Sunday, January 23, 2005

Eid: Straight Talk from Bangladesh


An enjoyable and powerful Eid commentary from Bangladesh
by Zafar Sobhan

Eid-ul-Azha is just around the corner. Watching images of the Hajj on TV and seeing how the Dhaka streets have emptied as people return to their villages to spend this holiday with their near and dear ones and sensing the mood of tranquillity that has descended on the country, I am reminded of my thoughts on returning to Dhaka in December in the midst of the annual Biswa Ijtema.

That too had been an impressive outpouring of faith, with an estimated four million participants thronging Tongi for the occasion. What I was reminded of, then as well as now, was that many if not most Bangladeshi Muslims are religious people and their faith is important to them.

Nor is this true only of Muslims in our country. Be they Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Buddhist -- we are by and large a religious people and our religion is an important part of how we live our lives.

This is something that we need to take into consideration when thinking about the future of religion and more importantly religion-based politics in Bangladesh.

I consider myself a staunch secularist. I am not a fan of religion-based politics, be they the politics of the religious right in the US, the Sangh Parivar in India, the ultra-rightists in Israel, or of the Islamist parties in Bangladesh.

My sympathies are always with the secularists, as I think it is the only way for different communities to live together in harmony in a plural society.

The problem for secularists -- and not just in Bangladesh -- is that they are often thought to be anti-religion.

This is the problem the Democratic party faces in the US, and there is persuasive evidence to suggest that this perceived opposition to religious faith on the part of the Dems is one of the factors that propelled President Bush to re-election.

Even though John Kerry is a church-going Catholic, the impression remains that if you are a religious person then the Democratic party is hostile to your faith. This is an extremely unfair perception, but one that nevertheless is quite widespread.

The perception is one that the Democratic party has to counter if it wishes to remain competitive at the national level. Simply put, if you are identified as anti-religion then you will not receive much sympathy from a lot of voters.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, secularists also need to work hard not to turn off religious voters or let the impression form that they are opposed to religion.

It should always be made clear that secularists are often people of faith themselves, and if not, then they at least respect the religious faith of others.

This last is a crucial point, because it stands in stark contrast to many fundamentalists, who evince a striking lack of respect for the religious faith, rights, and sensibilities of others. The current shameful campaign against the Ahmadiyya community is a case in point.

But I think that it would be a worthwhile exercise to look a little more closely at the religious impulse in Bangladesh, specifically among Muslims, instead of dismissing political Islam as the ideology of fanatics and fundamentalists that has no hope of gaining popularity among the general public.

The first thing to note is that right now, with Islam perceived to be under threat around the world, many Muslims are experiencing a resurgence of faith, and feel that they must publicly identify with and rally around their besieged religion.

With the neo-colonial and neo-imperialist ambitions of the West apparently running rough-shod over the world in which their voice has been silenced to a whisper, many Muslims are going to be looking for an alternative view of the world to that espoused by the neo-cons and their supporters in the White House.

In the context of Bangladesh, you don't have to be religious to believe that things are heading in the wrong direction, that public and private morality is at an all-time low, and that perhaps a complete cleansing of the system and a new start is the only solution.

After all, what solutions do the mainstream parties have to the wrongs and injustices that we see entrenched all around us? None that I have heard.

But the Islamists have a solution. They have a prescription for what needs to be done. They have a vision for the future.

They claim to be able to cleanse the system of its immorality. They profess an egalitarian vision which will offer hope and opportunity to all. They speak to and for the dispossessed. They have a strategy for Bangladesh to gain respect and recognition on the world stage.

In an ironic sense, the Islamists are the new communists. There is always going to be a strong anti-western constituency in the country that is implacably opposed to the rampant forces of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism. It used to be the communists and leftists who spoke the language of these people, but who is speaking to this constituency today except the Islamists?

So, until the mainstream parties or liberal civil society actually comes to the table with an equally compelling competing vision, the fundamentalists will only get stronger.

For many Bangladeshis, if the price to pay for a functional state is that women must wear the hijab or that Friday prayers are made mandatory, that's a price well worth paying.

For me it is not. I think that the fundamentalists' explanation for what is wrong in the country misses the mark and that their prescription for the future is equally flawed.

But if things continue to head in the wrong direction, if fundamental wrongs are not righted, then I could be in the minority very quickly.
The issue isn't whether we are at heart a secular people or not, but who has a more compelling vision for the future, the secularists or the fundamentalists.

If secularists want to counter the rising tide of fundamentalism, they need a vision for the future that is at least equally compelling.

Secularists need to urgently address issues such as corruption and crime, such as education and opportunity for the dispossessed, such as our place in the world.

Secularists need to ensure that they are not considered irreligious, thereby losing the support and sympathy of the many religious people in this country who also want a tolerant and plural country.

