Friday, March 11, 2005

RE-Axe: Is Bangladesh terrorism a ‘flip-side of Pakistani terrorism’?

It is a bit puzzling as to why the Daily Times editorial criticises a 'Bangladeshi journalist' by paraphrasing sections of his article, without naming the 'journalist' or the Karachi daily, Dawn. Actually the so-called journalist is the present writer who has been an academic for the last thirty odd-years having taught at universities in Bangladesh, Australia, Singapore and Canada - Islam, Pakistan and Bangladesh history, anthropology and politics being the main areas of his research, publication and teaching. The Daily Times editorial has taken me to task for challenging Griswold's sweeping assertion that Bangladesh was soon going to experience an 'Islamic revolution'. By citing the news item about the recent arrest of eleven militant followers of an Islamist charlatan, known as Bangla Bhai in northern Bangladesh, the editor rejects my 'denial' of the truth in the following manner.

Is Bangladesh terrorism a ‘flip-side of Pakistani terrorism’?
Taj Hashmi

Although it is heartening that Pakistani media is concerned about the recent upsurge in 'Islamic' militancy in Bangladesh, as reflected in an editorial of the prestigious Daily Times (February 27, 2005), entitled 'Bangladesh terrorism is flip-side of Pakistani terrorism', I have strong reservations about some of the comments made innuendo in the editorial referring to my recent article, published unauthorised by the Dawn (February 15, 2005) albeit with amateurish doctoring of the original. My original piece, 'Bangladesh: The Next Taliban State?' (New Age, January 30, 2005) was a rebuttal to the malicious New York Times article by Eliza Griswold published on January 23, 2005. In this sketchy article, 'The Next Islamist Revolution?' Griswold has not only raised the "Muslims-are-coming" alarm, but in doing so she has also concocted facts and has not separated facts from fiction.

It is a bit puzzling as to why the Daily Times editorial criticises a 'Bangladeshi journalist' by paraphrasing sections of his article, without naming the 'journalist' or the Karachi daily, Dawn. Actually the so-called journalist is the present writer who has been an academic for the last thirty odd-years having taught at universities in Bangladesh, Australia, Singapore and Canada - Islam, Pakistan and Bangladesh history, anthropology and politics being the main areas of his research, publication and teaching. The Daily Times editorial has taken me to task for challenging Griswold's sweeping assertion that Bangladesh was soon going to experience an 'Islamic revolution'. By citing the news item about the recent arrest of eleven militant followers of an Islamist charlatan, known as Bangla Bhai in northern Bangladesh, the editor rejects my 'denial' of the truth in the following manner:

"After violence and coercion by Bangla Bhai were reported in the international press, a Bangladeshi journalist writing in a Karachi daily strongly condemned the 'international conspiracy' to malign Bangladesh. He described the Bangla Bhai phenomenon like this: 'What is going on in some parts of north-western Bangladesh does not bear any semblance of an Islamic revolution but looks like gang warfare for dominance and extortion, common in many unruly pockets in the Third World.' One assumes that he would similarly describe the shenanigans of another violent gang run by one Jangi Bhai in south Bangladesh."

The above assertion smacks of one's total ignorance about the prevailing regional/sub-regional conflicts among various godfathers and quasi-political leaders-cum-extortionists in Bangladesh, who change colour and political allegiance with the passage of time. The various Islamic groups, both with substantial power and influence and the ones without much support and clout, are not that different in this regard. Griswold in her controversial article cited a few of them as "precursors" to an Islamic revolution. I simply rejected her thesis by drawing a line between sporadic and organized terrorist acts (not very dissimilar from jaqueries or pre-political peasant rebellions) and revolutionary warfare.

It seems, the Daily Times suffers from the same inadequacy vis-à-vis its understanding of 'revolutions'. Otherwise it would not have criticized me for my differentiating violence and killing with an 'Islamic revolution':

'The journalist did not deny violence and extortion and killing in the name of Islam but protested strongly against the labelling of this phenomenon as 'Islamic revolution'. In his mind there is a pristine image of 'Islamic revolution' which he wants to save against pollution of foreign comment.'

The editorial has also misconstrued my text. It asserts that:
'In his anger the Bangladeshi journalist addressed a warning to the 'secular' rulers masquerading as Islamic leaders against fascism on the lines of what happened in Europe before the World War II.'
Actually what I wrote to conclude my article was as follows:

'Although the vast majority of Bengali Muslims do not believe in theocracy and terror, unless the lower middle classes and the poor get a sense of belonging to the state, which so far is only looking after the interests of the rich and powerful, the most corrupt elements in Bangladesh, extremism with a tinge of fascism (both secular and religious) would continue to dog the polity. We have lessons to learn from the rise of fascism in Europe in this regard.'

