Bangladesh’s epic quest for identity

I’M SADDENED by the bloody mayhem rocking Bangladesh, where I lived and worked through two turbulent decades.  Street fights between the country’s secularist government forces and Islamist activists have claimed dozens of lives. The clashes were triggered by a death sentence handed by a Bangladeshi court to  a leader of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami.  Maulana Delwar Hussein Saeedi, the death row inmate, and other top Jamaat leaders have been charged with having roles  in the killing of Bangladeshi liberation activists 42 years ago.

The Islamist leaders have been put on trial by the Awami League party government, supported by a  secularist youth movement.  The Awami League is the party of the country’s secularist founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which had been in power nearly a dozen times since Bangladesh achieved independence. But it ignored the Islamists’ alleged crime until now. The other day I called a friend in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, and asked why.

“Because public support [for the trials] was not there,” he replied. “Now huge crowds are calling for their death penalty.”

This is a new twist to Bangladeshis’ long odyssey to find their niche in a national framework, as most other post-colonial societies have been going through.  It began with the end of nearly two centuries of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent, which had obliterated the political structures that had been evolving there over the millennia. Bangladeshis, as other  communities in the subcontinent, now faced the baffling task of choosing the space, ideology and cultural pattern for a nation-state they were called upon to build.

Nearly 90 percent Muslim, Bangladesh comprises the eastern half of the old Bengal, which became Pakistan’s eastern province in 1947.  Those days Bengali Muslims pulsated with Islamic fervor. They plunged headlong into the movement to split British India to create the Muslim state of Pakistan.  A stalwart of the Pakistan movement was young Mujibur Rahman.

Years later Mujib would tell me about his work for the Pakistan movement at his home in Dhaka.  He said, proudly, that undivided Muslim-majority Bengal was “the only province in all [British] India that elected a pro-Pakistan government” in a 1946  election, which legitimized the Muslim demand for Pakistan. The four provinces in then West Pakistan, he added, had larger Muslim majorities, but that none of them voted to join Pakistan. I interviewed Mujib now and then for my column in what used to be the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published in Dhaka.

Once East Bengal became East Pakistan, however, the Islamic wave there began to give way to a growing secularist one.  As elsewhere in the world, ideological movements in Bangladesh began to lose steam after their immediate goals were realized. Additionally,  the use of Islamic slogans by West Pakistani elites in their economic exploitation and political suppression of East Pakistanis discredited Islamic political parties. Mujib now rode the crest of the secularist tide, bringing about East Pakistan’s secession from Pakistan and emergence as independent Bangladesh. The East Pakistanis who opposed that secession included the Islamists who are now facing trial for “treason.”

Bangladeshis paid a heavy price for their independence. During spring through mid-winter of 1971, West Pakistani troops slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women and children; and raped many Bangladeshi girls and women; while trying to suppress the movement. Post-independence, the Mujib government got  “secularism” enshrined in Bangladesh’s first constitution as among its foundational principles.

But then, just as the Islamic wave in East Pakistan had begun to recede after the creation of Pakistan, the secularist wave in Bangladesh tapered off almost immediately after its independence from Pakistan. Now the Islamic surge that had accompanied the Pakistan movement nearly three decades before began to revive with a vengeance.

Barely four years after Mujib created his “secular” and “socialist” Bangladesh, he and most of his family and Cabinet members were assassinated in coup d’teat by army officers. They resented his close ties to Hindu-majority India, which was seen exerting hegemony over Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshis shared this perception of him. Nobody mourned the “Father of the Nation” in public, let alone stage a protest against his assassination. Politicians who followed the new Islamic surge to power shelved the Mujib government’s secularist constitution, and at one point adopted a new one rebranding Bangladesh an “Islamic Republic.”

During trips to Bangladesh in the 1980s and 1990s I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw droves of head-covered women milling about college campuses, where headscarves were a rarity during the country’s Pakistan phase. Mosques were proliferating all over Bangladesh and prayer congregations in many of them extended to the yards. Stores, automobiles, streets and schools for secular education flaunted Islamic names and signs as never before.

Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, an elder statesman who published my old newspaper,  told me in 1982 that the new Islamic upsurge was “partly a reaction to an overdose of ‘Indiaphilia’” which disturbed many Islamic-minded Bangladeshis.

“But watch how long this [Islamic wind] lasts,” advised my old boss, a British-educated barrister.

Today’s secularist upsurge and the hounding of Islamists by secularists remind me of Chowdhury’s caveat.  The point, though, is that while Bangladesh’s embattled Islamists and secularists have been going through ups and downs, neither side has been quite vanquished.