Secularists need to point out that their vision for the future -- with education for women and full rights and opportunities for minorities -- is the more compelling one, and the one more in keeping with the founding ideals of the nation and the long-cherished values of its people.

But it is critical to understand that if the mainstream parties continue to neither listen to the people nor deliver what they want, then that space will be filled by the fundamentalists.

This is already happening to a certain extent. True the religious parties have never won too many seats in parliament, but consider the following:
Their seventeen seats in the current parliament are the most ever, and is almost 1000 percent higher than their representation after the 1996 elections.

Then consider the fact that the hijab are far more in evidence today than at any time in the past.

Then consider the activities of vigilante Islamist Bangla Bhai in the North-West and the on-going campaign against the Ahmadiyyas and the steady clip of attacks on minorities.

The BNP, which has formed a coalition government with the more respectable of the Islamists, thinks it can co-opt the fundamentalists. The AL seems to think that it can just ignore them. Both are wrong. The only way to counter fundamentalists is to understand where their popularity comes from and to give people a reason to support you rather than them.

Zafar Sobhan is an assistant editor of The Daily Star.


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Muslims Vs. Muslims: An unreported battleground

Muslims Vs. Muslims By Sherrie Gossett January 13, 2005

What goes largely unreported is the fact that Muslims have been attacking, desecrating, and destroying their own mosques, shrines and holy sites.

Throughout the war in Iraq, much has been heard about the alleged desecration of Muslim holy sites by American troops killing terrorists. Even though the terrorists stay in mosques and store their weapons there, protests against American troops have been held around the world and Arab governments have issued statements of condemnation.

What goes largely unreported is the fact that Muslims have been attacking, desecrating, and destroying their own mosques, shrines and holy sites. One case involves turning the Prophet Mohammed's childhood home into a public restroom.

The Wahhabism form of Islam regards these religious buildings, structures and relics as idols to be destroyed.

At the same time, the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam has had its mosques attacked and reduced to rubble and their creeds erased from the front of mosques. This sect is singled out as heretical because it is dedicated to non-violence and opposes terrorism.

The destruction is largely occurring in two countries¯Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. One expert says that "…it can be stated without any risk of contradiction that since the advent of Islam never as many mosques have been desecrated in any Islamic state as in Pakistan during the last 15 years."

In June of last year, the Islamic Supreme Council of America, (ISCA) called for the support of the world community, UNESCO and the United Nations to stop the destruction of venerated Muslim relics in Saudi Arabia.

They issued two press releases detailing the damage being done. Three months later the Wall Street Journal covered the issue in a front page report, and the Weekly Standard followed suit, but a LexisNexis search turns up no other coverage.

Bangladesh: A culture of bombs?


SYLHET, Bangladesh — One recent afternoon, Farjana Siddika, 34, opened her office mail and found she was marked for death. "We are going to kill all the atheists, and you are on the list," the typed letter read. "You cannot live with a Hindu on the holy soil of Sylhet. You must make amends or face the consequences."

"At first I thought it was a hoax," said the literature professor, whose marriage to a Hindu is a rarity in this country of 140 million Muslims, and whose liberal views are equally rare at the technical college where she teaches.

"But when my family heard about it, they went into a panic." No wonder. Sylhet, a northern Bangladeshi city known better for tea gardens than religious extremism, was terrorized by dozens of death threats last year and seven grenade blasts that killed five persons and injured more than 100.

"This bomb culture is completely new to Sylhet," said Mayor Badaruddin Kamran, who was the target of a blast in August that killed a close friend.
The attacks are not limited to academics and politicians: Three movie theaters have been bombed and Sylhet's holiest shrine, the tomb of Hazrat Shah Jalal, a Seventh Century Sufi saint, was hit twice by grenade attacks. Islamist radicals believe praying at shrines — a common practice in most of the Muslim world — amounts to idolatry. No one has been charged in either attack.

The attacks mirror a pattern of unchecked violence across Bangladesh, raising concern that religious radicals nurtured by Islamic charities linked to al Qaeda and protected by the government are undermining long-held traditions of tolerance.

"If there is a country in the world today in danger of completely breaking down, it's Bangladesh," said Gowher Rizvi, a Bangladeshi who heads the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

The violence made world news last summer when Sheikh Hasina Wajed, a former prime minister, was nearly assassinated in a grenade attack that killed 20 persons in Dhaka, the capital.

In May, the British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury was hurt and three Bangladeshis were killed in a blast at the Shah Jalal shrine in Sylhet.

Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's parliamentary affairs adviser, discounted talk of rising Islamist extremism. "I don't think I'd take it too seriously," said Mr. Chowdhury, who is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's leading Islamist party.

