Against the Polite Islamophobia of the Bengali ‘Bhadralok’ The Bangladesh Unreader
The article explores perhaps the most powerful and distracting misreading of desh today, the Islamic vs Secular smokescreen. Its origins are traced through the ‘colon’ narrative which paints the majority of it’s inhabitants as an inferior other, to Aryanisation, an attitude supported by another rotten European theory – racial anthropology. Connecting with manifestations of colonial continuity in the Algerian, Muslim experience of France and the doubling up of Aryanisation on the Muslims of Bengal, the debilitating terrorism rents and settlements of the new jomidary are presented along with sacred, indigenous histories of resistance from which we might draw strength, hope and mobilisation.
Once upon a time in New York, Paris and Dhaka…
”(Islamophobia in) France is the worst in Europe and tries to mask it by proclaiming its secular values (sound familiar?), but these values don’t apply to Islam. In fact, French secularism means anything but Islam” Tariq Ali
In a New York meeting during September 2014, Abdul Latif Siddiqui, the then Bangladesh cabinet minister for Post and Communications (formerly for Jute and Textiles) made a statement denigrating the Hajj pilgrimage, crudely commodifying all of its pilgrims and racially slurring Arabs as the descendants of robbers. The minister was a senior member of the ruling Awami League, returned to government earlier in the year in perhaps South Asia’s most dubious general elections ever. There was widespread revulsion as to how a senior politician of a country of over 100 million Muslims could make such statements in public, and after protests he was eventually sacked.
Unlike many, I was not shocked by the contempt shown to the indigenous Muslim culture of Bangladesh by members of the elite who rule in their name. I came across many such instances in recent years whilst researching and discussing the suppression of urban industrial workers in 2012 and the massacre of protesters mainly from rural madrassas in May 2013.
In an academic forum, I witnessed the spectacle of seeing a Bangladeshi academic describing the massacre victims of May 2013 (over 60 unarmed protesters killed) as feral animals that needed to be culled, and another academic justifying the massacre on the basis that the protestors were causing unnecessary traffic congestion in Dhaka. Bangladesh is not exceptional in having to suffer such Macaulayan Misleadership, that is to say firmly in the thrall of white supremacy and its epistemicidal traditions. To the bemusement of many observers, outrageous colonial continuities are explicitly written into much of Francophone Africa’s independence documentation.
Recognition of the globality and gravity of this condition is the first step to unreading Bangladesh. The next step being, unwinding the roots and after effects of the racial supremacy woven into the fabric of Bengali nationalist selfhood, eventually creating new spaces for indigenous discourse to be heard.
We saw another manifestation of this contempt for the local and thrall for the colonial as a large section of elite in the social media in Bangladesh gave unequivocal support (#jesuischarlie) to the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, following the massacre there, whilst maintaining their silence on Bangladesh governments systematic destruction of press freedom. In their submission, they conveniently ignored the fact that the magazine disproportionately targeted the marginalised Muslim minority of France, viewing them as a ‘Clandestino’ fifth column. Commentators such as Richard Seymour and Professor Tariq Ramadan, rightly called out the publication as racist, while a former writer for the publication, Olivier Cyran, had previously pointed out that,
“Belief in one’s own superiority, accustomed to looking down on the common herd, is the surest way to sabotage one’s own intellectual defences and to allow them to fall over in the least gust of wind.”
In fact, to the observant eye, this contempt can be seen running through the corporate media of Bangladesh as well as the elite, in their political pronouncements, reporting and academic masquerades. Here, the urban and rural poor and their mainly Muslim culture, is infantalised, primitivised and decivilised into an essentialised mindless mob. To rephrase Fanon, talking down to the mainly Muslim poor in Bangladesh, as well as ‘Islamophobic’ insults make the Muslim, “the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible”. Thus the precursor to any oppression, exploitation and elimination is the process of differentiation and dehumanisation.
Take Tasneem Khalil’s recent op ed in the Dhaka Tribune, which blames Muslims worldwide for being somehow responsible for the January 7 attack in Paris. The newspaper cites attitudes of Egyptian Muslims in a poll, but omits that most of the respondents in the poll live in one of the most economically unequal and repressive countries in the world, as if to ask someone whose house is on fire, why he is so agitated? The article also misreads the opinion polls of respondents in Muslim countries, ignoring nuances, hence mimicking the method, attitudes and conclusion of Islamophobes in the West, such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris.
