Cutting Through the Paper Tiger of Rising ‘Islamic’ Militancy in Bangladesh


By Surma of the Khichuri for

On her recent visit to Bangladesh the Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh argued that Bangladesh has an Islamic militancy problem, and that was the main reason for the Indian government’s unstinting support to the increasingly autocratic Awami League government. Right on cue, the pro-government Daily Star issued an op-ed by its executive editor, Syed Badrul Ahsan, which framed the current crisis using the imagery of the 1971 as war against Islamic militancy. On the other side of the subtlety spectrum we have David Lewis at the LSE, continuing the Manichaean narrative of secular versus religious struggle in Bangladesh. Ignoring the above misrepresentation of facts and bearing in mind that the current opposition movement being led by the Bangladeshi nationalist BNP is calling for a neutral caretaker government, the multi-billion dollar question is, does Bangladesh have an Islamic militancy problem?

Historical (Dis)continuity

The above question is linked to the powerful and persistent question of whether Bangladesh is a secular country or religious one, answers to both are interlinked with the approach one takes to Bangladesh and South Asia in general.

One approach could be  termed as a DWEM approach to history, that is history through the eyes of Dead White European Males (DWEM), which is subsequently seconded by local Macaulay Minutemen and minutewomen. That is the history of chronologies and maps, empires and nations, wars and revolutions. According to the DWEM approach Bangladesh is a secular society, and has been since the abolition of the titular Mughal Empire following the 1857 Uprising against British subjugation. The 1971 Bangladesh War and subsequently imposed and alienating constitution is an affirmation of that secular reality.

Another reading of history is to see it as a living entity, embodied, decolonial and subaltern. This reading can be summarised by the Persian saying that, “The greatness of a city lies not in its monuments or buildings, nor in its market or gardens but in the men buried inside its walls”. The demonstrative reality of this history is seen in the cities and towns throughout South Asia, amongst the daily throngs that visit the shrines of these great men.

It is a sacred reading of history that starts with Data Ganj Bakhsh Hujwiri in Lahore, through Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer, then from Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi to Shahjalal in Sylhet. After all, it was Nizamuddin who gave Shahjalal the famous flock of doves whose descendants we see at the shrine (dargah) today. To understand the subaltern Muslim civilisation in South Asia we can focus on Moinuddin Chishti (1141-1236), who settled in the city of Ajmer, when the Delhi kings conquered their. His dwelling soon became a fountainhead of Muslim civilisation in the Indian subcontinent.

Rembrandt’s picture of the founders of the four Sufi schools in Indian subcontinent c.1656 [Source: British Museum, Schimmel]

Rembrandt’s picture of the founders of the four Sufi schools in Indian
subcontinent c.1656 [Source: British Museum, Schimmel]

As the Chishtis journeyed through the land spreading the dual message of spiritual equality and social justice, their straightforward preaching and practice of the love of God and one’s neighbours impressed many, particularly those from the lower castes and even members of the scheduled castes.The fact that these khanqahs (mystic lodges) avoided any discrimination between their guests and practiced a classless society attracted many people into their fold. One taster of the teachings of Moinuddin Chishti and company is that a human being should possess “a generosity like that of the ocean, a mildness like that of the sun and a modesty like that of earth.”

This sacred tradition and history has survived and continues to this day and is an integral part of the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh, if you look. In the cities, mufassil towns and villages, anecdotes from Hujwiri’s Kashf al Mahjub (Revelation of Mystery), still resonate in Friday sermons today. Aspects of the curriculum that Nizamuddin Aulia designed and taught can be found in the country’s madrassas. The classless generosity of Moinuddin Chisti is emulated in the weekly communal feasts of the Tablighi Jamaat. This group claim links to the Chishtis through their founder Maulana Ilyas, and their annual Bishwa Ijtema, in Tongi, Dhaka is renowned as  a global mega event and the largest gathering of Muslims outside the Hajj.

Politics and Religion: an explanation of the paradox that is Maulana Bhashani

The interconnections between religious and political spheres in South Asia have been uneasy and tumultuous at times to say the least.  This tradition of connection goes all the way back to the Emperor Ashoka and his incorporation of Buddhist principles into state policy. More recently we can see this relation exemplified by the changing fortunes of the Naqshbandi Tariqa (brotherhood) who arrived in South Asia with the Mughal conquest.

The Naqshbandi’s had a continuous influence on regional politics, from Ahmed Sirhindi on the Mughal Emperors, through to Shah Waliullah on the Afghan King, Ahmad Shah Abdali. Their footprints can be discerned in the modern day politics of the subcontinent; from the Composite Nationalism concept of Congress-aligned Hussain Ahmed Madani (teacher of Hefazat leader Allama Shafi), to Muslim League aligned figures such as Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani, the first grand mufti of Pakistan.

There is an argument that one hears that modern Bangladesh is an exception to the rule, that there is no place for religion in politics. However, if one goes beyond the rhetoric and delves into the historical experience, one finds the paradoxical figure of Maulana Bhashani, and a continuation of the Naqshbandi tradition.

A disciple of the Baghdadi Pir Sahib of Lakhimpur in Assam, Bhashani was advised to journey to Deoband in Uttar Pradesh to study under the Naqshbandi anti-imperialist, Maulana Mahmudul Hassan. Upon returning from his trip, he joined and led the struggle against the exploitation that tenant farmers face from of the xenophonic Line System. This spurred the Moulana on his long political journey to emancipate his people; to economic liberation from the feudal system, to political liberation from the British Raj in 1947, political freedoms from the Sandhurst educated Rawalpindi generals of United Pakistan, and hunger from the ravages of the 1974 Bangladesh famine. Spanning three nationhoods, his last great public act was against India’s hydro hegemonic erection, The Long March of the Farakka Dam in 1976, which is arguably the last time a Bangladeshi politician was taken seriously in the Lok Sabha.