"These cases may be politically motivated to harm the image of the government." Others say Mrs. Zia's Bangladesh National Party is allowing militants to tip the balance against Mrs. Wajed's rival Awami League. "By unleashing fundamentalist forces in the country, they will be able to contain the Awami League," Mr. Rizvi said.

Mrs. Zia's ruling coalition includes two Islamist parties and her government includes men accused of war crimes during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. It is estimated that Pakistani soldiers and their allies in breakaway Bangladesh killed as many as 1 million people during the fight to separate what was then East Pakistan.

Politics in Bangladesh is captive to the rivalry of Mrs. Wajed and Mrs. Zia. Mrs. Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led Bangladesh from its birth until 1975, when he was killed by army officers. Mrs. Zia's late husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, ruled after Mujibur Rahman's death until he too was slain in 1981.

This blood feud divides the army, the civil service and the press, leaving education and public health to thousands of aid groups and charities. Corruption is pervasive.

Following 15 years of army rule, there have been three successful national elections. Despite her Islamist partners, Mrs. Zia is pushing to reserve a third of the seats in parliament for women, and wants to reform the country's divorce laws. She defeated Mrs. Wajed in the 2001 elections by promising law and order.

But violence has only grown. On Oct. 29, a mob of 1,000 people razed a mosque of the embattled Ahmadiyya Muslim sect during Ramadan prayers. Islamist radicals consider the Ahmadiyya heretics.

Some analysts fear the conditions that allow a mob to tear down a mosque could draw foreign militants to Bangladesh. Local and foreign press describe the lawless southeast as a potential haven for Islamic militants. Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, the reputed ringleader of the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia, was en route to Bangladesh when he was captured in Thailand in 2003, regional officials said.

The newspaper Prothom Alo detailed a network of training camps in Bangladesh run by the terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami. The camps are connected to local mosques and madrassas — Islamic boarding schools — funded by charities with reputed ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Bangladesh has 6,900 government-regulated secondary-level madrassas that teach modern subjects alongside the Koran, a rarity in Muslim countries. But an additional 6,500 secondary-level madrassas and 18,000 elementary madrassas are funded by unregulated private donors, often charities that espouse a more intolerant strain of Islam than is usual in Bangladesh.

The U.S. government has named at least two major supporters of madrassas in Bangladesh — the Pakistan-based Rabita Trust and the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which Saudi Arabia dissolved last year — as conduits for al Qaeda.

Mr. Chowdhury downplayed such funding. "You're looking for accountability from a madrassa that gets $600 from a lousy foundation in the Gulf?" he asked. "Look, Bangladesh is a country where most of the people live on less than 2,000 calories a day. If someone offers money, we'll take it."

Courtesy of the Washington Times

The Importance of Collective Prayers in Islam

According to the Holy Prophet, on whom be peace and blessings of Allah, Salat is the pinnacle of the spiritual life of the believer.

It is the highest form of Divine worship. The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is further reported to have observed: Prayer brings the believer into communion with his Lord.

Allah says in the Holy Qur’an [22:42] “Those who, if We establish them in the earth, will observe Prayer and pay the Zakat and enjoin good and forbid evil. And with Allah rests the final issue of all affairs.”

In addition: “Surely those who follow the Book of Allah and observe Prayer and spend out of that which we have provided for them, secretly and openly, are pursuing a commerce that suffers no loss, for Allah will give them their full reward, and will add to them out of His bounty. He is surely, Most Forgiving, Most Appreciating.” (35:30-31)

It must be realized that sincere prayer never goes in vain. Sometimes, the deep spiritual experience of the intense love of God brings tears to the eyes. Sometimes, a milder pleasure of love fills the heart with sublime happiness. These experiences are signs of the Prayer being alive, meaningful and fruitful. Otherwise, just a performance of formality is not enough to benefit man.

That would be obeying an order without one's heart being in it. That is why it is highly essential that every beginner should keep this noble objective before him and always try to make his Prayers come alive. How do prayers come alive, read the writings of the Promised Messiah, alaihissalaam, begin to work with sincerity on your prayers and eliminating ego in self that prevents you from bringing sincere prayer into your life.

We as Ahmadi Muslims are blessed that we recognized the Imam of the age and that Allah has united us via the Khilafat and made us strong. We pray to Allah that He should keep on blessing us in this manner and that He enables us to be thankful for His blessings and that we should be enabled to make use of the Mosque, or mission house as it should.

We should remember that in order to obtain the blessings of Allah, it is essential to pay attention to the worship of Allah and to discharging our duties towards our fellow beings and by spreading the good in the world. Allah says that when you are given the power in the earth then your preferences should not change.

You should pay more attention to prayers so that you may be deserving of more blessings. Also, your future generations should be such that would attract Allah’s Blessings so that you may remain strong.

