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OP-ED: On the wrong side of history

  • Published at 03:24 am April 6th, 2021
freedom fighters Bangladesh flag liberation war 1971
Courtesy: Anwar Hossain Foundation

Understanding the Arab world’s response to the Bangladesh Liberation War

The conspicuous silence of the Arab world in 1971 shouldn’t be interpreted as mysterious, as the Muslim countries blatantly supported Pakistan’s occupation of Bangladesh.

The heavily censored media of the Arabs failed to speak out on the crimes against humanity, war refugees, and the persecution of people who dreamed of an independent homeland.

Overtly, China, the United States, and the rest of the Arab countries joined Pakistan without understanding what conspired after the crackdown of “Operation Searchlight,” a genocidal campaign to neutralize the self-determination of its Eastern province (now Bangladesh).

The Arabs were carried away by the conspiracy theory that a Hindu nation, India, had hatched plans to bifurcate the world’s largest Muslim nation -- Pakistan, and eventually colonize East Pakistan.

Well, the culture, language, tradition, heritage, physical features, and even the weather of the four provinces of Pakistan were starkly different from East Bengal.

The only bond between the five provinces (including East Bengal) of Pakistan was laid on the thin rope of Islam. Fresh jargons of “Islam is in danger” were repeatedly heard since the weak “Unity Government” was overthrown in a bloodless military coup d’état in 1958.

Mohammad Redowanul Karim, a researcher on Islamic history and culture writes: “Consequently, an independent Bangladesh was inevitable. After starting the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, the myth that Islam was a stronger binding force than cultural heritage [was] refuted.”

The Liberation War and independence of Bangladesh shattered the much talked about “Two-Nation Theory” articulated by the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The doctrine rationalized the division of India politically into two independent nations -- India and Pakistan -- in the 1940s on the eve of the winding up of the British rule in India.

The Arab leaders were convinced that Pakistan’s military operations, besides flushing out “miscreants” and anti-Islamic terrorists, are also exterminating “kafirs” (or kufrs) from the “Muslim holy land.”

Therefore, it’s obvious that Pakistan, under the state obligation, had to exercise excessive force to restore law and order -- blaming the political crisis on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his Awami League, and millions of his sympathizers in the eastern province.

The Arabs were also convinced that to restore a political crisis, the military had to come down heavily. Most importantly, India had to be given a “befitting reply” for “interfering into internal affairs of Pakistan,” as repeated by Radio Pakistan.

The Arab leaders unwittingly provided moral, spiritual, political, and diplomatic support to Pakistan, despite knowing the marauding army was committing genocide and ethnic cleansing of religious minorities. 

In absence of elective democracy and free press in the 1970s, the Arab governments under kingdoms or autocratic regimes swallowed the narrative of their all-weather friend Pakistan.

The two alliances, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), instead of cautioning Pakistan, had extended moral and political support to strengthen “Islamic nationalism,” which provided the base for united Pakistan which was in the spirit of “Muslim Ummah,” while the Pakistan military committed war crimes in Bangladesh.

The discourse of the liberation war which transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh was not understood by the Middle East leaders and Arab organizations.

Obviously, during the Cold War, the Arabs were left out by the superpowers. From Algeria to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan embraced the Western hegemony of America as their trusted ally.

Bangladesh, while licking the scars of the Liberation War, did not hesitate to connect with the Arab nations and establish diplomatic relations with them, thus, opening a strategic inroad to the Arabs.

Sheikh Mujib’s statesmanship dented the wall created by Pakistan and penetrated deep into the heartland of the Middle East. In July 1972, Iraq was the first Arab country to recognize Bangladesh as an independent state and gradually all countries accepted the existence of the newly independent country.

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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