By Syed Badrul Ahsan
March 05, 2014
BARELY a fortnight ago, a fringe group of Hindu fanatics forced the clamping of a ban on Wendy Doniger's extremely insightful work, The Hindus, in India. Not long ago, the now deceased leader of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, openly suggested that Muslims in India be thrown into the sea.
In the early 1990s, Muslim fanatics in Bangladesh forced the outspoken writer Taslima Nasreen out of the country for what they called her blasphemous views on Islam. Since she was forced into exile, no move has been made, not even by a putatively secular Awami League government, to have her return to the country. A near entirety of the intellectual class in Bangladesh has carefully refrained from speaking up in Nasreen’s defence.
In Pakistan, Christians, who form a minuscule minority in the country, have often been subjected to attacks by fanatical Muslims intent on seizing upon small incidents to charge them with blasphemy. Mobs have destroyed Christian homes and given the religious minorities in the country to understand that Pakistan is not their home.
That is a mirror image of conditions in South Asia in these times. Such being the ground reality, it follows that religious fundamentalism, or fanaticism in plain terms, cannot but go for upward mobility. The spirit of tolerance is fast being eroded, owing to acts and behaviour that have subtly, or sometimes unwittingly, led to the growth of fundamentalism in society. And where have such acts and behaviour been perceptible? For an answer, one needs to look back, carefully, at recent history in South Asia.
Such an observation cannot but reveal external as well as internal factors in the rise of religious fundamentalism in the region.
Begin at the beginning. In the 1980s, determined to put an end to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration in the United States went all the way towards ensuring that the rightwing band of warlords, euphemistically known as the Mujahideen, was actively assisted in launching violent acts against Moscow and its communist loyalists in Kabul. With the Americans was, of course, the religion-peddling Ziaul Haq of Pakistan. Zia's spurious concept of Nizam-e-Mustafa being applied to governance in Pakistan gelled extremely well with Washington's objective of driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
The Mujahideen did take over once the Soviets, now led by an apparently reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev, and withdrew from Afghanistan. It was then left for the Mujahideen, now in power as an alliance of political elements of varied thoughts, to destroy the country inch by inch. If the Mujahideen were a backward-looking group of pretentious chieftains, what came after them was even worse. In 1996, when the medieval Taliban seized power in Kabul and immediately launched themselves into the job of 'purifying' the country through imposing a harsh mechanism of fanatical authority, the Pakistan government of Benazir Bhutto could hardly contain its glee. After all, it was Pakistan which had trained the Taliban. And the Taliban would govern Kabul in line with Pakistan's instructions, so reasoned the rulers in Islamabad. That hope would soon be dashed.
The arrival of the Taliban and, more specifically, the assiduous manner in which its advent was seen as a harbinger of order in Afghanistan all went into a radicalisation of politics in South Asia. The Taliban took Afghans back into the Stone Age. And in that job it was most happily assisted, in due time, by al-Qaeda.
Fundamentalism, often promoted or encouraged by the political right, has been a recurring threat in Bangladesh. Some recent examples will suffice. First, in May last year, the Hefazat-e-Islam caused huge mayhem in Dhaka by not only not putting an end to its agitation but also making known its intention to stay on. It was not until the government moved in force and put these fanatics to flight that Bengalis were able to breathe easy.
How did the Hefazat-e-Islam come by its courage in resisting the state of Bangladesh? The answer is rather simple here: the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been in power twice since the early 1990s, thought it politically smart to stand beside an organisation of dubious religiosity -- and that is Hefazat-Islam -- and express solidarity with it. In its campaign against the Awami League government, the BNP as also the Jatiyo Party of former dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad saw little that was ethically or politically wrong in supporting the Hefazat. The thirteen points the Hefazat demanded be met converged on certain factors -- women could have no education and no jobs; the country's laws and everything else would be subservient to the dictates of Islam. In clear terms, it was a journey back to medievalism the Hefazat was proposing. And in that campaign against liberalism, it had the publicly proclaimed support of the BNP, the Jatiyo Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami, the last an unrepentant collaborator of the Pakistan occupation army in 1971 and a direct participant in the killings of Bengali intellectuals.
The above is a hint of how internal forces often have promoted the cause of religious fundamentalism or fanaticism, thus pushing a society further towards an abyss. Observe conditions in India, where every argument points to Narendra Modi taking charge of the country after the general elections in April this year. The inescapable truth arises here: secular forces are in retreat in India and the Bharatiya Janata Party is headed for a fresh new stint in government, this time under the leadership of an individual whose role in the 2002 Gujarat riots has continued to raise questions. That Team Modi is on its way to power is not in doubt, unless of course some miracle happens to keep the rightwing at bay at the forthcoming elections.
Circumstances in Pakistan, which, has since its creation out of India in August 1947 based its existence on the so-called two-nation theory used by the Muslim League so forcefully that the partition of India had to take place, today suffers from ailments dating back to the knifing of a united India prior to the departure of the British colonial power. Sectarian conflict, as in instances of fanatical Sunni Muslims bombing Shia groups to pieces in mosques and outside, has left politics absolutely frayed at the edges.
In what other ways has religious fundamentalism been given a boost by those who should have known better? Observe:
In 1980s Bangladesh, an illegitimate military regime decided in the infinity of its wisdom to impose Islam on the country as the religion of the state. In the years that followed, religious intolerance acquired steadily newer levels. Today, Bangladesh's Hindu population is in steep decline, especially in light of the recent attacks on Hindu temples and homes in the country. Where the Hindu population in East Bengal/Bangladesh amounted to 35% of the whole following Partition, it dwindled to 29% prior to the War of Liberation. Today, embarrassingly, Hindus account for less than 9% of the country's population.
Back in 1974, afraid that Pakistan's religious right would be out on the streets unless action was taken against a very docile Ahmadiyya community, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto officially made it known that henceforth Ahmadiyas would be regarded as non-Muslims, with no right to call themselves part of Islam. Ahmadiyas are today a subdued yet persecuted lot, not just in Pakistan. In Bangladesh too they remain in fear of the religious majority.
In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, afraid a backlash against his government might take place as a result of Salman Rushdie's new book hitting the stands, decreed a ban on the Satanic Verses. All hell would break loose.
The road to fundamentalism was taken by South Asia in subsequent years. Today, regional integration -- in terms of people-to-people links, trade, political and diplomatic issues -- is under threat. Secular forces are under assault while fundamentalism seeks to destroy order and civility from within. The Taliban dictate terms to Pakistan's ruling classes. Hindutva remains on the march in India. In Bangladesh, the government goes tough against the backward-looking right, but understands too that the battle will be hard and long.
The ultimate question: how long will it take for South Asia to roll the forces of fundamentalism back, to prise religion out of politics and to restore politics to where it should belong, namely, a secular and therefore democratic perch?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
The article is the keynote paper read out at the Bangladesh-India Dialogue in New Delhi on March 1, 2014