“Tainted Islam’s diabolical expression in Bangladesh: a case study”


News from Bangladesh 

Feature / August 14, 2000 / Essay: 

"Tainted Islam's diabolical expression in Bangladesh: a case study"

by Jamal Hasan

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage need not be lived again." - Maya Angelou

This goes back to the time when seventy-five million people of the erstwhile province of East Pakistan were engaged in a life and death struggle against an army bent on genocide to preserve the power and privileges of ruling elite hailing from the opposite end of the subcontinent. Mr. Enayet Karim, a career diplomat in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, had just defected from the service in protest against the genocidal military campaign in East Pakistan. Mr. Karim unveiled his future plans to a group of students and newsmen in the campus of an east coast university in America. A Bengali activist in America has written an eyewitness account of that tumultuous meeting. A West Pakistani member of the audience demanded angrily of Mr. Karim, "Is Islam dead? Can it no longer keep Pakistan united?" Enayet Karim replied with his legendary eloquence, "The Islam that was born in 1947 is dead. But the Islam that was born 14 centuries ago is very much alive and will continue to live and thrive a lot better in an independent, secular and democratic Bangladesh than in a Pakistan groaning under the heels of military dictatorship."

Sad to say, Mr. Enayet Karim's optimism has failed the test of time. Today's Bangladesh would have sorely disappointed the veteran diplomat if he were still alive. The Pakistani brand of Islam has not only gained a foothold in Bangladesh, but has even experienced a mushroom growth during the last quarter of a century. Thanks to two military dictators and a chain of events that took place in this impoverished land since mid August 1975. More on that later.

It is a matter of great regret that the traditional Sufi Islam of our land is being supplanted with a harsh and intolerant brand of Islam that overran Pakistan a long time ago. Bangladesh had traditionally been home to an eclectic and gentle brand of Islam. However, the trauma of 1971 caused a profound change among the orthodox Islamists. Pakistan had been the fruit of their aspirations. Not even the genocide of 1971 could shake their faith in Pakistan. They remained convinced that a united Pakistan was necessary to make the subcontinent safe for Islam. Even in the darkest hours of 1971, they continued to believe that turning their back on Pakistan was tantamount to betraying Islam - a Gunah of some sort.

Bengali Muslims have historically been loyal to pan-Islamic causes. Their contribution to major movements as Khilafat Andolon was by no means insignificant. The response was more emotional than rational. For example, it mattered little to the Bengalis that the Arabs were a subject people within the Ottoman Turkish Empire. All that mattered was the fact that the rulers of the Empire were co-religionists. The Kashmir movement is another glaring example of this mindset. It would have mattered little to the Bengalis under Pakistani Raj if the majority of the Kashmiris had not been Muslims. We cannot ignore this emotional aspect in any discussion of the Pakistani brand of Islam. Islamic brotherhood has always meant a great deal to Bengali Muslims. They have traditionally been very generous in extending support to any crusade fought under the banner of Islam. The Bengali Muslims could thus be duped very easily into supporting a cause if its upholders could claim rightly or even wrongly that it was an Islamic one. They were even prepared to forgive a "Muslim" rapist or a murderer because "all Muslims are brothers," an erroneous concept, which is a byproduct of the myth Islamic Ummah. During the 1971 pogrom in Bangladesh, such people were willing to turn a blind eye to Pak army's record of rape and torture because the crimes were deemed to have been committed to make the subcontinent safe for Islam. To them, the end seemed just and worthwhile. From this, it took only a minor leap in faith to conclude that the end justified the means.

Of course, the rationalist could point out that there is no such thing as an "Islamic Rape." And it was indeed quite shocking to some of the devout to witness the extent of brutality that the Pakistanis were indulging in to make the subcontinent safe for Islam. It was like coming face to face with a father molesting his own children and expecting the relatives to stand by him for the sake of family solidarity and honor. Neither the Pak army, nor the defenders of Islam in distant Islamabad showed the slightest remorse for the systematic rape and murder that was being carried out incessantly in every nook and corner of the erstwhile province of East Pakistan. For many a non-political devout Muslim, this was an extraordinary trauma, to say the least.

