Battle for the syncretic soul of Bangladesh

Tucked away in the reports of this week's news break about more Bangladeshi workers in Singapore getting into a tangle over suspected links to terror groups was a nugget of information that fascinated me. Workers gathering at the weekend to discuss poetry.

Poetry! Who'd have thought that, caught up with existential issues such as work and rest and remitting money home to feed families, the average Bangladeshi labourer would have time for the refined, other-worldly instincts of life such as literature? But there you are. That is the Bangladeshi, or more accurately, Bengali for you.

Among the more than a dozen languages of the Indian sub-continent, the sweetest is Urdu, the language spoken by northern Indian Muslims and the official language of Pakistan. Ranking right alongside would surely be Bengali. That's the language of Bangladesh and its former parent, India's West Bengal state, from which it was cleaved off, first as Muslim majority East Pakistan in 1947, then reborn amid massive blood-letting as an independent nation in 1971.

Unlike Punjab, where the religious division was near total with the Partition, large numbers of Hindus stayed back in East Pakistan as did Muslims in India's West Bengal. Rabindra Sangeet - songs created by the late Indian Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and set to Bengali folk rhythms and Hindustani classical music - are enjoyed equally on both sides of the border. Last month, to my utter regret, I missed attending the Bangladesh High Commissioner's invitation to a Rabindra Sangeet exposition by Ms Rezwana Choudhury, whom Dhaka recognised with its highest state award, the "Swadhinata Padak" (Independence Award), this year.

Bangladeshi and Bengali Muslims, it is commonly said, are Bengalis first and Muslims next.

But every Eden has its serpents. And these days, even people from the most tolerant parts of the Indian sub-continent aren't spared their poison, whether in Bangladesh or West Bengal or in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which got Islam almost from the time of its birth in the Middle East. No faith is unaffected.


For Muslims, the stress comes in many ways: relayed through the Internet, by oral histories of slights perceived and real to their co-religionists, by preachers who put up mosques with money remitted from shadowy centres of intolerance and perversion of a faith whose name translates as Peace and Purity.

These are often compounded by political factors. In Bangladesh's case, the bitter divide between the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), both led by strong women, is the key factor that makes the nation susceptible.

The Sheikh Hasina government has vigorously pursued collaborators in the 1971 Liberation War, which saw much rape and murder as the Pakistan army attempted to suppress the uprising. A handful of key people involved were prosecuted as war criminals and hanged for murder. The majority of the 53 indicted for war crimes are from the Jamaat-i-Islami group, a longtime ally of the BNP led by Ms Khaleda Zia.

Appeals on 13 death sentences are pending. Meanwhile, their feud has led to more than 400 deaths from frequent clashes between supporters of the two groups. Last December, Ms Khaleda even claimed that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's assassinated father, independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, "did not want an independent Bangladesh".

The ripples from this toxic environment have been felt around the Bangladeshi diaspora, from London to Australia and in countries with large numbers of Bangladeshi workers, such as the Gulf states, Malaysia and Singapore. Some months ago in Singapore, when a visiting Bangladeshi preacher tried to raise money for a mosque in his homeland by haranguing the Awami League government, a Bangladeshi diplomat in the gathering had to threaten to leave in order to get the man to stop.

Little surprise then that some of the eight held here this week - all men who had spent between three and 10 years here - had dreams of either fighting in Iraq or Syria, or toppling the government in Dhaka in order to set up an alternative that would be loyal to the Caliphate of Islamic State. The global and the local cause had merged in their minds to fuse as a single fire.

Of course, all this is bad news for Bangladesh, a nation with a steadily expanding economy and one which has had more success pursuing the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals than most of its neighbours, including India. Its businessmen are worried. Foreign investors who'd considered going deeper into the country are wondering if they need to second-guess their plans. And that is a pity.

It is interesting to note how much the perceptions about Bangladesh - so lauded in the US State Department's Terrorism Report for 2014 - changed in just a year. In a September 2014 audio message, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri included Bangladesh as one of the countries in which the newly established Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) would seek to operate. Even as Dhaka continued to crack down on radicals, 2015 saw a series of murders, including of bloggers known for their secular views. At least 23 civilians and two security force personnel were killed in acts of terror by groups like Ansarullah Bangla Team, AQIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, through 2015. These included a Japanese agricultural expert and an Italian social worker who were murdered within the diplomatic area, killings claimed by ISIS.

This led the US State Department to issue a travel alert on Bangladesh. However, Bangladeshi officials at the time ruled out the influence of ISIS (also known as Islamic State or IS) in the country. On Dec 13, Ms Hasina asserted that "there's no IS in Bangladesh. So far, probes into the incidents have revealed that their (killers') motives were primarily domestic. Our law enforcement agencies have demonstrated their considerable success in arresting some of the killers of bloggers and foreign nationals".


Although Ms Hasina's government has arrested some 2,000 radicals and terror suspects since the start of last year, Bangladesh's problems with radical elements look unlikely to settle down in a hurry.

This is because the people who plan the outrages know that for their dreadful ideology to succeed, the innate instincts toward a syncretic culture, so common in the sub-continent, have to be curbed. Divisions have to be created, not just between Muslims and other faiths, such as Hindus and Christians, but in the more tolerant and open streams within the Islamic faith itself. Shi'ites are sought to be separated from the majority Sunnis. The more mystical bent of Islam such as Sufism, which has spawned some of the greatest cultural offerings, has to be curbed. Likewise, gays and lesbians too are targets.

And, since human nature is broadly tolerant, these divisions have to be reinforced with messages of fear. Hence, the cowardly acts of terror, some with immense brutality, as seen on April 25 when gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan and a friend were hacked to death with machetes.

Ms Hasina is not wrong when she talks about much of the menace being a localised phenomenon, unrelated to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. But to say outside influences do not matter is not entirely accurate either. While her efforts to curb the terror menace have been commendable, she has to tread warily. Hence her recent warnings to people to avoid voicing "objectionable opinions".

Besides, the Jamaat, which her government seeks to ban, is a true cadre-based organisation. At a time when communal sensitivities are sharpening, a ban on the outfit - along with well-meant moves to return Bangladesh to a secular state (Islam was declared the official religion by the military-run government of 1988) - can easily be projected by forces opposed to her as an attempt to curb access to Islam itself. This could stir the ground where it is common practice in many families to send one son to a "Qaumi madrasah", a religious school that teaches a more fundamentalist curriculum than regular schools and madrasahs.

All Asia - indeed, the world - has a stake in Bangladesh succeeding in curbing terror and militancy. But for that the two ladies will need to sit down and bury their machetes. And that does not seem likely to happen any time soon.

This article was first published on May 6, 2016.
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