প্রিয় মার্ক

By Elora Zaman

বাংলাদেশ নামের একটি ক্ষুদ্র দেশের অখ্যাত এক গ্রাম থেকে লেখা একটি চিঠি। ফেইসবুকের প্রতিষ্ঠাতা মার্ক জুকারবার্গকে উদ্দেশ্য করে লিখেছে সে দেশেরই একটি মেয়ে। মেয়েটি ফেইসবুকের মাধ্যমে পৃথিবীর বাকি মানুষদের সাথে কানেক্টেড থাকতো আর জানতে পারতো চমৎকার এই গ্রহের অপর প্রান্তের মানুষদের চিন্তা ভাবনা, জীবনাচারন।

নীচের ই-মেইলটি সেন্ড করলাম। যারা বাংলা পড়তে আরাম বোধ করেন তাদের জন্য নীচে বাংলায় ও লিখেছি। সবাই যদি এরকম টুকটাক লিখে পাঠান তবে অন্তত বিনাযুদ্ধে সুচাগ্র মেদিনী দেইনি বলতে পারবো।

প্রিয় মার্ক,
অত্যন্ত দুঃখ ভারাক্রান্ত হৃদয় নিয়ে আপনার কাছে লিখতে বাধ্য হয়েছি। বিগতদিনে আমরা দেখেছি আপনি বিভিন্ন প্রাকৃতিক ও মানবিক বিপর্যয়ে অসহায় মানুষদের পাশে দাঁড়িয়েছেন। একজন মানবিক বোধ সম্পন্ন মানুষ হিসেবে আপনি বাংলাদেশীদের অন্তরে আছেন। সেই ভরসায় আজ কিছু বলতে চাই। জানিনা আমার এই চিঠি আপনি পাবেন কিনা। তবুও একান্ত অসহায় হয়ে লিখতে বসেছি।

আপনি হয়ত অবগত আছেন আমাদের সরকার এইদেশে ফেইসবুক বন্ধ করে দিয়েছে বেশ কিছুদিন হল। প্রায় চার কোটি ফেইসবুক ইউজারদের ইচ্ছে অনিচ্ছাকে বৃদ্ধাঙ্গুলি প্রদর্শন করে তারা আমাদের বাক স্বাধীনতা হরণের কার্যক্রম বহাল রেখেছে। এই সরকার জনগণের ভোটে নির্বাচিত নয়। তারা জোর করে মাত্র ৫% ভোটে ক্ষমতায় অবস্থান করছে। জনমানুষের জন্য তাদের চিন্তা নেই। জনগণের কথাকে তারা পাত্তা দেয়না। কেউ প্রতিবাদ করলেই হত্যা, গুম এবং বিভিন্ন ধরণের ভয় ভীতি দেখানো হয়। এদেশের প্রায় বেশিরভাগ জনগণ এখন প্রচন্ড অসহায় অবস্থায় দিনযাপন করছে। সরকারের বিপক্ষে যদি যৌক্তিক কোনো সংবাদ প্রচার করা হয় তবে সেই সংবাদ মাধ্যমকে বন্ধ করে দেয়া হয়। জনপ্রিয় কিছু সংবাদপত্র এবং টিভি চ্যানেল বন্ধ করে দেয়া হয়েছে ইতিমধ্যে এবং তাদের মালিকেরা এখন কারাগারে।

সরকারের ইচ্ছে কেউ তাদের অন্যায়ের বিরুদ্ধে কিছুই যেন না বলতে সাহস পায়। কিন্তু তারা হয়ত ভুলে গিয়েছে জোর করে দেশের সব মানুষকে ভয় দেখিয়ে নিজেদের দলে ভেড়াতে পারা যায়না। হিউম্যান ন্যাচার হল তারা অন্যায়ের বিরুদ্ধে প্রতিবাদ করবে। এদেশের মানুষেরা তাদের সেই প্রতিবাদ অব্যাহত রেখেছিলো আপনার অবদান তাদের প্রিয় ফেইসবুকে। যে ছেলেটি রাজনীতিকে ঘৃণা করে সেই ছেলেটিও ভয়ংকর এই সরকারের স্বৈরনীতির বিরুদ্ধে উচ্চকন্ঠ হতে বাধ্য হয়েছিলো প্রিয় মাতৃভূমিকে ভালোবেসে। নিজের দেশকে ধ্বংসের মুখে ফেলতে দিতে চায়নি সে। অথচ আজ তা দূরে থাক, সে তার প্রিয় বন্ধুটির খবর ও নিতে পারছেনা ফেইসবুক বন্ধ থাকায়। ফেইসবুক ব্যাবহার যেহেতু তুলনামূলকভাবে সস্তা সেহেতু কোটি কোটি মানুষ একে আপন করে নিয়েছে, বেছে নিয়েছে দৈনন্দিন জীবনের অংশ হিসেবে। এতই প্রিয় এই ফেইসবুক আমাদের কাছে যে একদিন এতে প্রবেশ না করতে পারলে যেন সময়কে অপূর্ণ মনে হয়।

অথচ দুঃখজনক হল, সরকার চাইছে আপনি আপনার এতসব ইউজারদের প্রাইভেসীকে উপেক্ষা করে তাদের সকল ইনফরমেশন সরকারের কাছে দিয়ে দেন। যেনো তারা ইউজারদের ধরে নিয়ে গিয়ে জেলে রাখতে পারে, হয়রানী করতে পারে কিংবা ভীতি প্রদর্শন করে তাদের বিরুদ্ধে না লিখতে বাধ্য করতে পারে। এই সরকারের দ্বারা বিগতদিনে ১৭ বছরের বালক থেকে শুরু করে বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের শিক্ষক পর্যন্ত গ্রেফতার হয়েছেন শুধুমাত্র ফেইসবুকে দুইলাইন লিখবার কারণে।

আশাকরি আপনি বুঝতে পারছেন আমরা কি ভয়ংকর পরিস্থিতির মধ্যে আছি। অন্যায় যে করে সে সর্বক্ষন ভয়ে থাকে, সবকিছুতেই ভয়ে থাকে যে এই বুঝি কেউ প্রতিবাদ করে ফেললো। আর তাই তারা প্রতিবাদী মানুষদের দমন করে কঠোর হাতে। সরকার ঘোষনা দিয়েছে আপনার সাথে চুক্তি করে ফেইসবুক ইউজারদের গোপন তথ্য জেনে নিয়ে তাদেরকে শাস্তির আওতায় আনা হবে। তারা এতই ভীত তাদের অপকর্ম নিয়ে। এবং ক্ষমতায় জোর করে থাকবার জন্য মরিয়া যেনো বিশ্ববাসী তাদের অন্যায় সমূহ সম্পর্কে জানতে না পারে আর তারা রুল করতে পারে অস্ত্রের জোরে, দমননীতি গ্রহণ করে।

এমতাবস্থায় আপনি যদি আমাদের আশ্বস্ত করেন যে আপনি এই কোটি কোটি জনগণের পাশে থাকবেন, কোনো স্বৈরাচারী সরকারের পাশে নয়, এই সরকারের গুটিকয়েক মানুষের ইচ্ছায় আপনি আমাদের প্রাইভেসী ব্রিচ করবেন না কিংবা আমাদের কোনো ব্যাক্তিগত ইনফরমেশন তাদের হাতে তুলে দেবেন না, তবে আমরা স্বস্তি পাই। এইজন্যই আপনার দৃষ্টি আকর্ষন করা। নিজ দেশের সরকারের বিরুদ্ধে লিখতে গিয়ে আমি বারবার কেঁদেছি। নিজেকে ধীক্কার দিয়েছি। তবে সরকার যখন মানুষের বিপরীতে অবস্থান নেয় শত্রুর মত, তখন একান্ত নিরুপায় হয়ে আপনাকে লিখতে বাধ্য হবার এই প্রয়াস ক্ষমাসুন্দর দৃষ্টিতে দেখবেন।

আল্লাহ আপনার মঙ্গল করুন। ভালো থাকবেন।
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A young girl with her ever lush mind rediscovered herself in the contemporary world of networking and socialisation with free and fast paced information flow, as she wandered in the online virtual getaways from a physical location of a tiny village of a small country named Bangladesh. As the little world and yet so big that she lived in seemed to be on the verge of being shattered, she wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook was not just more than a face and a book to her; it was her universe to her inquisitive amicable mind seeking to remain connected and informed of the lives and laughter of the people from the other side of the planet. She wrote:

Dear Mark,
I am compelled to write you this letter with a heavy heart. In the past, we have seen you have stood firmly beside the helpless people affected in various natural and humanitarian crises of the world. I can reaffirm that as a person with great sense of moral responsibility and principles, you have had always occupied an important place in the hearts of the Bangladeshis. It is this confidence that encourages me to say a few things through this letter, although I am unsure whether this letter will really reach you. However, I am writing it as I am totally helpless and do not see another option.

