By Taj Hashmi
March 12, 2016
What Indian nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) once quipped, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” is no longer applicable to what is left of Bengal today, Bangladesh and the Indian state of PaschimBanga. Bangladesh, in particular, is at the receiving end of all traits of culture – material or immaterial. While most of the acquired behaviour is benign, some are infested with debilitating “flesh-eating” bacteria, which have already infected the body politic of Bangladesh without being considered dangerous by many.
The rapid, mindless adoption of alien culture is reflected in the language, literature, music, attire, manners, social etiquette, food habit, and most importantly, in politics and political culture of Bangladesh. As the quarter-century of Pakistani hegemony substantially moulded the political culture, so has expatriate workers' exposure to Arab culture since the 1970s profoundly impacted the popular culture in Bangladesh. Thus, civil-military authoritarianism; state-sponsored religious programmes; and persecution of freethinkers, women, and minorities have almost become a regular feature across the country.
The Pakistani “debacle” I'm referring to is state-sponsorship of Wahhabism, pre-modern Sharia code, and the infringement of human rights, especially of minorities and women. Thanks to its unabated growth, political Islam has already destabilised the country, and has spilled over beyond its borders. It's no exaggeration that the country's criminal justice system – to a large extent – has broken down, and its leftover is comparable to what prevails in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the age-old tribal honour system, “blood money”, and the so-called Blasphemy Law reign supreme.
Am I an alarmist for believing elements of the Pakistani “debacle” might eventually trickle down to Bangladesh? I hope that it turns out so. But I don't think so. Before I elaborate why I think the Pakistani “debacle” is potentially dangerous to Bangladesh, I cite just one example from Pakistan, in this regard. Recently, the whole world witnessed mammoth mass protests by tens of thousands of Pakistanis in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad against the execution of MumtazQadri, a convicted killer of Salman Taseer, a former Governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab. Qadri, the Governor's bodyguard, gunned him down in January 2011 for his public sympathy for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, convicted to death in 2010 for allegedly committing blasphemy. Interestingly, Qadri didn't belong to any Islamist extremist group but a Sufi order.
Is the killing of Governor Taseer and people's support for his killer among millions of Pakistanis relevant to Bangladesh? Possibly yes. Bangladesh has already adopted ways to placate extremists who have terrorised secular writers and intellectuals and killed scores of them for their alleged blasphemous writings against Islam. Ominously, there are people and groups in the country who favour killing for blasphemy and the declaration of the tiny Ahmadiyya Muslim community as “non-Muslim”, a la Pakistan.
As an eyewitness to the metamorphosis of the relatively liberal and secular Bangladeshi society into an 'illiberal' and intolerant one during the last four decades, I think the complacent people and government are collectively responsible for this development. What was once unthinkable, is a reality today; and what we think will never happen in this country, might be in the pipeline, will give us an unpleasant surprise, one day! What our rulers once considered harmless or even necessary – trading secularism with religion – have become a big liability and threat to secular democracy in Bangladesh. I refer to the unwise rehabilitation of religion based political parties, and very similar to Pakistan, the quixotic decision to make Islam as the “state religion” in Bangladesh.
Since Pakistan and what is Bangladesh today started their postcolonial journey together in 1947, and have inherited the state-sponsored “soft” Islamism introduced by the first Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1949, they have a common legacy with regard to the Islamisation process. Very similar to General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, two successive military rulers of Bangladesh – Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad – also legitimised political Islam in their own ways. Meanwhile, thanks to state patronage, the ruling elite's political expediency and hypocrisy, and pressure from Islamist parties “soft” Islamism has become crystallised, and posing a threat to liberal democracy and secularism in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Ever since the Liberation, the fate of civility, democracy and secularism in Bangladesh is in a state of entropy. Unless democracy and secularism get a breathing space, the re-staging of the Pakistani tragedy cannot be ruled out. I know Bangladeshi analysts, scholars, and politicians might disagree with me. “Bangladesh is very different from Pakistan” has been the common thread of their argument. I wish the argument were convincing!
The reality in Bangladesh is somewhat very different from the elite perception. Despite the Supreme Court ruling of August 1, 2013, that the Jamaat-e-Islami was unfit to contest national polls, the Islamist party is yet to be officially proscribed. One has reasons to believe no executive decision is in the offing, in concurrence with the judiciary. Once the genie is out, it's almost impossible to put it back into the bottle.
Islamist extremism does not drop from the heavens or sprout out of the ground. Secular leaders – over the years – prepare the groundwork for Islamist takeover, terrorism, or insurgency through corruption, despotism, hypocrisy and opportunism. This has happened in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Bangladesh must learn from these examples. Since Islamism is an ideology-driven phenomenon – not a law-and-order-problem – even highly efficient police and military are no match for extremism. Pakistan's experience should be an eye-opener. Bangladesh must realise neither opportunistic politics nor political hypocrisy, but democracy and the rule of law are the only antidotes to Islamist extremism.
Source: The Daily Star, Bangladesh
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