Bengali Muslims had flocked to the Pakistan Movement with the hope of social and economic emancipation. Theological considerations either had taken the backseat for many or else had played no significant role whatsoever. In fact, a great majority of the conservative Islamists including some notable Deobandis was against partitioning the subcontinent based on the two-nation theory. Ironical as it might sound, many a party of these Islamists like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Nezam-I-Islami, turned overnight into fervent defenders of Pakistan after 1947. I am hardly surprised that many a member of these parties chose to misplace their moral compass and suppress their conscience in 1971. They thought it was imperative for them to stand solidly behind the ruling elite in Islamabad, regardless of the cost for such a show of blind support.

With the high brow Bhadroloks of the Calcutta elite entrenched in power in pre-Pakistan Bengal, it was but natural that the rising Muslim middle class would be forced into a confrontation to get a fair share of the pie. The Muslim underclass in rural Bengal had firsthand experience of humiliations at the hands of the rich and arrogant upper caste Brahmins. Class conflicts are the norm rather than exception in many a society. In Bengal, they were exacerbated by the fact that class division was roughly along the religious line. Therefore, situation was just ripe for Jinnah to become the pied piper of Hamlin as he led the Bengalis on the path to Pakistan with the purpose of turning a part of the subcontinent into a safe haven for the aristocrats of Uttar Pradesh and the mercantile class of the Malabar Coast of Indian peninsula.

Inevitably, the ruling class in nascent Pakistan turned to Jinnah's pan-Islamism to advance its own interests. Thus, it hardly took long for it to project Urdu, the language of a tiny minority, as Pakistan's national language. Rulers of Pakistan were determined to stamp the supremacy of their ways on the nation. It was a none too subtle way to force the citizenry into kowtowing to the new rulers of the land. It didn't take long for Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan to decide to cleanse Karachi of its indigenous culture. The landmarks of the city, that reminded the new rulers of non-Muslim Sindhis, were overnight renamed with proper "Islamic" names. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Jinnah would declare arrogantly and unabashedly in Dhaka in front of a predominantly Bengali audience that Urdu, and Urdu alone, was fit to be Pakistan's national language!

The power brokers of the western wing of Pakistan had traditionally held a rather low opinion of the Bengalis. This coterie, serving mainly Punjabi and Muhajir interests, considered Bengalis racially inferior to them. They had both the arrogance and audacity to regard the Bengalis to be practitioner of a brand of Islam that was less than pure! Anthony Mascarenhas, a Dawn correspondent from Karachi, wrote in 1971 of the racist bigotry in the predominantly Punjabi army. At the height of the genocide in 1971, he was shocked beyond words to discover that Pakistan's military officers would nonchalantly joke in the army mess about the wholesale rapes in East Pakistan as the army's contribution to improve the genes of East Pakistanis! I find it mind-boggling that Bengali members of Jamaat-i-Islami or the Muslim League not only condoned but even supported the predominantly Punjabi Pak army in its demonic campaign of rape and murder in East Pakistan to make Pakistan safe for Islam! The memory of the Hindu Brahmin's arrogance of pre-1947 Bengal provided enough justification for these Islamists to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of the Pak army in 1971. It mattered little then that Punjabi masters were holding secret meetings at the General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi to heap contempt and indignities that were far worse than anything the arrogant Brahmins had ever inflicted in pre-1947 Bengal on fellow Muslim Bengalis.

The behavior of the Bengali apologists for the military is all the more incomprehensible because the top brass never made any secret of its racist views. The strongman Ayub Khan could barely hide his contempt for Bengalis in his infamous ghost-written autobiography, "Friends, Not Masters." Similarly, Yahya Khan also vaunted his racist outrage in presence of the journalist Mushahid Hussain Shah when it became apparent that the Awami League had won the 1970 elections by a landslide. Mushahid Hussain Shah (who was later a Minister under Nawaz Sharif) reports how Yahya Khan had screamed in anger, "Those black Bengalis have won!"

