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     Volume 6 Issue 15 | April 20, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Bangali Consciousness Abroad

Ahmede Hussain

Young, impressionable minds are often vulnerable to distorted views about religion.

Political use of religion is not new in this part of the region. It dates back to the days of the partition of the South Asian sub-continent when India and Pakistan were created in Hindu and Muslim dominated areas of undivided India. In fact our glorious Muktijuddho in 1971 and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh itself has been a statement--that a state cannot be run on the basis of religion alone, it should take into account other factors like language and ethnicity into consideration. It is no surprise then that the first constitution of Bangladesh rightly incorporated secularism as one of the guiding principles of the new country. Those who formed different paramilitary groups to oppose the country's independence in the pretext that it was against Islam were banned from forming political parties.

Religion, however, made a quick come back into the country's politics in the aftermath of the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Gen Ziaur Rahman, who seized power after a bloody coup in 1975, indemnified the killers of Sheikh Mujib and removed secularism from the constitution for "Complete faith and Trust in Allah". From war criminals to frustrated Marxists Zia had a place for everyone in his new political bloc-- he practically rehabilitated big war criminals, some of them in his own cabinet. In the politics of his wife Khaleda Zia, war criminals have been crucial to consolidating power.

While Khaleda Zia blatantly joined hands with the Jamaati Islami, Sheikh Haisna, being the leader of a secular, pro-liberation party has made the biggest compromise with religious bigots.

Ershad, Zia's predecessor, took it to a new height--his visits to a certain Pir and different Mosques had been made prime time news on national television; and when this vile person sensed a mass upsurge brewing against his regime he made Islam the state religion. Government subsidies on Islamic seminaries were increased during the military rule, and it continued, if not gathered momentum, after the restoration of democracy in 1990.

In the first general elections after democracy was re-established in 1991, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which actively opposed Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971, bagged a significant number of seats in the national parliament; it was, in fact, with the blessings of the JI that Khaleda Zia formed her first cabinet. Though the JI regularly takes part in secular democratic process, in its constitution the party denounces democracy and does not hide its objective of establishing a Sharia-based Islamic rule. Islami Chatra Shibir (ICS), the JI's student wing, is particularly fascist in nature-- the ICS is believed to have carried out numerous acts of murder and rape in different educational institutions across the country long before the JMB joined the fray. It is a little wonder then that most of the JMB leaders are also former members of the JI and ICS.

Madrasa education must go through an overhaul and incorporated into the general education system.

The international situation has also played its own part in the radicalisation of an otherwise peaceful religion. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Red Army attracted the attention of some Bangladeshis who saw the war as an attack on Islam, and the US help for the Mujahidins legitimised the cause more, making it look just and holy to some Muslims around the world. Coupled with this are the plights of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza and the US led war on Afghanistan and Iraq; many Muslims in Bangladesh, like in Pakistan, Thailand and the Middle East, have found themselves as the victims of a new Crusade, and the US's money-driven Imperialist foreign policy has worsened the situation. Interrogations of detained Jihadists in the custody of the security forces have revealed that most of the zealots have been trained during the Afghan war and some of them have even fought for the Talibans against the Soviet and US armies.

Bangladesh's so-called secular political parties cannot avoid their share in radicalising Islam. After an election debacle in 1991, the Awami League, the country's largest centre-left party, dumped secularism and socialism, the party leaders boasted that they were religious-- immediately before the 1996 general elections, AL leader Sheikh Hasina, after a pilgrimage to Makkah, started wearing a head-scarf and posters showing her praying were put on the walls of the capital. The message has been unmistakably clear here: The AL, too, has started to use Islam politically, and it can go to the farthest extent to win a few Muslim votes. Whether that tactic, however deplorable that is, has helped the party win the 1996 elections one cannot tell; but the party, while in power, did not do little to restore its secular image before a bemused electorate. Government subsidy on Madrassas and other religious institutions continued, if not swelled. It is not surprising that in the run-up to the January 2007 elections (the one that never took place) the AL would forge an alliance with Islamic Shansontontro Andolon and Khelafat Majlish (KM), both of which want to establish Sharia in the country. The AL it seems has lost its secular objective to a great extent, and last winter the party made a pact with the KM, according to which the AL publicly declared that it would make fatwa legal and no law contrary to Sharia would be enacted, a stance the AL later revoked in the wake of severe criticism. The incident is just an instance that shows to what extent the country's politicians--both secular and religious--can go only to grab power.

In the face of a massive government crackdown most of the members of the JMB have gone into hiding. But newspaper reports reveal that the JMB has mutated itself and the extremist outfit has resurfaced in different parts of the country in new names--on the northern tip of the country, the existence of a new militant group has been detected, this group, formed by militant guru Abdur Rouf, who also founded the infamous Harkat-ul Jihad Al Islami in Bangladesh, tells us that the war on terror is a relentless process and cannot succeed without changing the existing social fabric of Bangladeshi society. One cannot expect a country free from fanaticism when all the major political parties use Islam indiscriminately only to get a taste of power, a society free from bigotry and religious intolerance cannot be established if its leaders themselves preach violence and lawlessness in the name of Islam. Hydra-like, Jihadist fanaticism has many faces with numerous colours and shapes; the JMB is just one tiny dot in a simulacrum of intolerance and bigotry that the country's politics have been plagued with.

Putting war criminals in the dock and banning them from the country's politics have been one of the few unfinished legacies of our Muktijuddho. It is a shame on us, a burden on our conscience that bigots like Matiur Rahman Nizami, Delwar Hossain Saidee and Abdur Kader Mollah--all of whom actively opposed our Muktijuddho and are alleged to have carried out numerous acts of mass murder-- are still at large, not only that, some of these fiends have been made ministers and MPs in independent Bangladesh. They do talk of Islam more often than not, but our sacred religion to them is nothing but a tool to fool the innocent citizens of Bangladesh, a country, whose existence Nizami-Saidee-Kader Mollah's never quite believed in.

This is high time that the interim government, as it wants to cleanse the country's politics, forms a truth and reconciliation to try the war criminals; their participation in politics should be banned, so should the political use of religion and places of worship.

Militants have deliberately targeted the country's secular institutions such as the judiciary.

Madrassa education must go through an overhaul: both the Ebtadie and Kawmi systems have to be merged into one, and have to be incorporated into the general education system. It makes very little sense that in a small country like us there should exist three discriminatory mediums of education-- Bangla, English and Arabic. Those who talk of introducing Bangladesh's own brand of democracy should come up with a uniform education system first. One does not have to go afar to find one-- all the other countries in the region who have had a modern secular state (Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia) have built its "own brand" of education system, long before we have started thinking of experimenting with democracy. One of the reasons why Madrassa students feel so isolated from local reality is because the medium of Madrassa education is Urdu and Arabic; more books on Islamic jurisprudence have to be translated into Bangla, and there has to be one medium of education.

Political use of religious symbols such as topi, rosary and head-scarf has to be banned; the government has to take steps to encourage modern scientific thinking among ordinary citizens.

One must keep this in mind that the arrest and hangings of a few zealots alone will not remove religious intolerance from our social fabric. Bigotry has many faces and it has to be fought at every possible front; nabbing the zealots and bringing them to the book is just a small battle in the big war on terrorism; the bigger battle is to win the hearts and minds of the toiling masses, who live in abject poverty, and where Jihadists spawn and thrive.


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