Neither needs to be. The histories of Western nations, many of them bloodier and more tumultuous, show that bitter ideological and political struggles often produce societal and national integration.  Unlike many other nations, most Bangladeshis belong to a single religious community, Sunni Islamic; and a single ethnic community, Bengali. I can see them integrating into a relatively cohesive national society sooner than seems possible now. Meanwhile, as Bangladeshis go on modernizing, they will continue to secularize. But they’re unlikely to be unhinged from their Islamic cultural and social roots, anymore than any other modernizing Muslim society.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.


John Kerry: Same old same old

WELL, JOHN KERRY doesn’t have it, either!

I was curious to see if the new secretary of state’s “major speech” at the University of Virginia might finally signal a “change” in foreign policy, which President Obama had promised Americans during his first presidential run. Sadly, it didn’t.

John Kerry’s recipe to meet U.S. foreign policy challenges appeared to have been copied from the neoconservatives’ play book: trade, aid and democracy. All these have been tried. They didn’t work.

On international trade, the U.S. trade deficit has  ballooned under Bush and Obama. With China,  America’s most important trading partner, it has reached an historic high of $315 billion.

The United States has poured tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid, promoting secular education and bolstering security and military forces in countries that are breeding terrorists.  The idea, floated by fertile neoconservative minds, is that young Muslim men are turning to terrorism because of poverty and joblessness and anti-Western hatred engendered by madrasah education.  Despite America’s prodigious aid programs during the past decade,  terror is winning America’s “war on terror.”  Al Qaeda used to be holed up in Afghanistan’s Hindukush Mountains. It’s now spreading dramatically — so are other terrorist groups — in South Asia, the Middle East, North and West Africa, and elsewhere.   After fighting its longest war in history, the United States is getting ready to flee Afghanistan without realizing Obama’s repeatedly proclaimed vow to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the Taliban.

Kerry’s other proposition, i.e. helping build democracy abroad, is based on another pie-in-the-sky neoconservative mantra, namely that democracies are peaceable and buddy-buddy with one another.  I wonder how the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could have failed to notice that democracy is transforming secular, and – with the exception of Iraq – pro-American regimes into Islamist ones that care less about American democracy or American interests?  Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey are among the examples.

Nobody would, of course, doubt Kerry’s sanity, but he apparently plans to defy Albert Einstein’s caveat against “doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” But why?

The main source of the secretary of state’s predicament is not  himself, but his boss.  For all his soaring rhetoric, Obama came into the White House as a clean slate in international affairs.  He didn’t – and still doesn’t – have a vision of his own about America’s relations with the world.  Most naive and perilous has been the president’s lurch toward the right-wing foreign and defense policy aficionados who had helped create the mess abroad and whom he now expected to clean it up.

I was aghast to see him fill his key defense, intelligence and foreign policy posts with such right-wing diehards from the Bush administration as Robert Gates, Tom Donilon, John Brennan, James Jones, Dennis Ross, and others. Hillary Clinton also is a dyed-in-wool establishment figure.  Her traditionalist worldview was highlighted in, among other issues, her unwavering support for the disastrous Iraq war, which she has persistently refused to call a mistake. I was hoping, in vain, that the president would bring over to his administration such progressive and resourceful minds as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Aaron David Miller, Joseph S. Nye Jr., Ann Marie Slaughter and Robert Unger. His nomination of Chuck Hagel for the defense secretary post seems to have been an aberration. I would be surprised if the forward-looking and (still) morally inspired former senator from Nebraska can withstand the pressure of jingoism permeating in the administration.

No wonder the Obama administration, in international affairs, looked like a third, and now probably a fourth, Bush-Cheney administration.  Noam Chomsky aptly described the Democratic president  as a “moderate Republican” who is a “reactionary” on civil liberties issues.  It’s because Obama lacked, not only a grounding in foreign affairs, but the moral courage and commitment to break out of America’s outmoded foreign policy establishment.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’.



On to the Malian quagmire?

ISLAMIST GUERRILLAS  are fighting back French and Malian forces in northern Mali, from where they were expelled last month by invading French forces. The Muslim militant group Mojwa (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) has twice engaged the French in sustained gun battles in Gao, the region’s largest city. The guerrillas have vowed not to let up their struggle until foreigners are expelled from Mali.

I wonder if we’re going to see a replay of the Iraq and Afghanistan dramas in West Africa.

