12/26/06

Hasina's Ulu Dhoni Moment

Hasina's ulu dhoni moment

I hate giving people a chance to say, "I told you so." So imagine the chorus after reports of an AL 5-point "understanding" (soon to be denied as "misunderstanding") with the Khelafat Andolan gang emerged. In one swift move, the party rolled over and handed on a platter every major Islamist demand of the last five years. Whether BNP or AL wins in the next election, the patient, cunning Islamists are the big winners in symbolic and real terms.

A friend wrote: "Don't worry, our politicians do beimani (dishonesty). They will do beimani with Khelafat Andolon as well." But for those of us who have lost interest in the why, how, or where AL (or BNP) does anything, the motive for these electoral chomoks (displays) is irrelevant. What really matters is the manner in which every Islamist party, demand, and agenda is slowly but surely penetrating into every artery of the national body politic and infrastructure.

For the last five years, the BNP-Jamaat coalition's ferocious attacks on secularism, and aggressive push for an Islamist agenda has had an unexpected side effect. As BNP's enemy, AL has automatically received the mantle of defender-of-secularism, without doing a single thing to protect it.

During the last three years' attacks on the Ahmadiya community, I spent a significant time with the Ahmadiya mosques for my film Muslims or Heretics. I was struck by the quiet faith many Ahmadiya supporters had that AL would never allow these things to happen. In all the time that Ahmadiya property was burnt, books were seized, mosques attacked, and imams killed, the AL never raised a voice, or joined a rally. But because the BNP was actively tolerating Khatme Nabuwat, all of us presumed that AL would not do the same!

But just read a few items in the MOU with Khelafot Andolon.

* To not accept Prophet Mohammed as the last Prophet is forbidden.

*Blasphemy will be a punishable offense.

If these items sound familiar, it is because these have been demand number one and two on every single flyer given out at Khatme Nabuwat rallies. Having spent time at many KN rallies documenting their speeches, I am struck (but not surprised) by the manner in which the AL has now reproduced in toto the entire text and sentiments of anti-Ahmadiya forces.

After the 2001 elections, BNP-affiliated thugs went on a revenge spree in Hindu villages, attacking, raping, and looting, all to target presumed AL supporters. The tragedy for Hindu Bengalis is that they are getting the long pole from both ends. Beaten to a pulp for voting AL, and abandoned by AL when they are in power. But AL never has to do any work to prove their credentials. Whether minority or majority, anyone who wants a secular state is afraid to vote BNP because of its clear stance against secularism.

Khaleda Zia once said: "If Hasina gets elected, there will be ulu dhoni (ululation) in the mosques of Bangladesh." That is all it took to get AL branded secular, even while the party took a half dozen steps in the opposite direction. From lok-dekhano (just to show) umra and mathae kapor (covering head) to Bismillah in election posters, the AL has been playing the Islam card for a while -- confident that the secular vote is always theirs.

It was Hasina's infamous meeting with Golam Azam that led Farhad Mazhar to write an essay titled: "Sheikh Hasina has insulted Jahanara Imam's memory by touching her coffin." But faced with the larger embrace of Jamaat by BNP, we who are so desperate for even a minute sign of secularism have forgiven AL those past sins. Yes, Hasina sat with Jamaat, but she did not bring them into a cabinet. But at the rate things are going, can we trust that will never happen?

I wonder what Suranjit Sengupta and other minority members of AL are thinking right now. I wonder how they can keep a straight face when Sheikh Hasina talks about "secularism" to Bangali Christians on the same day that Jalil announces an MOU with Shaikhul Hadis. Like Marie Antoinette, AL thinks "let them eat cake," cutting a Christmas cake with our beleaguered Christian citizens. That is the dessert to choke on, a monument to opportunism.

When Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury was defeated in the OIC election, he blamed a global campaign alleging that he was a 1971 war criminal. Chief focus of his ire was the AL. In a furious press conference, he threatened to "Islamicize" Suranjit Sengupta's nether regions.

I remember being horrified, but now I feel that it is better to face SaQa Chowdhury -- at least he lays his cards on the table and you know exactly where you are. The problem with the so-called defenders of secularism is that they will smile to your face while running the knife very deep into your poor, unprotected back. Surely we can do better than this?

Some ask why AL gets so much hate for allying with Islamists, but the same does not happen for BNP. It's because BNP is being consistent -- they have never said they are interested in secularism. Since their founding years, BNP has been committed to a project of Bangladeshi not Bengali, Allah Hafez not Khoda Hafez, India as permanent enemy, and the gun not the carrot for CHT Paharis. If BNP sits with Jamaat, it is consistent with that vision -- they have always been the "Islam bachao" (save Islam) vote (as if our religion is so weak it needs Bangalis to "save" it). It is only the AL who has ever profited from the secularism vote (and by the way, not just minorities, but also thinking Muslims -- and we are legion -- want religion separate from state).

Most young people are bored by the 15-year serialized soap opera of BNP vs AL. A retired official says: "Shob chor" (All are thieves) and it's hard to argue with his nihilistic mind-set. But what does matter is the permanent damage being done to the secularism project (which is never anti-religion, but simply asks for separation of religion from politics). From Zia to Ershad to Khaleda to Hasina, the players change but the Islamist project grows mightier as every party makes concessions to religious politics -- whether by an inch or a mile.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Ten years from now, there may be no Hasina, Khaleda, Tarique, Joy, Jalil, Bhuiyan. There may be a whole new set of players -- who may be vibrant new jacks, or the same liquid in a new bottle. But the one sure thing is that the Islamists will be much stronger. Today they are kingmakers, tomorrow they will be kings.