The Pindi High Command had openly pursued it racist and colonial agenda since the days of Ayub Khan. Yet, many an Islam-Pasand (lover) Bengali politician was giving them benefits of the doubt. For them, licking the boots of the Punjabi master seemed preferable to doing anything that might seem as forgiving the now banished snobbish Bhadroloks that had lorded over them in pre-1947 Bengal. In their scheme of things, East Pakistan would be better off with civil servants and businessmen who hailed from the western edge of the subcontinent thousands of miles away. The raison d'être for the unquestioned acceptance of a new ruling class that was no less snobbish was the consideration that "they are Muslims like us, after all." These people forgot that the ruling class of yore may have been snobbish and arrogant, but at least they were sons of the soil who had some love for the land. The new rulers, on the other hand, had little or no love for the land; they saw East Pakistan as nothing more than a colony from which they can suck the blood a la leaches.

This writer wonders how many of the readers have thought Islam to be a very political religion. It can be likened to nuclear energy that, in the right hands, serves mankind through peaceful applications like power generation but -- in the wrong hands -- could wreak a Hiroshima or Nagasaki style destruction on "enemy" people. Consequently, we can ill afford not to keep a watchful eye on those that invoke religion in public life for whatever purposes. Bangalee diplomat Enayet Karim had indicted the Pakistani brand of Islam that had entrenched itself in our public life in the early days of Pakistan. This brand of Islam had served rather well the colonial aspirations of the Urdu-speaking elite-class from West Pakistan. It didn't take long for this class to discover the advantages of forging an opportunistic alliance with the feudal lords and the army officers from Punjab and the Muhajir mercantile class that had settled down in Karachi after 1947. With the derailment of democracy, this opportunistic alliance managed to marginalize not just the Bengalis of East Pakistan but also even the Sindhis, the Baluchs and the Pathans of West Pakistan. Predictably, this unholy alliance managed to hijack Islam as well to provide a religious cover for their hegemonic and nefarious deeds. History of the last fifty years of Pakistan is a testament to this line of thinking.

Ayub Khan took over as the commander-in-chief in 1951. From then on, covertly till the "October Revolution of 1958," and overtly thereafter, the army became the real source of power in Pakistan. The recently revealed Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report also points out this fact quite blaringly (read the report in India Today Group On Line, August 11, 2000). This development gave teeth to the feudal lords of Punjab and the Muhajir bureaucrats and businessmen all of who thrived and flourished under the aegis defense establishment. It also served to institutionalize the hegemony of a particular province by turning Punjab into the "bastion of power." Not surprisingly, this new Punjab-based oligarchy took to invoking Islam at every opportunity to make their monopoly on power more palatable for the ordinary citizenry.

Dr. Ausaf Ali was once a professor of business administration at the University of Karachi. Back in 953, he had the chance to meet a few Punjabi civil servants. Most of them unabashedly expressed their contempt for the inhabitants of the eastern wing of Pakistan. So steeped were these bureaucrats in their racist outlook that they made no secret of their belief that East Pakistan didn't deserve to be anything more than a colonial holding. With Kiplinesque arrogance, these bureaucrats had insisted that East Pakistanis were serving Islam by serving West Pakistan! Quite an axiom!!

Now let me turn my focus closer to home. The bigoted Brahmins of pre-Pakistan Bengal were often our next-door neighbors. Their acts of omission and commission were too close to home to be ignored by the Muslim underclass. In stark contrast, our new masters in far off Karachi and Pindi enjoyed a certain shielding from direct public scrutiny, especially in the immediate aftermath of partition. It wasn't readily apparent to the common people in East Pakistan how few Bengalis were in positions of influence and power in the central government offices in Karachi and Islamabad. Nor did they get a direct exposure to the short shrift meted out to East Pakistan's representatives in the Constituent Assembly. Furthermore, the Pakistani brand of Islam often proved to be a good cover, at least in the short run. Thus, when Dhirendra Nath Datta demanded recognition of Bengali as Pakistan's national language, Prime Minister Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and all his cohorts on the floor of the Assembly promptly denounced him as an enemy of Islam and of Pakistan. "Pious" Bengalis like Nazimuddin promptly joined in the denunciation to "save" Islam from the evil demands on behalf of Bengali.

Inevitably, tokenism played its part. Some East Pakistanis like Nazimuddin and Mohammad Ali of Bogura were allowed proximity to those that wielded real power in Karachi and Pindi. But East Pakistanis that benefited from such tokenism were always those that were most willing to play second fiddle to the ruling elite without a murmur. And anytime such East Pakistanis had the temerity to overstep their "privileges," they were promptly kicked out into oblivion. Such was the travesty of life for Bengalis.