Although Mojwa has taken the lead in these attacks, Mali’s main Islamist organization, Ansar al-Din, and Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters are reportedly planning their own offensives against the invaders.

The French invasion was quickly supported by the United States, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. The West, too, is trying to court the secular secessionist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). The Islamists had allied with the NMLA to “liberate” northern Mali – which they call Azawad – from Mali. Later the two groups split, and the Islamists wrested control of northern Mali from NMLA.

There’s a difference between the French-led Western invasion of Mali and the U.S.-led ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Mali, the Western governments are saying they’re after all at war with Islam, albeit an “extremist” wing of it. They strongly denied suggestions of the anti-Islamic nature of the Iraqi and Afghan invasions.

Are they really trying to roll back Islamic resurgence in West Africa? If so why? Can they have their “mission accomplished” in Africa, which they failed to do in the Middle East?

The reason that France and its Western allies have given for hounding the Malian “Islamic extremists” is that, if the militants can come to power in Mali, they would impose Islamic canon law, the Shari’a, in that country. The argument doesn’t make any sense. The Malian population is 90 percent Muslim. Introduction of Islamic law in a Muslim society didn’t cause Western military intervention ever before. It didn’t when Pakistan’s military dictator Muhammad Zia al-Haq clamped the Shari’a on Pakistan, getting Muslims flogged and given death sentences for infractions of his extreme version of Islamic law.

The West didn’t go to war or propose any kind of sanctions against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his radical Islamists when they imposed another harsh version of Islamic law in Iran. Instead, sanctions were imposed on the Islamic Republic because of its holding Americans hostage, carrying on its uranium enrichment program, and other mundane reasons.

Indeed, the United States funded and armed the Afghan Islamic fundamentalist Mujahedeen in their war against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan was impressed by the Mujahedeen’s fierce resistance to the Communist invaders. In 1988 he counseled visiting Turkish military ruler Kenan Evren to promote Islamic education in Turkey as part of his battle with Communists and leftists.

In reality, the Malian war is about preserving and promoting Western economic and strategic interests in West Africa. The Islamists are facing the Western onslaught because they’re about the only forces that would resist Western hegemony and exploitation of their resources by the West. They’re the only ones fighting Western hegemony in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and in other Muslim societies.

Mali is the second-largest gold producer in West Africa, after South Africa. Several foreign companies have begun uranium exploration around Gao, where Islamist militants recently engaged French and Malian troops in a bitter fight. Diamond, iron, bauxite, copper and other minerals are also being explored in Mali.

The French depend heavily on uranium to run its nuclear reactors, which provide more than 75 percent of its electricity and make nuclear bombs. It was no surprise that while fighting Islamists in Mali, the French lost no time to rush special forces commandos to Niger to reinforce security around the French state-owned uranium mining company Avera there.

The United States has seized on the Malian crisis to beef up its strategic ties to that region. The Obama administration, besides providing logistical support to French forces in Mali, has signed a status-of-force agreement Niger to build a drone base there to conduct missions against Islamist groups in Africa. President Muhammad Issoufou of Niger told news media that he was planning “a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S.,” adding, “What is happening in northern Mali can happen to us.”

Western powers are aware of Africans’ sensitivity about Western “neo-colonialism.” Hence they’re anxious to localize their fight against Islamism. They’re the strengthening the military muscle of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional strategic and economic-development grouping. They plan to outsource their war on Islamism to pliant members of ECOWAS. Many of these regimes are themselves threatened by Islamist resurgence, and welcome security cooperation with the West. Chad, an ECOWAS members, already has sent several thousand troops to join the French-Malian assault on the Islamists.

The West and its West African allies may have short- or medium-term successes against the Islamists. The French and Malian government troops have dispersed the Islamist insurgents from the cities of northern Mali: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. As mentioned, the West and the Malian government are trying to woo the secular NMLA in northern Mali. Many Malians opposed to the Islamists have hailed the invaders. They greeted visiting French President Francois Hollande with a boisterous applause. President Traore thanked “our brother” Hollande for the French intervention.

I have seen enough of adulation of invaders in the heady aftermath of invasions and its rapid evaporation. In 2003 the American invasion sparked jubilation among Kurdish secessionists in northern Iraq. Earlier, in 2001, Afghanistan’s dissident Tajik tribes fought on the front lines of the U.S. invasion. In 1971, Bangladeshi insurgents showered invading Indian troops with accolades and bouquets. In all these countries, early hospitality to foreign forces soon gave way to widespread public resistance to their presence.

