When Pets Attack
by Naeem Mohaiemen
[Published in DAILY STAR, December 18, 2006]
"After each revolution several thousand of these corrupt elements are executed in public and burnt and the story is over. They are not allowed to publish newspapers...We will close all parties except the one, or a few which act in a proper manner."
[Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in Life of the Ayatollah, Baqer Moin, Thomas Dunne Books, 2000]
Kawser Miah was a regular presence at our Elephant Road adda. Whenever we would sit for sickly-sweet cha and stale toast biscuit, he would be at a nearby table. We would smile, wave and get back to our adda. The thing I remember most about Kawser is that he was always up to some scheme––whether involving women, money or going abroad. His confidence in these matters was overwhelming and his favorite phrase was "manage korbo." Oshubidha nai, oke manage kore felbo. Or even more dismissively, dekhben kemon kore oitare size kori.
I don't really frequent the Elephant Road adda any more. But I did run into Kawser once. He wasn't looking so good. A combination of cigarettes, poor diet and a string of bad luck had left him looking haggard and prematurely old. What happened to business? Apparently his partner on one venture had run off to Singapore with the money. He had now been "managed," by someone sharper and quicker.
I was thinking of Kawser recently as I read the news of the Awami League's attempts to expand their "greater electoral alliance" by incorporating "like-minded" political parties. Like-minded is now a very elastic term, stretched to include Nejame Islam, as well as active talks with Islami Oikya Jote factions, Islami Constitution Movement, etc. This is the same AL that once talked a good game about protecting secularism, back when bomb blasts had made Islamist a dirty word.
Here we go again.
The AL thinks, of course, that they will use these Islamists to battle BNP's Islamists, and eat into the so-called Islam-ponthi vote. The same way that Khaleda, Ershad and Zia all thought they were using the Islamists to weaken their opponents.
In the absence of meaningful difference on issues such as industrialization, foreign investment, trade policy, wages, etc., our political turf wars rotate around symbols and icons––nation's father, independence announcer, and religion. In the vacuum left by the collapse of the left, religion has emerged as a powerful organizing force. The mosque and madrassa are natural gathering places that can facilitate recruitment. Over the decades, successive groups of politicians have tried to harness this power, whether by directly courting Jamaat and smaller parties, or by engaging in communal slogans like Khaleda's "moshjid e ulu-dhoni." All the while thinking they are "using" and "controlling" the Islamists.
When Zia inserted Bismillah into the constitution, and removed secularism, he never imagined he was creating future rivals. Ershad too thought ederke ami manage korbo, and introduced Islam as state religion. In Khaleda Zia's first government, Golam Azam scored a hat trick by getting his citizenship back. I remember passing Mohakhali rail crossing and steering past burning cars––that's how I learnt about that particular court verdict. But soon enough, the outrage passed. Too many other things to worry about. 1971 was no longer an issue. Ancient history, our elders told us. They would know.
When Hasina held hands with Jamaat during the oust-BNP movement, could she guess that same party would give BNP an electoral edge in 2001? BNP took things to another level, placing two Jamaat ministers for the first time in the cabinet. Not just any posts either––Social Affairs and Industry. Now both NGOs and Tata have to negotiate with them. Every time we have a new government, there is always an incremental improvement for the Islamists.
The only setback for Islamists was the recent upsurge of nihilistic bomb attacks. Some people even whisper that renegade BNP factions could have created Bangla Bhai, to "manage" AL, and create alternatives to Jamaat. Whether these allegations are true or far-fetched, something is definitely fishy about the haste to execute JMB leaders. From dead leaders in jail cells, to Manzur killed by a "mob", our history is full of these incomplete stories.
Talking about the way in which pets can turn on their masters, I'm thinking now of Ahmad Chalabi. When the US dropped him as an ally, he decided to hitch his star to the Iraqi Islamists. The avowedly secular Chalabi thought he could manage people like Al Sadr. Now he has been eclipsed and booted out by the people he helped to put in power, including those that are fomenting civil war. An Iraqi official even told a journalist recently, "Ahmad Chalabi's problem is that he is usually the smartest man in the room, and thinks he can control what happens. But these guys don't care if you have a Ph.D. in math; they'll kill you. In the end, things went way past the point where Ahmad thought they would ever go. I can't imagine he wanted that. But he helped start it."
The 2005 bombings put a temporary pall on the idea of religious politics, but that shadow too will pass (Bangali forgets nothing trivial, but cannot remember anything important). The Islamists have always been focused on a hundred year plan, while the main parties claw at each other and think of a five-year survival plan (with Bangkok plane tickets ready in a drawer). People who believe they are divinely ordained to rule can afford to be patient and build strength. Already deep inside the unversities, they are quietly infiltrating the civil service (hence the recent upgraded BA/MA status for madrasa degrees), business sector and army. Their goal is always the long-term.
There is a popular wall cheeka: "In thirty years, we are the only people whose hands are not dirty with money. We want Allah's law, and honest man's rule" There are of course many examples of clerics who came to power elsewhere and turned out to be incredibly corrupt and repressive. Last week, hundreds of Iranian students interrupted a speech by Ahmedanijed, shouting "death to dictatorship." But since clerics believe they have a divine mandate, bending to the ticking time bomb of mass dissent among post '79 generation is out of the question. Most religious people are like my father––quietly going to the mosque, fasting, paying zakaat. Beyond that, they live quiet lives and leave people alone. The thought of forcing religion on others runs counter to their ethical and moral understanding of Islam. But for others, force is the only correct language.
Bengalis sick of the mutual fratricide of AL-BNP may one day decide to cast their protest vote with various Islamists. Unless there is a real secular alternative, there may even be an Islamic state in all our futures. In 1979, the Shah's regime was so brutal and hated that even Iranian leftists donned the chador as a marker of protest. The thing is, after the Shah left, they couldn't take it off.