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. 

 

 

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.