Malians and West Africans are unlikely to be an exception. Mali’s Islamist guerrillas apparently made a strategic retreat to the desert and northern mountains, from where they begun to wage what’s likely to be a drawn-out struggle against foreign and Malian government forces. I’m afraid Mali is turning into the next Western quagmire after Iraq and Afghanistan.

If American experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen is any indication, the Western aggression would eventually bolster, rather than diminish, Islamic resurgence.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.

Obama’s sermon on extremism

President Obama  told the U.N. General Assembly that Muslims must shun “extremism” and exercise “tolerance” for their adversaries. He was referring to the violence-prone protest rallies that the American film “Innocence of Muslims” has triggered in many Muslim countries. The amateurish video shows  the Prophet Muhammad in pornographic poses and other demeaning postures.

Some Muslim societies are indeed honeycombed with anti-American and anti-Western extremists. The problem is, you can’t eliminate a vice while nursing it.  Obama and many other Americans don’t seem to recognize America’s role in stirring Muslim extremism.

Muslim extremism and violence against America are fairly recent events. During the era of European colonialism, the Muslim world admired the United States for not colonizing a Muslim country and even criticizing European colonialism.  In 1957 I was a schoolboy in what is now Muslim Bangladesh. I remember folks cheering America in front of a television set after hearing the news of foreign troops withdrawing from Egyptian territory. I learned much later that the Eisenhower administration had led the U.N. effort to force Israel, France and Britain to vacate the Suez Canal area they had occupied the previous year, following Egypt’s nationalization of the canal.

Systematic Muslim violence against America was rare until 1979. That year Iranian revolutionaries attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage.  Through this indefensible action, they were venting their rage over the overthrow of their democratic government by the CIA in 1953 and the installation by the U.S. of a murderous monarchy they had just overthrown.  Ever since, Muslims have resorted to anti-American protests and violence with greater frequency in response to American policies they see trampling Muslim interests or dignity.

I attribute the current spike in anti-Americanism among Muslims to three main reasons. First, the post-Cold War generation of Muslims are better educated and far more politically conscious than their forebears, thanks to the quickening pace of modernization and globalization.  These Muslims have very little tolerance for foreign domination, and domestic political repression, for that matter. Secondly,  during the last two decades, the United States has waged three major wars against Muslim countries: Iraq I and II, and Afghanistan.

These American-led invasions and the prolonged occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have enraged Muslims everywhere. Thirdly, modernization has,  strangey as it many seem to many Westerners, imbued Muslims with greater appreciation of their own cultural values. Yet America and the West continue to seek to impose their liberal value system on Muslims societies, infuriating many Muslims.  Western defense of  the film “Innocence of Muslims,” the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the novel The Satanic Verses, etc., are classic examples of this cultural aggression.  All these anti-Islamic materials have turned much of the Muslim world into a hotbed of extremists and terrorists.

Through the 1980s and 1990s U.S. administrations tried to tackle Muslim terrorism through legal tools, covert operations and torture by client governments.  Then came 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who hijacked aircraft to attack America were Saudis. The core cause of this horrible crime, as I learned during visits to Saudi Arabia, was the 1991 deployment of U.S. troops on that “land of Muhammad.”

America was unhinged by 9/11.  Instead of pursuing the perpetrators of the crime, it plunged into a devastating war with Iraq, which had nothing to do  9/11; and a  pointless one against Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda, a foreign group, planned the attacks on the United States. Tens of thousands of innocent Muslims have perished in the two wars, which have spread anti-Americanism among Muslims as never before. And they have proliferated Muslim guerrilla groups committed to rolling back American hegemony over Muslim societies.

These guerrillas have forced the United States to pull out of Iraq without achieving any of its strategic objectives. In Afghanistan, they have frustrated U.S. efforts to defeat them, compelling Washington to plan the withdrawal of most of its troops from that country by 2014.

One would have hoped that the Obama administration would take a serious look into the colossal failure of its formidable military machine to suppress Muslim militancy. Instead, the administration has lurched into a reckless, illegal and counterproductive drone war in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Predator and Reaper drones are purported to be targeting terrorists.  As I learned during two research trips to Pakistan’s tribal areas, local CIA informants all too often report their own adversaries or people simply venting anger at America as Taliban “terrorists.”  The result: an unmitigated disaster.

A group of American academics has just put out its findings from nine months’ research of  America’s drone wars.  Barely 2 percent of the drone victims were known militants, said the 146-page report.  Clive Stafford Smith, head of a charity working in Pakistan, told them that Pakistan’s “entire [tribal] region is being terrorized by constant threat of death from the skies.” People’s “way of life is collapsing,” he continued. “Kids are too terrified to go to school. Adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups.”

