Vol. 5 Num 442 Tue. August 23, 2005  

Philosophical crisis: A confused Bengali nation

459 bombs have blasted almost all over Bangladesh in exactly thirty minutes. This is certainly not the first attack of this type, but it is definitely the first of this scale. August 17 attack has successfully instilled fear in the civilians' minds.

Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a banned militant group, has already claimed responsibility for the attacks. It seems as if they have lost faith in man made law: "[I]t is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh. There is no future with man-made law.


The attack of August 17 is not an isolated endeavour, but it resonates with the same urge that has been heard all over the world in the terrorist attacks: a cry for an alternative to the Western hegemonic rule. Islamic fundamentalism is accepted by some as a valid alternative to counter the omnipresent forces of capitalism and Western imperialism.

In fact, Maulana Nizami argues that since communism has failed, and the Western model of capitalism is inherently un-Islamic and materialistic, Islam can potentially offer an alternative path of development for Bangladesh. If we get down to the bottom of things, the world-wide terrorist phenomenon embodies a philosophical rebellion against the Western capitalist mode of life.

A part of the world youth is certainly frustrated and hopeless enough to have been recruited to the militant Islamic fundamentalist groups. What these attacks stand for is certainly a very dark force, but what we must also analyse for our own benefit is that these forces come out of a) ignorance and confusion, and b) deprivation and sense of extreme marginalisation.

In specific reference to the case of Bangladesh, the ignorance is double layered: firstly, our lack of reflection and understanding of our national identity, secondly, a partial and selective understanding of Islam.

Take for example the word jihad. According to Islamic philosophy the word represents a vast notion that has to do with the ultimate freedom of spirit. Hazrat Muhammad (S) always advised his followers to fight against nafs, or ego comprising lust, desires and attachment to materialistic things. The battle against nafs is direct zihad-e-akbari (the greatest holy war). Hazrat Mowlana Rumi said, "our real enemy is nafs." Allah declares in the Hadith-e-Kudshi (Holy Tradition): "Fight against nafs, because it is my enemy." The notion of jihad or holy war that is stained with blood, sword, and fear comes out of a very partial, materialistic, and ignorant reading of Islamic theology.

As per our national identity is concerned, do we really know who we are as a people? And even if some of us may claim a certain national identity, have we all reached at least a minimum level of homogeneity to unite under one common umbrella of national identity?

Counting from 1905, our territory has been shifted three times along with our national identity. In 1905 Bengal was divided and Bengalis all of a sudden became Bengali Muslims, in 1947 Pakistan was created and they became Pakistanis, and in 1971 Bangladesh was born and Bangladeshi Muslims came into being.

It is very hard to tell what percentage of our national imagination is based on our ethnic identity versus our religious identity. We exist in a permanent state of confusion as we step out of the pages of our history text books.

We always hear veterans complaining that the dreams of Muktijuddho has not been realized, similarly Bangabandhu's dreams of "Shonar Bangla" is also yet to be realised. We live in a state of shattered hopes and disappointments.

Dr. Humayun Azad rightly pointed out that for poverty stricken, uneducated, suffering masses religion works like a drug, which promises them to deliver all fruits of happiness only under one condition: blind faith and obedience to Allah's words. The mass, incapable of reading or writing Bangla, cannot be expected to read, conceptualise, and understand the Holy Quran in their own terms.

Thus they become prey to the local mullahs, who often interpret the scriptures to their own ends. As religion and force enter the political realm to homogenise the mass under fear and force, we further lose ourselves instead of coming up with a coherent and comprehensive synthesis of national identity.

Some scholars argue that this turn towards religious nationalism is a world-wide post colonial phenomenon since late 1970s, and it is directly in link with the institution of Orientalist production of knowledge, and the application of such knowledge in the political sphere by "chains of real historical causation."

Others blame it on the inadequacy of state building in Bangladesh, which failed to hold on to its nationalist halo of harmony and ethical commitment towards the state, and fell into the trap of choosing Islam as "that alternative morality to save the union."

The revival of religious nationalism in Bangladesh could also be viewed in relation to traditional rural elite resisting the state and NGO lobbying towards "the predominance of capitalist relations in the transitional society."

The process of Islamisation can also be viewed as a result of the ruptured "ideological hegemony over the masses established during the struggle against Pakistani colonial rule." Ali Riaz argues that Islam is consciously used as a tool to earn public consensus as the state ruling bloc in Bangladesh fails to come up with an ideology suited both for the elites, and the mass.

Local mullahs are giving out fatwas to establish a superior ideology based on their inadequate knowledge of the Islamic scripture, militant Islamists such as Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh are poisoning our minds with blind fear to gain an ideological hold over our brains, but what are we -- the so called conscious, educated, and middle class civil society -- doing about it?

After bombs blast, we blame each other, point our fingers, and get heavily involved in politicising the whole event. The names and faces of those common men, women and children who die in the attacks get little or no attention. In haste we feel there is no time to look back and reconceptualise who we are as a nation.

But it is the philosophical right of each one of us to come in terms with our national identity, and discuss it on a national level. Our problems today are brutal and violent, but no good can come out of violence in response to violence. Only a cultural and philosophical internalisation of our national identity can help us reflect on the internal ruptures of our nation-state.

If we want to address the deep-rooted issues, we struggle to come up with a national ideology suited both for the elite and the mass. We must take active part in bridging the monstrous gap between the educated elites and the urban and rural masses. Today we must reconsolidate our internal dilemma as a nation to combat the forces of terrorism.

Rubaiyat Hossain is a freelance writer.