12/18/06

When Pets Attack

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.

12/12/06

Here Comes Khaki Again?

by Naeem Mohaiemen
[Published in DAILY STAR, December 12, 2005]

It's a terrible moment to realize that your elders have clay feet, that they can make mistakes.

Amar baba shob jane, went a phrase when I was growing up. Yes, our parents knew everything. They were not to be questioned, doubted or second-guessed.

It was a turning point when I finally realized that my father could be wrong on ocassion. This came about while he was defending a cherished institution––the one that put food on our table, provided for his education and career, and our whole family's well being.

The Bangladesh Army.

This moment, the one I'm thinking of, came when I first dived into an argument about the Chittagong Hill Tracts at the dinner table. I was still a teenager––sure of my convictions, but green in my debating skills. I had just talked about the army's "pacification" campaigns against the Pahari/Jumma people.

"You don't know what you're talking about," my father replied, "The army is there to keep the peace. They are doing what the civilians cannot. Without them, there would be chaos. We are there because the politicians failed!"

We are there because the politicians failed....

I hesitated. I was certain I was right. We Bengalis were practicing ethnic cleansing in the Hill Tracts. The government was exploiting Army jawans to keep the Pahari (Jumma) population terrorized, and Bengali settlers were subsidized to displace Paharis from their homeland. Like occupying armies elsewhere, the Bangla soldiers believed they were a force for good (after all, it was within our own borders)––even when the indigenous population ran scared from their guns.

But wait, my father was always right. Wasn't he?

I retrieve this memory as a prologue to explain that my critique of army involvement in civilian affairs comes, and has always come, from within. My father retired as a Major General in the Medical Corps. Another uncle was a Major General in engineering corps (and head of NSI) and a third uncle was a Major General and Finance Minister for the Ershad regime (the only cabinet member who maintained a neutral stance and did not join the JP). Many of my youthful moments were spent in Cantonment, waiting for my father to finish work, or visiting my uncle. Idle moments were spent admiring the kuchkawaj of soldiers. Every time they passed a senior officer, they gave a smart salute. In a country lacking in rules, discipline or methods, it was a heart-warming sight.

Looking at these smartly turned out men, my father used to share a phrase from British army, "We always say, if it's moving, salute it, if it's standing still, paint it white." It was a mild joke, but within it was immense pride about the institution that made him who he was. I liked seeing that emotion, a precious and rare commodity.

Despite my long association with the army, and benefiting from the privileges of that institution, I feel fear and cold dread as I watch news reports of khaki in the streets once again. The past is future again, as we see the injection of the army into democracy. The President can talk a good game, but his chess move in bringing the soldiers out is clear. He is now exploiting the army to be the iron fist in a velvet glove. shabdhan, too much theri beri, and we will bring in military. Tharpor bujhbe thela. Gonothonthro koi jai.

Of course bringing in the army to ensure law and order does not automatically mean a military coup. But the more the army is used to take care of civilian tasks, the more people may ask, well why do we need democracy? Er chey army bhalo. And that is how it always starts...

Theoretically, both BNP and AL have much to fear from another military coup. But AL has a history of a family wiped out in Dhanmondi (and later the four leaders in Dhaka jail) at the hands of renegade elements within the army. Naturally, they are more fearful of the military than BNP. Of course, Ershad was an equal opportunity punisher, running the jackboot on both BNP and AL. But in the current situation, the AL is the one who is harmed more, since it is their street protests that are being targeted.

Our modern army has shown that they can be, in the right circumstances, a force for good. In UN missions abroad, the Bengali peacekeepers have set high standards and risked their lives. Bangladeshi soldiers are the second largest providers of UN troops. Current deployment is in 12 countries, and 63 soldiers have been killed in active duty (my cousin was one of them). Peacekeeping earns Bangladesh almost $200m a year.

The UN says Bangladeshi soldiers are in demand because they are highly disciplined and there are fewer complaints of corruption or sexual harassment against them than soldiers from other countries. Speaking of the impact on domestic politics, Professor CR Abrar of Dhaka University told the BBC, "They have gained international prestige, they have gained international legitimacy. So I think they would think twice or thrice before engaging in such adventurism [as military coup]."

When we read of Bengali peacekeepers guarding Mogadishu airport, flying helicopter squadrons in Ituri (Congo), controlling rebel territory in Sierra Leone, and flying the UN flag in besieged Bihac (Yugoslavia), we felt a twinge of pride. But if we look at the history of army deployment inside Bangladesh, these occasions have not harnessed this same positive energy.

From 1975 onwards, army involvement in our domestic politics has dirtied the khaki. Chucho marthe haath moila korthe hoi, and the army has been unable to keep its hands clean. During the Ershad years, the army was so compromised that I stopped riding in my father's olive green car. It did not matter that it carried an "Army Medical Corps" insignia (army doctors being one group that stayed clear of politics)––army was army, and in those days it was not seen as anything positive. But the subsequent years have largely erased the legacy of the Ershad years, and today's armed forces no longer carry the same stigma of obstacle to democracy.

Can the army resist the political manipulations of those who want to send us back to the bad old days?