be burnt, and that Neil Armstrong heard azaan when he landed on the moon, prompting him to convert and espouse the virtues of the greatest religion on earth and beyond. Arabic graffiti went up on walls, relying on the sanctity of the hallowed script to stop public urination in a capital where people tell time by the ever-present melodies of azaan.
Attending Jumu’ah on Fridays is a social convention children were born into. Since the introduction of Islam into the political sphere by the relentless efforts of two successive, self-serving military dictators – Ziaur Rahman and H. M. Ershad – ably assisted by agents of the Pakistani military junta whom they had rehabilitated to solidify their reigns, mosques, comprised of erect bamboo sticks supporting rusty tin roofs, became large, permanent concrete structures in a constant state of growth. The imams started to go from door to door, to convince parents that it was a requirement for boys and girls on the cusp of adulthood to recite the Quran in Arabic at least twice. Upon completion of this sacred task, the number of recitations increased so that the imams could keep visiting homes. The lessons would include explanations of what impressionable minds learnt to parrot, but never understand. Verses were abstractly translated to say that the Quran decreed a mistrust of Jews and Hindus. Boys were motivated to attend mosque five times a day, to make their offerings purer. Girls were commanded to bow their heads, never to lift them in this life for peace in the next. Milad mahfils – religious gatherings – led by the same imams encouraged saying farewell with “Allah Hafez” instead of “Khuda Hafez”, because the former was more Islamic. The mosques chose to epitomise ritualism to guarantee compliance instead of being community fulcra with positive social projects. Bangladeshis obeyed, seeking validation from their kith and kin with exaggerated displays of religiosity.
The urban classes never refuted these claims as their numbers grew, thereby allowing the declarations to be updated, to move with the times. It is the internet that is now a Muslim invention, corrupted by heathens with rationality and rationalism. The deification of Islam is tempered with a loud message that the religion and its holy disciples are oppressed the world over. Repetition has made facts of these assertions, and failure to challenge them has altered public perception. Islam is a religion whose evolution has been deliberately stifled due to its convergence with politics in Bangladesh. Islamism, the bane of the Muslim world, has perpetually immured the religion in the Dark Ages. Knowledge, critical thinking and intellectual curiosity are shunned, a religion of rituals is valued. These contribute to an illegal entrapment – the pulpit is beyond reproach, and, since being a good Muslim is more important than being an enlightened human being, the pulpit shines the only light in an otherwise dark world. Intolerance, conformity and subjugation are, hence, confused for devoutness. In a world where digital jihad is waged by digital caliphates, the convolution of Islam and Islamism – brought forth by a symbolic, superficial commitment to dogma instead of seeking to understand the religion – have made all strata of Dhaka, and, by extension Bangladeshi society vulnerable to pledging undying allegiance to a deadly higher purpose. Murder being reprehensible, illegal, was once a moral absolute. In time, killing in the name of a higher power has made murder a moral obligation, the justification tacitly and conspicuously accepted, applied.
The social devolution from enlightenment to subservience may not have occurred without thoughtless political machinations. A carefully calibrated convolution of religion and politics, to further a political agenda masked as piety, exists in all religions, in all societies. It is unfortunate that, owing to Britain and its great allies the US and Saudi Arabia, the Islamic brand of the same is better funded than its counterparts, lending Islam the ignominy of a growing, but undesirable ubiquity with politically motivated staunch, indubitable conservatism. In this era of politics and power being beholden to money, substantial and dedicated wealth is an insurmountable resource, accounting for the foremost pathway to victory. Decades of diligent, unabated cultivation of a dangerous ideology amongst the growing numbers of Salafi and Wahhabi sympathisers, supporters and disciples, has turned this population into a vociferous majority, rather than a fringe minority, amongst Bangladeshis at home and abroad. They use their wealth and influence to ensure the import and promulgation of an ideology that is incendiary, hostile and foreign to Bangladesh and its socio-cultural composition. Observers naïvely mistake the Islamists’ negligible electoral clout for insignificance. They have been relentless in their pursuit of winning the battle of ideas, and, forty-six years after suffering a major defeat in the form of Bangladesh emerging as an independent nation, they stand on the threshold of winning the battle and the war. The country they never wanted is being made in their image.
