Opening a Pandora’s box in Bangladesh

The movement towards fundamentalist ideologies is weakening the voices of the liberals

March 10, 2015 02:42 am | Updated March 12, 2015 10:06 am IST

“There is a growing radicalism in Bangladesh; that has penetrated every socio-economic layer of our growing society.” Picture shows people gathering for a protest against the murder of Avijit Roy in Dhaka.

“There is a growing radicalism in Bangladesh; that has penetrated every socio-economic layer of our growing society.” Picture shows people gathering for a protest against the murder of Avijit Roy in Dhaka.

I am not a political analyst, a historian or an anthropologist. I am a common man, a Bengali Muslim, a Bangladeshi.

How did my beloved nation of Bangladesh become so intolerant? At only 31 I am saddened that this is not the Bangladesh I grew up in. Like most families, we grew up with the arts. We played music, danced or painted. Our ears were filled with Rabindranath Tagore’s music, while our dreamy eyes saw us as the next Zainal Abedin. Through the ages, beloved Sufi singers known as Bauls have wandered from village to village singing songs of inclusion, pluralism and tolerance. But no longer. Why has this society become so intolerant? Why can’t our children go safely to school? Why can’t we express our opinions?

It is easy to point fingers. It is easy to blame the current stalemate on political parties. But the causes of the change are more complex and widespread than that.

Education system Education, food and health care are basic needs that enable a society to progress. But despite our progress against the Millennium Development Goals, there are vacuums. The education sector is filled with madrasas, which are funded by the Middle East. The institutions hardly monitor or evaluate how the fund is being utilised. Of the two categories of madrasas, approximately 6.4 million people are currently enrolled in 18,100 Qwami madrasas nationwide. These are excluded from the government’s national education system; hence the curriculum has never been monitored. These madrasas are heavily influenced by imported Wahhabi principles, which are conflicting to the indigenous traditional principles fostered by subsequent Sufi movements. A World Bank report has stated that 82 per cent of the teachers in these madrasas are untrained; they are merely alumni of the same system. Given the exclusion from the national education system, there are limited career choices for the graduates. They can choose meagre jobs. But the more lucrative, safer choice is to become a teacher in a madrasa or work as Imams in religious congregations. Thus, a self-perpetuating cycle of fundamentalists is created. The number of alumni who have travelled across the nation to become religious preachers is staggering. These Imams shape the mindset of millions who come to the mosque through Khutbah (sermons).

The overall impact of this has been a growing radicalism that has penetrated every socio-economic layer of society. Imams have been able to have great leverage that would have been unthinkable 43 years ago, when the desire to celebrate nationalism led to the creation of this nation. A display of the Imams strength was seen on May 5, 2013, when 5,00,000 people gathered on the summons of Hefazat-e-Islam in Dhaka to call for the hanging of atheists. The 13-point demand of the group would have drastically shrunk the secular space in Bangladesh. Its aim is to transform Bangladesh into an Islamic state, replicating the model of many Middle Eastern nations. What is more surprising is the endorsement of such demands by political parties. Most political parties have, in the past, formed either formal or informal alliances with Islamists for their own gains.

This Middle Eastern approach, rather than Bengali one, is alien to us. This approach rejects the arts, which has been an integral part of our society through the centuries. With shrinking of creativity comes the reduction in space for free thinking and tolerance for such a level of religiosity that many do not feel there is anything wrong with the killing of diverse voices such as Avijit Roy’s or Professor Humayun Azad’s. We are at the opening of a Pandora’s box. There is great diversity of voices, but the violence of fundamental thinking is alarming. Roy was not the first victim; there were bloggers such as Ahmed Rajib Haider (Thaba Baba) who was killed post the Shahbag protests in February 2013.We have failed to deliver justice not only to our most vulnerable free thinkers, but to the common man too.

Collapse of the rule of law This brings me to the second point: the collapse of the rule of law. A silent culture of impunity has developed. The owner of the Rana Plaza building, which collapsed in April 2013 killing more than 1,100 people, has not been tried. In broad daylight, Bishwajit Das (a tailor who was mistakenly in the middle of a political clash) was slaughtered; the miscreants are busy updating photos on Facebook today. In December 2013, 700 were killed in pre-election violence. Have any of the perpetrators been brought to justice? If people have no faith in the rule of law, they will turn to other alternatives. This is not recent, over the last 24 years of “democracy,” justice has failed. Today people are frustrated and tired of the status quo and think that an escape to the Shariah rulings, will help overcome discord and injustice and bring about peace and harmony. This is a winning battle for the fundamentalists.

Bangladesh is not yet a fragile state like Afghanistan or even Pakistan. But it has to assure social and economic justice to build an inclusive society. If it fails to do so, the large population will remain nonchalant to fundamentalists who have the potential to take over the nation and enforce the social welfare and justice that was promised to the citizens. The movement towards fundamentalist ideologies is weakening the voices of the liberals. It is time that Bengalis reassert their identity not as Muslims or Hindus or Christians or Buddhists or atheists, but as representatives of a millennium-old culture that was both inclusive and tolerant.  I want to pray, I want to respect my religion.  But I also want to celebrate the life that god has given us, as Bengalis have always done. We need to act before it is too late.

(Saif Kamal is a social entrepreneur and resides in Dhaka. Follow him on twitter @saifkamal .)

This article earlier incorrectly stated that 64 million people were enrolled in Qwami madrasas. The correct number is 6.4 million. The error is regretted.

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