If we skip back a few years, we can recall when the editor of the same ‘liberal’ newspaper, Zafar Sohban (then as assistant editor in the Daily Star) wrote/incited in a polite tone, for the elimination of Bangladesh’s ‘Original Sin’ of Muslim identity based politics. Arguing for the restoration of ‘Mission 1971’ by the cleansing of poison from the bloodstream and righting history. In doing so he (un)intentionally resonates the mood music, intellectual cover and political anesthetic for the new ‘Guerra Sucia’ (Dirty War) afoot in Bangladesh. A Dirty War in which so many opposition political activists have been abducted, disappeared and murdered. Leaving in the wake orphans, widows and terrified communities throughout Bangladesh.
In the midst of the obligatory, hypocritical media cacophony, author Will Self made an insightful intervention on the justice of journalism, that it should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In the elite blogosphere and corporate press of Bangladesh, with its latent Islamophobia, such ‘crusading churnalism’ as in the case of the Dhaka Tribune, does the inverse, comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted, thus reinforcing the hierarchy and power left over by former colonial masters, and kept intact by their successors.
Beyond the Fog of (the Phony) War: Decoding the riddle of Bangladesh
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” Hamlet – William Shakespeare
Polite Islamophobia in Bangladesh is defended and justified by the myth of a ‘No Stopping the Cavalry – Long War’ of Bengali exceptionalism. This is an imaginary, intergenerational and Manichean struggle between the forces of a muscular ethnic and linguistic nationalism, wrapped in eurocentric values pitted against the global forces medieval Islamism. These goggles view the, ‘Cops of the World’ War on Terror as a boon for sapping the strength of this global Islamism, eventually leading to its elimination.
Grounding ourselves in current and historical data, we view this imaginary war as a smokescreen for a struggle between a privileged elite and an ever emboldening population, a distraction from the struggle for more visible participation in the state and society at large by a hitherto marginalised majority. The languages and symbolisms used in the struggle reflect the traditions inherited, internalised and embodied by its participants., the elite from their European colonial masters, the masses from their indigenous tradition, Islam, and everywhere in between. Globalisation, coupled with the War on Terror, has (re)turned the balance towards the masses, leading to the somewhat painful (re)emergence of Muslim nationalistic discourse and identity of the state, in Bangladesh.
Seeing past the smokescreen requires that we excavate behind the fairytale. We have to go beyond that the sitting regime came to power on the coat tails of a ‘development partner’ imposed military coup, and has manifested the fascistic one party state ideology that only it can yield. We must travel and dwell in the roots of the present ex-colonial state, if not further, with a wide angled lens and a longer duration, to comprehend the reality and after effects of the colonial encounter.
Colonosibilite’ and the new ‘colons’
Sixty years ago in French occupied North Africa, familiar tensions existed between a foreign imposed ‘colon’ government and the mainly Muslim populace. Here, racist and Islamophobic prejudice combined with economic domination created an entrenched two-tier society, sitting on a tinderbox.
It was into this milieu that the Algerian Muslim writer and intellectual Malik Bennabi published his ‘Vacation de Islam’ (Vocation of Islam) in 1954, to synchronise with the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence against the French. During this 8 year long war, 400 000 to 1 500 000 people are thought to have died, out of a population of 10 million, it was one of the defining anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.
In the Vocation, Malik Bennabi presents the concept of colonsibilite’, the process through which elites in Algeria and other Muslim countries had declined culturally and intellectually to a stage where colonialism was inevitable. Bennabi distinguishes between a country simply conquered and occupied, and a colonised country. The latter having lost its own cultural bearings, internalising what we might call a ‘House Muslim’ mentality upon the perceived superiority of the colonial masters.
Unlike French colonialism in North Africa which was more direct, British imperial rule in Bengal was more indirect, tending to rule in partnership with local intermediaries, who in turn helped them exploit the local populace and ecology. In a familiar image and model to that painted by Bennabi and Fanon, but upon a different precolonial civilisational milieu, we have in the alienated culture of Bangladesh’s mental elite. Its ‘cultural’ heyday, of British Raj Calcutta, are situated upon the devastation of 1770 Bengal Famine, the land grab of the 1793 Permanent Settlement, and the production of a select and moneyed class, pliant and beholden to the British.
