Bengali Muslims have been trying to construct a synthesis of their identity for over a hundred years now. Bangladesh, which comprises the largest ethnic Muslim population in the world after the Arab, embarked on a journey as a secular nation in 1971.
During the partition of 1947 when we became Pakistan, we created our identity on the premise of excluding “Hindu India” as the other. We were Muslims then. Then came a time when being Muslim was not enough to hold the homogeneity of Pakistan.
The people of this landmass had protested the oppressive iron hands of the West Pakistani rulers since 1948. They found themselves under yet another colonial rule. The dream of a free Bengal, Shonar Bangla, Bangladesh was in the making.
Finally we broke free in 1971, this time our identity was to be primarily constructed on the premise of excluding “Muslim Pakistan.” We were now “secular Bangladesh.”
Looking at our history of the past 42 years as a sovereign nation, it is evident that our dream of becoming “secular Bangladesh” has fallen flat on its face.
The war criminals of 1971 have roamed free in this land, they have infiltrated the rural areas converting the once Sufi Muslims to mullahs. Now they are so powerful that BNP, who once gave Jamaat shelter with its alliance, has turned into a hostage of Jamaat.
When the progressives called for the ban of Jamaat and capital punishment for the war criminals, most of whom are top leaders of Jamaat, they immediately morphed into Hefazat-e-Islam, a platform that claimed to be apolitical, its only purpose being restoring Allah’s governance in Bangladesh.
After the Savar tragedy, I was riding in an elevator in a commercial building. The liftman spoke: “Dekhsen ki Allahr gojob namse (See how Allah is punishing us)?” “Allahr gojob?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. “It is all decided by him, we cannot do a thing.”
I kept thinking about this conversation all day long. It struck me that this is a country where the state provides next to no social security, social welfare, medical care, retirement funds or any other fall-back safety net. As Bangladeshis, it has gotten into our bones that we need to watch our own backs, we need to watch each other’s back. That’s what happened in Savar – people jumped into the rescue operation, nobody waited for the state to take action.
When lives are lost every day without any reason it does give one a great comfort to rationalise the deaths and devastation in the name of a higher power. Remember Bishwajit, remember Ramu, remember Tazreen, remember all others that we have forgotten and you will know. We move on because we have learnt to accept it as fate.
Our ancestors have been rural peasants who survived fighting with natural calamities; they paid taxes to multiple kings, they were robbed by the Arakans, they were ruled always by foreign rulers who lived elsewhere but collected tax from here. Through thick and thin, calling out to the divine has been the only constant support system for the people of this landmass. After all, three of the world’s largest devotional movements converged into this region: Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Sufism.
We have never been secular to begin with if being secular means being able to separate religion from the state, the personal self from the organised self. We have never been devoid of the divine, be it the Pagan, Hindu, Bhakti cult or Islamic idea of divine. In fact through the hard road, Allah has been a constant friend in need for agrarian Bengali Muslims since their conversion to Islam at the hands of the Sufis. Allah tackled flood, cyclone, landslide, wars, accidents, famines, epidemics for them.
Since independence, in the name of secularism we have pushed aside religion. Our educated, progressive middle class left Islam in the hands of the uneducated mullahs, left it open for the evils to tweak with it. Now they have it and we do not. We are neither believers nor atheists.
We have hidden our innate faith like our dirty laundry in our journey from tradition to modernity, from rural to urban; we have learnt to be ashamed of our “superstitious, backward” faith. Our literati termed our Sufi culture as corrupt and credulous.
We boasted our Bengali culture by breaking further and further away from everything Pakistan. As the West Pakistani forces used Islam as their political tool to justify the killings in this landmass, we grew adverse to religion. We did not realise that Islam is going to come back and bite us.
The major political parties did not realise that the Islamist forces who want to tweak religion for power have infiltrated the mass, monopolised the mass’ faith (especially in the rural regions), taken advantage of the lack of social security and the overall downtrodden status of the majority of the population in this country, offered the children free home and education in the madrasas.
They have taken a people, who are literally and figuratively orphans, a people whose government cares very little about them, a people who are left out in the jungle of rising corruption and capitalism to fend for themselves, and whispered into their ears, in a language they are familiar with, the idea of Islam as a force that can restore social order, deliver them social justice and equality.
If the demonstration on May 5 stands for anything, then it stands for the organisational strength and superb networking capabilities of Jamaat. It has also shown that the madrasa students are in a position where they can be manipulated, used as human shields to prove the political point of Jamaat.
The truth is religion has been used for political purposes ever since colonial times, crystallising identity, nationalism, nation-states, and territories.
How logical is it to think that the peasants of this low-lying delta, who, throughout our history, were politically initiated into imagining national identity with the idiom of Islam, cleansed of Sufi Islamic practices and forced into the strait-jacket orthodox mould of Wahabi Islam, will come to bear a secular homeland?
For those who believe in humanity, the days of remaining half-baked Muslims are over.
One would have to engage in unearthing the history and impact of Islam in this landmass in order to gain the right tools to fight with the extremist forces, let it be the right or the left.