You may be aware that the government of Bangladesh has shut down access to facebook in Bangladesh for sometime now. By showing absolute disregard to the rights and preferences of some 40 million facebook users of Bangladesh, the government has kept on snatching our right of freedom of speech and expressions.

This government, as you may know, is not elected by people’s vote through a proper democratic process. They are just holding on to the power by force with a meagre 5% support of the total population. They possess no concerns for the people of the country whatsoever. They turn a blind eye to the opinion of the people. Anyone trying to protest against their evil intent and illegitimacies has to deal with their threats of murders, abduction or other forms of tortures and harassments. An overwhelming majority of the population is living helpless lives now a day. Any media broadcasting any news of utmost veracity but going against the government, is forcefully brought under complete closure. Already a number of popular newspapers and television channels have been oppressively closed down by the government, with their owners jailed in sheer isolations.

The Bangladesh government wants to create an environment so that no one can dare to exercise their right of freedom of expression, no matter how basic that could be, to say anything against them. However it looks like they have forgotten that it is not possible to keep all the people of the country intimidated and forced to be on their side. Inherent in human nature is to protest and remonstrance against all evils and injustices. With all options virtually ceasing to exist, the people of Bangladesh kept on their voices of protest heard so far through your unprecedented contribution: Facebook. Even the innocent young men who never affiliated themselves in politics, were bound to raise their voices out of their love for the motherland, to protest against the autocracies of the government using the facebook as their only platform. They didn’t want to let their country be pushed to the brink of collapse.

However, with the current shut down of facebook in the country, they are not even capable of connecting to their dear friends, let alone using facebook to pursue broader benefits and better causes. Because facebook is a complementary site for the account holders, millions of people of Bangladesh have embraced facebook as integral parts of their daily lives. We love facebook so much that any single day without accessing facebook seems rather unfulfilled.

However, it is very unfortunate that the government of Bangladesh wants you to provide the information of all the facebook users to them completely neglecting the privacy of these users. The government’s filthy intent is to arrest the users and keep them in custody, harass them or coerce them not to write anything against the government. In the past, many people, from a 17- year old lad to university professor have been arrested by the government only for writing something in facebook against the government.

I hope you understand what dire straits we are living in at the moment in this country. It is well known that the perpetrators and wrongdoers are always afraid of confronting protests against their evil deeds. Hence they tend to gruellingly repress the ones who protest and oppose, which is especially easy when they are the authorities themselves. The government of Bangladesh has announced that they will get into an agreement with you to access confidential information of the facebook users, to prosecute and bring them to judicial trial. The government is so frightened because they are fully aware of their misdemeanours and sins. They want to hold to the power by any means, by ensuring that the outside world remains ignorant of their mischiefs and they can continue their autocratic regime using guns and power to threaten and repress people.

Under the circumstances, it would be our ultimate relief to know that you will be beside the millions of us, and not with only a handful of people of the current autocratic oppressive government of Bangladesh, and you will not breach our privacy or provide any of our personal information to the government. This is what I wanted to draw your attention upon. Writing against the government of my own country has not been easy and I couldn’t resist shedding tears. I resented myself time and again. However, please forgive this endeavour of mine to be in touch with you and I hope you will understand how undone we are with the government taking a belligerent stance against its own people, which leaves us with no option other than to write to you to get our rights of freedom of speech and expression preserved through the facebook.

May Allah bless you! Stay safe.

Missed Calling: No Exit: November.

Missed Calling: No Exit: November.

 

                                                                                                                                    Seema Amin

The month of November, with its scheduled nascent coolness, has been the unofficial portent of a three month winter season of staged ‘culture’ for years; the capacious capital boasts its social capital (the synergies of its urban, global, and now, ‘trans-rural’ agglomerations) in established platforms like Hay (Dhaka International Literary Festival) and Bengal’s Classical Indian Music fest as well as the more recent ‘blockbusters’of Samdani Art Summit and BPL/ICC.  This year, rehearsed loudly in the habitual corporate brochures, event catalogues and free/ VIP registration circuits, a new entree has entered the menu of the spectacle.

The Dhaka International ‘folk’ festival, a rather pink fountain for variously colored thirsts—popular Lalon and Sufi exponents branded or re-branded ‘folk’ in the well-protected precincts of the Army stadium—had its debut, as highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow sat in classified and declassified zones during the hallowed trinity– three nights of ‘Bliss’ not to ‘miss’ — together in concert as they almost never are, except possibly…. in queue on voting day. Ai! The month is a harbinger, too, of not only Jibananda’s once punctually rapturous rural winter and the hemanta harvesting of amon rice but the municipality polls, 2015. The barely audible static surrounding these polls, in contrast to the April 28 mayor polls, hardly interfered with our recreational sublime.  One would have to be exceptionally and easily bored to notice the odd man out in the rose-colored screen that dropped over the writer/publisher serial murders and the posthumously advertised petrol bombs of January: blue prison vans here and there, uploading busloads of new arrivals in the already overloaded Dhaka Central Jail. If one cared to, however, one might notice the bars of music synchronized to the bars of the prison vans, inside which only the hands of anonymous prisoners are visible…Outside Jahingar gate that opens to the cantonment where urban vintage and musical ‘enlightenment’ is tasted… zig-zagging traffic through Shahbag… No Prussian or electric blue, no warm or fluffy blue: the prison blue of the prison van.

On a sudden, if a staccato rhythm suddenly jerks our gaze and we see thirteen brown hands shaking the small bars that open to the outside world inside the moving penitentiary…our imagination might take us somewhere…quite far, as far as a Passage to India..or rather haphazardly…as mine did, to Grameenphone. I imagined, for I am particularly and peculiarly imaginative, that these thirteen hands, shaking the van for what it’s worth, picked up from god knows where, were missed calling the Dhaka Folk festival, the one that almost tempted me with its constellation of stars and the understated smell of dried roses.

Such an understatement: prison.  The headlines from September do not overstate the bodies it contains: 17,000 workers/activists of the (unofficial, major) opposition. The subheading on the front page of the Daily Star from November 21: Party Claims 500 of its prospective candidates detained this month. Elsewhere:  “Every day, three hundred of our workers are picked up…”  Forget the cases against 22,000 of its leaders and activists. Just count the number detained each day…hell, if there were three consecutive storms in the south not as many rickshawallahs could show up in the capital.

We live in insecure times, alias, very secured times. From bleeding Paris to burning Dhaka, a blanket of security, a grid of surveillance and its alter ego– mass arrest and mass detention, is thrown over us.  Before we had time to swallow the enormity of the ‘insecurity’ posed by five bloggers and a publisher killed in the last eight months, we were covered up in a ‘blanket of security’.   Before we could register the one-party municipal election we are about to enjoy, two eagerly awaited hangings were announced.  Thus, and so:

“Nirapothar chadore dheke rakha hoyechhe Dhaka Central Jail.”  Good, in fact thank you, but has the blanket been lifted since? Will this coldness, this fear, ever thaw? And did the blanket really come down that fateful night when history was served or was it already keeping us warm in an ever warmer earth?