Flogging the dead horses of the Aryanisation Apocalypse: The Common Roots of Islamophobia Liberte’, Egalite, Ambiguite
During the 19th Century, the multiculture of Bengal was subjected to Double Aryanisation from the blackboards of British administrators and their local rentier-landlord development partners. This mirrored the Aryanisation of Classical Civilisation in Europe at the time, and the expulsion of references to African and Asiatic influences on the Ancient Greeks, as demonstrated by Martin Bernal in his Black Athena series. Bernal shows that during the 19th century there was whitewashing of the origins of Western Civilization, a process which he termed Aryanisation.
Aryanisation is a product of an imagined Aryan identity formulated by the 18th century French Orientalist, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron. In the 19th century the concept was developed further by the French Arthur de Gobineu into a hierarchy of races. In this hierarchy of scientific racism, ‘superior’ races like the Aryans are juxtaposed against inferior races, such as Semites (Arabs and Jews) and ‘Negroes’. It judges that inferior races have an incapacity to grasp metaphysics, philosophy or the arts.
Aryanisation was forged in a bigoted Europe, where in the zeitgeist of Imperialism, nations and national cultures were given shape and supportive national myths. These artificial constructs provided soothing balms to conscience of the coloniser and his local side kick, justifying on a rational basis, through a racial anthropology, the economic and political exploitation of indigenous masses in an increasingly globalised capitalist system.
In colonial Bengal, Double Aryanisation was achieved through ideological linguistics and an elite schooling system that remains in service today, these are now busy reproducing inequalities despite two attempts at national self determination. The eviction of references to Muslim (Persian and Arabic) influence on ‘pure’, ‘chaste’ Bengali language has been demonstrated by Anandita Ghosh’s recent work on the artificial construction of the Bengali language in the 19th century, functionally it delegitimises indigenous expressions and discomforts the subaltern. As elsewhere in South Asia, this schooling of elites would create, what Professor Akbar Ahmed dubs, MacCaulay’s Chickens, a class of natives, Indian in appearance but Anglicised in term of education, taste and cultural norms. But in Bangladesh, ‘the Animals at the farm, in the form of chickens have been forcefully inbred by their farmers, to form a hybrid breed, twice removed from the original colonial encounter, and twice alienated from their natural environment.
Zooming out to other human experiences, the after effects of similar (but one-stage), ‘Road to Nowhere’ Aryanising projects unfolded in Iran through the writings of Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, put into practice by the Pahlavi dynasty. In Turkey initialising through the works of Ziya Gokalp, it reaching its zenith with the reforms of Mustafa Kamal.
The alienating and socially debilitating effects of the of this Aryanisation in Bengal during the British Raj was noted in the 20th century, by the historian Arnold J Toynbee in his A Study of History. He wrote of the anguish of British administrators, writing about the phenomena of Calcutta, creating an intellectually bankrupt class of rentier political activists and ideologues.
This sentiment was echoed nearly a hundred years on in independent Bangladesh, by the novelist Zia Rahman Haider. There in front of the ‘Bricks in the Wall’, on the hallowed grounds of ‘Oxford of the East’ Dhaka University, he declared, ‘Bangladesh as a land of dead ideas, where new concepts are throttled at birth and never get passed on because of social, political and class barriers.’
A good example of this double battery hen’s Aryanised epistemology at work in Bangladesh, is in the production of a mainly ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ academic attitude in Bangladesh. One facet of this psychological suffocating (‘Breathe’) malaise afflicting large sections of the intelligentsia can be seen in the Islamophobic discrimination against madrasah students in higher education. For example Dhaka and Jahangirnagar University’s have barred the admission of government run (Aliya) madrasa graduates into Arts and Science departments. This imposed barrier to learning and flourishing has nothing to do with merit, Aliya graduates have occupied the top 20 positions in the admission test in Jahangirnagar University. The matter was taken up in the High Court and Supreme Court which lifted the bar but many universities are unwilling to admit madrasa graduates in many departments regardless. That the ‘Brain Damage’ university leaderships saw fit to segregate ‘Us and Them’ the different learning traditions of the society speaks volumes as to their intellectual insecurity, if not their fundamental institutional failure.
Frances Harrison in a presentation in London shed some light on this attitude. She explained that some university teachers in Bangladesh complained to her about their fear of being ‘Eclipsed’ by madrasah students in the class room. They explained that madrasah students knew more about religion than the actual teachers, and often corrected them, thus undermining their authority in front of other students.
