No Country for Old Men: The Niloy Chatterjee killing and the roots of Violence in Bangladesh

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Recent murder of Niloy Chatterjee, and the accompanying outcry, has again lead to the thesis in the domestic and  international media that religion, in this case Islam, is at the heart of all violence in Bangladesh. The article looks at depth into such reporting and seeks to answer the question: Is the current practice of Islam responsible for the recent upsurge in violence in Bangladesh?

By Surma

The Killing Fields of Bangladesh

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Picture of Baby shot in the womb of his mother in Magura, Bangladesh, by political cadres of the current ruling Awami League .

Bangladesh this summer again is revisited with the spectre of the another gruesome killing of an online activist, this time Niloy Chatterjee. The killing is not isolated but is part of an epidemic of disappearances, murder, torture and kidnappings which are occurring all over the country. Human Rights activist, at great risk, have tried to highlight this ‘dirty war’, pointing their collective fingers towards the current Awami League government and its security forces.

In Bangladesh, in this context of mainly state sponsored violence, there has been much discussion in social media, about the circumstances surrounding the Niloy Chatterjee’s death. Some commentators, came up with an interesting hypothesis, not attributing the gruesome killings to Ayman Zawahiri and Al Qaida, but that to other possible players. A good summary can be found in the writings of the social media activist Talukdar Shaheb.

It now appears, according to the domestic press in Bangladesh, that individuals connected to the ruling ‘secular’ Awami League government have been arrested, in particular a nephew of the Minister for Labour and Employment. In contrast to the vibrant discussion in Bangladesh surrounding Chatterjee’s death on social media, sadly many international journalists, it seems, are happy to ignore the present context and trot out the usual lazy stereotypes of starry eyed ‘Mad Mullahs’ running amok in Bangladesh.

A Bollywood Rerun of Burke’s Law

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‘Burke’s Law’, now solving international crimes: Above: Screenshot of TV Series Burke’s Law. Below: Picture of the late Niloy Chatterjee

One particular example of this type of lazy journalism is Jason Burke’s piece in the London Guardian, an investigative piece on the face of it but with closer reading, it becomes a pale imitation of US TV hit show Burke’s Law. In the TV series Amos Burke, a millionaire police captain, is chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce, simultaneously solving murders while sipping champagne and enjoying the high life. In our case Jason Burke is over thousand miles away in Delhi, chauffeured through the mental terrain of Bangladesh by his trusted sidekick Saad Hammadi, solving crimes in Bangladesh without having to step inside the country.

In the piece Jason Burke follows the age old technique of developing a distorted picture of Bangladesh for his readers. First he whitewashes the story in a strong solution of decontextualization, by failing to mention in detail the wider spate of killing and violence that has been engulfing the country for the past years. Second, he distorts his piece with unequal representation, there is a direct quote from Imran H Sarkar but no quotes from Conservative Muslims in Bangladesh that oppose Mr Sarkar. Thirdly this unequal representation, allows the picture to develop in a dark room of non being. Where one side is humanised, and has a name and simultaneously the Conservative Muslim voice, is dehumanised into mindless mob, tenuously linked to the murder  and transformed into non beings at the same time.

One is surprised that such epistemic racism is allowed to flourish at the left leaning progressive Guardian. Also I expected Jason Burke, being the Guardian’s expert on the ‘War on Terror’ (having authored four books according to the website), to have a more nuanced and thoughtful article. However when reading his other works in the newspaper I am not surprised. In a piece on key books on Muslim Extremism, Jason Burke summarises, ‘The Islamist’, an autobiographical work by the British Bangladeshi Ed Husain, as: “Excellent on the cultural gap between first generation Pakistani Immigrants and their children in the UK”. I guess according to Jason Burke and the application of his ‘Burke’s Law’, all us Pakis look the same!

(Paki is a derogatory term used by racists in the UK to describe all South Asians)

Burke’s article on Bangladesh follows the memes of many writings by Westerners on Bangladesh, who in essence argue that religion is at the heart of all violence in Bangladesh. This sentiment is echoed in academic circles, where even violence and repression perpetrated by the ‘Progressive and Secular’ Awami League government is blamed on religion. For example David Lewis at the LSE somewhat justifies government repression in Bangladesh, as a defensive posture against religious violence. Leading to the question, is religion, in our case Islam at the heart of all violence in Bangladesh?

The tradition of tolerance in Bangladesh

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Interpreting the picture: Familiar medieval scene of congregation prayer, with a Qalandar (Baul) in the corner (right of the picture) left unharassed and tolerated by the orthodox members of the congregation. Ibn Taymiyyah in his Majmua al Fatawah, upholds the prevalent tradition, by advocating  tolerance of the unorthodox Qalandars.

Looking at the available data on violence in Bangladesh, majority of violence is either attributed to criminal gangs or state security forces. Even one looks at violence by political parties, two out of the three main players are secular, therefore using a rough rule of thumb majority of political violence in the country is non religious. This leaves us the theoretical question, is the practice and articulation of Islam in Bangladesh one that is necessary or in essence violent ? Again the historical and empirical data would suggest otherwise, historically and until the present day, dotted across many villages in Bangladesh Muslims and Hindus communities have coexisted together. Also contrary to popular perception, Islam in Bangladesh has never been monolithic nor uniform, with various theological schools within Sunni Islam, living side by side with no outbreaks of any sectarian violence.