Precedents are perhaps all we are about… “Amader first hote hobbe, tai na…” An IUB faculty and friend was sarcastically referring to biometric SIM registration and how we were proudly stepping into unchartered territory, with the exception of one or two African states.  Terrorism calls for terrific measures. But if the opposition, and its hundreds of thousands of supporters, is not a banned terrorist outfit—in spite of endless rhetoric that would have it even more illegitimate than Jamaat, not even just by association anymore—this form of ‘delegitimizing’ a political party would normally have the effect of delegitimizing the state that has declared an unofficial war against almost forty percentage of its population.

While the imprisonment of leaders before the nonetheless performed spectacle of petrol bombs during January’s post electoral blockade can be post facto argued as “pre emptive,” the pre-emptive ‘strike’ of November has no deductive or inductive logic behind it. It is simply justified—if it is justified at all, no one feels the need in a climate of generalized ‘terror’– by the suspicion of potential sabotage (albeit sabotage of ‘normalcy’ as much as anything else). One man’s sabotage is another man’s subterfuge:  will potential provocateurs and saboteurs, disciplined, remanded, be released in time for elections?  Discipline and Punish: just don’t make this spectacle so damn obvious.  News from yesterday: We are looking forward to Awami-Awami violence, in case we miss the normal bipartisan blood spilled.  Thousands languish in Bangladeshi prisons since time immemorial (that’s colonial Greenwich standard time); but the hundreds of thousands in prison now herald the zeitgeist of a new political age (If we are to look for precedents in our own history, the parallels could get tricky, from the Pakistani period to BAKSAL)

The question occurs, under what climate, in what world, through which discourse, can a society accept this form of ‘open’-literally, for many are in a permanent ‘makeshift’ prison in tents–incarceration of tens of thousands of its people? The grassroots workers in jail, those who ‘do’ the BNP (just as their counterparts who ‘do’ the Awami League), are not separate form this society.  Their party has not been declared ‘illegal’ or even ‘illicit’ as Jamaat’s has—even– rhetorically;  yet, by all means, if there is any path towards such a historic moment, then the mass detention of the (unofficial) opposition’s workers certainly entail that inexorable destiny. In world and national history it is one-party or one-man/woman dictatorships that have been synonymous with such mass detention (apart from episodes of ethnic cleansing, etc).

Not a few fingers point to a state that has one, inviolable source of legitimacy: the war crimes tribunal (i.e. a historic burden of Chetona).  In itself, it is no mean source, with genuine support if not national consensus, much more powerful than the regime’s growth rhetoric.  Yet, apparently it is not sufficient to ensure the sound sleep of our rulers, underneath that blanket of security: complete acquiescence seems necessary, the slightest divergence/dissent somehow points at the threat of a critical mass, ‘democracy’ seems as much a threat as ‘terror.’ Critical mass (the threshold on which the status quo one day dissipates) where the foundations cannot hold. Thought is almost as ‘unfree’ as action.

Again, let me repeat, not to say that AL does not have support, the highest members of the ‘culture literati’ paid homage to the PM for her ‘environmental achievements’ even as UNESCO finally expressed alarm at Rampal power plant in the Sundarbans.

But these same supporters, who ‘cover’ with a shroud of protective love, fierce rhetoric and sometimes, sometimes, genuine feeling, never even feel they have to answer why thousands of BNP’s workers are being rounded up before the polls, rather than—just for comparison’s sake– thousands of Jamaat’s workers before the verdict of a war criminal. The threat of the BNP organizing its grassroots workers (leaders in September declared they had begun work in 74 units) seems sufficient condition for such blatantly totalitarian actions by the regime.

But I have a proposition: remember how ‘we’ were comparing the BNP to the Naxals? Absurd to some, perfectly logical to others, but hey, for rationality’s sake/if not realpolitik: why don’t we just follow through and do what India did with them? Why don’t we declare them illegal? At least then that section of Bangladesh considering opposition politics as a legitimate form of protest will know that somehow their actions have crossed a boundary that never existed when their counterparts were in their place ( history begins and ends with the victors and why should this be different?)— know that they have been so ‘burnt’ in the eyes of the public, in poetic banners and graffiti all over town, that they are not allowed to function legally?

Look into the legal question.  Lock the terror away—no, confiscate, quarantine, suffocate, squelch, corner, liquidate… No…they will only throw blockbuster shows, while the prison vans carry them away…

Alas, the question is not legal.  In a country of one hundred sixty million people, if the forty percent of the population that constitutes BNP’s core vote is incarcerated and ‘incarcerable’, the prison-bail-remand industry becomes a lucrative source of profit.  And more importantly, virtually endless. Prison, after all, is not just perianal amusement, mind you, but often referred to as an industrial complex, with a vibrant economy.  In America, the ‘military-industrial’ complex has its own GDP, if you will.

One of the biggest (baddest, baby) ‘throwers’ of parties in Bangladesh is the military: so are the US Marines stationed here in Dhaka.  The military has always been a key player in Bangladeshi politics, but its cultural import should not be considered insignificant; for reasons both profound and ironic, it still inspires respect, awe and submission. The army stadium, just one platform for civic ‘togetherness’ is just a token ‘cultural refreshment’, only a mocktail after all, not a Molotov…

Now, this article is not another brick in the wall of the well-established discourse of a militarized, police state. Or an obituary for the opposition; or even, the slightest death threat to the ruling regime.  It is, if anything, a missed call to the uncritical ‘mass/class’ here and there orbiting November, December, January… To pretend everything is normal as long as the wheels of growth do not grind to a halt is the great virtue of the capitalist mode of production and, if you will, mode of ‘life’ and death. And, if anything, the ‘culture’ precedes the politics.

‘Art’ replaced God in the west a long time ago as the ‘opium’ of the m/asses, as a professor of literature in the University of Geneva once declared to me…The tourists may come to the biggest show in town in February, the Samdani Art Summit, through different borders than the dealers in arms, but the circuits of pleasure and pain somewhere do meet, perhaps in the no man’s land of spectacle. Oishi will have a noose on her neck, but the security forces and godfathers who deal in yaba will not.  War criminals who facilitated or participated in the torture of so many will hang but those who keep well-identified torture cells today will not. The age of the spectacle does not let us mourn the horrors of a terror attack or the loss of our freedoms long, sublimating everything into fear and/or joy,  lest we recognize other crimes, other criminals, repeating history piecemeal,  like the bullet-perforated path of a third world war. And the prison vans pass us by, on our way to the ‘theatre’. Yesterday’s news of ISIS, tomorrow’s news of Ansarullah Bahini, and a promise of more of the same.  Nothing, nothing between pleasure and pain, the keyboard set to this scale. No third taste, no minor chord.  Once in the theatre, that old Arabic root word next to the Latin: No exit.

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

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

A tale of two mockingbirds: Public reaction in Pahela Boishkah and echoing namelessness.

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By Seema Amin

“The ‘they,’ as it were, can constantly have ‘them’ invoking it…”—   Heidegger

Easy does it. ‘They’ did it.      

In ‘To kill a mockingbird,’ Harper Lee described the subjectivism of human experience:  People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for. Justice, in this worldview, tends to ‘black out’, losing consciousness to a kind of societal tunnel vision. Atticus Finch, protagonist in that American classic, saw mockingbirds as epitomes of harmlessness, innocent songbirds that should not be prey to the predator.  But in the natural world, mockingbirds are characterized by quite another ‘gift’. Mockingbirds mimic other birds. The song of the mockingbird is a song of the average, a kind of adjusted polyglot’s mean of birdsong…

The culture of ‘public reaction’ in Bangladesh today is an echo chamber of mockingbirds, not too distant from the cultures of resistance/s. The same coterie, friends, networks, who ‘resisted’ together for forty years resist on. They sign together, dine together, sing and fight together.  Yet around them the ‘culture’ of corruption—the three muskateers of political, social, sexual corruption–has not changed terrifically, much as the colors of our national holidays remain heroically the same, strutting ‘freedom’, tradition, and ‘progressive liberal values’ all at once, singing the song of the average.