The first step toward dousing Muslim hostility to America would be to  review the U.S. policy and attitude toward Muslim societies.  As long as Americans continue to their aggressive policy toward Muslim countries and tolerate the demonization of Muslims and their faith, as the video “Innocence of Muslims” represents, sermons about virtues of tolerance and vice of extremism would be  greeted by Muslim youths with hoots of “hypocrisy.”

  •  Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington, who hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’


Syria ‘extremists’ scare off U.S.?

 The Obama administration knows by now that Russia will not let any action against the murderous Syrian dictatorship get the green light from the U.N. Security Council.  In response, the administration is taking baby steps to help the Syrian uprising, dedicated to overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

These steps include sharing intelligence with the rebels and increasing the supply of communications gear.  The administration is still unwilling to provide the rebels with heavy arms or help create a “safety zone” in Syria. The main reason, as anonymous White House aides tell the media, is the feat that “extremists” could rise to dominate post-Assad Syria.

The Assad regime will go sooner or later, but the United States needs to be seen actively supporting the Syrian opposition for its own interests.  The Arab Spring is drawing the curtain on the era when America dominated the Middle East by standing on the shoulders of tyrannical dictators and monarchs.   In the years ahead, the security of American interests in that region will depend on the goodwill of its populist and democratic Arab forces.

Besides the Islamist bugbear, a pie-in-the-sky desire to choreograph Syria’s political future is hobbling active American support for the opposition. It’s a lingering Cold War mentality, which the administration shares with many American scholars and experts on the Middle East.

These experts included most of the panelists at a  seminar on  Capitol Hill in Washington on the Syrian crisis. They sounded the alarm that American arms and aid could fall into the hands of Salafists and other “extremists.”  And they called for a strategy that would help set up a secular, pluralist democratic regime in Syria. The lone dissenting voice on the panel was that of my friend Leon Hadar. I have always admired his insights.  Hadar advised against “trying to micromanage” Syrian politics over which Americans would have “no control.”

The seminar was organized by the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, and it reminded me of another forum the MEPC had hosted on the Hill during the run-up to the Iraq war.  At that 2003 seminar, too, most of the panelists explored options to make sure secular democracy thrives in Iraq after the dictator Saddam Hussein was  overthrown.  The proposed options included bolstering Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. As we found out later Chalabi or his INC had no foothold inside Iraq. Thanks to his neocon promoters, however, the INC reaped millions of American tax dollars for its non-existent democratic movement in Iraq.

Interestingly, this week’s Capitol Hill panel included a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Radwan Ziadeh, who admitted that his anti-Assad group hasn’t gained much public support in Syria. He blamed it on the insufficiency of foreign assistance and asked for  $45 million in monthly aid.

In any case, the assumption behind the thrust of the experts’ arguments about Syria this week was the same as those about Iraq nine years ago:  Secular Arab democrats would ally with American and Israeli secular democracies, while Islamists would oppose them.  Obviously, America’s bitter experience in Iraq has made little contribution to the thinking of these experts.  In Iraq, the U.S. invasion has turned a staunchly secular autocracy into a pseudo-democratic theocracy. It has transformed an implacably anti-Iranian regime into one that is allied to Iran, America’s and Israel’s archenemy in the Middle East.

It’s about time American policy makers and intellectuals review the myth that Islamists or Muslim “extremists” are innately anti-American.  Sunni Muslim “extremist” Mujahedeen fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were America’s allies during the 1980s war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In Iraq, Shiite Muslim “extremist” Mahdi Army militia joined the American battle to overthrow the Saddam regime.

Muslim political activism, secularist or Islamist, revolves around what the activists believe to be the interest of their societies or communities.  Bin Laden, who sided with the United States in the anti-Soviet Afghan war, sponsored the 9/11 attacks on America because he and other Saudi Islamists were  outraged by the deployment of American troops  in Saudi Arabia, following the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.  I learned this during two research trips to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s .  Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps reminding his American interlocutors that 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, plane hijackers were Saudis.

Many Arabs resent America’s wishy-washy role in the Arab Spring and continued support for repressive autocracies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.   They see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit with Egypt’s Islamist President Muhammad Mursi as recognition of a fait accompli. The administration should reverse course on Syria and get on with organizing international action outside the United Nations to rid Syria of its monstrous dictatorship.

