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.



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