Heidegger’s treatment of the ‘They’ in Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, plumbs the concept of ‘averageness’ in a culture of exchange:  ‘Being-with-another’ concerns itself with averageness…Thus the ‘they’ maintains itself factically in the averageness of that which belongs to it, of that which it regards as valid and that which it does not, and of that to which it grants success and that to which it denies it… This care of averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call the ‘leveling down’…of all possibilities of being.” Complex as it sounds, Adorno makes this concept concrete when he describes a world born of phrases, chatter, giving birth to a   ‘reality that arose in the name of culture.’

A few days after the coordinated public ‘humiliation’/molestation/ dare I say—rape– of more than twenty women in Dhaka University’s TSC, Information Minister Inu described the style of the ‘attack’ as ‘Talibaneque.’ It would take the Taliban of course, or Isis, or, at the very least, Ansarullah Bahini, to get away with—ehm–this crime of ‘no name’ that Rahnuma Ahmed, in 2010, named in an article entitled, “Chatra League and sexual violence, A wide spread state of denial,” after incidents of sexual harassment in the same Raju Chottor area in Pahela Boishakh. In 2015, of course, it would take the Taliban. And this, though the security is beefed up more each year, audibly to stem any miniscule threat of ‘militancy’, cultural harassment, etc. We heard the same stories of extraordinary security measures, special RAB and police booths as in Ekushey and Boi Mela, when blogger Abhijeet Rai was silenced forever.  And yet, in spite of everything, the same exact venue remained ‘outside of the jurisdiction’ of security. No surprise. They—the Taliban– control Shahbagh after all. They won the spoils of that war in 2008. They mark their territory, we circle in their piss. They came from underground terrorist tunnels behind TSC, they were handed over by Nandi to the police, who, in turn, were so enamored with the most wanted terrorists of Bangladesh that they released them, did not even take a second glance at the now famous ‘bearded man’ seen repeatedly near the scene on the cameras…Beards get alarming only in the aftermath.  But of course! The terrorists control Shahbagh.

In spite of detailed reports in the print media immediately after the incident, recounting sexual harassment in Jagannath by Chatra League on the same day as the spectacle at TSC, the TV media mediated an Islamic threat soon after, reporting what could well be a clue, or a red herring, that the state’s mouthpieces were only to eager to echo. Meanwhile, the weight of the ‘evidence’ veered towards the song of the average. Women’s rights activists, university professors, writers, even students, seemed caught between explaining the endemic environment of sexual harassment and ringing the alarm bell over a threat to the national (secular) culture of Pahela Boishakh. Exceptions to note: some referred back to the pages of history, the 1998 protests over serial rape by Chatra League cadres in Jahingnagar University; some hinted at the political patronage that creates impunity. But the echo chamber, where the mockingbirds flocked quickly, swiftly sang the song of the Rooster of the morning after, who announced with alarm the usual, and yet, unusual suspects. Chatter flits between half truth and an incomplete lie.

In a thorough report in the Dhaka Courier (24 April) the culture of impunity in rape and sexual harassment prevalent even in ’73 is mentioned, alongside the historical marker of ’71 regarding rape. Afsan Chowdury’s purported claim that the destigmatization of rape was ‘the most significant’ legacy of Pakistan, that the ’71 breakdown of norms regarding public rape allowed impunity regarding rape  to become the norm, is intriguing; Bangladesh, however, did not merely continue impunity for Pakistani and razakar rapists, they gave impunity for rapists from our own freedom fighters. War has always involved rape and the notion that it takes such a violent ‘breakdown’ for the patriarchal norms in peacetime to change should raise some questions. In any case, today if we continue to thank Pakistan for the ‘destigmatiziaton’ of pubic rape we may as well blame patriarchy and its normalization of sexual violence on Pakistan in independent Bangladesh. Afsan Chowdhury himself is quoted elsewhere saying that power and privilege provides impunity to rapists; and has that power not changed hands? Only from man to man, state to state, old patronage, new patronage. Merely.

The report’s own description of Chatra League’s shame provides some clue: “DMP Joint Commissioner Munirul said they were working on releasing the suspects’ photos taken from screenshots of the footage. But in a related development, popular website Moja Loss had to wrap up their social awareness work done through the site after using the CCTV footage to identify some of the perpetrators and providing links to their Facebook pages. Many of the identified louts were found to be members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling party.”

The same report mentioned Chatra Union Dhaka University unit’s president Liton Nandi’s witness of men who were saying “record this Record this! We will never get such a view again.”  Ironically, the ‘view from camera 16”, the one camera from which footage has not  been released but which was placed in the area where the more ‘nameless’ acts occurred, may well also never be the same again. It is easy to doctor footage once so much time has passed. And given the way the security forces and state has reacted so far, a state so willing to ‘set the record straight’….one can, I suppose, only believe our authorities ‘innocent until proven guilty.’  Alas, still, the footage needs to be released, if only for us to know the full extent of what Rahnuma called a ‘nameless crime.’ The New York times live website recently did an article on “Sunitha Krishnan, the woman  who made the bold and controversial move of posting real footage of men raping women on the Internet” and how it led to the identification of rapists following the 2012 New Delhi rape, among other cases.

Rahnuma Ahmed, in the 2010 article, ventured that the widespread ‘state of denial’ regarding Chatra League’s involvement in rape was slowing shaking. Did it? Has it? Does the crime have a name? In spite of commendably large, widespread and energetic protests following this year’s event, the chatter in the echo chamber seems to fall squarely in the center of the cesspool of events of the last few years where impunity has prevailed, and where,  on the occasion someone is indicted the public largely remains skeptical that the actual criminals were found.

For so many reasons, my suspicions are with the most likely suspects, not the usual suspects, given the weight of history, the precedents of 2010, the particular style and nature of the assaults and the simultaneous assaults in Jagannth University on the same day, and the reining in of Chatra League’s women by the party following their desire to protest the incidents; and, and, and. But I maintain reasonable doubt. I ask myself, if an Islamic militant wanted to make a point with this coordinated lechery, what is the point ‘they’ would make? I know the mockingbirds’ answer: To intimidate those who practice ‘Bengali culture.’ But I get lost in irony.  Point: Today, like every day, women are subject to public and private abuse simply because of the fragrance they carry of ‘womanhood.’ That fragnance is ‘apparent weakness.’ The same fragrance for which the police were emasculated by our valiant Chatra Union protestors when they came with bangles and sarees to Shahbagh thana. What point, then, was Chatra League making in Jagannath? What point were they making in hundreds of cases of assault that they have been implicated in over the years?  Which Islamic force incited them, were they trying to suppress our ‘national culture’? What point were they making when their own female members wanted to protest? And were they making similar points when they extorted Jatra’s Anusheh over a concert, and failing to convince her, incited the conservatives of a village in Sundarban to rise against improperly covered women? But the media barely mentioned the connection.  Some media, in fact, were found to be involved in the extortion. And how am I to separate the point they were making from the chatter: our famous actresses and activists vociferously muddling the waters so the dogs of Shahbagh can maintain jurisdiction– the one the police can quite honestly claim was not theirs— forever.

Friends, sisters, aunties, mockingbirds.  The boy who cried wolf will one day face a real wolf. And that day, the wolf won’t spare any of us, not women, not minorities, no one. Just like we didn’t spare them. Though they hid in the jungle, as harmless as Lee’s innocent birds, the day our tigers roamed free, preying without fear, with the help of our mockingbirds. The dogs of Shahbag mark their territory and we circle in their piss. We sing songs of awakening. But no one wakes up in an echo chamber. Like the vuvuezla that deadens ours sense of sound, the sound of a ten year old screaming, being bitten, thrown, the obfuscations of the mockingbirds make obfuscation of the state unnecessary. And the show goes on.