In spite of bringing the subcontinent to heel, the British Raj – a heinous capitalist endeavour that revealed the carefully guarded empire within when the skin of the East India Company was shed – did not proselytise with enough fervour, to create a Christian serfdom in the subcontinent. Divide and rule was, thus, its favoured governing principle, and it was used to devastating effect by an unconscionable, hypocritical British establishment whose arrogance overrides human decency to this day. Indeed, it is Britain’s continued happy collusion with radical Islam, that is at the centre of both the insistence to strictly codify the religion along Salafi and Wahhabi lines, thus reversing the natural enlightenment that comes with evolution of a philosophy or a faith, and the rising Islamophobia, born of a mistrust of radicalism and its consequences. There is no end in sight for Islamism, because the real global extremist and terrorist infrastructures would neither exist nor be preserved without British – and, indeed, American – foreign policy.
By the time the twentieth century began, Bengal had organically developed its own version of secularism over centuries. Whereas Western secularism rests on disavowing religious views altogether, the coexistence of opposing religious views developed secularism in the subcontinent. It may have been tense at times, but the British Raj provided a common enemy, and fighting it ensured equality, harmony and socialism became central to the principles of Bengali secularism. The Fakir-Sannyasi rebellion of the eighteenth century, where Muslim and Hindu ascetics came together against the Company Raj, was a testament to this. Pluralism induced the practice of a syncretic Islam to blossom. The Indian Uprising of 1857 had forced the Crown to dissolve the East India Company and assume power directly. In their bid to subjugate their forced, malcontent subjects, the British initiated a policy of inciting communalism amongst the Hindu and Muslim populations in 1870, encouraging them to define themselves by their respective religions, and organise politically in accordance with these religious identities. The Penal Code of 1860, which remains in effect to this day, enshrined the criminality of hurting religious sentiments – i.e. blasphemy – and homosexuality in law. The forced religious ethnocentrism was inclined towards causing rifts that would distract the self-determination demands of the nascent Indian nationalist movement. Instigated by the British, the All-India Muslim League – progenitor of Pakistani political parties, including the Awami Muslim League – was formed during this time. The parochial policy culminated in Bengal being divided along religious lines in 1905, to quash simmering dissent. It was a political decision, intended to turn the oppressed population against one another, thereby allowing the coloniser to extend its rule. Although this ill-conceived British experiment was aborted in 1911, its essence survived. Communalism grew at the coloniser’s behest, and the Two Nation Theory was developed by, and became popular amongst Muslims, with the enthusiastic assistance of the British. Over a century after the reunification of Bengal, its independent spiritual successor continues to fight for freedom and its soul, and attempt to define its identity. Politicisation of religion, paving the way to radical Islamisation, remains Bangladesh’s antagonist-in-chief.
The British divide and rule policy was resuscitated at the end of the Raj in 1947, when hard power colonialism metamorphosed into soft power and dark money imperialism. The communalism that the British had fostered erupted into violence, robbing millions of their homes and lives. Bengal became the embodiment of the Two Nation Theory, as religion was all that was given consideration in defining the populace. Geography provided logic: West and East Pakistan were separated by a country that Pakistan had refused to join, thus making conflict inexorable. West Pakistan, the larger landmass, was the seat of power, administrating East Pakistan and its larger population. The inevitability of disparity was borne out, as a country effectively colonised one part of itself. Islamisation was derived from West Pakistan. Islam, the purported unifying force, therefore became divisive, and mutated into a key weapon of oppression. The dormant Bengali secularism found its second wind, to become the basis for an opposition to West Pakistan’s tyranny. 1952 provided a flashpoint that solidified secularism as the definitive Bengali identity. The Arabic script of Urdu was deemed to be pure, and it was decreed to be the only national language of all of Pakistan. It was an explicit statement that progressive values and culture were to be sacrificed at the altar of Islamism, to facilitate the interests of those who wanted to control and rule. East Pakistanis accounting for more than half of Pakistan’s population meant that Bengali was the language of the majority. Bengali nationalists organised a peaceful protest against the central government’s decision regarding Urdu in Dhaka on 21 February 1952. Under orders from the government, police opened fire on the protesters near the University of Dhaka. The Liberation War is at once seen as a seminal socio-political point and its genesis within Bangladesh. Therefore, both sides of the political divide have sought to claim credit for declaring independence, and leading the charge for it. In this, the politicians are wholly wrong. The idea of independence had been conceived by the social and cultural intellectuals of the then East Pakistan. It was being discussed openly by them when Awami League was still known as Awami Muslim League, the de facto umbrella party for East Pakistani politics. Secularism was enshrined in Bengali nationalism, epitomised by the Language Movement of 1952, which preordained independence.
