By Mustafa Malik
SYLHET, Bangladesh – Paralyzing general strikes, known here as hartal, remain a common and effective tool of democratic politics in Bangladesh. A local opposition politician has been kidnapped from a highway, which the opposition says was arranged by the ruling Awami League party. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to which the abducted M. Ilyas Ali belonged, called for continual hartal, demanding his release. Ali has yet to be traced, but the hartal was a complete success.
For four days, transportation, businesses and even many government offices remained closed throughout the country. Here in Sylhet town, surrounded by scores of tea gardens, about the only automobiles seen on the streets were occasional police jeeps and “ambulances,” most of them fake. Vans marked “Ambulance” carried passengers, one of whom feigning sick!
Five years ago I was in Bangladesh when the BNP chairwoman and a former prime minister Khaleda Zia was thrown into jail by the government and her son was not only incarcerated but severely tortured. For a long time, the mother and the son weren’t allowed to publicly express their views on their ordeal. For months, they were not produced before a civilian court, either. Zia, the BNP chairperson, was later linked to official misconduct and, Tarek Rahman, her son, to massive financial corruption. Bangladesh is a decades-old multi-party democracy with a free-wheeling press. But most Bangladeshis, including many BNP activists, didn’t care much about the denial of their democratic rights to free speech the due process of law.
Bangladesh is a decades-old multi-party democracy with a free-wheeling press. Why has there been this nationwide outrage over the kidnapping of a rather low-level BNP leader, but not much of a whimper about the denial of basic democratic rights of the head of the BNP? If you are familiar with Bangladeshi society and culture, you would have expected it.
The right to free speech and habeas corpus, which Zia and Rahman were denied, are alien concepts in Bangladeshi society. These institutions derive from the Enlightenment principles of liberty and freedom, among the West’s greatest gifts to mankind. In this South Asian country, too, many political activists, especially when they are in the opposition, and Western-educated elites, value these principles. They would have greater public appeal as Bangladesh modernizes further.
But 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslim, and these liberal values are not rooted in their native Islamic culture, as they are not many other non-Western ones. The Islamic faith and civilization is anchored to the concepts of equality before God, charity and brotherhood, which are viewed as dimensions of justice, the core Islamic tenet.
True, most Muslims in Bangladesh and elsewhere don’t live by many of the Islamic ideals, including justice. Yet, being organic to their native culture, they stir Bangladeshi minds more deeply than the Western institutions of liberty, democracy and the rule of law. Ali’s abduction and possible killing are widely perceived here as a grave injustice. No wonder the incident has offended everyday Bangladeshis more poignantly than the curtailment of Zia’s and her son’s democratic rights to free speech and the due process of law.
The Bangladeshi government has been promising the investigation of Ali’s abduction and urging patience to let the tools of law run its course. The public has largely ignored these pleas; many suspect them to be ploys to sap the public rage over the issue. Most Bangladeshis are unlikely to be satisfied with any outcome of the government investigation, unless they see it as fair and just.
Mustafa Malik, the host of the blog Islam and the West, is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.