By Syed Badrul Ahsan
October 27, 2015
The violent conflict that has undermined social order in Iraq and Pakistan would not, we have consistently informed ourselves, touch us.
The explosions THAT left a child dead and more than 100 people injured at Hossaini Dalan in Old Dhaka in the early hours of the 10th day of Muharram must not be taken lightly. Neither should there be any attempt to gain political capital from it.
It is a tragedy that strikes deep, for it’s fresh proof that there are people around us not only willing to give faith a bad name but are also determined to have the secular state of Bangladesh mutate to a symbol of modern-day medievalism. The violent conflict that has undermined social order in Iraq and Pakistan would not, we have consistently informed ourselves, touch us. And it would not, because we were convinced that sectarian issues were nowhere a part of the canvas of problems we needed to deal with.
That belief, or complacence, has been given a bad jolt. Whoever was responsible for the explosions at Hossaini Dalan was sending an unambiguous message — it wouldn’t be long before Bangladesh too slipped into the grasp of men out to undermine religious freedom. The encroachment on the social structure by the purveyors of Wahhabism is laid bare. The blasts were a clear sign that, as in Pakistan and Iraq, the dark elements are searching for the “enemy” — the enemy, in this instance, being the minority Shias in Bangladesh. The danger today is not merely that Shias have been terrorised in Old Dhaka. It is also that unless the government is able to handle this crisis, Bangladeshis will face the danger of seeing a repeat of such violence.
Ministers and senior officials have let it be known that those involved in such heinous assaults are not comfortable with the idea of a free and secular Bangladesh. They have a point. But what’s of bigger concern for Bengalis today is the degree to which the government is able to tackle the forces that have taken it upon themselves to strike down voices of liberalism. Five bloggers have been killed by Islamist militants, who are said to have a list of others who too must be silenced. A few weeks ago, militants tried murdering a Christian pastor by plunging a knife into his neck.
Of course, the murder of two foreigners — an Italian and a Japanese — has badly dented Bangladesh’s reputation. It doesn’t do Bangladesh’s people proud that these murders, as also the rising levels of religious intolerance, have caused foreign governments to issue travel alerts. Protestations by the Bangladesh authorities have not helped much. So far, the police and security agencies haven’t demonstrated the competence necessary to identify the men responsible and haul them in.
There’s the question of the insecurity the Hindu community continues to suffer from. This year, extraordinary measures were adopted to ensure that nothing was done to disturb the Durga Puja celebrations. The fervour with which the pujas were observed in Dhaka clearly reflected the government’s determination to convince people that Bangladesh was on its way back to the original spirit of secularism enshrined in the 1972 constitution. But difficulties remain. The repeated onslaughts on the pujas in places such as Natore over the years have not been investigated. Muslims offering Durga Puja greetings on social media have been ridiculed by fanatics.
A bigger difficulty has been the government’s inability to take a bold stand in dealing with religious sensitivities — a reluctance to tamper with majoritarian Muslim beliefs. The clearly communal move of imposing Islam as the state religion by General Hussein M. Ershad in the mid-1980s has stayed. The contradiction between secularism and Islam as state religion has raised anew the question of Bengali national identity. When you add to that the huge influence the madrassas wield, you comprehend only too well the expanding tentacles of Islamist militancy.
Hossaini Dalan is a wake-up call for Bangladesh. If swift action is not taken, it will be liberal Bengalis, pious Muslims and the shrinking numbers of Hindus, Shias and Ahmadiyyas who will see the values they have upheld and propagated for ages slide into greater danger. Wahhabism constitutes a menace that cannot be taken lightly.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka