Struggle for Bangladesh’s cultural soul

SYLHET, Bangladesh: Is modernity finally putting brakes on the Islamization campaign in Bangladesh? Is it eroding the nation’s ethnic culture? These questions keep haunting me during trips to Bangladesh. A visit yesterday to  Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet lent the two questions special poignancy.

The population of what is now Bangladesh is nearly 90 percent Muslim. They were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement. By the 1940s they had been fed up with the economic and cultural suppression by the dominant Hindu elites. They pulsated with the pan-Islamic fervor and  joined other Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent in a campaign to carve out the Muslim state of Pakistan. Ironically, a veteran of the Pakistan movement was  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who would later lead the struggle to dismember Pakistan to create independent Bangladesh.

In fact Muslims in Bangladesh, which used to be called East Bengal and later East Pakistan, began to feel their Bengali ethnic pull soon after they had helped create Pakistan. Beginning in 1952, just five years after the birth of Pakistan, a movement to make Bengali an official language in Pakistan dramatized that ethnic resurgence. It was fueled by the repression of Bengalis in East Pakistan by non-Bengali political and military elites of West Pakistan. In 1971 that struggle culminated in East Pakistan breaking away from Pakistan’s western provinces.

But then, almost immediately after Bangladeshis severed their ties with their fellow Muslims in (West) Pakistan, their Islamic spirit began to revive again, almost with a vengeance. During several visits to Bangladesh I almost dazed from the sights of mosques and Islamic schools proliferating and prayer congregations overflowing mosques buildings. More and more Bangladeshi Muslim women began covering up their heads in colleges, government offices and market places. More and more Bangladeshi men wore Islamic clothing.

“It’s incredible,” Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, publisher of the Bangladesh Observer newspaper (where I once worked), exclaimed during my 1991 visit to his home in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He said the Islamic upsurge in post-independence Bangladesh, “is stronger and more widespread” than it was during the Pakistan movement.

Today Bangladeshi society appears to be undergoing a third cultural twist. Islam and modernity seem to be squaring off for the domination of Bangladeshi culture. Jannatul Ferdous Shikha, a demographic researcher I met yesterday at Shahjalal University, said Bangladesh was “Islamizing and modernizing” simultaneously. She didn’t wear a headscarf and expressed strong secularist views. She predicted that “secularism will overcome the backwardness and bigotry” of Bangladeshi Islamists. Shikha praised a “growing secular movement,” which she said was widening and deepening in Bangladesh.

“But it’s true,” said the political scientist, “that people [Bangladeshi Muslims] are acquiring religious habits. They follow whatever the “huzurs” [Muslim clerics] say. I don’t know why.” She said the Muslims showing enthusiasm for Islam don’t read Islamic scripture. “Many of them don’t pray, but are crazy about Islam, whatever they think it is.”

Some of the other professors and students I met on Shahjalal University campus pointed out that Bangladesh had been making notable progress economically and educationally.

During the last four decades the country’s capita GDP increased 10-fold to $2,000, and literacy rate tripled to 66 percent. Significantly, the modernizing trend has defied the equally dramatic increase in political and bureaucratic corruption and the endemic political violence and instability.

A Transparency International survey for a four-year period has found Bangladesh to be the world’s most corrupt country. My refusal to bribe Bangladeshi officials has made me face difficulties in reclaiming some of my farmlands and shares in fisheries from usurpers. I have learned from several reliable sources that magistrates in this Bangladeshi town take bribes for favorable judgments in criminal cases.

Yet I have been impressed by sights of the rapid improvements in Bangladesh’s roads and highways, and the mushrooming of schools, colleges, businesses and industries. Shaheena Sultana, assistant registrar at the university, said the economic progress and modernization was a “bigger story” than Islamization.

The physical and social spectacles in Bangladesh are sparkling with symbols of modernity and globalization. Roads and streets – once shared by bicycles, bullock carts, goats and cows and occasional passenger buses – are now often clogged by cars, trucks, and streams of buses. Cell phones, including smartphones, are used almost universally throughout the country. An ever-growing number of Bangladeshis wear blue jeans and slacks, dropping the native male skirt called “lungi.” Most urban dwellers can speak English or  understand necessary English terms.