We all know too well that Awami League's six-point program has been criticized as a solution that tore at the integrity of Pakistan. But with the opportunistic alliance of Punjabi generals and feudal lords on one hand and the Muhajir bureaucrats and businessmen on the other, so firmly entrenched in power, nothing short of the six-point program could have allowed the diffusion of power and prosperity into the east wing. It was quite symptomatic of the situation that a newcomer politician such as Bhutto would thunder, "Punjab is the bastion of power," even as he worked hand in glove with the army generals to prevent the convening of the National Assembly in which his party held only half as many seats as the Awami League. By March 7 of 1971, the Bengalis concluded, "Enough is enough." If they hadn't, it is a safe bet that we would have continued to be ruled by the same oligarchy to this day. It would have been a case of déjà vu when General Pervez Musharraf's boot would have trodden on us after the "October Revolution" of 1999 in the same way General Ayub Khan's boots had trodden on us after the "October Revolution" of 1958.

Let me now turn to the tumultuous events of post general election of 1970 as I dive into the role Islam played in eastern shore of the Gangetic alluvium. In 1971, not a single Islamist political party in the erstwhile East Pakistan had supported the cause of an independent Bangladesh. Hardly a Madrassah (Muslim parochial school) instructor or an Imam of a local mosque had openly, or even clandestinely, supported our fight for freedom against the barbaric army of occupation. The pirs, from Maghbazar to Sharshina, were all full-fledged supporters of the brutal military regime. A student of history has every reason to wonder how the flag-bearers of Islam could stoop to support an army engaged in wanton rape and murder. Historians can provide the answer to that troubling question. Vicious politics has often been the bane of Islam since the earliest days when grandchildren of the Prophet and their family were slaughtered on the sands of Karbala. The saga continues until this day. Political Islam continues to be a convenient tool to oppress and subjugate the faithful.

Strange it may sound, the genocide in Bangladesh evoked little or no denunciation in the Islamic world. Pakistan's rulers managed to convince most Muslim majority nations that the pogrom was a necessary evil to protect and uphold Islam in a subcontinent where Hindu India was bent on destroying it. The gullible Muslims around the world were told repeatedly that Bengali women needed to be raped mercilessly to bring to a naught the evil designs of Kafirs, in general, and of Hindus, in particular. Ordinary soldiers of the Pakistani army were brainwashed into believing that it was their religious obligation to force Bengali males to expose their genitals so that those that are not circumcised can be selectively murdered.

All these go to show that the brutal army junta in Pakistan had very little feeling for the Bengali people. It would have meant very little to them if the Bengalis had again become the underclass of Calcutta centered Bhadroloks. Lt. General Tikka Khan was very implicit about this mindset when he openly declared in Dhaka that the army cared only for the land in East Pakistan but not a hoot for its people. Eyewitness accounts on the night of March 25 paint horrifying pictures of the Pakistani army. Pakistani soldiers left the fourth class staff quarters littered with bayoneted bodies. Not even children had been spared. Eyewitness accounts of rapes in the Razarbagh Police Line in Dhaka had let us numb with utter disbelief and disgust. And all that in the name of serving Islam!

Some analysts opine that such savagery was inevitable in view of the incessant indoctrination of the Pakistani soldiers with the belief that Bengalis were racially inferior and that Bengalis were not proper Muslims. Therefore, it was an inevitable fall out of the Political Islam behind which Pakistan's ruling class had taken refuge. The soldiers had come to believe that Pakistan was a synonym for Islam. To these soldiers of religion, any crime committed for upholding the integrity of Pakistan was a glorious service to the cause of Islam. One Bengali intellectual collaborator had the audacity to justify the rapes on Bengali women in the name of religion. He claimed on record that Mu'tah marriage is permitted in Islam - hence, in case of a war against the enemies of Islam as was taking place in East Pakistan in 1971 rapes are sanctified by our religious tradition!

