Articles Bangladesh

Islamic extremism a cancer in today’s Bangladesh

When did the silence I see in the country in response to the murders become a Bangali thing?


by ANTARA GANGULI @antaraganguli

In the last two weeks, a university professor, a magazine editor and his friend were hacked to death in Bangladesh. They are the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth men to suffer this fate in the last three years.

I have lived in and loved Bangladesh for the last year. The gruesome, maniacal murders make sense to me and don’t make sense to me.

On one hand, it does not feel so different from the growing religious extremism in South Asia (Muzaffarnagar, Lahore, Peshawar, Dadri) and feels particularly well-aligned (almost as if the techniques have been taught in a school) to the mad rantings and grisly murders of the Taliban and ISIS.

Xulhaz-Mannan-hacked-to-death-in-Bangladesh
Xulhaz Mannan, founder of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine was hacked to death.

But on the other hand, I cannot reconcile the hate of these crimes with the gentleness, the love, the Hindu-Muslim syncretism I have experienced in Bangladesh.

Starting from the immigration desks at the airport where my Bengali, Indian, Hindu name never fails to elicit a welcoming smile and an invitation to taste the river Padma’s hilsa, to my colleagues in the office who assured me of their Dhoni devotion during bitter, angry cricket to friends’ houses replete with the most beautiful imagery of Kali and Durga my cleaning lady’s promise of special care of my little Shivling while I’m away, I have been amazed, humbled and comforted by the practise of Islam and Hinduism in Bangladesh.

Nowhere else have I heard the namaz followed by an afterward in Bengali that starts, “Oh Prabhu”.

In Indian papers, we brandish images of Muslims celebrating Diwali, Holi and Hindu politicians holding iftaars. In Bangladesh, attending Durga Pujo is not an exercise in plurality for Bengali Muslims, it is an internal, personal act. Amader, they say. Nijessho. The hordes and hordes of people I saw at the many Durga Pujos in Dhaka reminded me of the crowds in Kolkata and Delhi and Bombay. Except that, at least half of them are Muslim.

I, like all Bengalis on both sides of the border, like to take credit for this syncretism as a peculiarly, particularly Bengali trait. Don’t we sing Nazrul songs in West Bengal? Don’t we worshop Tagore in East Bengal? We are one. We are Bengali first. We are lovers of hilsa first. We are dreamers first.

For Bangladesh, being Bengali is particularly important. Pahela Baishak, Bengali New Year, is an exercise in patriotism for Bangladeshis as the burning desire and fight for a separate homeland started with a defence of Bangla (no one calls it Bengali or Bangali in Bangladesh).

Celebrations start at sunrise with Rabindrasangeet under a gulmohar tree, with a chorus of women and men in red and white saris and kurtas and continue through the night with family visits, parties and entire roads decorated in alpona (rangoli). I have never experienced a non-religious holiday that is celebrated with as much religious fervor. It is in the blood, a friend told me proudly. We are Bangali. That is uttam.

And yet, these murders. And murder of intellect, murder of thought and expression, murder of dissent, murder of – let us not mince words – anything un-Islamic. And a particularly grievous, cruel form of Islam at that. When did killing writers become a Bangali thing? When did the silence I see in Bangladesh in response to the murders become a Bangali thing?

My friends are scared to post criticism on Facebook, are scared to discuss on WhatsApp. What if the government closes down social media again? Worse, what if your name is put on a list? What if you are branded as an atheist, a gay, a Hindu?

27 Bangladeshi nationals arrested in Singapore
27 Bangladeshi nationals arrested in Singapore

Better to say nothing. Better to not discuss the cousin who has disappeared into a Malaysian “training camp”, better to not protest the brother demanding hijab, better to pretend that the words issuing from masjids across the country are not sounding increasingly alien, increasingly hateful, increasingly a-bangali, increasingly anti-humanity. Better to say less. Better to say nothing at all.

Bangalis died in the hundreds of thousands to form Bangladesh, such was their belief in the cause. I often wonder what those Birs would have thought if they saw the fear I see in Bangladesh today. Extremism is a cancer in Bangladesh that Bangladeshis are scared to diagnose and terrified to treat. But we have seen in countries around the world that this cancer will not die on its own. It grows quickly. It kills everything in its path.

My favourite memory of Bangladesh is of the gulmohar trees, which in Bangla, are called “Krishnachuras” or the plume of Krishna. After the new year, the trees explode in colour along every avenue, scarlet carpeting the streets and nudging their ways into balconies. Everywhere you look, the world is a brilliant, blooming scarlet.

Look at that gulmohar tree, I exclaimed to my driver, Saidul bhai, who sports a long beard and trousers cut off at the ankles. He looked at me blankly and then said with a smile, oh didi means the Krishnachuras. Just like our Krishna temple in my village.

Bangladeshis love this poem:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
I cannot help thinking that the man who had written much of his poetry and songs in Bangladesh, would be heartbroken at what is happening in his shonar Bangla today.

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