Vol. 5 Num 771 Fri. July 28, 2006  

Are we listening to their dhols?

Preface: Recently there is a huge controversy surrounding who speaks for Muslims with the government in the UK. Journalist Martin Bright, emboldened by some leaked memo from the foreign office, tried to establish in his TV show "Who Speaks for Muslims," that the British government is engaging with the militant wing of Islam bypassing the vast majority of Muslim. The article below was written in that backdrop.

The extremist form of Islam has not been formed by the so-called flag wavers of Islam, but anti-Islamic economic super-power for the longest time has helped in creating this monster. In this critical time, it is essential that Islam and all other religion look for the broader definition of their religion."

This is a quote from the back cover of the latest album of the most popular band in Bangladesh, called Bangla. This quote itself gives a broader picture of the struggle that is going on in mainstream Bangladesh for the soul of Islam.

However, when Mockbul Ali, the Islamic affairs adviser to the foreign office, represents Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the fundamentalist cleric from Bangladesh, as a mainstream Bangladeshi Muslim in his infamous memo that was leaked to the media recently, it not only blatantly misrepresents the real situation, but also undermines this struggle for pluralisms among the Muslims.

By engaging with such "mainstream" Muslims, the government is really getting disconnected from the larger chunk of Muslims who are much more diverse and less political. As more and more Muslims realize that they need to speak up in order to be heard, it is very important that we listen in tuning at the correct frequency.

The underlying argument on the Martin Bright documentary "Who Speaks for the Muslims?" is not about Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), neither is it about identifying the so called "Good Muslims." Rather the question it asks is whether all spectrums of the Muslim viewpoints are being represented in the dialogs with the government or the public. The answer to me is an unequivocal no and to find the reason we have to look into why Muslims are all being categorized in one bouquet where there is no room for cultural and national identity.

How many people actually know that the largest Muslim gathering every year in London is not a religious gathering at all but a secular cultural festival? This year almost 80,000 Bangladeshis, about 90% of them Muslims, crowded the streets of Brick Lane during the Baishakhi Mela, the Bengali New Year celebration.

Anyone who has experienced the vibrancy, the colour and the spontaneity of this festival realizes how unmistakably the national and cultural identity is stamped on the Bangladeshis. The women are out in their traditional ware in full force while the men chant Bangla folk songs. Herein is the biggest piece of the puzzle which people in both of sides of the argument are missing. Both are completely ignoring the geographical affinity of the Muslims -- the very element that along with their cultural roots that shapes their behaviour in the society.

For example, how Pakistani Muslims and Bangladeshi Muslims view Islamic fundamentalism is shaped in many ways about how they see the bitter war in 1971 that separated the two countries. Bangladeshis, in general, hold deep disgust against the party, Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that collaborated against the independence and were allegedly responsible for abating the Pakistani army in killing hundreds and thousands of their countrymen. That is the very reason hard right Islamic elements still can garner on their own no more than 5% of the seats in the parliament in Bangladesh.

Similarly, British Bangladeshis, who had an extremely proactive pro-Bangladesh role during the 1971 liberation war, deeply distrusts religion based politics and fundamentalism in the name of religion. However, for a lot of Pakistani-origin Muslims, this break up between the two Muslim countries happened because of political maneuvering of India. Their views about religion in politics, as a result, are very differently shaped from their Bangladeshi brethren.

So to understand Muslims and hear their different viewpoints, the engagement will have to start from their geographical and cultural identities. Only then a wholesome picture of their identity will emerge. Organizations that encourage prospering these cultural roots have to be encouraged as well. The community leaders, cultural, secular and religious, need to be engaged in the dialog.

It is interesting to note that that tide is slowly but surely turning. The large section of the Muslims who see religion as a very personal day to day lifestyle choice and who never saw the need to form any organization to highlight their religious identity are increasingly realizing that for the well being of their future generations, the longer they are unrepresented, the chances are more that it will hit their homes and their family members will be represented by people whom they despise. The prospect of the external social elements turning their own children against them into radicalism is so real, that they are beginning to organize themselves.

That's why we see people like Haras Rafiq, an ordinary business man, and Murad Qureshi, a prominent British-Bangladeshi politician, speak out in the Martin Bright documentary against the misrepresentation. We see Fareena Alam, the twenty something editor of the Progressive Muslim magazine Qnews, talk to the young Muslims in a language that they have not heard before. We see Independent Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown form Muslims for Secular Democracy and we see the launch of organization like Progressive British Muslims. In parallel, independent cultural organizations are promoting the cultural and nationalist roots for those Muslims who don't see them represented in the faith based organizations.

While these silent majority need to speak up, they need to carefully pick whose platform they are using. Let's make no mistake about it that there are Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes out there who see Islam as the reason for everything bad that has happened to this world. If one is against one form of extremism of one religion, one should be against extremism of all religions. Let this be the litmus test for everyone who claims that they are not Islamophobes.

Moderates who are trying to have their voices heard, also should not be lured by the people with right wing agenda either. They risk their own credibility at this. It is imperative that they make it clear that when they speak for a minority, they speak for all the minorities of the world. The same people who criticize the aggression against the Palestinians and Lebanese people, criticize the suicide bombings in London, Madrid or New York. They demand justice for discrimination against the Muslims in the United States. At the same time, they defend the rights of Ahmadiyas to practice their religion even if they don't agree with their views.

In the post 9/11 world, these distinctions are, however, becoming difficult to differentiate, as loud religious jingoism easily overshadows the nuances of these stands. Interestingly, there are remarkable parallels worldwide. While on one hand, in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is using the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islam to ride the political wave that has been created by the war in Iraq, we see George Galloway, the Respect Party MP, do the same with success with the East London Bangladeshis.

The potential cost of this alignment is unknown -- at least for now. But the signs are ominous. With incidents like Forest Gate, where two Bangladeshis got almost killed by the police for mistaken identities, it becomes increasingly difficult for a Muslim not to think that they are the victims of a worldwide aggression. The visible damage to the credibility to the government caused by such blunders is obvious but hidden is the long term damage on the Muslim psyche that helps the recruiting of zealous extremists.

However, the good news is that the new year festival of the Bangladeshis in London mentioned before in this piece, which was threatened to be bombed six years ago by the militants, is still thriving and is growing bigger every year. They are singing, dancing and beating their "dhols" (drums). Are we listening?

Asif Saleh is Executive Director, Drishtipat, a global Bangladeshi human rights organization.