Tattered Flag

Tattered blood-green flag: secularism in crisis
Naeem Mohaiemen

[Daily Star, Feb 26, 2007]

Last winter, I was filming a follow-up to an earlier project, Muslims or Heretics. With the first kuasha of the season had come, like clockwork, a new program of anti-Ahmadiya rallies. Khatme Nabuwat, now splintered into two groups, had announced yet another gherao of the Bokshibazaar mosque.

The anti-Ahmadiya rallies were on Friday (baad jumma, a toxic mix of misinterpreted khutbas and hate speech). The secularists announced a counter-rally — on Thursday. At the Thursday rally, I found myself the lone cameraman; but on Friday I was joined by scores of others: stringers for AP, BBC, the usual suspects.

The footage from the two adjacent days were a study in contrasts. The anti-Ahmadiya marchers were stern young men dressed in kafon white -- steady gazes that express conviction, confusion, or both. The rallies of the secularists are gender-mixed, with women dominating the chants. There is no uniform, but everyone is in colorful saris and warm looking shawls. Inside the camera frame was an inspiring (and cinematic) sight of fluttering green and red flags, with marchers chanting Ekatthur er Rajakar / Ajker Bomabaj and Al Badar Rajakar / Ajkei Bangla Char.

But outside the frame was the startling fact that the secular rally had drawn only a few dozen people. As they marched through Dhaka University, not a single student joined them. Perhaps they didn't understand the chants. Or more likely, they were busy thinking of shopping or taking a phone call: “Ki Rejwan, nishchoy girlfriend shathey? Good, good.”

I thought of this footage again recently after the Awamis cancelled the MOU with Khelafat that (temporarily) legalized fatwas. Lost in the scuffle of why AL did what they did, who was betrayed, who was sidelined, bla bla, was a much larger, looming issue.

Secularism today is in a deep free fall. This is not just the crisis of betrayal and maneuvering by political players. The deeper issue is that in thirty five years, we have yet to articulate a strong cultural, economic or political argument for secularism beyond “this is why we fought in 1971.” In our version, secularism stands for nothing, only against something – a mish-mosh of opposition to Pakistan “ponthi”, rajakar, hijab, or Jamaat.


What do we do when 1971 is no longer enough?

Humayun Ahmed once had a TV serial where a parrot was taught to say thui rajakar. In each episode, the parrot would mouth the same line (well, that’s what parrots do..). These days, secular arguments that invoke 1971 feel like that –– pretty to look at and easy to ignore. Over-use has blunted all effectiveness.

Islam as a political force is taking over the vacuum left by the global collapse of the Soviet-aligned left (and the Latin American resurgence has yet to touch Bangladesh). No Bangiyya Muslim politician goes to elections without going on umrah, invoking Allah in every speech, and doing ghomta if they are women. Mon-Muslims? To hell with them, who else are they going to vote for anyway?

1971 as the sole rationale for secularism hinges on anger, memory and villains. Jamaat’s smart response to this was to remove Golam Azam from the leadership –– knowing that he was a lightning rod for controversy. They still have Nizami, Mujahid, Sayeedee and other liabilities – but increasingly you start to see the rise of new “brands” within Jamaat. Within a decade they will have a brand new leadership, a majority of which will be of the post-71 generation. At last week’s midnight hour at shaheed minar, we listened to a litany of names of people giving tribute. First CTG, then (reduced) BNP, then AL, then the rest. My friend turned to me and said, “Any moment, we’ll hear, Jamaat er omuk coming forward with flowers!” A joke right now, but how much longer before they appropriate these symbols as well?

Sharp Islamist minds have already appropriated many icons, while the tired figures of Ghadani/Bangla Academy/et al recycle stale slogans and photo ops. The man who was once "Kafir Nazrul Islam" is now Jamaat’s icon as a Muslim poet. This year, Islamist-aligned newspapers touted a slogan for Ekushey “Matri Bhasha Allahr Sreshtho Daan." DVDs are being sold on a Jamaat history of the language movement that has the logo with Bengali calligraphy in Arabic style.

Gone is the Jamaat of murthad campaigns, anti-Grameen slogans, and NGO-tree choppers. Today’s Jamaat occupies Industries Ministry and negotiates with the “malauns” of Tata. Instead of fighting NGOs, they form their own giant NGOs with Arabist money. Slowly, always patiently, Islamists are infiltrating the civil service, banks, and all sectors of the national infrastructure. All with an eye on the long-term, and more integrity, consistency and ideological honesty than any mainstream party.

As Khatme Nabuwat, Khelafat e Majlish, JMB, occupy the loony right, mainstream Islamists like Jamaat start to look moderate, rational and normalized. Nor has it escaped collective attention that there are very few Jamaat men among the list of big crooks bring hunted by the CTG. Expect even more “We want Allah’s law/And Honest Men’s Rule” slogans at the next election.

In the end, what are our arguments for separation of mosque and state? “1971 er Pak hanadar” is emotionally resonant but insufficient in 2007. As time passes, historians will start looking at 1971 with a more analytic, non-melodramatic eye. As with all national liberation struggles, uncomfortable gray areas will emerge: including how deep was AL’s commitment to secularism even in 1970. Afsan Chowdhury’s forthcoming comprehensive history of 1971 may be the first attempt at uncomfortable history, warts and all.

Flaws and contradictions are expected in any foundation mythology. A normal maturing process leads to a more open discussion of these issues. But along with that, the opening will weaken the traditional argument for secularism. It’s time, really urgent, to support secularism for its own sake, not for 1971.

Many of us have always been for class-based politics that targets the incredible wealth disparity, obscene money race, and insane, unsustainable consumption that is poisoning the globe. But secularism is the missing part of this equation. We are not only a class elite, but also a Muslim elite that ravages this country and renders all others as shadow citizens. From the Vested Property Act onwards, there are laws, “understandings,” social norms, politics and quiet discrimination that have rendered our Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Adivasi, and Pahari citizens as subhuman —- frozen out of schools, jobs, politics, culture and lived life.

(But look, I’m busy right now, says my friend. Writing a letter to Daily Star – the situation in Iraq-Palestine is intolerable, we must fight injustice.)

Many of our crises are due to greed, power play and discrimination impulses being played out on the vulnerable second class. But in the absence of real ideology (what exactly is AL/BNP/JP’s position on Globalization? Structural adjustment? Unionization?), religion is still a powerful political cover for these agendas. If you try to oppose it, the answer is always the same. This is Allah’s law as I choose to interpret it. If you speak against me, you are a murtad.

Time to imagine a completely different movement, one that is for class politics that also incorporates secularism within a Muslim identity, not the inadequate, irreligious fig leaf of “ek shagoro” brand pseudo-secularism (easily bought off with a parliament seat and Pajero). Many of us are comfortable inside, and speak from, a Muslim identity -- either as a religious/cultural identity at home or as ethnicized shorthand for “other” or “immigrant” in western diasporas. But we can be inside that identity and still fight to our dying breath to build a left-progressive, equitable, and secular state.

This is a battle cry for secular Muslims. And we are legion.