The fallout of Islamisation of state

by Saifur Rahman Tapan

spc10If the brutal murder of Avijit Roy allegedly by a group of Islamist extremists was indicative of the growing intolerance of free thinking in our society, the onlookers’ role reportedly played by the people and policemen present there during the murder, coupled with the lukewarm public reaction to it after the murder, was definitely reflective of something more alarming. Avijit, a Bangladeshi-American science, non-fiction writer, preferred to define himself as an atheist. He came to Dhaka to see his bed-ridden mother. On the fateful evening, he, along his wife, was returning home from the Ekushey book fair, a popular month-long event held during the period on the Bangla Academy premises.
The killing spot was a few yards away from the tea stalls located at the entrance of Suhrawardy Udyan near the Teacher-Student Centre of Dhaka University, usually abuzz with people gossiping till midnight. With the closure of the book fair for the day, visitors were returning home through the adjacent road in groups, while a number of policemen, as indicated above, deployed there to control law and order were sitting near the area. Regrettably, however, according to media reports, nobody responded to the repeated calls for help from the victim and his wife, also a science writer who was grievously injured in the attack. Only a photojournalist, who happened to go there to render his professional duty, joined the latter in her efforts to shift her husband to the not-so-far-away Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
A few protest rallies and processions on part of the victim’s comrades, as they love to say, in the fight against religious bigotry and militancy, joined in by a handful of progressive teachers, writers and leaders and activists of the left-leaning student organisations took place against the murder on the campus the following day. But all of them appeared be doing nothing more than some routine protests in the first place. Also, they lagged far behind the protests, in terms of number of participants and fervour in particular, which erupted after a similar attack on the maverick writer Humayun Azad on February 27, 2004. Not only that, unlike the latter case, the Avijit murder saw major political parties, including the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, so far either refraining from officially condemning the gruesome murder or protest against it using feeble words.
The prime minister phoned Professor Ajoy Roy, the victim’s father, just two days after the killing to mourn the death and give him assurance that she would do everything within her capacity to ensure justice in the case. But even though the occasion provided an opportunity for her office to answer people’s questions about the government’s seriousness in dealing with the case, they surprisingly opted not to say anything regarding the conversation to the press. It was surprising because her press wing hardly failed so far to publicise even in case she delivered a charity-cheque to any poor person for understandable reasons. Meanwhile, even a number of members of her cabinet, including the finance minister, who hardly missed any opportunity to talk to the media till date, silently met Professor Roy.
Avijit Roy had a political affinity with the Awami League while his father has for long been familiar for his role as a pro-Awami League intellectual. That apart, Dr Wazed Mian, the late husband of the prime minister, was a student of Professor Roy at the physics department in Dhaka University in 1960s and, thanks to this, Professor Roy is well known to the prime minister. The ministers and Professor Roy have for long been connected to each others as well.  Perhaps, all this in some ways explains why the prime minister’s phone call and the ministers’ visit to the victim’s house were made. But, still, the question about the efforts not to make them public remains. It is important to recall here that the prime minister, when she was leader of the opposition in the parliament, vociferously condemned the attack on Humayun Azad. She even made efforts to see him at Combined Military Hospital at the Dhaka Cantonment although the authorities concerned barred her from entering the area on security reasons. Also, then prime minister Khaleda Zia visited the injured self-professed atheist at the hospital. Besides, her government managed the best treatment for Azad at home and abroad although she spent a few words on the Avijit murder.
In fact, gone are the days when one giving critical analysis about religion was not at least hacked to death by the detractors. There were many thinkers such as Lalon Fakir and Rokeya, the pioneer feminist writer of the land, in Bengal in the past who questioned the familiar version of Islam in various ways. True, they had to face on several occasions scathing criticism and even humiliation from bigots for all this. But none had been able to silence the voices for good. Even under the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan, an era when Bangladesh was the eastern wing of the republic, Aroj Ali Matubbar, a farmer and self-taught philosopher, managed to survive even after making several attempts to rock the foundation of religion.
One should also take note of the fact that during the era all those intellectual stalwarts lived, education was elusive for most people. But we are living in a period when the nation has made a significant progress in providing education for all on the one hand and religious extremism, Islamist extremism for that matter, increasingly gains strength on the other. It is an era when even innocent academic discussions on Islam are at risk of being declared blasphemous and, worryingly still, there are laws that stipulate punishment of up to life imprisonment for such offence.