The effort should be conducted through the Friends of Syria group and begin with supplying the rebels with heavy arms and other necessary equipment through the Saudis, Qataris and others.  A safe haven for the rebels and civilian refugees should be created inside Syria alongside its Turkish border, under NATO air cover.  The campaign against the Syrian regime will require outside financial assistance, which should be provided to opposition forces struggling in Syria, and not to organizations outside.

Meanwhile, in the interest of better understanding between America and Islam, U.S. policy makers should revisit the main lesson from U.S. experience in the Muslim world.   Muslims, secular and Islamist, have no quarrel with America when its policies accommodate their interests. They resist, often to the bitter end, those American policies and actions that hurt their interests and their dignity.

  •  Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom

Modern Islam Egypt Islamists’ goal

“The revolution goes on,” said Mohammed Mursi, on being declared president of Egypt in its first-ever democratic election.  He ran for president as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.  The transnational Brotherhood has been the world’s oldest Islamist movement.

The president-elect has called for national unity. Mursi wouldn’t, of course, abandon his Islamist mission, but to signal his seriousness to become “president of all Egyptians,” he resigned his post as the head of the FJP.  He realizes that he needs the nation behind him for his upcoming battle with Egypt’s ruling military junta, called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF has got a compliant high court to dissolve the parliament, assumed all legislative powers, and curbed the power of the presidency. The military council’s decree requires the president to work with it to frame a constitution.

Assuming Mursi’s victory in the election, some Egypt watchers have been debating whether he and the Brotherhood are going to be co-opted by the military junta or pursue their Islamist agenda seriously. They have a reason to wonder. During the last three decades, the Brotherhood has consistently shied away from confrontation with military dictatorships, not even to challenge the decades-long ban on its participation in politics.

This year the Muslim Brothers were among the last to join the Tahrir Square uprising, which toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak. And when other groups were agitating to overthrow of the SCAF, which replaced Mubarak, the Brotherhood leadership engaged the generals in a dialogue over the crisis.

“Ideology does not determine [Muslim Brothers’] behavior whatsoever,” says Omar Ashour of Britain’s Exeter University, an expert on Muslim and Middle Eastern politics. “You can say it’s a very pragmatic, opportunistic group.”

Part of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s pragmatism comes from its realization that frontal confrontation with military dictatorships could prove suicidal, and that its decisive challenge to the political establishment should wait until it had a strong footing in society. Sayyid Muhammad Qutb, the Brotherhood’s original thinker, was executed by military dictator Jamal Abdel Nasser.  Nasser is believed also to have orchestrated the assassination of the organization’s founder, Hasan el-Banna.   Successive military dictators jailed, tortured and executed its members. Because of its strong support for the Palestinian cause, it had also been anathema to Israel and the United States.  The organization’s leadership realized that a clash with the dictatorial regimes would give them the excuse to crush it with U.S. blessings, leaving its main mission of Islamizing society unrealized.

I have been visiting Egypt since the 1970s, for research or pleasure.  From interviews with Egyptians and other research I understand that the “pragmatism” that Professor Ashour mentioned is part of the Brotherhood’s strategy to pursue its larger mission.

That mission was described succinctly to me during a 1995 visit to Cairo by a leading Brotherhood ideologue, Mustafa Mashhur.  “May Allah guide us in His path,” he said. “We are working humbly to carry on the da’wa (Islamization campaign) and strengthen (society’s) Islamic roots.” How the Brothers would go about its work would be decided in light of “our ijtihad, our situation and circumstances,” added the Islamic scholar, who would soon become the head of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Other Muslim Brothers and Egyptologists have given me the same description of the Brotherhood’s goals, in different words.

Ijtihad, which Mashhur mentioned, is an Islamic canon law tool to form new rules on matters on which scripture is silent. In such situations theologically competent Muslims are enjoined to use common sense to make new rules of conduct, which shouldn’t, however, conflict with Islam’s core principles.  Most Islamists, unlike many traditional fundamentalists, believe in ijtihad.

In practical life, everyday Muslims don’t go about looking for a theologian to issue a ruling on new situations, often presented by modernity and cross-cultural communication. Muslims familiar with Islam’s basic tenets and principles, use their own common sense to devise guidelines to  adapt alien values and practices to their lives. Most Islamists, including Muslim Brothers, don’t make an issue of it.  Hence unlike traditionalists and radical fundamentalists, Islamists in general are enthusiastic supporters of modernization. The difference between secular and Islamist modernizers is that the former’s goal is modernization for its sake; the latter’s modernization for Islam’s sake.

