Reflections of a Repat
Is Bangladesh going the way of Pakistan?
The three languages used to spell out the name of Zia International Airport may surprise a visitor landing in Dhaka. Bangla and English, the native and business languages of Bangladesh, are to be expected. But Arabic script? We are not part of the Arabic world nor do many Bangladeshis understand Arabic, save for a handful. No, it is our message to the world that we are Muslims. It is a message that needs to be heeded; even if not for the same reasons that the government wants to advertise the fact. Islamic fundamentalism is rapidly gaining ground in this country, actively supported by the government.
This was not always the case. Less than 30 years ago Bangladesh was a staunchly secular nation. Hindus, who made up one fifth of the population, and a very small percentage of Christians and Buddhists have lived in relative harmony– barring occasional communal strife – for more than a century with the majority Muslims. This was not surprising given that Islam spread in this part of the Indian subcontinent through the peaceful messages of Sufi saints. Islam’s message of equality before the eyes of god was eagerly received by the lower caste Hindus who were born into poverty and were destined to pass on that trait from generations to generations through the caste system. The voluntary Hindu conversion to Islam resulted in a hybrid mixture of both Hindu (native) and Islamic (Arabic) religious rituals and ceremonies that to this day govern most of the important social rituals such as marriage ceremonies, paying homage to elders, etc. Bangladeshi Muslims have owned these hybrid mix as Islamic rituals and not even the strictly religious used to make any distinction between these and the rituals practiced in Arabia, the birth place of Islam.
When Pakistan, in 1971, decided to punish its restive colony of Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) through the genocidal killing and raping of about 3 million people, it prodded its Muslim soldiers into murderous rampages by claiming that Bangladeshis are not ‘pure’ Muslims. The lack of discrimination against Hindus along with the contamination of Muslim culture by Hindu rituals – which are part of the indigenous culture - was further evidence of impurity.
The first government of the newly liberated Bangladesh enshrined secularism in its constitution. A decade and some violent coups later the constitution was amended to declare Islam as the state religion. Soon money and other aid were flowing in from some rich Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Madrasahs - Islamic religious schools - sprung up in villages and towns all over the country. These Madrasahs provided not only free education, but also free food and lodging. In a country where 50% of the people live below the poverty level these schools promised a way out of grinding poverty. Unfortunately, they have also become the breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism.
Returning to Bangladesh to live, after having left decades ago, I am struck by the prevalence of Islam in daily life. Instead of the “Hello” I was used to when I was growing up, people answer the phone with “Assailum u alaikum” the Islamic greeting. Head to toe covered Burkhas for women and long beards for men have almost become fashion statements for many – though fortunately not as much in the capital as in the countryside. Dhaka has become the site of the largest Islamic pilgrimage place after Mecca, where 2 million people join the already overcrowded urban population of 12 million for a week every year. Mosques spread out in every nook and corner make sure that at least 5 times a day every one hears the call to prayers yelled out over loud and tinny speakers.
Such a religious environment would be bad enough for someone who is not a Muslim, it is the intolerance of other religions which makes it specially dangerous.
Open discrimination and periodic riots against the Hindus have compelled many to migrate to neighboring India. The government-funded universities are being terrorized by the student wing of a religious party in the ruling coalition government who, in turn, are protected by the police. Islamic fanatics on campus, not content with imposing their will on the students, have increasingly taken to attacking secular teachers, murdering them in some instances. Religious zealots of the dominant Sunni sect have been inciting people - successfully - to burn the mosques and loot the properties of a small Islamic sect, the Ahmadiyas. Instead of protecting the persecuted the government responded to these attacks by banning all publications of the Ahmadiyas. The mausoleums of Sufi saints, a gathering place for large number of people attending the performances of street and folk artists on weekend evenings, have been bombed, presumably because the Sufi tradition of experiencing god through love and joy is anathema for the fundamentalists who would rather that people experience more pain and suffering. Even performances of Jatra, the traditional and very popular form of folk play, are periodically bombed. In today’s Bangladesh even being a Muslim doesn’t guarantee you protection from the religious fanatics, you have to be the kind of Muslim the fanatics want; else watch your back.
Interestingly, even though there is a rapid trend towards the Islamization of Bangladesh, the religious parties combined have never been able to amass more than 15% of the popular vote. This seems to imply that the people are not willing to let religion govern their laws or state institutions. However, the influence of foreign money from some Arab governments and pan-Islamic institutions, the spread of Islam among the upper middle class, and the dependence on religious parties in the governing coalition has allowed these parties to yield power disproportionately higher than their share of popular support.
This is not very different from Pakistan. More than three decades after our very painful liberation from Pakistan we are remaking ourselves in its image. In fact, the connection with Pakistan is so strong that a powerful cabinet minister recently stated that those Bangladeshis who supported Pakistan in its genocidal war against Bangladesh were blameless. It is as if a cabinet member in Israel says that those who fought alongside Hitler did nothing wrong! In Israel that guy would be very lucky not to suffer physical harm, in Bangladesh the minister is still in the cabinet without having to make any apology. It is not that we are a forgetful people. It is simply symptomatic of the fact that the Islamists who supported Pakistan against our liberation war are the ones who now have tremendous influence in the government. It may not be long before they will hold absolute power and live up to the slogans painted on the walls in Dhaka, “We don’t want democracy, we want an Islamic theocracy.”
December 28, 2004
Currently writing from Dhaka