The freedom of worship in one’s own way is not safe either. There were a host of media reports in the past few years in different parts of the country of attacks on bauls, a very innocent group of people who perform worship by singing mystic songs, mostly because their life style and way of worship differ with that of the majority of the population. The less said about the persecution of the Ahmadiyyas in the period just because they prefer to call them Muslims, the better. One can also refer in this connection to the case in which a huge number of people sought to justify the macabre killing of Rajib Haider, an activist of the youth uprising in February 2013 at Shahbagh of the city, during the movement just by arguing that he was an atheist and allegedly defamed the prophet Muhammed. Not only that, even the prime minister had to face criticism from both inside and outside her party, claiming to champion secularism though, after she had visited Rajib’s family, also loyal to her party, just to condole the death. There are reasons to believe that the prime minister may have learnt a lesson from all this that any tangible sympathy for an atheist like Avijit might affect her traditional vote bank that is composed of, among others, those supportive of the bigotry.
It goes without saying that the situation did not come to such a pass overnight. Moreover, successive governments, military or quasi-military, elected or unelected, that have ruled the country ever since independence contributed to it. First of all, there was a consensus at least among the political parties or forces involved in the independence war in 1971 that Bangladesh would be a secular country at least in the sense that it would have no bias towards any religion or religious communities. But, regrettably, the first government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, apparently in violation of the consensus that came into being as a result of enormous sacrifice of millions of people across the faith and was rightly reflected in the country’s original constitution adopted in 1972, joined the second summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation held in Pakistan in 1974, a step that more or less indulged the majority Muslims in becoming conscious of their religious identity separating themselves from other communities, especially the Hindus. Notably, in the same year, further denting the communal harmony, the vested property act was promulgated essentially by changing the name of the heinous enemy property act enacted by the then Pakistani military junta in 1965 mainly to give legal coverage to the growing encroachment on the landed property owned by the Hindus in particular resulting in a huge migration of the Hindus to the neighbouring India.
The controversial 5th amendment to the constitution, which has already been declared unconstitutional by the apex court though, including the introduction of Bismillah, Muslims seeking the Almighty’s help usually starts any work uttering the words, to the constitution on the pretext that the constitution must reflect the culture of the majority Muslim population, coupled with the scrapping of Article 12 that banned political parties based on religion, by General Ziaur Rahman in 1979 worsened the situation. Besides, as the final nail in the coffin of secular principles of the constitution, military dictator Ershad declared Islam as the state religion through the 8th amendment in 1988 on the same plea, which also deepened the feeling of religious minorities that they were second-class citizens. Ironically still, the Awami League, which vociferously criticised on several occasions the BNP founded by Zia and the Jatiya Party of Ershad for communalising the constitution, kept both the provisions involving Bismillah and the state religion intact during the 15th amendment that was brought about in 2011 raising enormous controversies on different counts. It would not be wrong to say that the 15th amendment, despite the incumbents’ oft-repeated claim that it was intended to reclaim the original 1972 constitution, just maintained the course of the Islamisation of the state, contrary to the spirit of the liberation war.
There may be arguments, especially based on the facts mentioned above about Aroj Ali, that Islamisation of the state cannot be solely responsible for the prevalence of social condition hostile to free thinking. But it needs to be borne in mind that when the Aroj Alis were active, there was a simultaneous Bengali nationalism-based movement, political and cultural, which was essentially secular, gaining gradually momentum against the Pakistani Islamic republic, something similar to this even cannot be imagined at least for the time being.
Worse still, the political forces involved with that movement are now either somehow complicit in the rise of radical Islam posing serious threat to the syncretistic culture and social fabric prevalent over thousands of years here or on the wane for reasons, internal and external. To be precise, widespread poverty mainly attributable to the flawed socio-economic policies pursued by the state so far provided a fertile breeding ground for radical Islam in the country. To add to this, particularly qoumi madrassahs, mostly funded by petrodollars from the West Asian countries, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which generally offer education based on anything but modern scientific outlook towards life mushroomed all over the country. Also, the vicious policies pursued by the United States in particular and the western nations in general to give patronage to radical Islamists in different countries, particularly where leftism had a strong appeal among the youth and labour force, during the last two decades of the last century in particular contributed a lot to this.
The Avijit murder can be a wake-up call for the forces willing to turn the tide. For this to happen, however, the regrouping of people based on the real spirit of the liberation war and determining properly friends and foes of the struggle are essential in the first place.
Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.

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