Something for everyone

Jyoti Rahman

Voters of Dhaka and Chittagong are supposed to exercise their democratic right on 28 April.  These elections are hardly going to change the political status quo that is Mrs Wajed’s one-person rule over Bangladesh.  And yet, there is something for everyone in these elections.

In Dhaka North — where yours truly spent a part of his life — there really is a choice.  Towards the end of this post, you will find the preference of this blog.

To begin with an obvious statement — these elections ended BNP’s andolon.  Arguably, BNP was going nowhere in the streets.  A post-mortem really deserves its own post (and I hesitate to even signal one might be in the offing).  For now, there is no argument that this round went to the League.

Okay, so here is a contentious point — with these elections, the Prime Minister has given Mrs Zia an exit.

Pause, and think about this.

There is no denying that she can be brutally ruthless when she chooses to, and there must have been huge temptation to go for the opposition’s jugular.  So, why did the PM hold back?

I’d argue that by holding back, and allowing her much weakened opponent a way out, the PM strengthens her hold over the establishment — the business sector, the civil-military bureaucracy, and foreign powers.  Remember, the Awami-establishment bargain is based on stability.  Mrs Wajed’s best and only real selling point is that she alone can provide stability.  For a few weeks in January, that proposition was tested.  Driving BNP underground isn’t going to do anything for stability.  Allowing BNP a breathing space through local government election, on the other hand, does help with stabilisation.

Now, make no mistake that BNP is much weakened.  Scores of its grass root activists (and indeed mid-level leadership) have been abducted or killed, and much of its senior leadership is in either jail or exile.  Also, make no mistake that the elections are on a level playing field.  But for BNP, it’s hard to see an alternative to taking the exit offered.  It gives the party a chance to live for another day — there is nothing else.  And even if it doesn’t fight another day, life is something.

I have no idea which way the voters will choose.  It’s entirely possible that BNP will lose all three, fairly or otherwise.  It’s hard to see what the ruling regime can achieve by blatant poll-day rigging (as opposed to pre-poll machinations).  Plus, I am not sure BNP actually has enough strength to get-out-the-vote or maintain adequate presence in the centres on the day.  That is, it is quite possible that BNP will lose a seemingly peaceful semi-decent election.  Should that happen, its rank-and-file will be further demoralised, limiting the chance of another winter flair-up.

But it is also entirely possible that BNP might win all three, or two, or one.

The thing is, even if BNP wins all three, and gets a morale boost, there might still be a lot for the regime.  If BNP were to win on the 28th, on the morning of the 29th, the Prime Minister will claim ‘see, fair election possible under us’, invite the mayors-elect to Ganabhaban and promise full co-operation.  The editorials on the 30th will then be full of praise for Mrs Wajed’s statesmanship, and BNP’s pettiness and idiocy.

Of course, as things stand, the mayors and their councils have no power over anything substantial.  In fact, by allowing these local government elections, the PM is following in the footsteps of the military regimes of HM Ershad or Ayub Khan, or the Raj going back a century — they too allowed elections of local bodies with limited powers to pacify restive subjects.  As such, it’s easy to think about sitting out these elections.

Such cynicism would be wrong.

For one thing, just as was the case under the Raj or the generals, these elections provide an avenue for new politicians to emerge.  Indeed, anyone who claims to be tired of the two netris or politics-as-usual must take these elections seriously.  If not through elections, how else do they propose new leadership will emerge?

Dhaka North is particularly important.  A directly elected mayor of the richest and most educated part of the country — one can think of far worse ways of nurturing new leadership.  The mayor-elect of Dhaka North might have little power on paper.  But he will have tremendous symbolic and moral authority, which may well provide seed capital for a bright political future.

Further, there really is a choice in Dhaka North.  Annisul Huq, Zonayed Saki, Mahi B Chowdhury, Tabith Awal — each of them offer different things, and you should think carefully before exercising your right (if you can) on the 28th.

Take Annisul Huq, the Prime Minister’s choice.  If you believe the PM is doing a helluva job, then clearly you should vote for Mr Huq.  And by the same token, a vote for Mr Huq would mean this is what you really think.

If you fancy yourself as one of the left, if you like railing against ‘neoliberalism’, if you went to Shahbag and then soured on Awami League, then Mr Saki is your man.  Now, my politics is decidedly not of the left.  I think Marx was right about many things but was wrong about the most important matters, and I have a very dim view of non-Marxist populism.  But this post is not a critique of the left.  Relevant thing for us is that by joining the hustings, Mr Saki is signalling that he takes the hard work of politics seriously.  That is to be commended.  If you are serious about the left, then you should vote for him, not Mr Huq.

I am not really sure I see anything commendable in Mr Chowdhury.  I understand he is media-savvy.  He portrays himself as a face of the youth.  I guess in Bangladesh a 46 year old can pass for young.  But Mr Chowdhury is not a new face.  He has been in politics for a decade and half.  He has had plenty of chance to show his acumen.  And he has delivered nought.  Nought is also what he has achieved outside politics.  A vote for him is a lazy choice, a thoughtless choice, symbolising nothing but the voter’s unwillingness to take things seriously.  As it happens, I doubt Mr Chowdhury will get far.  And just as well, for a good showing by Mr Chowdhury would mean worse for future for our politics than a resounding win for Mr Huq.

And that leaves us with Mr Awal.  At 36, he would be considered young for politics anywhere in the world.  He is a genuinely new face in politics.  The politically apathetic might dismiss him as being a parachuted candidate with a silver spoon.  Dismissing Tabith Awal out of such cynicism, however, would be a bad mistake.  Mr Awal is no more a parachuted candidate than Mr Huq.  He is far less a dynastic scion than Mr Chowdhury.  And at least by one measure, he has shown greater commitment to people’s rights than Mr Saki — in late 2013, when the most fundamental of democratic rights, the right to choose one’s government, was being snatched, Mr Awal courted arrest.  Indeed, by that measure, Tabith Awal has shown greater political courage than any of his opponents.

There is a lot of things wrong with BNP.  But endorsing Mr Awal’s candidacy is not one of them.  If you take your rights seriously, if you want the 6% growth and associated social development to continue, if you want to heal the fissure of Shahbag and Shapla Chattar, you must welcome men and women like Mr Awal into politics.

Tabith Awal may be the youngest candidate in Dhaka North, but a vote for him is the mature thing to do.

First Published at https://jrahman.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/something-for-everyone/#more-4090

Real Face of Danger: Harassing University Teacher in Bangladesh

By: Elora Zaman

Bangladesh, a tiny country, is going through a lot these days; so many things are happening there everyday that one can easily loose tracks. However, a particular event needs attention in my opinion. Harassing and beating a university teacher is not an insignificant thing, especially when it takes place in the context of current emotion-based political issues. Such a phenomenon would drive us to the dark age of ignorance and injustice. Such a task, if it will be left unattended and untreated, would only make a rotten society of us.

Ahmad Safa, a renowned Bangladeshi intellectual, once said, the nation is halted for one year if the university is closed for one day. Teachers are the architects of the society. So the question is, why they are prohibited from thinking freely, and expressing their opinion honestly and openly in current Bangladesh in the hands of the so-called freethinkers and liberals?

Good governance is strongly associated with good and proper education. Good educators are essential in the society for manufacturing good citizens and honest human beings, who will be capable of establishing and maintaining good governance. In our society, these educators are being harassed and beaten by political thugs, and those thugs get their shelter from the government. This is a greatest irony.

Last week, some students beat Jahangir Alam, a professor of the Civil Engineering Department in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, BUET, in the campus, even inside a classroom. They were not content by verbally and virtually abusing him, they started beating him on the following day of his alleged crime. His crime was to express his opinion in a facebook group regarding the ongoing Tribunal of Crime against Humanity in Bangladesh, especially one of its verdicts that hanged a political leader on that night.

