Keeping off from extremists
Kazi Anwarul Masud
Predictably Bangladesh authorities have dismissed Eliza Griswold’s report in New York Times (January 23, 2005) raising the possibility of Bangladesh giving birth to the next Islamist revolution. Griswold wrote about the alleged attempts by Bangla Bhai to bring about Talibanisation in some parts of the country bordering India through violent means. In Griswold’s eyes Bangladesh politics have never strayed far from violence and thuggery has been a constant feature of Bangladesh politics and is increasingly so today. Traveling through Bangladesh she concludes “The global war on terror is aimed at making the rise of regimes like that of the Talibans impossible, in Bangladesh the trend could be going the other way”.
Bangladesh authorities found the report “baseless, partial and misleading” and reiterated the government’s commitment to democracy. The dismissal of Griswold’s report notwithstanding Bangladeshi media continues reporting on the defiance and violence perpetrated by Bangla Bhai and his cohorts of Jagrata Muslim Janata Banglaesh (JMJB) under the nose of the governmental authorities and of the government’s inability to arrest Bangla Bhai despite the orders of the Prime Minister that he be arrested. The press has also questioned the sincerity of the government to arrest Bangla Bhai.
It is not the first time that Bangladeshi authorities have been upbraided by domestic and foreign media and institutions for their inability to contain the virus of religious intolerance and for its increase in recent days. Eliza Griswold hazards a guess that it could be because the government is “in any case divided on precisely the question on how much Islam and politics should mix”. Section of western and foreign press warned about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and alleged of sanctuaries being given to transnational Islamist elements. Zeal of the Islamic fundamentalists found expression in the Friday sermon of the head priest of a prominent mosque at Dhaka accusing President Bush of being a “terrorist” while addressing a gathering of people who had gone to the mosque to offer their prayer, branding two judges of the High Court as enemies of Islam because they had suo moto given a judgment declaring illegal religious edicts passed by village priests, and declaring a prominent lawyer of the country as “murtad” because he was defending in a court of law a case on behalf of the Ahmadiyya community who are being persecuted by religious zealots.
While tracing the antecedents of Bangla Bhai it was revealed that he was a product of a madrasa or religious school. After 9/11 terrorist attacks madrasas have generated intense interest among the westerners. Though the literal meaning of madrasa is a “school” it is generally used for offering instructions on Islamic subjects including the Holy Quran, the Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence and law. Since many madrasas offer free education, room and board to their students they appeal to impoverished families. Most madrasas are used to educate male students while a few also impart education to girls. Since madrasa education does not carry much financial benefits in a labour market demanding non-ecclesiastical skills the students graduating from madrasas are forced to become madrasa teachers or priests in mosques. Coming from impoverished families they are forced back into poverty in a world racing for material advancement.
This vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation may find expression in anti-western feeling particularly in the aftermath of the decimation of Afghanistan and the illegal invasion of Iraq. Many madrasa students may find it difficult to understand the venality of the Taliban regime and of their link in the 9/11 carnage necessitating regime change in Afghanistan. To many of them Osama bin Laden is a hero. Understandably the US Congress keeps itself informed of the madrasa education in South Asia. A report by the Congressional Research Service (International Terrorism in South Asia) states that among the approximately ten thousand madrasas in Pakistan some have been implicated in teaching militant anti-western, anti-American and anti-Hindu values. Many of these madrasas are financed and operated by Pakistani Islamist political parties and foreign entities.
Foremost US analyst on South Asia Stephen Cohen states that the largest Islamic sects with the greatest control over religious schools are the Deobandis (as opposed to the Barlevis) who are among the most militant in their demand for Pakistan to become truly Islamic. Incidentally Deobandi groups were in the forefront of declaring Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslim in Pakistan. Cohen believes that the reaction of Parvez Musharraf’s generation of army officers against Zia ul Huq’s Islamic zealotry in no way represents a rejection of the limited strategy of using radical Islamic groups as instruments of Pakistani foreign policy, especially against India. This tour d’horizon of Pakistani religious extremism was necessary because terrorism, particularly religious terrorism, is almost always transnational.
During his latest visit to South Asia Ambassador Cofer Black, State Department coordinator for counter terrorism spoke of Indian allegations relating to terrorist camps in Bangladesh (denied by Bangladesh authorities) and of the “need to determine exactly the threat not only to Bangladesh but also the potential utilisation of Bangladesh as a platform to project terrorism internationally”. Noted Indian journalist Prem Shankar Jha felt that the 8/21 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina was possible due to a combination of political expediency and ambivalence over whether to ride the tiger of religious intolerance or to confront it”. He warned against the propagation of “an intolerant arabicised brand of Islam that was alien to Bangladesh’s secular culture”.
The emergence of religious intolerance in Bangladesh, documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and US State Department, among others, should be seen in global context. If the Muslims are to prove historian Bernard Lewis wrong that “Islam was never prepared, either in theory or in practice, to accord full equality to those who held other forms of worship, and that the centuries old rivalry between Christianity and Islam is no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the world wide expansion of both“, then the Islamic world would have to adorn itself with all the traits of modernity.
Globalization is no longer a choice; it is a reality that all countries have to deal with. In this game the West has a decided advantage over the Muslim world, particularly the least developed among them. Countries like Bangladesh will remain dependent on the developed economies and international financial institutions if they are to transform their societies into more advanced ones. This quest is fraught with difficulties that should not be further compounded by inviting religious extremism, however politically expedient such a move may seem to be.
It would be prudent to remind ourselves of the remarkable observation by James Freeman Clark: the difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks of the next election and a statesman thinks of the next generation. Those persons who hold the destiny of our nation in their hands may wish to remind themselves of the fact that power is transient and should be used wisely. Extremists of the Right and totalitarians of the Leftboth are harmful for Bangladesh. In these days of “cross fire” sooner people like Bangla Bhai are arrested and tried in a court of law the better it will be for Bangladeshis at home and abroad.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and Ambassador.