In conversation with Joseph Allchin
Joseph Allchin is a British-born journalist, writer and analyst. He has written for The New York Review of Books, Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times. Formerly based in Dhaka, Allchin’s first book, Many Rivers One Sea: Bangladesh and the Challenge of Islamist Militancy, investigates violent radicalism in Bangladesh. In this interview, which was conducted via email, he talks about the salient aspects of his book.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am currently reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It’s a non-fiction account of how large companies use the incredible quantities of data that they collect about us. It is a bit like a dystopian horror story in many ways. But it is a vital book or issue really, as it feels like it charts the trajectory of tech’s inexorable push into our lives, often in obtrusive ways. It’s a very thorough study of how we are going from being customers of these massive tech titans to becoming their raw material. I found it hard to avoid the online realm and its power as a political tool when writing my own book, and I think sadly, this realm or technology that once offered us freedom is becoming a tool to control us and gain profit, by controlling our lives at the behest of the highest bidder.
You lived in Dhaka for some time. How do you feel about attending the DLF this year?
It’s a tremendous honor to be invited to the DLF. I have attended the festival a few times in the past, and thoroughly enjoyed the broad array of speakers, events and ideas, so it’s really special to return to talk about my own work. I have fond memories of listening to minds such as Ramachandra Guha, Pankaj Mishra, Naila Kabeer, Rehman Sobhan, Zia Haider Rahman and so many others at the festival. So encountering these thinkers here has really informed and inspired my own writing. It’s been a cauldron of ideas. I feel honored and rather humble to be attending this year to discuss my own book, and attempting to follow in so many impressive footsteps.
Are you working on any writing project now?
I am looking at writing something more purely historical. It’s easier to gain depth and truth about things when the dust has settled. I wanted more of Many Rivers One Sea to delve into history, but sadly I didn’t have the space, time or resources.
Your first book Many Rivers One Sea deals with Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. What spurred you on to write this book?
Well it was mainly my publishers who spurred me on to write the book. It was their idea. But I started writing about the issues that feature in the book well before, while writing as a journalist. The schisms in Bangladeshi society are profound, and that seemed an issue that was vital to any serious analysis of the country. But as I argue in my book, I think the anxieties that these great schisms here represent, presaged much of the populist anger in other parts of the world. I am interested personally in the political economy behind these feelings and what creates them. I have never been satisfied with most normative explanations we are presented with for why particular horrific episodes of militancy occur. A lot of analysis seemed short sighted and unsatisfactory. I spent a long time thinking about these things, and it’s very hard to explore them in most journalistic formats, in a few hundred words, for instance. News editors never seemed that interested in really exploring them in any great depth. So while I was very flattered to be asked to write about militancy in Bangladesh, I was also spurred on by a yearning to understand what was beneath the phenomenon, rather than simply describing the normative institutions that are loosely held to be responsible for these terrible, cowardly crimes. While it’s draining thinking and writing about murder and hatred day in day out, it was also one of the most liberating things I have ever worked on. It felt like a great freedom in some ways, getting one’s ideas out, filling all that blank space that became my book. In as much as it allows one to grasp and behold a degree of clarity or truth, it felt like a catharsis, if you will. That probably spurred me on as well.
Would you care to share some of your findings that you elaborate on in the book?
There are many. But briefly, firstly, I think it’s pertinent to realize how much of the current movement of conservative religious thought in the Muslim world was super charged by the Cold War. Bangladesh’s liberation movement of course occurred at its height, and I think what we see in great books on this period like Lifschultz’s The Unfinished Revolution or The Blood Telegram are that these forces arose when the great powers chose strange enemies of their enemy, as bed fellows to prosecute their proxy wars. Which is essentially what Bangladesh’s liberation struggle became. Time and again, in a normative sense, we see Islamist insurrection happening in Bangladesh and elsewhere as almost a counter revolution, sponsored by foreign powers. Recently for instance, Mohamed Bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia said that the reason his petro-kingdom spent so much money on madrassas in places like Bangladesh was “to prevent the spread of communism” at the behest of their western backers. And these go on, where these really quite callous attitudes to belief, freedom and sovereignty in “Client states” have spawned dramatic, and often quite frightening societal change.
Secondly, I think one major takeaway, where my qualitative analysis is backed up by quantitative studies, is the psychology of people attracted to this kind of movement. And guess what? They’re often exactly the same drivers as for those explicitly anti-Muslim, right-wing movements in different parts of the world, from Myanmar to Minnesota. So, in a non-normative analytical sense, which I think my book really aspires to provide, we see some fascinating social trends. That actual poverty doesn’t necessarily cause violent extremist responses in people, a sense of inequality helps but what is notable is the sense of humiliation or victimhood, which is often seen mainly in men, a feeling that a changing, anxious world and political economy is emasculating them somehow. That through jihad or some fascist insurrection in western contexts, those who are drawn to these movements can reclaim their masculinity, assert power or order on a world which seems chaotic. It’s an emotion, moreover, that can be extremely expedient for politicians.
How seriously do you think Bangladesh is at the risk of militancy?
As I say, the psychological state that drives on militancy can be extremely expedient for politicians or demagogues wishing to both engender unity in a population or produce an excuse to clamp down on people’s freedoms. Projecting deep seated senses of anger onto others is a potent tool. Thus it is a serious risk, as it is in the UK or India or Myanmar. But we do have many of these meta-conditions or these social memes in Bangladesh that make it a very real problem. The events in neighboring countries do not help at the moment either. But on the other hand, of course Bangladesh has been a beacon of economic growth. So, to avert said risks one really needs to ask how a society can be more equitable and fair. How a society can be built that is representative and caring. So that when a young Bangladeshi dreams they do so appreciating the incredible potential that they and their community possess, and the unique and extraordinary legacy which they can carry into the future.