The students in our society are known for respecting their teachers, traditionally, and treating them with more honour than their own parents. This respect is considered as one of the major elements in our socio-psychological construct. Unlike Western culture, our eastern culture conventionally sees that the teachers have rights even to beat their pupils occasionally in order to teach them. That’s why it is extra-ordinarily shocking to see that one of those respected teachers are now being verbally and physically abused by the hand of their own students. Which is more shocking is to see that thousands of teachers in Bangladesh are silent today; they don’t protest and seek justice in this regard. All these are taking place only with the support of current oppressive regime of Awami League, led by the hardliner Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Now it has become a commonplace to see that our teachers are forced to act like obedient pets in front of the political leaders.

We can see that many oppressive rulers and monarchs treated the teachers with honour. Many kings are ill-reputed in the history for their deeds, but even they were usually respectful towards the teachers and the scholars. What is happening in current Bangladesh in the name of 1971 war-industry doesn’t know any bound in this regard. Now, every conscious soul is mistreated if they dare to express their opinion freely. Naturally, the educators have become a primary victim in that closed and fascist structure. Do those political thugs and leaders know the place of the educator class in a human society? Or they forget everything due to their physical power and dare to destroy the power of intellectual beings? I urge to everyone concerned about Bangladesh to be aware of the significance of this event and to protest against this with all means possible.

Against the Polite Islamophobia of the Bengali ‘Bhadralok’ : The Bangladesh Unreader

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The article explores perhaps the most powerful and distracting misreading of desh today, the Islamic vs Secular smokescreen. Its origins are traced through the ‘colon’ narrative which paints the majority of it’s inhabitants as an inferior other, to Aryanisation, an attitude supported by another rotten European theory – racial anthropology. Connecting with manifestations of colonial continuity in the Algerian, Muslim experience of France and the doubling up of Aryanisation on the Muslims of Bengal, the debilitating terrorism rents and settlements of the new jomidary are presented along with sacred, indigenous histories of resistance from which we might draw strength, hope and mobilisation.

Allahumma Salli Ala Muhammadi Nabiyil Ummi – O Allah! Send Prayers upon Muhammad, the Unlettered (Ummi) Prophet

 

Once upon a time in New York, Paris and Dhaka…

” (Islamophobia in) France is the worst in Europe and tries to mask it by proclaiming its secular values (sound familiar?), but these values don’t apply to Islam. In fact, French secularism means anything but Islam” Tariq Ali

In a New York meeting during September 2014, Abdul Latif Siddiqui, the then Bangladesh cabinet minister for Post and Communications (formerly for Jute and Textiles) made a statement denigrating the Hajj pilgrimage, crudely commodifying all of its pilgrims and racially slurring Arabs as the descendants of robbers. The minister was a senior member of the ruling Awami League, returned to government earlier in the year in perhaps South Asia’s most dubious general elections ever. There was widespread revulsion as to how a senior politician of a country of over 100 million Muslims could make such statements in public, and after protests he was eventually sacked.

Unlike many, I was not shocked by the contempt shown to the indigenous Muslim culture of Bangladesh by members of the elite who rule in their name. I came across many such instances in recent years whilst researching and discussing the suppression of urban industrial workers in 2012 and the massacre of protesters mainly from rural madrassas in May 2013.

In an academic forum, I witnessed the spectacle of seeing a Bangladeshi academic describing the massacre victims of May 2013 (over 60 unarmed protesters killed) as feral animals that needed to be culled, and another academic justifying the massacre on the basis that the protestors were causing unnecessary traffic congestion in Dhaka.   Bangladesh is not exceptional in having to suffer such Macaulayan Misleadership, that is to say firmly in the thrall of white supremacy and its epistemicidal traditions. To the bemusement of many observers, outrageous colonial continuities are explicitly written into much of Francophone Africa’s independence documentation.

Recognition of the globality and gravity of this condition is the first step to unreading Bangladesh. The next step being, unwinding the roots and after effects of the racial supremacy woven into the fabric of Bengali nationalist selfhood, eventually creating new spaces for indigenous discourse to be heard.

We saw another manifestation of this contempt for the local and thrall for the colonial as a large section of elite in the social media in Bangladesh gave unequivocal support (#jesuischarlie) to the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, following the massacre there, whilst maintaining their silence on Bangladesh governments systematic destruction of press freedom.  In their submission, they conveniently ignored the fact that the magazine disproportionately targeted the marginalised Muslim minority of France, viewing them as a ‘Clandestino’ fifth column. Commentators such as Richard Seymour and Professor Tariq Ramadan, rightly called out the publication as racist, while a former writer for the publication, Olivier Cyran, had previously pointed out that,

“Belief in one’s own superiority, accustomed to looking down on the common herd, is the surest way to sabotage one’s own intellectual defences and to allow them to fall over in the least gust of wind.”

In fact, to the observant eye, this contempt can be seen running through the corporate media of Bangladesh as well as the  elite, in their political pronouncements, reporting and academic masquerades. Here, the urban and rural poor and their mainly Muslim culture, is infantalised, primitivised and decivilised into an essentialised mindless mob. To rephrase Fanon, talking down to the mainly Muslim poor in Bangladesh, as well as ‘Islamophobic’ insults make the Muslim, “the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible”. Thus the precursor to any oppression, exploitation and elimination is the process of differentiation and dehumanisation.

Take Tasneem Khalil’s recent op ed in the Dhaka Tribune, which blames Muslims worldwide for being somehow responsible for the January 7 attack in Paris. The newspaper cites attitudes of Egyptian Muslims in a poll, but omits that most of the respondents in the poll live in one of the most economically unequal and repressive countries in the world, as if to ask someone whose house is on fire, why he is so agitated? The article also misreads the opinion polls of respondents in Muslim countries, ignoring nuances, hence mimicking the method ,attitudes and conclusion of Islamophobes in the West, such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris.

If we skip back a few years, we can recall when the editor of the same ‘liberal’ newspaper, Zafar Sohban (then as assistant editor in the Daily Star) wrote/incited in a polite tone, for the elimination of Bangladesh’s  ‘Original Sin’ of Muslim identity based politics. Arguing for the restoration of ‘Mission 1971’ by the cleansing of poison from the bloodstream and righting history. In doing so he (un)intentionally resonates the mood music, intellectual cover and political anesthetic for the new ‘Guerra Sucia’ (Dirty War) afoot in Bangladesh. A Dirty War in which so many opposition political activists have been abducted, disappeared and murdered. Leaving in the wake orphans, widows and terrified communities throughout Bangladesh.

In the midst of the obligatory, hypocritical media cacophony, author Will Self made an insightful intervention on the justice of journalism, that it should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In the elite  blogosphere and corporate press of Bangladesh, with its latent Islamophobia, such ‘crusading churnalism’ as in the case of the Dhaka Tribune, does the inverse, comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted, thus reinforcing the hierarchy and power left over by former colonial masters, and kept intact by their successors.

Beyond the Fog of (the Phony) War: Decoding the riddle of Bangladesh

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Polite Islamophobia in Bangladesh is defended and justified by the myth of a ‘No Stopping the Cavalry – Long War’ of Bengali exceptionalism. This is an imaginary, intergenerational and Manichean struggle between the forces of a muscular ethnic and linguistic nationalism, wrapped in eurocentric values pitted against the global forces medieval Islamism. These goggles view the, ‘Cops of the World’ War on Terror as a boon for sapping the strength of this global Islamism, eventually leading to its elimination.

Grounding ourselves in current and historical data, we view this imaginary war as a smokescreen for a struggle between a privileged elite and an ever emboldening population, a distraction from the struggle for more visible participation in the state and society at large by a hitherto marginalised majority. The languages and symbolisms used in the struggle reflect the traditions inherited, internalised and embodied by its participants., the elite from their European colonial masters, the masses from their indigenous tradition, Islam, and everywhere inbetween. Globalisation, coupled with the War on Terror, has (re)turned the balance towards the masses, leading to the somewhat painful (re)emergence of Muslim nationalistic discourse and identity of the state, in Bangladesh.