Although it is very problematic, yet I have no problem in partially agreeing with the Daily Times that by neglecting the growing menace of Islamic fanaticism in Pakistan, the Nawaz Sharif government gave fillip to Islamism in Pakistan. The editorial also informs us how various Islamic militants in Pakistan and Bangladesh are mutually connected with each other. So far so good. However, it seems the editor has forgotten the inherent differences in the political culture, norms and values of the Muslims of Bangladesh and Pakistan, especially with regard to Islamic theocracy, Shariah and mullah. Bangladeshi Islam has been syncretistic, tolerant and Bangladeshi Muslims in general are proud of their Bengali heritage and identity. Unlike the average Pakistani Muslims, their Bangladeshi counterparts do not regard plunderers and marauders like Muhammad Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghaznavi or Muhammad Ghauri as their heroes and ancestors.

In short, had Bangladesh been part of Pakistan, as it used to be during the Pakistani colonial rule, Islamisation of the polity, beginning with the sad 'minoritisation' of the Ahmadiyya community under Bhutto, culminating into the introduction of the brutal, un-Islamic Shariah and barbaric Hudood laws under Zia, would not have been possible. As it happened the other day, Pakistani lawmakers outvoted the proposed scrapping of the inhuman Honour Killing (Karo Kari), will never happen in Bangladesh. And despite their trying and wishful thinking ('We are all Taliban, Bangla will be Afghan'), the various Islamic militant groups will never come to power in Bangladesh. Had wishful thinking been materialized, Bangladesh would have been a pro-Soviet communist country in the late 1970s after 'Comrade' Farhad, a leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, had publicly proclaimed to stage an 'Afghan-style revolution' in the country.

Contrary to what Lenin envisaged as the necessary preconditions for a revolution

a) mass discontent; b) gradual infiltration of ideas and c) a revolutionary party other than mass discontent among a sizeable minority, neither the process of gradual infiltration of ideas have crystallized nor is there one single revolutionary party in Bangladesh. The bulk of the Muslims being devotional-cum-fatalist with smaller sections of 'Anglo-Mohammedans' and liberal democrats, a handful of Muslim fanatics under a dozen or so disorganized Islamic parties under confused, megalomaniac leaders cannot stage an Islamic revolution in Bangladesh. They may, however, go on rampaging, killing people right and left in public rallies or movie-theatres to terrorise people. What Griswold and many others have failed to grasp is that terrorism alone does not stage revolutions. Otherwise the Tamil Tigers, the Iraqi Baathists and scores of other militant groups would have staged their cherished revolutions.

An Islamic revolution in Bangladesh, even if it could materialize under the leadership of a bitterly fractious mullahs without mass support like Khomeini had in Iran, would be crushed by the US 7th Fleet in collaboration with India. So, the prospect of any Muslim country going the Taliban way is least likely. Parts of Pakistan might remain medieval and tribal, clinging to the obsolete Shariah, Hudood and Blasphemy code for an indefinite period. However, poorer Bangladesh, which is much richer than Pakistan in secular and democratic culture, will remain different from Pakistan.

Finally, it is amazing that the editor, who has read my book, Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, New York 2000), which highlights my designation as a professor (no journalist would write 254 pages in four years) laments: 'It is ironic that the same Bangladeshi journalist who is in denial about 'Islamist' terrorism wrote a book some years ago recording the death sentences passed on women in the Bangladeshi countryside through fatwas. According to the book, the number of women subjected to cruel illegal fatwas began after 1994 and rose to over 3,000 annually. During the period from 1990 to 1995, over 10,000 victims of rape, murder, abduction, forcible marriage and arbitrary divorce, were poor rural women with no social support. In 1993 alone, 6,000 women committed suicide after being trapped in fatwa situations [p.97]. The obsession with sharia law was always present in Bangladesh but received a fillip through the Islamisation processes unleashed by General Ziaur Rehman and General Ershad, reaching a new furore after the 'Taslima Nasreen incident' in 1994.'

Who can argue with someone who cannot or does not want to understand that poor mullahs do not call the shots in rural or urban Bangladesh with regard to the persecution and subjection of women? Patriarchy and vested interest groups are much more powerful than the mullah. And again, what was going on in rural Bangladesh in the name of dispensing "Islamic justice" to poor Muslim women, through village courts run by village elders and presided over by financially dependent mullahs in the 1990s, have almost become history because of the growing awareness among the bulk of the population.

In sum, neither the rural nor the urban mullahs are powerful enough to stage Islamic or any form of revolutions in Bangladesh. Those who think Talibanisation of Bangladesh is a possibility should realize that Afghanistan fell prey to the mullahs after the bulk of the people in the war-ravaged country had been desperately seeking peace at any price. The Taliban provided that short-lived 'peace' or law and order under an indoctrinated military with direct military and logistical support from the neighbouring Pakistan. Has Bangladesh reached the stage where Afghanistan was in 1996?

Taj Hashmi writes from York University, Toronto