Dhaka, August 8 2016 (Alochonaa): Recent incidents, particularly the contemptible attacks at the Holey Artisan Bakery and Sholakia, have prompted Bangladeshis from all quarters to question their true identity. This is a logical response to the continuing efforts of a few mindless killers, who are themselves a product of this very society, to depict Bangladesh as a breeding ground for so-called ‘Islamic’ fundamentalism. Yet these incidents do not characterize the nature and values of most Bangladeshis but are products of the geopolitical crisis gripping the world.
Bangladesh has the world’s fourth largest Muslim population and is predominantly a Muslim-majority country. At least 89.5% of its population identify as Muslims whilst the remaining 10.5% are mostly Hindus, Christians or Buddhists. Although the Constitution of the Republic has promulgated Islam as the state religion, equal status and equal rights to all other religions have been explicitly conferred, with special provisions expressly endorsing secularism as one the fundamental and inalienable tenets of the state.
But, who are these ‘Bengali’ people? Are they characteristically communal and intolerant towards people of other faith? Is Bangladesh homogenous or filled with religious division and intolerance? Unfortunately, the constitutional position iterated above only partially addresses the qualified questions and can, at best, serve as the prologue to the answer. The answer is in the pages of history.
The land of Bengal has been the host to many foreign nationals who marked their visits with various activities ranging from trade to preaching religion. Arabs frequented this land since pre-Islamic age and the earliest Islamic preacher visited Bengal in the year 618. Chittagong’s port had been the principal point of access to the region for the Portuguese expedition of 9 May 1518 and, subsequently, companies from the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark competed to establish a commercial monopoly in the region. This multifaceted, multiracial exposure inadvertently fused ingredients of inclusion, multiculturalism and secularism in what has always been a nonsectarian society that predated some of the more dominant civilizations prevailing in the region at that time.
These characteristics formed the crux of the identity of Bengal’s populace and no one religion is capable of characterising a Bengali or Bangladeshi, something the West Pakistani gentry failed, or refused, to recognize after the Indian subcontinent was fractured in 1947 and Pakistan was born. The paradigm of their understanding of ‘Pakistani identity’ was restricted to its own perception of Pan-Islamism. This led them to believe that cultural and ethnic identities are at best auxiliary factors: Bengalis are Muslims first and Bengalis later, almost as if the cultural identity of a Bengali could be moderated and reshaped into a more Islamic identity.
Interestingly, however, the Bengali Muslim population hung on to both the identities. They have prayed five times a day with fullest spiritual devotion and practiced all the religious rituals fervently whilst concurrently embracing the traditional practices and cultural conventions without reservations. The region has maintained enviable balance between the religious and cultural hegemony of its nationhood. In general, Bengalis are characteristically religious but are in no way religiously intolerant.
After partition, the Bengalis in East Pakistan felt the brunt of unrelenting iniquity and disdain that the ruling elites of West Pakistan subjected them to. It dawned upon them how the fervour of religion to create the state of Pakistan was nothing but a façade. This realisation led to the Language Movement of 1952, which marked shift from the presupposed ‘Islamist’ identity of the Bengalis to a more secular ‘Bengali’ identity.
In the years before 1971, the population in East Pakistan became more secular and displayed religious tolerance. The spirit of the liberation struggle, and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh, can be considered to have its basis in secular and liberal ideas, antithetically opposed to the impassioned rightist ideology that was characteristic of the West Pakistani political system.
The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh enshrined ‘secularism’ as one of the fundamental pillars on which the country’s political direction is to be constructed and developed. Despite the fact that the provision was amended by the post-1975 military regimes with a clear intention to exploit the religious sentiments of the masses, and gain cheap political advantages, the 9th Parliament, in 2011, reinstated the previous constitutional construct with one minor but crucial amendment; it diluted secularism and venerated Islamic principles. This reflects the AL government’s aspiration to uphold both the spirit of the 1972 Constitution and the well-founded skepticism of removing elements of religiosity from the current Constitution due to the threat of repercussions from the vast Muslim population.
