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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Intolerance or pluralism?

Update : 09 Jul 2013, 03:07 PM

The figure who galvanised a movement to challenge Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was a young woman in a red dress. Unarmed and innocent, she was photographed staring down a masked policeman as he blasted her face with tear gas.

Images like that linger forever. The memory of young black teenagers being hosed down with water cannons in Birmingham, Alabama during the American civil rights struggle is permanently etched onto the American consciousness, and helped convince white Americans of the barbarity of racism. The logic was simple: people able to commit such acts of evil must be wrong.

For some the logic worked differently, however: people able to commit such acts of evil will never hear reason. Those pictures of unadulterated bigotry turned significant segments of Black America toward radical nationalism and at the same time were inspiring desegregation. African Americans, like those of the Black Panther movement, which was founded minutes from my home, came to understand that in the face of water cannons, civil disobedience was an unviable path to change. Instead, they called for violent self-defence.

Though vocal, this segment of Black protest remained marginalised even in its own community, as President Lyndon Johnson personally intervened on the side of progress to end state-sponsored racism. If such progress was did not materialise, the history of America's apartheid may have followed a similar course as South Africa’s. Although the world is elevating Nelson Mandela to nearly divine status, as his health rapidly deteriorates, the saint-president was on the US terror watch list until 2008. He founded the “terrorist organisation” Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, in the 1960s as a violent response to Apartheid because the South African government continued to respond to peaceful agitation with brutality.

Issues like apartheid in South Africa and segregation in America were eventually settled at the ballot box. The various ideologies became engaged in passionate debate and dialogue, and continue to this day. If any one ideology were to assume power, its opponents would be left with little choice. Water cannons lead the despondent to violence.

Islamism in Somalia, Nigeria, Algeria, and Syria; leftism in India and South America; Black Nationalism in South Africa and the United States; Palestinian independence; Irish Nationalism etc. The list is tragically long and incomplete, but critical to understand, as Bangladesh settles into democracy and development. Peaceful movements representing legitimate ideas became violent when confronted with state tyranny. While the state is compelled to use force against petty crime and terrorism, it cannot afford to respond to legitimate ideas with violence.

The drama around Shahbagh, when a diverse group of young activists, faced off against Islamists, is nearly a mirror image of Taksim. Unlike Turkey, Islamists in Bangaldesh were on the receiving end of martial force. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, we should be worried by this trend. The Muslim world is littered with examples of how radical Islamism can tear a country apart, just as any radical ideology can. The radicalisation of Islamist ideology is already happening, and was seen in the huge show of numbers by Hefazat e-Islam. The next step in this historical pattern is violence.

Think Indian Naxalite insurgency meets Pakistani Taliban. That is our nightmare and that is where the road leads if Bangladeshi Islamists continue to face water cannons, tear gas, and bullets. It is in everyone's interest to shift this debate to the ballot and off the streets — the ball is now in the government’s court.

Political violence is not new to Bangladesh, or any other country for that matter. Violence against parties held together by patronage politics is, of course, also unacceptable. But violence against Islamism in a country like Bangladesh, or secularism in Turkey, is a different animal and carries with it very different consequences. That is Erdogan's reality, and our's.

As Erdogan is trying to silence Turkish secularism, the Awami League is trying to silence Bangladeshi Islamism. Great nations are marked by their ability to fold diversity into the state, particularly a diversity of ideas. When compared to our neighbours, Bangladesh has made impressive progress in creating a diverse society and now has the opportunity to continue this crucial evolution. At this crossroads, Bangladesh head down one of two very different paths: Turkish intolerance or modern American pluralism.  

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