Mahbub ul Alam Chowdhury was a man entering his twenties in 1947. Although a Muslim, he had had a non-communal porna – a public coming of age ceremony, marking the beginning of one’s academic life – where a Muslim ulama, a Hindu pundit and a Christian scholar had led proceedings in unison. Dispensing with the religious promises that these ceremonies made when led by Muslim priests, he had repeated words that submitted him to knowledge, honesty and enlightenment. Pledging himself to the secular and socialist mores of a suppressed intelligentsia mustered from the oppressed East Pakistani citizenry, he edited and published Shimanto between 1947 and 1952. It was a monthly magazine that defied the constructs of the border decreed by Partition, traversing East and West Bengal to strengthen social and political ideologies through cultural activism. Eschewing the artificial and constrictive Islamic – metamorphosing into Islamist – identity that was being forced upon the population, it favoured a more complex and inclusive definition of the people. On the evening of 21 February 1952, an ailing, bed-ridden Chowdhury composed Kandte Ashini, Phashir Dabi Niye Eshechhi, a seventeen-page demand for justice, equality and freedom that was the first poem written about the Language Movement. The poem was unequivocal about independence, testifying to the fact that it was already alive as a concept in the intellectual circles, even though the political leaders were yet to venture that far. His subsequent fugitive status, owing to sedition and treason charges, resulted in Shimanto being banned. It was never revived, neither in print nor in spirit. This exemplifies the calculated extermination of freethinking and progressive values in Bangladesh, that dates back to before it came to be. In the process, the mythical moderate or liberal Muslim that Chowdhury personified has become ever more elusive.
In Kandte Ashini, Phashir Dabi Niye Eshechhi, Chowdhury spoke of Aloal, Rabindranath Tagore, Kaykobad, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jasimuddin, Ramesh Shil, of Bhatiali, Baul, Kirtan, Ghazal. In subsequent years, the Language Movement has been adulterated by the politics of identity, to preserve a Bengali nationalism at the expense of indigenous peoples. However, the inclusive message of the first poem of Ekushey could not be more explicit. Bengali was the language that allowed the majority of Bangladeshis to broaden their minds, to educate themselves, to embrace progressiveness. It was the language in which they found the world, in which they paid respect to others, and demanded respect from others. To Bangladesh, it represents freedom. In 2017, the month of Ekushey began with the news that the ruling Awami League had made changes to the national curriculum and textbooks, removing ethnic and religious minorities to codify conservative Islamic values in line with Salafism and Wahhabism. The country’s education is being reformed to comply with Islamists, its people being indoctrinated into Islamism. The opportunistic civil society – whose members backed the human rights-abusing military regime of 2006-2008, with the West’s blessing – has largely tried to convince people that this is a necessary, nay, ingenious political gambit. The elite class, meanwhile, remains unaffected by virtue of being able to buy itself out of any mess it helps create, and, therefore, bleats on about development and economic strides being made by the country. That its very soul is rotting away seems not to prick the conscience of these self-aggrandising individuals, whose avarice is complicit. Such proud men and women cannot possibly be utter imbeciles, which means that they are deliberately choosing to delude themselves, lying to everyone else as they bury their heads in the sand. Shamsuzzoha Manik, Faisal Arefin Dipan’s Jagriti, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul’s Shuddhashar – these were amongst the names absent at this year’s Ekushey Boi Mela (Ekushey book fair, the annual book fair held throughout February). Avijit Roy’s books were nowhere to be found, nor were the writings of Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman and Niloy Chatterjee, or issues of Roopbaan magazine. These are not members of the elite or upper classes, rather fledgling intellectuals representative of the average Bangladeshi. The Islamists may have brought machetes down on them, cutting through flesh and into bone with cries of “Allahu Akbar”, but it is the Bangladeshi society that has, collectively, erased them, erased progressive values and freethinking. Kandte Ashini, Phashir Dabi Niye Eshechhi was recited at Shaheed Minar on 21 February 2017, but that may have been the last time the poem was heard. Its meaning has been lost, it too will be erased.