In fact English is replacing Bengali in the business and industrial culture of Bangladesh. On my way to Shahjalal University, I could hardly see an all-Bengali store sign. Those signs bore wholly or partly English names, usually written in the Bengali script: Holy City Grammar School and College, Modern Hair Dressers, Shourobh [Bengali word for fragrance] Stationery Store, Shopto Dinga [seven-canoe] Foreign Furniture, Derai [name of a place] Bedding House, Baraka [Arabic word for blessing] Arabic Learning Center, Messrs Ilyas [man’s name] and Sons, and so on.

On some of those signs, the English script is appended to the Bengali one.

What a paradigm shift! Who could have imagined during the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s that Bengali Muslims would one day trade their cherished native language and concepts for foreign ones?

The twin movements of Islamization and modernization, which are at loggerheads themselves, are clearly corroding Bengali ethnic values and cultural idiom in Bangladesh. I’m wondering whether Islam or modernity is going to be the final winner.

Or modernized Islam?

  • Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ is traveling in Bangladesh and India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bangladesh: Pot calling kettle black

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, her son and some of her political associates go on trial April 21 to face charges of corruption during her two terms as Bangladeshi prime minister.

On the face of it, it’s a good thing. Investigation by media and a previous government indicated that Zia and her son Tarek Rahman were involved in financial corruption of massive scales.  Bangladeshis need to begin to see that corruption in high places can be subjected to public scrutiny.

The problem, though, is that the case against Zia is selective and has been initiated by an apparently illegitimate government. The current Awami League party government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed hangs on to power by excluding most of the main opposition parties from the Jan. 5 parliamentary elections.

Her popularity sagging, Hasina got the outgoing parliament to scrap a law that called for holding elections under a neutral, caretaker government. The opposition saw it as a prelude to her rigging the vote and insisted on having the voting done under a caretaker government. When Hasina refused, 18 opposition parties, including Zia’s, boycotted the vote, as did U.S. and European Union election monitors.  A majority in the new parliament – 154 out of 300 – was elected unopposed, belonging to the ruling Awami League party, and Hasina continues as the country’s prime minister.

Secondly, Bangladeshi courts have historically been amenable to government pressure.  And Bangladeshi political and bureaucratic establishments have been among the most corrupt in the world. Very few politicians in the government or opposition can stay outside the jailhouse, if properly investigated for corruption.

In 1974 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and Hasina’s father, was having a meeting with Bangladeshi expatriates at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. One of the attendees asked what he was going to do about the “unprecedented levels of corruption” in Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Mujib asked the questioner to “tell me” what he could do about it.

“Everybody [in Bangladesh] is corrupt. I am corrupt, too.” he added.

Mujib’s  answer was of course rhetorical. He didn’t mean “everybody” in his country was affected by the vice. Neither did the father of the Bangladeshi nation obviously want to say that he was guilty of the crime as well.  Yet he had been the object of widespread rumors and ridicules about corrupt dealings ever since the mid-1950s, when he became a government minister in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.

So have many in Hasina’s Awami League today.

Zia’s prosecution by the Hasina government amounts to “pot calling the kettle black.”  Whether the charges against Zia and her colleagues are true (which may well be the case), Hasina is obviously trying to divert Bangladeshi and international attention away from her government’s lack of legitimacy.

  • Mustafa Malik hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com. 

 

 

Afghans show door to blind hegemon

“Fools!”

Tunu was talking about American troops in Afghanistan.

“Why were they spilling all this blood – ours and theirs?”

Now a shoe store owner, he had joined the Pakistani Taliban four years ago and fought NATO troops in Afghanistan for two. He was commenting on President Obama’s decision last month to pull out all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

A relative of mine, Tunu was visiting me and my ailing mother, 94, at the Osmani Hospital here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I was busy caring for my bedridden mother and couldn’t engage in a political conversation. I told him that his question was a good one for my next blog post. I agreed, however, not to mention his full name in it. The pro-American, terrorist-hunting government of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed could go after him.