President-elect Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the United States and modern education spans the Brotherhood’s rand and file.  Muslim Brothers are especially focused on scientific and technological education. Egyptians call them the “Brotherhood of Engineers” (Ikhwanul Muhandithun) because of the large number of engineers (and physicians) in its rank.

Unlike in the early phase of the movement, the Egyptian Brotherhood today has acquired deep roots in society and has grown to become the country’s largest political organization.   Mursi’s call for a nationwide struggle to rid Egypt of the new military autocracy indicates that the organization now feels strong enough to challenge the military regime.  Other opposition groups, too, understand that a nationwide campaign against the SCAF autocracy isn’t possible without the Brotherhood’s lead.  Hence in spite of their bitter ideological struggle with the Brotherhood, most leftist and centrist political parties and groups have vowed to join its struggle for the democratization of Egypt.

I believe that Professor Ashour and other observers who see the Brotherhood’s pragmatism as its abandonment of its mission will revise their views. The Brotherhood remains committed to serving and propagating Islam, while spearheading Egypt’s democratization and modernization campaigns.

• Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’

Taliban fight for freedom, justice

By Mustafa Malik

SYLHET,  Bangladesh — Aunt Salima Khatun, my mother’s sister, barged in to see me here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I spend part of my Bangladesh vacations in Sylhet, known for its tea gardens, cane furniture and the shrine of the famed Muslim saint Hazrat Shah Jalal.

Behind Aunt Salima was her grandson, a college student, carrying a big bowl. It had several dozen homemade sweets, wrapped in banana leaves under plastic covering.  They were made of flour, meshed with the delicious juice of a local fruit known as “tal” and other ingredients, before being rolled into round cakes and cooked.

“When you were a little boy, you loved ‘tal sandesh’ (tal sweets),” said my aunt, 81. “See if you like them.”

As the conversation progressed, she asked if I could bring the student over to the United States for further education.  He had been “pulling out my hair,” meaning badgering her, to make me the request, she added.  I apologized for my inability to help him get a U.S. visa.

The young man was, however, a member of an Islamic student group, which campaigns against U.S. and Israeli occupation of Muslim lands.  Why was President Obama “so viciously opposed” to Palestinians’ U.N. membership? he asked.  He was elated, however, that Muslim guerrillas were “throwing out the [Western] invaders” from Iraq and Afghanistan. Would Americans “dare to occupy a Muslim country again?”

His admiration for anti-American guerrillas is widely shared by most Muslims in South Asia, as I have learned during trips through the region.  Noor  M.  Khan, a family friend in the northeast Indian town of Haflong, told me during a visit there last year that “our mujahedeen [Islamic guerrillas] are our only hope against American imperialism.”  The Afghan mujahedeen drove back Russian invaders from Afghanistan in the 1980s, he continued.  Now thanks to the Taliban, American occupation forces would be fleeing Afghanistan, “peeing in their pants.”

Many South Asian Muslims, as many Muslims elsewhere, usually get to like Americans with whom they come in contact.   Many try to migrate to the United States for a better life.  If young, some of aspire to have an American education, as my aunt’s grandson does. Yet the same Muslims would be denouncing Americans vehemently for America’s “war on Islam.”

It’s a déjà vu of the last decades (1910s-1940s) of British colonial rule in what was then “British India.”  Those days many Indians had British friends. Many were educated in British schools or British-style secular schools in India.  Yet some of them joined the struggle to liberate their country from British colonialism.  British-sponsored education had taught them Western concepts of liberty and freedom and inspired them into anti-colonial struggle.

Justice is Islam’s core principle.  Muslims, secular or religious,  innately resist foreign hegemony because they consider it fundamentally unjust. Today most of the leaders and many activists of Muslim movements against U.S. invasions and domination  zest for freedom among Muslims, firing them up against American hegemony.  In earlier times, onset of modernity  stoked their struggles for freedom against European colonialism..

Modernity, it seems, has become the West’s Frankenstein’s monster!

But many of South Asia’s anti-American Muslim guerrillas are educated in madrassahs, or Islamic schools. They’re inspired by their innate antipathy for foreign military presence — which they share with many secularist activists — and pride in Islamic civilization, which madrassahs have inculcated in them.  In October 2007 a madrassah-educated Taliban supporter in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency town of Ghalanai (whose name I promised not to publish) said to me that Muslims had built “the glorious Spanish civilization and taught Europeans the sciences and philosophy for more than 700 years.”  How many years, he asked, could “American Crusaders” stick around in Afghanistan?