Like a Prophet Moses, he died before he could take his people to the promised land of true independence. Jami, a Naqshbandi Persian wrote a couplet that speaks to this journey.

The Naqshbandiyya are strange caravan leaders

Who bring the caravan through hidden paths into the sacred sanctuary

6th of May 2013 – A War Against Whom?

In London in recent weeks, Kamal Ahmed, former BBC Bengali Service Editor and regular Prothom Alo contributor, made an interesting statement at a presentation with Frances Harrison at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Political Islam and the issues at stake in the Bangladeshi elections’. He said that a ‘choice will need to be made soon, whether democracy is good or Islamist forces should be tackled’. Such a proposition presupposes that the state is being threatened by a rising tide of Islamism. But, is society being radicalised, or are state institutions and elites are becoming more radically alienated from the citizenry?

In Dhaka, in the early hours of Monday 6th of May, a journalist reported the commanding officer of about two thousand, armed police and paramilitary troops pumping up his subordinates with the words ‘Are you all prepared to go to war?’ The massacre that followed, against unarmed and mainly sleeping protesters tired from a long day’s demonstration, was covered up, and remains shrouded in both public denial and fear. Two outspoken TV stations and a popular newspaper were shut down by the government at the time and it is alleged that between scores and hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed. Subsequent investigations have been hampered by the arrests of human rights investigators, not to mention fundamental elite disinterest. Reading the pages of the corporate media, as well as the selective pronouncements from civil society and their ‘development partners’, we could be forgiven if we were to conclude that such a brutal crackdown was universally sanctioned and supported.

The immediate municipal electoral defeats of the Awami League in municipal elections and their general unpopularity express a wide-scale revulsion amongst the population with regards to the massacre. Preliminary investigations have shown that the protests attracted the presence and support of more than the community madrassa sector. People from very different walks of society were killed, injured and terrorised, from labour activists and journalists to a student at an elite engineering university. In one unverified report, a leading Awami League party member from the greater Noakhali region lost three of his nephews. It is as if the institutions that were supposed to protect the citizenry suddenly turned upon them.

Overnight, the native became the alien in the eyes of state institutions. Investigations have revealed that contrary to the official narrative of a clean crowd control operation, protestors were misdirected by security forces to cordoned off ambush zones, and were subsequently set upon. This is a familiar terror tactic commonly used by security forces in Indian Occupied Kashmir and reported by survivors of the 2002 Gujarat Massacre.

The above inversion, of government turning on its citizens was replicated by wider civil society leaders, who instead of championing the violated rights of their citizenry, either remained in complicit silence or cheered on the security forces. In a scene pulled out of Macbeth, we had the human rights Lady, Sultana Kamal, head of the donor financed human rights organisation Ain o Salish Kendra, egging on the security forces to ‘eradicate’ the Islamists. This outburst was followed a few days by protest leader Junaid Babnugari being shifted from police custody to a critical care unit and having a leg amputated due to mistreatment at the hands of the security forces. With civil society in Bangladesh emerging as a simple extension of state terror, questions need to be asked about how such an arrangement has come about and what sustains it.

The Parable of the Boy and the Tiger: From Ahsan to Lewis

Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ was inspired by the Moacyr Scliar’s earlier novel, ‘Max and the Cats’, a story that worked with the allegory of the rise of European fascism. After several conflicts between the Big Cat and the Boy, a fight to the death and rescue, it appears that the Big Cat was a projection of the Boy’s imagination, an inner demon.

The Boy and the Tiger: Life of Pi

The Boy and the Tiger: Life of Pi

This also appears to be the case for a lot of the parochial war on terror industry spokespeople such as Syed Badrul Ahsan, and their international harmonisers in the guise of David Lewis, the myth of an Islamic Militancy plays the similar role of the Tiger.  This phantom of a rising militancy, gives them a get out jail card for analysing the dysfunctionality of politics in Bangladesh and their own personal intellectual failings. This paper Tiger is also reflected in the Indian government’s diplomatic stance, as the New Age newspaper recently pointed out, they know that in reality there is no real threat of an Islamic Militancy, but the myth serves as fig leaf for its own diplomatic incompetence of hoisting it colours so publicly to the increasingly unpopular Awami League.

Yes there is violence against minorities, yes there are hindrances to speech and discourse. But it is the followers of secular political parties that have attacked minorities, not seminary students or followers of a sufi pir. It is the secular courts and security forces that lock up and tortured newspaper editors and online activists, not some obscure religious court.

The evident and underlying tensions in Bangladeshi society are not due to a rising Islamic militancy, but due to the alienation of the ruling elite from the population and a breakdown in state institutions. This breakdown is exemplified by the controversy over the International  Crimes Tribunal and the recent ‘judicial murder’ of Abdul Quader Mollah. The myth of an Islamic militancy is being used as band aid to cover these ever widening cracks in society, between self-appointed leaders and the people. As an old saying goes, “beware who you point the finger at, for when you point the figure at someone or something, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”

Religion is not an anathema but a defining factor in the modern story of Bangladesh. This journey began with the Composite Nationalism of Hussain Ahmed Madani, and was sustained by the selfless activism of Maulana Bhashani as well as the conciliatory Bangladeshi Nationalism of Zia ur Rahman. The recognition of Islam in the constitution by the BNP and its allies is a view shared by the majority of grassroot activist in the AL, and so the journey still continues.

To conclude, Shahbag and its antecedent of high and exclusive West Bengal orientated nationalism is not the logical outcome nor endpoint of the Bangladesh story, but it is a reaction against its natural course.

Or as the sufis say,

The dogs start barking, when the caravan starts moving….

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