However, despite holding strong stance against terrorism and favouring secularism, Bangladesh has not purged itself of so-called ‘Islamic’ fundamentalism, which has been seemingly fractious and innocuous until the recent attacks. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that much of the religious discord in Bangladesh is due to political and personal rifts between political bigwigs, making it more artificial and transient than genuine and ever-lasting.
Given this background, where do we fit in the recent spate of events in Bangladesh where bloggers, academics and seemingly randomly selected religious leaders have been inhumanely slaughtered (with the signature use of machetes) by individuals who claimed to have allegiance to the so-called ISIS? Although the attacks were initially speculated to be directed towards those who criticized Islam, such conclusions seem inaccurate because even the mosques and the imams were not spared from their unjustifiable madness. In the past few days, the likes of Supreme Court Justices, prosecutors, politicians, prominent academics and clerics have been marked for death through anonymous letters.
Is the country mutating into a fundamentalist state with Bengalis transfiguring themselves into fanatics? The anatomy of the Bengali identity proves otherwise. If one were to take a survey, it would be manifestly clear that a large majority do not discriminate on the basis of personal faith and subordinate identities such as ethnicity. On the contrary, Bangladesh is one of very few Asian countries that officially celebrate the major religious festivals of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
For instance, a month ago, due to violence by the proponents of ISIS in Bangladesh, in a rural part of Sylhet, about forty volunteers from other faiths guarded the prayer congregation on Eid to allow Muslims to pray without fear of terrorist attacks. Similarly, in parts of northern Bangladesh, many Muslims volunteered to stand guard to allow their friends and neighbours to celebrate Durga Puja. In fact, in Bangladesh, Muslims celebrate Puja with their Hindu comrades as the Hindus celebrate Ramadan and Eid with their Muslim friends. Take the example of Jhorna Rani Bhowmik, who lost her life in the crossfire between police and terrorists at Sholakia. She died whilst preparing sweets for Eid. So it is not unjustified to say that the religious festivities and many rituals have become part of our lifestyle which reflects our true national identity.
It is not surprising that Bangladesh has been more tolerant than its divided and volatile neighbours like Myanmar, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, amongst others. The seeds of communalism were sown by the British from 1870 onwards when the Hindus and the Muslims were incited to form their own political parties to establish their distinct religious identities and advocate their respective religious ideologies. This ‘divide and rule’ policy led Lord George Curzon to decree the division of Bengal along religious and communal lines in 1905 and obliged the mass Bengali populace in 1940s to steer their sentiments towards supporting the Muslim League in its efforts to create Pakistan under the pretext of religious demography. Ergo, the communal divisions have been engineered to reduce political leadership bankruptcy. This certainly had its desired effect, but the region now controlled by Bangladesh was comparatively less affected by it.
Islam is invariably an integral identity of the Muslim population in Bangladesh and as such compulsion and unjustified killings are unconditionally abhorred by the majority of the populace. The spate of violence in the recent past definitely does not represent Bangladesh, its nationals or their beliefs. This is evident from the demonstration of solidarity that the students and the teachers of the universities in Dhaka showed against rising terrorism in Bangladesh on 1 August, 2016. It is clear that these attacks are not motivated by textual directions of the Qur’an or by its true interpretation, and the killers do not represent either Islam or Bangladesh. The region has been host to foreign settlers for at least a millennium and the killing of eighteen foreign nationals at Holey Artisan Bakery should not be indicative of any generalized aggression towards the ‘Crusader Countries’: it is merely an offshoot of a global crises that has crept into Bangladesh.
*Shahariar Sadat is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. He is currently working as the Academic Coordinator of South Asian Institute of Advanced Legal and Human Rights Studies (SAILS). Mr Sadat has a special interest in history and terrorism.
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