Man forbids in God’s name, and a country meekly acquiesces to darkness, presenting the plunge into the abyss as piety. Jamaat-e-Islami and its allies and benefactors introduced the all-consuming ideology into Bangladesh’s bloodstream. Once inserted, it can neither be tamed nor controlled. The ideology has mutated, forcing the groups and people espousing it to become fundamentalists and extremists. Heafazat-e-Islam, AQIS and ISIS now keep Jamaat company.Since the religious right, replete with extremism and driving fundamentalism, is the preserve of the BNP and Jamaat, the Awami League has actively appeased Islamism as a populist strategy, evidently to also ward off any domestic and international political reprisals. The result is a choice between the arsonists and the shopkeeper selling matches and accelerants, to trust to put the fire out. Whatever comes next – either the improbable continuation of the Awami League regime for eternity, or a fiercer force to replace it – will, at best, continue the current policy of appeasing a far right religious ideology, forcing the populace to submit to unconscionable, indefensible, oppressive principles. At worst, the successors will dispense with pretence altogether, and overtly implement the same. Bangladeshi politicians have sold the family silver to Islamists. The ideologues want the stainless steel too. By the time that has been surrendered, and there is nothing left, non-compliance will have been completely eradicated. Each passing day sees intolerance and extremism constitutionally, morally and nationalistically mandated.
As the rise in xenophobia and bigotry in the wake of Brexit and Trump are explained away without reference to the undeniable causal relationship, so right-wing apologia in Bangladesh denies the root cause of fundamentalism. The House of Saud, first midwifed then propped up by Britain, replaced pluralistic Islam with puritanical conservatism in the Middle East and the Ottoman lands. Wahhabi and Salafi proxies have done the same in independent Bengal. The name may differ from Jamaat to Hefazat to any one of the terrorist groups, but the Islamist ideology that fathered them is the same. The detestable attacks are symptoms, not the disease. There is no treatment in sight for the symptoms, let alone a cure for the disease. Islam may be the religion of peace, of enlightenment, of prosperity and much more. That message has been drowned out by those proselytising the most, with a view to weaponising the religion, to control the masses. Islamism is silencing discourse, and pushing the positive lessons and wisdom of an old religion to the ever-diminishing margins. As Islam is being methodically corrupted, the Bangladeshi identity is being deliberately lost. Trickle-down economics is a myth perpetuated by those at the top of the capitalist pyramid, to justify their unfettered accumulation of wealth. Trickle-down faith has been the pre-eminent theory amongst the evangelists, whose domain is the corridors of power, not the alcoves of divinity. Preaching reason and tolerance in this terrain are treacherous acts of dissent.
Dissent and Bangladesh are synonymous, a historical identity that has defied overwhelming forces. Artificial selection, brought to bear by relentless Islamism, may, finally, have extinguished it, and, in so doing, has ensured the extinction of tolerance and reason. Lines on a map unveiled an independent country in 1971, but it has succumbed to the veil of intolerance. Born to eschew Islamism, Bangladesh has surrendered to it. The nation has failed to fulfil its purpose and deliver on its promise, sacrificing its culture, identity and soul to socio-political machinations. “Centuries of struggle later, we have an independent Bangladesh, but in it, we have remained Muslims and Hindus, and failed to be human beings,” lamented Mahbub ul Alam Chowdhury at the start of the twenty-first century, commenting on the nation’s increasing submission to fundamentalist ideology. The knowledge, honesty and enlightenment he sought, he submitted himself to at his secular porna, have eroded away. Only dissent – individual, collective, organised – can reverse this forced definition, and save Bangladesh from being consumed by an intolerant, indomitable entity that has been the bane of many countries, many civilisations.