War on Terror Times: The new Zamindery and its Terrorism Rent
If patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel in the 18th century, it has been replaced by the War on Terror in this one. The refuge, allows the continued oiling of ‘The Welcome to the Machine’ post independence status quo, allowing a ‘colon elite’, to carry on their brutal and wasteful and dangerous reign over a population which does not share their values.
Recognition and analysis of this enterprise is broadening, with the idea of ‘Terrorism Rent’ describing how regimes frame their domestic political opposition as a security issue with the prism of the ‘War on Terror’. In this Faustian pact, international interests/donors turn a blind eye to internal suppression, while providing foreign aid, valued by many. to prop up corrupt regimes and their dependants. In return the host countries, allow Western interests to gain strategic influence and footholds, under the guise of military assistance and countering Chinese encroachment in the Third World. In this sense, the ‘War on Terror’ functions as an ideological narrative that underpins the capacity of Western and American states to sustain control over an increasingly fragile and changing international system. For example in Afghanistan we have a Norwegian government report revealing how covert indirect US support to both to the Taliban in Afghanistan and overt support to the Afghan authorities, is used to ‘calibrate the level of violence’, thus sustaining support for US military intervention and presence in the region.
In sub saharan Africa we see a return of the French. In Bangladesh, there has been an increase in military assistance by the UK, focusing on counter insurgency under the comical doublespeak of ‘Democracy Stabilisation’. A British ‘Democracy Stabilization’ experience gained in the decade long occupation of the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, where in 13 years British troops were responsible for the deaths of over 500 Afghan civilians and the injuries of thousands and yet did not capture or kill a single Al Qaida operative.
The unintended consequences of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’, and the accompanying intensification of Islamophobia that comes with it, is the counter intuitive awakening of an assertive Muslim identity and consciousness and what one would term the rise of Muslim nationalism. As in the face of such hostility and prejudice, even the most secular Muslim, as happened in Northern Ireland amongst Irish Catholics, is forced to defend Islam and the rights of a Muslim identity.
In Bangladesh, this is seen in the enduring support the massacred rural Madrassah students and their affiliates still receive in all sections of society, including ever growing numbers of the governing and commercial elite. Farhad Mazhar in London termed the massacre as a victory for the rural madrassah students, in terms of putting a halt to the de-Islamification and Aryanisation policies of the current Awami League government and being a catalyst for a re emerging of a mainstream Muslim political discourse and identity in Bangladesh. Six decades ago Fanon identified the same phenomenon amongst the native Algerians, vis a vis their French colon rulers. In Fanon’s essay, Algeria Unveiled, the French attempt to unveil the Algerian women did not simply turn the veil into symbol of resistance, it become a technique to camouflage, a means of struggle. Thus every veiled women became a suspect and also at the same time a sign of resistance.
To conclude, the reassertion of Muslim political discourse in Bangladesh, is not as what many colon elite academics home and abroad would market as the thin end of an edge of a rising global Islamic militancy. As elsewhere, it is profoundly connected to long term local experiences and demands on post colonial state institutions, to dignify and include the identity of those who they claim to represent. This concern is expressed in an indigenous tradition and language of the people, which in the case of Bangladesh, is Islam.
Emperors and Dervishes – The Mantle of the Prophet and a Tradition of Resisting Empire
If a wound touches you, a like wound already has touched the opposing ones; such days We deal out in turn among men, and that God may know who are the people of faith, and that He may take witnesses from among you; and God loves not the evildoers. (3:140)
Quran -verses referring to the Battle of Uhd
Countering external and internal Aryanising aggression, is the tradition of resisting Empire in Bangladesh, a Quranic semantic field of meaning consciously and subliminally deep rooted in the collective psyche. I was fortunate to be acquainted with an example of this living tradition, when I met the Principal of a Qawmi Madrasah in Sylhet who was a scholar of prophetic traditions. A contemporary of Allama Shafi, the leader of Hefazot e Islam, the shaykh had the triple distinction of being imprisoned and tortured by the British, arrested and imprisoned under the Pakistani generals of United Pakistan, and being physically assaulted and imprisoned in his last years by the first Awami League government of 1996 -2000. Everytime he was imprisoned he had with him the khirqa, shawl given to him by his teacher, who was imprisoned and tortured by the British, who in turn received the shawl from his teacher who was also imprisoned and tortured by the British, who in turn received a shawl from his teachers of the Madrasah Rahimiyyah in Delhi, and who were at the forefront at the 1857 War of Liberation against the British invaders. A tradition of the khirqa and seeking justice going back through the ages to the earliest Muslim community, to Imam Hussain in Karbala, Abdullah ibn Zubair in Makkah and the Prophet Muhammad’s struggle against the Quraysh.