This has to be a clear case of subterfuge when Pakistani power broker had brainwashed our own folks to safeguard Islam in erstwhile East Pakistan. Therefore, the Jamaati activists could always bank on full support from the higher echelons of Pakistan's army. Conscience had not a chance against theirs unbridled fanaticism. Perhaps many a Jamaati activist did not even realize that they had turned themselves into foot soldiers of the ruling clique in Punjab. These fanatics had come to believe that every crime in the book is worth it if it is committed in the name of religion. For all their theological learning, they were more than willing to condone the rapes and murders that were taking place to make Pakistan safe for Islam! Perhaps this is a twisted Jihadi logic, I daresay!

It would startle students of history to learn how Political Islam had provoked genocide in East Pakistan. To this day, Political Islam retains its ability to not just condone but even to justify the genocide. It is a sad reality that many a fanatic willingly chose rape and plunders to be their path to God! Many innocent God-fearing Bengalis were astounded to learn that they could count on no Muslim nation to be on their side in 1971. The Saudi royal family, with its enormous clout in the Islamic world, chose to lead the way by coming out one hundred percent in support of Pakistan's army regime even though they knew fully well how many Muslims were butchered in occupied Bangladesh. Not one country among the myriad Islamic nations around the world bothered to express support for Bangladesh that boasted of more Muslims than practically all of them.

After the 1975 political changeover in Bangladesh, army dictators like Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad became the guardian angels of Pakistani brand of Islam. Enayet Karim had not dreamt of the Bangladesh under dictators Zia and Ershad even in his wildest dreams. The proponents of this tainted brand of Islam were not only given reprieve but were even rehabilitated under the regimes of the two dictators. Mosques had failed to come out in support of an independent Bangladesh in 1971. The situation hasn't changed much in the last three decades. Of course, there is no dearth of crocodile tears for the plight of the Kashmiris, Palestinians, or Chechens, but there isn't a drop of tear to be spared for those that perished in the genocide of 1971. The freedom struggle is a source of embarrassment to these Islamists. And they know it. Judicious silence is the preferred choice when it comes to discussing the tragedy of 1971. We have turned into a nation of ingrates where it is a taboo even to whisper the names of our martyrs in the mosques and Madrassahs of independent Bangladesh.

Petro dollars seem to have served militant Islam more often than it has served the Muslims. The events of 1971 stands out as a watershed -- it showed conclusively how hazardous to humanity is this tainted brand of Islam that values politics over piety. The aftermath of Afghanistan war is yet another example of the very same peril. Today, even the superpowers (including Red China) are in deadly fear of the proliferation of Wahhabite brand of Jihadi (militant) Islam. And ironically, Saudi Arabia, which is fancied as an American ally, continues to funnel millions of dollars into South Asia to spread its deadly ideology.

The Zia and Ershad regimes did disservice to Bangladesh by rehabilitating the fundamentalists who had betrayed Bangladesh in 1971. Zia and Ershad merely served to gladden the hearts of those that have been channeling petro dollars in their drive for holy wars on behalf of unholy causes. These dispensers of petro dollars were perspicacious enough to know that only a non-democratic Bangladesh will be willing to sing to their tunes.

The ultra rightwing fanatic forces know just as much. Most of them had stood behind those that were perpetrating crimes against humanity in 1971. They construed the break-up of Pakistan to be a blow against Islam. The current unholy alliance between Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, Jatiyo Party, and Islamic Oikkyo Jote (Solidarity Alliance) is the outcome of the dangerous game of consolidating the gains of Pakistani brand of Wahhabite Islam. This brutal brand of Jihadi Islam could have been eliminated from Bangladesh in the immediate aftermath of 1971. Bangladesh had failed to do the needful and the nation continues to hemorrhage because of our leaders myopic views then. The recent attempt to bomb the Bangladesh Prime Minister's meeting place is yet another reminder how wrong Mr. Enayet Karim had been to predict the death of this diabolical form of Islam in an independent Bangladesh. We still have time to turn away from the Jihadi brand of Islam that is being shoved down our throat by Wahhabi, Deobandis, Saudis, and Osama bin Laden all at the same time. Instead, we should re-embrace the gentle Sufi Islam, which had served our forefathers in thick and thin. What is so wrong in it?

Jamal Hasan writes from Washington, DC. His email address is poplu@hotmail.com