So why were American troops “spilling all this blood” in Afghanistan? Tunu didn’t know much about the American political system and focused his anger on U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, not those who sent them to do the fighting.

In 1996 I met a group of Arab post-graduate and undergrad students at a hangout on London’s Seven Sisters Road. They obviously knew about the process in which decisions about war and peace are made in Washington.  As I mentioned in a subsequent newspaper column, two of them – both Saudi Arabian – used that knowledge to support militant attacks on American government targets and, more amazingly, American civilians!

Their argument: American voters elect their governments who had imposed the devastating sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Kuwait war that had killed half a million Iraqi children. Elected American governments, they continued, supported “Israeli colonialism” and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. The United States armed and protected  autocratic “monsters” repressing Arab societies. And so on. Why kill the “poor, black soldiers,” asked one of the Saudis, who had joined the American armed forces “to feed their families”?

I remembered their argument 10 years later when Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, said the United States and Iraq would have been spared the horrors of the uncalled for Iraq war if children of those who had decided to invade that country had been sent into the battlefields. Only 2 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress had their children in military services. The decorated Korean War veteran added that in 2004, 70 percent of New York City volunteers who enlisted in U.S. armed services were “black or Hispanic, recruited from lower-income communities.”

It all is true, but Americans are doing what most hegemonic powers have done throughout history – be they the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Brits or Soviets. They’ve used their superior military power to conquer, slaughter, plunder, subjugate and dominate other peoples. Some of those adventures have been stupid because power tends not only to corrupt people but also often blind them to reality.

In Afghanistan, Americans didn’t see – or want to see – the fate of other invaders to that country from the Greeks to the Brits to the Soviets. They were all defeated or expelled by the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun tribes. Power has even blinded many Americans to themselves and their deeds.  They went about invading sovereign nations and overthrowing and sabotaging governments with abandon. They slaughtered and brutalized other people and bribed and bullied their governments. Through all this they saw themselves as “peace-loving” do-gooders, spreading freedom and democracy around the world.

There’s a tried-and-true cure for this blindness: resistance and exhaustion. Few aggressive military powers have ever heeded moral suasion, but all have eventually been tamed by the resistance of the victims of their aggression and the exhaustion of their own military or economic power.  Without stubborn native resistance, the French wouldn’t have let go of their Algerian “department”; neither would the Soviets have fled Afghanistan. Hadn’t the Nazis crushed its economy, imperial Britain wouldn’t have conceded the independence of my native Indian subcontinent.

The Afghanistan war was doomed before it started because of the Afghans’ historic spirit of intolerance of foreign invaders. Their spirit of independence, as that of many other peoples, has been whetted further by the tide of freedom and democracy rising throughout the developing world.

The American economy, though still the word’s largest, has lost its vitality and dynamism. Administration spin-doctors would have us believe otherwise. They claim the economy is back on track after a temporary “Great Recession.”  They try to buttress their argument by citing the slow rise in employment rates, improvements in home prices and housing starts, the upswing in the stock market, and so on.

All these indices camouflage the deep and seemingly irreversible downturn in the American economy. America is saddled with a $17 trillion debt burden, while its GDP growth is anemic (2.4%). About 70 percent of goods on American store shelves have been made abroad. It means that the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans, Pacific Islanders, and other foreigners fill 7 out of 10 job openings created by the U.S. economy. The stock market boom is profiting mostly the top 1 percent society, while workers’ real wages have fallen to their lowest shares of national income in more than 50 years.   America just can no longer afford to fund the Afghanistan war, or any other war of choice.

Tunu should know that Obama ordered the total pullout American troops from Afghanistan because of the two main reasons that have historically stopped hegemonic aggression: exhaustion of the hegemons and resistance from the victims of their aggression.

  • Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com.

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.