‘The greatest Jihad is to speak the truth in the face of an unjust tyrant.’ The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
We see the same non violent resistance in Turkey against the state in the life and struggles of the Naqshbandi Sufi and Kurd, Said Nursi. Who for his criticism of Mustafa Kemal, was imprisoned, starved and poisoned by the Turkish state. Yet the Turkey of today, with the reintroduction of the Ottoman Arabic script in the High Schools, is not the Turkey of Mustafa Kemal and the Kemalist generals but the Turkey of Said Nursi. The current political establishment of the late Menderes and Ozal,and the presently feuding Gulen and Erdogan were influenced by Said Nursi’s movement and teachings.
Straight after the Dhaka centred massacre of the 5/6th of May 2013, fully armed members of the Bangladeshi security forces attempted to storm the Hathazari Madrassah near Chittagong, but were beaten back by local residents and students of the madrassah. Soon afterwards, I interviewed a graduate of Hathazari to gather more information. I asked him his thoughts post massacre, especially with Allama Shafi, the movement leader in police custody. He gave me a somewhat cryptic reply by narrating the story of the Indian Saint, Imam Rabbani – Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi.
The Naqshbandi Sirhindi was galvanised into a course diametrically opposed to the Mughal state when his father in law was executed by the then Emperor Akbar, for sacrificing a cow at Eid ul Adha. Sirhindi was eventually imprisoned by Akbar’s son Jahangir, arrested on the grounds of failing to bow to the Emperor. After the arrest, rebellion broke out in the Empire in protest. The rebels eventually captured the Emperor and asked Sirhindi for advice. Contrary to expectations he ordered the rebels to release Jahangir.
Impressed with the Sufi Sheikh, the alcoholic Jahangir kept him imprisoned but not before elevating him to the role of advisor, eventually releasing him. The Emperor outlived this Dervish, as Sirhindi died a few years after his release, however, his own grandson Aurangzeb would be initiated into the Naqshbandi tariqah by Sirhindi’s son. Aurungzeb would go onto commission the codification of Islamic Law, the Fatwa Alamghiri and patronise the institution that co produced it, the Madrasah Rahmiyyah.
‘Gimme Shelter’ for ‘A Change is Gonna Come’
Aside from the enduring indigenous traditions and the impact on the War on Terror. Geo-economic shifts place Bangladesh into an interesting situation . With the centre of global economic and cultural activity returning from the mid Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, we are reminded of half a millenium ago, when Mughal India and Imperial China accounted for nearly two thirds of world manufacturing.
Such a change in resource and human flows opens up possibilities and multiple trajectories, of ‘Learning to Fly’ and take off, from one party rule in China, the managed democracy of Singapore and the petro-autocracies of the Gulf, to the more accommodating polities of West Asia and the populist democracies and liberation theologies of Latin America. Greater exposure to possible political futures is yeast for the imagination, of how we might be more reflective and inclusive of our traditions, values and historical experiences.
Surveying the present political field of Bangladesh, the ‘East Wind’ that is currently blowing through Bangladesh, does not originate from the current autocratic Awami League (AL) government, but goes back further, and is more systemic. from the silent, clenched buttocks of a ‘Bhadralok’ class. An unwieldy coalition of military and civilian bureaucrats, civil society leaders and businessmen, who are now currently keeping the AL in power. Who by their desperation of holding on to colonial privileges, are creating a vacuum, by dismantling the very state that has been set up to protect them.
Faced with shifting global power geometries and historical patterns, the Double Aryanised elites of Bangladesh might perceive two stark choices before them. Either they equitably share power and resources with the indigenous mainly Muslim population, reflect their values in state institutions and respect their dignity, as what happened in Turkey, or they be dragged kicking and screaming to the firing squads as in Iran, during the revolution of 1979.
One option they do not have is the ‘Comfortably Numb’ King Canute fantasy of hoping to drive back the winds of change and sands of history that are enveloping them and their exclusive ethnic Bengali exceptionalism.
This article was written anonymously named “brethrenofblacklotus”