As a way of explaining such discrepancies, many writers have posited the binary of Syncretic Bengali Islam vs Foreign Wahhabi Islam. Wahabi Islam gaining the upperhand in Bangladesh due to the unlimited oil money of the Saudis. Again looking at the empirical data the influence is negligible. For example, looking at the core and regular practice of prayer (namaz/salah),  in Saudi Arabia the practice is to pray with hands above the navel or single cycle of prayer (rakat)  performed for the late evening Witr prayer, but in Bangladesh, anecdotally wherever I went, everyone prayed with their hands below the navel and three cycles of prayers were performed for the Witr Prayer.

Sections of the elite as well as writers and journalists still continue with the argument, pointing not to quantifiable practices but to a an abstract foreign ‘Wahhabi’ ideology that has infected the body politic of Bangladesh, in particular the works of Ibn Taymiyyah.

Such theories appear to be convenient fig leafs for inconvenient facts, leaving more questions unanswered than solved. If the Wahabi movement has been around for over 200 years, if it is so powerful, why does it have an impact now? Why does Saudi Arabia, despite being bordered by the failed states of Iraq and Yemen, the motherland of such violent ideology, has a lower violence and crime statistics than Bangladesh and many Western countries? Why is this myth still peddled by elites, writers and journalists in Bangladesh, when it has already been debunked in academic circles?

An unbiased review of the current data and evidence, points to an alternative source to the violence that is engulfing Bangladesh. We should not be fooled  by the fact that the violence may be couched in religious symbols or language. The manipulation of religion is not a recent phenomena in Bangladesh, nor is it the sole prerogative of the ‘religious right’, it is a universal and established practice of the powerful. Who can forget the pronouncements of the ‘secular’ Awami League government, in following the Medinan Constitution or that no laws will go against Quran or Sunnah.

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Caption Competition Bangladesh: ‘Security Forces Foil Islamist Attack Against Civilised Folks’ or ‘The Haves in Bangladesh Keeping Under Their Heels the Have-nots’, you choose !

Rediscovering the Lost Art of Compromise

“When two elephants fight it is the grass thats gets hurt.”

African Proverb

Taking a step back from the present, without the prejudice against the sacred traditions of the land and looking back into the history of Bangladesh, the spikes in violence cannot be attributed to the constant of deep attachment the Bangladeshi people had for the sacred. The spikes of violence that we witnessed in our recent history in 1947, the crisis leading to and including 1971, the BAKSAL of 1973 and now the violence of the current political crisis, lies squarely instead at the inability of the elites of the country to come to a compromise rather than the religious beliefs held by the common people.

The roots of the present violence, sprout from the feet of the current Awami League Government. The crisis was sparked by the mishandling/politicisation of the War Crimes Trials and the suspension of free and fair elections. These unilateral steps by the Government has shattered the political consensus that existed  in the country since the 1990s. It has created a political vacuum, creating a winner takes all situation for the Government and and a do die situation for its opponents, thus giving the illusion of violence as the panacea for the malaise perceived by both parties.

On the other hand, International backers of the Awami League government either in Delhi or in the West, instead of restraining the violence, maintain and fan it. They are all too eager to prop up and paint the current crisis in a clash of civilisation colours. This manufacturing of a new front on the ‘War on Terror’, has the desired effect in justifying new budgets for their ever burgeoning Military Industrial Complex (cue the useful idiots of Bangladesh Studies).

The history of Bangladesh has not been a continuous orgy of violence, there have been long periods that did see stability and reduction of violence. The catalyst for the periods of peace, was the ability of the elites of the country to compromise. The first instance was in 1975, in a series outlined by the blogger Jyoti Rahman, it was Zia Rahman’s genius for compromise that steered the country from the initial chaos under the Awami League dictatorship, to stability and normalcy. The second period was the unified effort by all parties to depose the Ershad dictatorship and the formation of a new democratic political arrangement in the 1990s.It is the abandonment of this ancient wisdom of tolerance and compromise that has lead to the spate of violence in Bangladesh. Intolerance emanating from the elites feeding down to the common man in the street as innocent victims of collateral damage.

Looking at the privileged young marchers of Shahbag and their slogans, reading the opinions pieces and accompanying comments on Bangladesh, a silent melancholy sigh takes over the soul. I hear in my heart the lament of W B Yeats, in his poem Byzantium. The young have forgotten the age old wisdom of their elders, thus mistaking the onward march of intolerance with the onward march of progress…

“THAT is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

– Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect”

W B Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium

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March to Progress or Intolerance? Left: Torchlight Rally at Shahbag and Right: Torchlight Rally in Nazi Germany

Further Reading:

  1. ‘Ibn Taymiyya’s “New Mardin Fatwa”. Is genetically modified Islam (GMI) carcinogenic?’ by Yahya Michot
  2. ‘Ibn Taymiyya against Extremisms’ by Yahya Michot
  3. ‘God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Middle Period 1200-1550’ by Ahmet T Karamustafa

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