Seeing past the smokescreen requires that we excavate behind the fairytale. We have to go beyond that the sitting regime came to power on the coat tails of a ‘development partner’  imposed military coup, and has manifested the fascistic one party state ideology that only it can yield. We must travel and dwell in the roots of the present ex-colonial state, if not further, with a wide angled lens and a longer duration, to comprehend the reality and after effects of the colonial encounter.  

Colonosibilite’ and the new ‘colons’

Sixty years ago in French occupied North Africa, familiar tensions existed between a foreign imposed ‘colon’ government and the mainly Muslim populace. Here, racist and Islamophobic prejudice combined with economic domination created an entrenched two-tier society, sitting on a tinderbox.

It was into this milieu that the Algerian Muslim writer and intellectual Malik Bennabi published his ‘Vacation de Islam’ (Vocation of Islam) in 1954, to synchronise with the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence against the French. During this 8 year long war, 400 000 to 1 500 000 people are thought to have died, out of a population of 10 million, it was one of the defining anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.

In the Vocation, Malik Bennabi presents the concept of colonsibilite’, the process through which elites in Algeria and other Muslim countries had declined culturally and intellectually to a stage where colonialism was inevitable. Bennabi distinguishes between a country simply conquered and occupied, and a colonised country. The latter having lost its own cultural bearings, internalising what we might call a ‘House Muslim’ mentality upon the perceived superiority of the colonial masters.

Unlike French colonialism in North Africa which was more direct, British imperial rule in Bengal was more indirect, tending to rule in partnership with local intermediaries, who in turn helped them exploit the local populace and ecology. In a familiar image and model to that painted by Bennabi and Fanon, but upon a different precolonial civilisational milieu, we have in the alienated culture of Bangladesh’s mental elite. Its ‘cultural’ heyday, of British Raj Calcutta, are situated upon the devastation of 1770 Bengal Famine, the land grab of the 1793 Permanent Settlement, and the production of a select and moneyed class, pliant and beholden to the British.

Flogging the dead horses of the Aryanisation Apocalypse: The Common Roots of Islamophobia

Liberte’, Egalite, Ambiguite

During the 19th Century, the multiculture of Bengal was subjected to Double Aryanisation from the blackboards of British administrators and their local rentier-landlord development partners. This mirrored the Aryanisation of Classical Civilisation in Europe at the time, and the expulsion of references to African and Asiatic influences on the Ancient Greeks, as demonstrated by Martin Bernal in his Black Athena series. Bernal shows that during the 19th century there was whitewashing of the origins of Western Civilization, a process which he termed Aryanisation.

Aryanisation is a product of an imagined Aryan identity formulated by the 18th century French Orientalist, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron. In the 19th century the concept was developed further by the French Arthur de Gobineu into a hierarchy of races. In this hierarchy of scientific racism, ‘superior’ races like the Aryans are juxtaposed against inferior races, such as Semites (Arabs and Jews) and ‘Negroes’. It judges that inferior races have an incapacity to grasp metaphysics, philosophy or the arts.

Aryanisation was forged in a bigoted Europe, where in the zeitgeist of  Imperialism, nations and national cultures were given shape and supportive national myths. These artificial constructs provided soothing balms to conscience of the coloniser and his local side kick, justifying on a rational basis, through a racial anthropology, the economic and political exploitation of indigenous masses in an increasingly globalised capitalist system.

In colonial Bengal, Double Aryanisation was achieved through ideological linguistics and an elite schooling system that remains in service today, these are now busy reproducing inequalities despite two attempts at national self determination.  The eviction of references to Muslim (Persian and Arabic) influence on ‘pure’, ‘chaste’ Bengali language has been demonstrated by Anandita Ghosh’s recent work on the artificial construction of the Bengali language in the 19th century, functionally it delegitimises indigenous expressions and discomforts the subaltern.  As elsewhere in South Asia, this schooling of elites would create, what Professor Akbar Ahmed dubs, MacCaulay’s Chickens, a class of natives, Indian in appearance but Anglicised in term of education, taste and cultural norms. But in Bangladesh, ‘the Animals at the farm, in the form of chickens have been forcefully inbred by their farmers, to form a hybrid breed, twice removed from the original colonial encounter, and twice alienated from their natural environment.

Zooming out to other human experiences, the after effects of similar (but one-stage), ‘Road to Nowhere’ Aryanising projects unfolded in Iran through the writings of Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, put into practice by the Pahlavi dynasty. In Turkey initialising through the works of Ziya Gokalp, it reaching its zenith with the reforms of Mustafa Kamal.

The alienating and socially debilitating effects of the of this Aryanisation in Bengal during the British Raj was noted in the 20th century, by the historian Arnold J Toynbee in his A Study of History. He wrote of the anguish of British administrators, writing about the phenomena of Calcutta, creating an intellectually bankrupt class of rentier political activists and ideologues.

This sentiment was echoed nearly a hundred years on in independent Bangladesh, by the novelist Zia Rahman Haider. There in front of the ‘Bricks in the Wall’, on the hallowed grounds of ‘Oxford of the East’ Dhaka University, he declared, ‘Bangladesh as a land of dead ideas, where new concepts are throttled at birth and never get passed on because of social, political and class barriers.’

A good example of this double battery hen’s Aryanised epistemology at work in Bangladesh, is in the production of a mainly ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ academic attitude in Bangladesh. One facet of this psychological suffocating (‘Breathe’) malaise afflicting large sections of the intelligentsia can be seen in the Islamophobic discrimination against madrasah students in higher education. For example Dhaka and Jahangirnagar University’s have barred the admission of government run (Aliya) madrasa graduates into Arts and Science departments. This imposed barrier to learning and flourishing has nothing to do with merit,  Aliya graduates have occupied the top 20 positions in the admission test in Jahangirnagar University. The matter was taken up in the High Court and Supreme Court which lifted the bar but many universities are unwilling to admit madrasa graduates in many departments regardless. That the ‘Brain Damage’ university leaderships saw fit to segregate ‘Us and Them’  the different learning traditions of the society speaks volumes as to their intellectual insecurity, if not their fundamental institutional failure.

Frances Harrison in a presentation in London shed some light on this attitude. She explained that some university teachers in Bangladesh complained to her about their fear of being ‘Eclipsed’ by madrasah students in the class room. They explained that madrasah students knew more about religion than the actual teachers, and often corrected them, thus undermining their authority in front of other students.

War on Terror Times: The new Zamindery and its Terrorism Rent

If patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel in the 18th century, it has been replaced by the War on Terror in this one. The refuge, allows the continued oiling of ‘The Welcome to the Machine’ post independence status quo,  allowing a ‘colon elite’, to carry on their brutal and wasteful and dangerous reign over a population which does not share their values.

Recognition and analysis of this enterprise is broadening, with the idea of ‘Terrorism Rent’ describing how regimes frame their domestic political opposition as a security issue with the prism of the ‘War on Terror’. In this Faustian pact, international interests/donors turn a blind eye to internal suppression, while providing foreign aid, valued by many. to prop up corrupt regimes and their dependants. In return the host countries, allow Western interests to gain strategic influence and footholds, under the guise of military assistance and countering Chinese encroachment in the Third World. In this sense, the ‘War on Terror’ functions as an ideological narrative that underpins the capacity of Western and American states to sustain control over an increasingly fragile and changing international system. For example in Afghanistan  we have a Norwegian government report revealing how covert indirect US support to both to the Taliban in Afghanistan and overt support to the Afghan authorities, is used to ‘calibrate the level of violence’, thus sustaining support for US military intervention and presence in the region.

In sub saharan Africa we see a return of the French. In Bangladesh, there has been an increase in military assistance by the UK, focusing on counter insurgency under the comical doublespeak of ‘Democracy Stabilisation’.  A British ‘Democracy Stabilization’ experience gained in the decade long occupation of the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, where in 13 years British troops were responsible for the deaths of over 500 Afghan civilians and the injuries of thousands and yet did not capture or kill a single Al Qaida operative.

