I met an interesting person the other day. He was in his late 40s, and clad in a religious get-up – an Islamic cap, long beard, and a sign on his forehead which hints that he is very regular in tending to his five-time prayers. I use the term “interesting” in referring to him, as I found contradictions. He was showing every sign that he follows his religion strictly, but when it came to religious teachings about his professional life, he was not very concerned.
The minimum bribe he charges a client is Tk10,000. You have to wait months for a document from him, but if you give him Tk10,000, the work will be done in a week or two. He kept saying “amar jonno dowa korben” (please pray for me). I asked him the other day: “But do you think my prayers will do you any good, as you make your living on bribes?”
Hearing this question, he stared at me. “How can you say this?” he asked. I was frightened at first, as I needed to get my work done, and replied, “I was just being funny.” “Listen, the money goes to my boss’s pocket as well, I have no alternative.”
He tried to convince me that he was not doing a bad thing, and that it would not hamper his journey to heaven. I thought a lot about his explanations, and was frightened. If all pious people thought this way, it would be a disaster.
This is not an isolated case. You will meet this kind of people everywhere in this country. Here, a religious life and bribe-taking go side by side. So many people hide under religion and do things that are forbidden by it. You will see no space available in mosques during religious events, but when it comes to helping others, giving food to homeless people, or simply giving up bad deeds, you won’t see that level of competition.
Last Ramadan, I met another interesting person at a different office. He was taking a bribe from a client and saying: “Speak less. I am fasting. Don’t cause trouble to my fasting.” The person who was giving the bribe suddenly spoke up: “Do you think your fasting will be accepted when you live on bribes?” Why don’t we follow religious teachings of not doing bad things, like not to do injustice to people, not to cheat people? But when it comes to the rituals, we are all in competition with each other. Isn’t it all to show off?
I remember one of my friends during my university days. He had the beard, the cap, and a mark on his forehead. This friend also happened to be the son of a top government official. The problem with this religious youth was his pride. He used to consider it a bad thing to speak politely with people who, according to him, were of a lower grade, like rickshaw-pullers, waiters, and class IV employees of the university.
That friend of mine often complained to me: “Why do you maintain a good relationship with these people?” Every time I heard that question, I thought to myself: He is religious in appearance, but not on the inside.
We have many such people in this country, who are good at performing the rituals, but are not good at upholding the spirit of religion. When I see people saying their prayers, blocking Dhaka’s roads, I think to myself, if we have so many religious people here, why are we at the bottom of the Corruption Perceptions Index?
Why are so many children out on the streets? I don’t find any explanation. Doesn’t Islam teach us to help the poor, to give up wickedness? It might seem like a generalisation, but I have found that a good number of people with a typical religious appearance are not actually good people. These are the people who deceive others the most, sell adulterated foods, or are just impossible to deal with.
I’ve heard that some restaurant owners and food hawkers grow beards so that people trust them, seeing how the people of this country have the notion that religious people will not do anything to harm them. But some people with a stereotypical religious appearance are destroying that trust.
In my opinion, the first thing for any religious person to do is to follow the teachings of their religion. They should ensure that they don’t harm others, and don’t do injustice to others. If we cannot be good human beings, being good at religious rituals will do us no good.