The same subject has been stated in verse 56 of Sura Al-Nur.

[24:56] Allah has promised to those among you who believe and do good works that He will, surely, make them successors in the earth, as He made Successors from among those who were before them; and that He will, surely, establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them; and that He will, surely, give them in exchange security and peace after their fear; They will worship ME and they will not associate anything with ME. Then whoso disbelieves after that, they will be the rebellious.

[24:57] And observe Prayer and give the Zakat and obey the Messenger, that you may be shown Mercy.

The Islamic prayer has the effect of removing one's sins. A Hadith relates that some people asked the Prophet why Muslims need to pray five times a day, and the Prophet was reported to have said, "Tell me, if there is a stream at the door of one of you, in which you bathe five times a day, wouldn't it then remove all dirt from your body?" They said, "It would." The Prophet then said, "This is the likeness of the five prayers, with which God blots out all faults.

Muslims perform the salat as a gratitude to God for giving them His favor in whatever form and however small or insignificant. The salat makes a Muslim remember God every moment of the day and helps him to keep away from committing faults intentionally or unintentionally. It must also be said that it becomes increasingly difficult to harbor unkind thoughts or perform ill-deeds when you keep God in the forefront of your conscience.

In a sense, salat is food for one's own soul. As such, no Muslim can ask another to do the salat for him, just as no hungry person can ask another to eat for him. Just as we eat a few specific times a day to keep our physical body nourished, a Muslim does the salat five times a day to keep his soul nourished.

The service of prayer is divided into two parts, one to be said in private and the other to be performed in congregation, preferably in a Mosque. While the private part is meant simply for the development of the inner self of man, the public part has other ends as well in view, ends, indeed, that make the Islamic prayer a mighty force in the unification of the human race.

The importance of congregational prayer. A greater reward as compared to
individual prayer

In principal, collective prayer is more meritorious than individual prayer, the former, it is said, having twenty-seven times the spiritual value of the later. From this, therefore, ensures the importance of the Friday prayer, al-Jumu'ah, the day of the great gathering of the community of Islam.

The Qur'an specifically mentions the Friday prayer in Al-Jumu'ah (62) verse 9 to wit: O you who have attained to Faith! When the call to prayer is sounded on the day of congregation, hasten to the remembrance of God, and leave all worldly commerce: this is for your own good, if you but knew it. (Qur'an 62:9)

Throughout the Muslim world l mosques are frequented five times a day, a task which appears to be over-much demanding to a casual observer. This aspect should be further elaborated to build a more comprehensive picture of the role of congregational prayers in the Muslims' way of life.

Muslims are urged to perform their daily prayers in congregation, and must do so for the Friday noon congregational prayer. This creates a bond of love and mutual understanding, arouses a sense of collective unity, fosters a collective purpose, and inculcates a deep feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood.

If we are steadfast in out prayers we will remain strong as long as you keep paying the Zakat and making financial sacrifices and enjoining good and forbidding evil. It is also mentioned that the end result is still in the hands of Allah. Our task is to obey the instructions with pure intentions and not merely for show.

It is reported by Hazrat Jabirra where the Holy Prophet, saw, said that the distinguishing factor between a believer and a non-believer is the non-performance of Salat. According to this Hadith, a believer is a person who is regular in the offering of his prayers. Otherwise there is no difference between that person and a non-believer.

The Promised Messiah, alaihissalaam. writing about prayer said: “In short, prayer is that sovereign remedy which converts a handful of dust into precious metal. It is the water which washes out inner impurities. With such payer, the soul melts and, flowing like water, falls at the threshold of the Divine. It stands before God and bows down before Him and prostrates itself before Him. Indeed, the salat that Islam teaches is a reflection of such prayer.” (Lecture Sialkot, Ruhani Khaza, vol.20, pp. 223-224).

In conclusion let us pay special attention to offering our prayers in congregation in the manner that would make us deserving of Allah’s Blessings. May Allah enable us to do so. Aameen


Saturday, January 01, 2005

Tsunami: A prayer

It’s the New Year and our celebrations were dampened as we watched the Tsunami tragedy being repeatedly played throughout the day. And with each day, we listened as the numbers continued to grow with no end in sight to this tragedy.

What is and continues to be impressive has been the world’s response to Asia’s needs including a response by the people of America, who were embarrassed by our government’s disappointing initial reaction to the Tsunami devastation.

The aid supplies and humanitarian relief effort is more than impressive as Americans responded with money, supplies and prayers.

We share the grief and feel the pain of the incredible loss of life resulting from this natural disaster.

We have made our donation through Humanity First, USA and we pray:

Inna Lillahe wa Inna Ilahie Rajioon

(From Allah we come and to Him we return)