The unintended consequences of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’, and the accompanying intensification of Islamophobia that comes with it, is the counter intuitive awakening of an assertive Muslim identity and consciousness and what one would term the rise of Muslim nationalism. As in the face of such hostility and prejudice, even the most secular Muslim, as happened in Northern Ireland amongst Irish Catholics, is forced to defend Islam and the rights of a Muslim identity.

In Bangladesh, this is seen in the enduring support the massacred rural Madrassah students and their affiliates still receive in all sections of society, including ever growing numbers of the governing and commercial elite. Farhad Mazhar in London termed the massacre as a victory for the rural madrassah students, in terms of putting a halt to the de-Islamification and Aryanisation policies of the current Awami League government and being a catalyst for a re emerging of a mainstream Muslim political discourse and identity in Bangladesh. Six decades ago Fanon identified the same phenomenon amongst the native Algerians, vis a vis their French colon rulers.  In Fanon’s essay, Algeria Unveiled, the French attempt to unveil the Algerian women did not simply turn the veil into symbol of resistance, it become a technique to camouflage, a means of struggle. Thus every veiled women became a suspect and also at the same time a  sign of resistance.

To conclude, the reassertion of Muslim political discourse in Bangladesh, is not as what many colon elite academics home and abroad would market as the thin end of an edge of a rising global Islamic militancy. As elsewhere, it is profoundly connected to long term local experiences and demands on post colonial state institutions, to dignify and include the identity of those who they claim to represent. This concern is expressed in an indigenous tradition and language of the people, which in the case of Bangladesh, is Islam.

Emperors and Dervishes – The Mantle of the Prophet and a Tradition of Resisting Empire

If a wound touches you, a like wound already has touched the opposing ones; such days We deal out in turn among men, and that God may know who are the people of faith, and that He may take witnesses from among you; and God loves not the evildoers. (3:140)

Quran -verses referring to the Battle of Uhd

Countering external and internal Aryanising aggression, is the tradition of resisting Empire in Bangladesh, a Quranic semantic field of meaning consciously and subliminally deep rooted in the collective psyche. I was fortunate to be acquainted with an example of this living tradition, when I met  the Principal of a Qawmi Madrasah in Sylhet who was a scholar of prophetic traditions. A contemporary of Allama Shafi, the leader of Hefazot e Islam, the shaykh had the triple distinction of  being imprisoned and tortured by the British, arrested and imprisoned under the Pakistani generals of United Pakistan, and being physically assaulted and imprisoned in his last years by the first Awami League government of 1996 -2000. Everytime he was imprisoned he had with him the khirqa, shawl given to him by his teacher, who was imprisoned and tortured by the British, who in turn received the shawl from his teacher who was also imprisoned and tortured by the British, who in turn received a shawl from his teachers of the Madrasah Rahimiyyah in Delhi, and who were at the forefront at the 1857 War of Liberation against the British invaders. A tradition of the khirqa and seeking justice going back through the ages to the earliest Muslim community, to Imam Hussain in Karbala,  Abdullah ibn Zubair in Makkah and the Prophet Muhammad’s struggle against the Quraysh.

‘The greatest Jihad is to speak the truth in the face of an unjust tyrant.’

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

We see the same non violent resistance in Turkey against the state in the life and struggles of the Naqshbandi Sufi and Kurd, Said Nursi. Who for his criticism of Mustafa Kemal, was imprisoned, starved and poisoned by the Turkish state. Yet the Turkey of today, with the reintroduction of the Ottoman Arabic script in the High Schools, is not the Turkey of Mustafa Kemal and the Kemalist generals but the Turkey of Said Nursi. The current political establishment of the late Menderes and Ozal,and the presently feuding Gulen and Erdogan were influenced by Said Nursi’s movement and teachings.

Straight after the Dhaka centred massacre of the 5/6th of May 2013, fully armed members of the Bangladeshi  security forces attempted to storm the Hathazari Madrassah near Chittagong, but were beaten back by local residents and students of the madrassah. Soon afterwards, I interviewed a graduate of Hathazari to gather more information. I asked him his thoughts post massacre, especially with Allama Shafi, the movement leader in police custody. He gave me a somewhat cryptic reply by narrating the story of the Indian Saint, Imam Rabbani –  Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi.

The Naqshbandi Sirhindi was galvanised into a course diametrically opposed to the Mughal state when his father in law was executed by the then Emperor Akbar, for sacrificing a cow at Eid ul Adha. Sirhindi was eventually imprisoned by Akbar’s son Jahangir, arrested on the grounds of failing to bow to the Emperor.  After the arrest, rebellion broke out in the Empire in protest. The rebels eventually captured the Emperor and asked Sirhindi for advice. Contrary to expectations he ordered the rebels to release Jahangir.

Impressed with the Sufi Sheikh, the alcoholic Jahangir kept him imprisoned but not before elevating him to the role of advisor, eventually releasing him. The Emperor outlived this Dervish, as Sirhindi died a few years after his release, however, his own grandson Aurangzeb would be initiated into the Naqshbandi tariqah by Sirhindi’s son. Aurungzeb would go onto commission the codification of Islamic Law, the Fatwa Alamghiri and patronise the institution that co produced it, the Madrasah Rahmiyyah.

‘Gimme Shelter’ for ‘A Change is Gonna Come’

Aside from the enduring indigenous traditions and the impact on the War on Terror. Geo-economic shifts place Bangladesh into an interesting situation . With the centre of global economic and cultural activity returning from the mid Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, we are reminded of half a millenium ago, when Mughal India and Imperial China accounted for nearly two thirds of world manufacturing.

Such a change in resource and human flows opens up possibilities and multiple trajectories, of ‘Learning to Fly’ and take off, from one party rule in China, the managed democracy of Singapore and the petro-autocracies of the Gulf, to the more accommodating polities of West Asia and the populist democracies and liberation theologies of Latin America. Greater exposure to possible political futures is yeast for the imagination, of how we might be more reflective and inclusive of our traditions, values and historical experiences.

Surveying the present political field of Bangladesh, the ‘East Wind’ that is currently blowing through Bangladesh, does not originate from the current autocratic Awami League (AL) government, but goes back further, and is more systemic. from the silent, clenched buttocks of a ‘Bhadralok’ class.  An unwieldy coalition of military and civilian bureaucrats, civil society leaders and businessmen, who are now currently keeping the AL in power. Who by their desperation of holding on to colonial privileges, are creating a vacuum, by dismantling the very state that has been set up to protect them.

Faced with shifting global power geometries and historical patterns, the Double Aryanised elites of Bangladesh might perceive two stark choices before them. Either they equitably share power and resources with the indigenous mainly Muslim population, reflect their values in state institutions and respect their dignity, as what happened in Turkey, or they be dragged kicking and screaming to the firing squads as in Iran, during the revolution of 1979.

One option they do not have is the ‘Comfortably Numb’ King Canute fantasy of hoping to drive back the winds of change and sands of history that are enveloping them and their exclusive ethnic Bengali exceptionalism, proclaiming:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

A fitting reply being:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away

Or as Led Zeppelin would say:

‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’.

 

Accompanying Videography with the Article

 

  1. Why Is Charlie Hebdo OK, But Not Dieudonne? (Al Etejah TV 2015)
  2. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  3. Hur Adam (2011) – Biopic of Said Nursi

 

Accompanying Discography with Article:

  1. ‘Clandestino’ – Manu Chao
  2. “Stop the Cavalry” – Jona Lewie
  3. “Cops of the World” – Phil Ochs
  4. “Animals” – Pink Floyd
  5. “Road to Nowhere” – Talking Heads
  6. “Brick in the Wall” – Pink Floyd
  7. “The Dark side of the Moon” – Pink Floyd
  8. “Welcome to the Machine” – Pink Floyd
  9. ‘’Gimme Shelter’’ – Rolling Stones
  10. “ A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
  11. “Learning to Fly” – Pink Floyd
  12. “Comfortably Numb” – Pink Floyd
  13. “Your Time is Gonna Come” – Led Zeppelin