Vol. 5 Num 910 Mon. December 18, 2006  

Plain Words
A Pakistani viewpoint

Comparisons with Pakistan can be odious. But polarization between Awami League and the hitherto ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party can be compared with the one in Lebanon between Hezbollah -- at the time of writing besieging Prime Minister's House in Beirut -- and the Siniora government. What is common is the deadly seriousness of both situations.

What is different is the two systems: Lebanon's constitution is rigid and basically undemocratic that the French gave to Lebanon; demographic facts make it an anomaly today. The Bangladeshis now have a democratic system, though it can be subverted by non-democratic forces gaining power by manipulating elections through force or fraud.

When a Pakistani scribe looks at the Bangladeshi scene today, he becomes frightened. Going by his own country's standards, the situation seems to be ripe for a serious blow to democracy.

What is scary about Bangladesh is the ideological basis of this polarization. Differences between AL and BNP should not be trivialized as a quarrel between two women leaders. AL, as one assesses, is a legatee of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman's unabashed secular Bengali Nationalism and his concept of socialist policies for Bangladesh.

On the other hand, BNP is actually a legatee of Muslim League of yore that believed in Muslim Nationalism with conservative politics and an outlook to go with it; it does not seem to have any specific economic ideas of its own. BNP intensely dislikes secularism and taunts AL of being India-leaning. AL leadership, no less Muslim than others, takes its stand by the love for Bengali language, literature, culture, and the demography of Bangladesh.

While Islamic character of BNP, as a successor of Muslim League, entirely negates what the Indian Congress used to stand for: a common secular Indian culture and nationalism based on Indo-Persian civilization. BNP now amends Jinnah's Two Nation theory to Three Nations Theory, with the third, Bangladesh Muslim Nationalism, having been heightened by working together with those who are presumed to be working for a purely Islamic dispensation, presided over by a Caliph. BNP's allies, Islamic religious parties, preach an orthodoxy that is deadly opposed to secular politics of AL. BNP's place in history will be along with its Islamist allies who want to give no place to Bangladeshi minorities, except as second class citizens.

This is an old polarization from the days of united Pakistan. Maulvis, after opposing Pakistan's creation in 1940s, went on the offensive after it came into being and argued: "You have carved out an Islamic state, by invoking Islam, therefore it will have to be a purely Islamic state wherein no law repugnant to Quran and Sunnah can be legislated. What do Quran and Sunnah lay down for politics and economy? We, the Ulema, will tell you what does Islam specify or forbids."

Most Ulema in Pakistan agreed with dictator General Ziaul Haq that a western-style democracy is quite un-Islamic. They happily agreed that he should have a nominated assembly to advise him. That was the Islamist politics in Pakistan and they shared power with the dictator: Gen Zia.

What Islamists today demand is a Caliphate. What the latter will be like is now known: Mullah Mohammad Omar had established his Caliphate in Kabul after 1996 that was accepted as genuinely Islamic by all orthodox Sunni Ulema of Deobandi school, including the leading lights of Deoband's Darul Uloom, itself who while visiting Pakistan during the diamond jubilee of the Darul Uloom, clearly and unequivocally endorsed Mulla Omar as the true Islamic Caliph -- with the clear understanding that all Muslims everywhere have to accept him as the legitimate religious, political, economic, and military head of all Muslims.

In Pakistan this controversy has remained undecided. Most of Ulema had voted for all powers to Gen Pervez Musharraf by amending the Constitution so that he can dismiss all the elected Assemblies and governments responsible to them at his discretion. And, mind you, Musharraf preaches 'enlightened moderation' and a 'modernist' Islam in place of old orthodoxies. Orthodoxy versus Modern and Moderate Islam is a controversy common to all Muslim societies; what divides the two sides is the use of rational judgement by individuals: orthodox deny the right to use one's own reasoning while the enlightened depend on it.

Such an ideological clash as underlies the polarization in Bangladesh can lead to unending clashes and possibly even to civil war. The 1947 upheaval was secular politics versus its religion-driven rejection by communal politics, in which not only was India partitioned but hundreds of thousands were killed and more than 1.5 crore people were displaced. It remains history's largest ethnic cleansing so far.

Pakistan has not known democracy due to too much intrusion of religious shibboleths into politics -- all of this to make dictatorships acceptable. When religious leaders, Ulema, have stayed quiet, dictators have expounded Islamic-seeming ideas that rejected rule of law, human rights, and representative governments or democracy. Bangladeshis should learn lessons from Pakistan politics and beware.

There is now an urgent need for subjecting Islamists to close scrutiny. What is being sold today as Islamic politics is a hoax on Islam. No matter how long are the beards of some pious-looking politicians, all politics is about the social life here on earth, and thus secular. At no point does Islam recognize any Church or a clergy. Neither have Allah in the Quran, nor the sayings of the Prophet, laid down the constitutional principles of running a state nor do they adumbrate a political philosophy.

Islam is all about fear of God, piety, and good moral behaviour. All it says on political matters is to consult one another in solving your problems -- and one interprets it as simple democracy, unadorned with adjectives. At any rate, these divine sources nowhere command people to set up this or that kind of Caliphate; or who or how a Caliph is to be chosen and what qualifications he should have. People have to know their requirement and use their rational judgment. That is secular politics.

Look closely. What Mullah Omar did in Kabul was to set up his dictatorship. We all know what he did to women, to minorities, to foreigners -- and to Pakistani footballers (for the crime of wearing shorts during a match they were hauled up for obscenity by Taliban's religious police). Taliban found many-centuries-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan offensive to their Islamic sensitivities and they blasted them away.

Look more closely. It was a dictatorship, a very secular thing, that gave no rights to his Muslim brethren and sisters and instead imposed the duty of obeying him unquestionably. This dictatorship may have been set up by a pious man. But he was not told by God to do so; his action was a politically-motivated secular act. Insofar as Mullah Omar's edicts were treated as religious duties, it was fascism of a kind worse than Hitler's.

Since Muslims now have over a hundred "true" Islams, as each sect claims to be, they will never agree on a single Caliph. No matter how many Caliphs proclaim their divine status, not all Islamic groups will ever recognize any one of them. This is a prescription for unending strife and wars among Muslim states.

MB Naqvi is a leading Pakistani columnist.