The Taliban and other Pakistani and Afghan militants with only a madrassah education are also fighting for freedom from foreign occupation and domination.  Most of them just don’t know that freedom is a core American value that Americans once fought wrest from British colonialists.

Muslims youths are struggling to snatch that American ideal from the jaws of the American hegemon, which they consider unjust.

● Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog site Beyond Freedom.

Secularism loses ground in Indian subcontinent

By Mustafa Malik

(Published in the Columbus Dispatch, October 12, 2011)

Bangladesh has had a big political surprise since my last visit here a year ago.  Its staunchly secular Awami League party government has amended the constitution, making Islam the “state religion”!  The amendment also gave the constitution this opening statement from the Quran:  “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, and the Merciful.”

The event highlights the growing politicization of religion throughout the Indian subcontinent.

“It’s Allah’s revenge!” said Abdul Aziz, a friend from my college days in Sylhet, known for its  133 tea gardens and the shrine of the famed saint Shah Jalal.

Bangladesh, which is 90 percent Muslim, was founded by secularists who ushered in a constitution with “secularism” as its core principle.  “It’s ironic,” Aziz said, “that the ‘Islamic state’ amendment was sponsored by [Prime Minister Sheikh] Hasina, who hates Islamic politics and parties.”  Hasina turned to Islam, she said, because of “ground reality”:  rapid Islamization of Bangladeshi society and politics.  Islamist political parties are gaining popularity, mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools) are proliferating and even secular politicians are trumpeting Islamic causes.

The surge of religion in Bangladeshi politics follows the same trajectory as in the subcontinent’s other two nations:  Pakistan and India.  In both, democratization accompanies the growth of non-secular forces and ideologies.

The two top leaders of the struggle to create Muslim Pakistan — Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan– were secular, Oxford-educated lawyers.  In the 1960s President Mohammad Ayub Khan campaigned vigorously to “modernize” Islam by reforming Islamic laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and so forth.  By the mid-1970s, Pakistan was swamped by Islamic mass movements, leading to the Islamization of much of its legal system and cultural space.   In democratized Pakistan mosques and madrassahs are mushrooming; head-covered women and bearded men abound in offices, schools and shopping malls; and anti-American Islamic militancy has diffused in the social mainstream.

Equally dramatic has been the rise of Hindu nationalism in mostly Hindu India.  Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the foremost leaders of the Indian independence struggle, were also secular, Oxford-educated lawyers.   They opposed the creation of a Muslim Pakistan out of British India, arguing religion would, in Nehru’s words,  “recede into the background” in a democratic India, and hence Muslim fears of discrimination by the Hindu majority were unfounded.   Yet the Hindu nationalism snowballed after India’s independence in 1947.  Hindu nationalists say India is a Hindu holy land (punya bhumi) and that Islam and Christianity are “foreign” creeds.   The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has thrice formed the national government.  Relentless campaigning by Hindu fundamentalist groups –the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena — has spawned anti-Muslim xenophobia in society, politics and — even academia.

In 2007 I was invited to speak at a Republic Day (January 26) event at Vikram University in India’s holy city of Ujjain.   Hearing my views the previous evening, the organizer of the meeting requested me to limit my talk to 20 minutes!  The next day I found out why.  During my speech I was booed by the audience.  I had said, among other things, that “the founders of Pakistan clearly couldn’t foresee the Islamization of their society. One could also argue that the rise of Hindu nationalism and the travails of Indian Muslims have borne out their argument for the creation of a Muslim homeland.”

One reason for religious upsurge in the subcontinent’s public sphere is the “vernacularization” of democratic procedures.  The secular institutions introduced by Westernized elites don’t resonate with many of the postcolonial-era Muslims and Hindus, whose values and outlook have been shaped by religion.  Secondly, the idea of confining religion to the private sphere is alien to most Muslims and Hindus.  As I wrote elsewhere, the separation of religion from state affairs was prompted by Europeans’ bitter experience of religious wars, church-state power struggle, pogroms and the Inquisition.  Muslims, Hindus and most other non-Western faith groups didn’t go through such nightmares over religion and cherish their religious heritage.  The Arab Spring is the latest example of the democratization process spurring religious upsurge in postcolonial societies.

Unfortunately, religious passion can also trigger interfaith hostility.   In all three states of the subcontinent persecution of religious minorities has increased with the rise religious militancy.   It’s time policy makers and peace makers in the three countries earnestly explore avenues for outreach and engagement among their religious communities.

● Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, was born in India and worked as a journalist in the United States, Britain and Pakistan.  He hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom: