‘People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.’ — Thich Nhat Hanh
My poor friends. I have become a bore. I can talk of little except the horrors that have been taking place in Bangladesh. Of bloggers and publishers getting attacked and killed for their words by machete-wielding murderers. Of the dismissive official responses, and lack of adequate measures to protect people’s rights. Of a new culture of fear, and the hush it throws over everything.
I’m now the old fogey who gets misty-eyed about the way things were in the past because I am bewildered by what they have become.
My father was an anomaly in his deeply religious family by choosing not to be, but he was never criticised (beyond some wistful grumbling), let alone ostracised for it. He married my mother who is devout, but they respected each other’s differences and had the happiest marriage I’ve witnessed. One of my uncles was a renowned religious activist whose best friend was an atheist. The space for differences, and harmony despite them, has now narrowed to a squeeze.
When I was younger, despite periodic military coups, we were a proud if fragile democracy. We may be an overpopulated nation living on a sinking delta, but we got it mostly right when it came to using our rights for robust debates. Leading newspapers would show cartoon caricatures of our leaders, lampooning their latest antics. The papers don’t do that any more. Now we watch what we say because we fear phone lines are tapped, blogs monitored and social media tracked.
Bangladesh, despite its multiple historical influences from neighbouring India and colonialism, never appeared to have an identity crisis. Islam has been a secure component for 90% of its population. In recent years, and perhaps it’s my imagination, we’re suddenly behaving as if we need to prove something – just how devout we can be. Just as displays of wealth used to be considered vulgar, so too were the more showy symbols of devotion. And just as wealth has become competitive, so too has, it seems, piety. And just as a bling-free existence appears shabby to those now used to dazzle, lack of obvious signs of devotion is now suspect. To a society that has mostly put on a jolly face to pluralism of sorts, a singular path has become, alarmingly, the norm.
What we talk about when we talk about the murders
• The perpetrators are not from one organisation, but many. Some groups publish manifestos and lists of targets on social media. Others claim affiliation with global networks promoting extremist Islam. Isis published on their own online magazine (social lot, these new terrorists) last month that Bangladesh is one of its targets. It’s a crowded field getting more so.
• The victims were first accused of being anti-Islamic. Many did describe themselves as atheist or secular, and soon enough these too became justification for attack – despite the fact we are officially a secular country. One blogger was an advocate of women’s rights. In a little-publicised yet connected event, a UK-based Bangladeshi blogger and journalist was attacked in London for writing about the 1971 war crimes. A television station in Dhaka received threats for showing unveiled women reporters. With no top-level pushback – only encouragement to self-censor – the slope is becoming ever more slippery. Yesterday it was atheism. Today it’s history and women’s rights. Who knows what will cause offence tomorrow? It feels like being stranded on melting ice, with less and less sure ground to stand on.
• There is no way – on either side – to claim victory here. You cannot change what people believe in by bludgeoning it out of them. All that happens is death and destruction, hatred and fear. There may be many battles, but nobody wins the war.
What’s going on?
To ask why extremism is on the rise here, we may ask:
(1) Is it because the Iranian Revolution of 1979 established a Shia-strong state?
The power struggle between Iran (Persian and Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Arab and Sunni) has destabilised the Middle East for decades. Perhaps to bolster their support and reach, Saudi Arabia distributes money to other predominately Sunni countries such as Bangladesh.
While there are 45 countries poorer than Bangladesh in the world and it is now categorised with a lower-middle income status, Bangladesh welcomes this foreign aid. Our overpopulation also requires migration to survive. Nearly three million of its labour force works in the Middle East, with half of them in Saudi Arabia.
Salafism, or Wahhabism, the stringent movement within the Sunni branch followed by the Saudi leaders, cannot not be picked up there – whether by direct teachings or via osmosis, if you will – and brought back to this country.
The building of religious schools, or madrasas, is well organised and well funded (both by Saudis, and income from Bangladeshis working in the Gulf States), creating new generations of very loyal supporters.
One tell-tale Saudi influence is the antagonism shown in Bangladesh now towards anything even vaguely related to Iran. Deeply religious people like my grandfather, coming of age in the first half of the 20th century, were considered highly educated because they spoke or read Farsi, and gave their offspring Farsi names. Today in Bangladesh, the vast majority of preferred names are Arabic. ‘Khoda Hafiz’, the traditional greeting we have used for centuries is being replaced now with ‘Allah Hafiz’ because ‘Khoda’ is a Farsi term. Shias, my older cousins tell me, were never differentiated from us when they were growing up. Today, tragically, the Shias are marginalised and targeted with bombs by extremist groups – for the first time in 400 years.
(2) Is it about Palestine? (And Afghanistan and Iraq and…)
While numerous international conflicts such as Kashmir and Chechnya may feel personal to Muslims, none have inflicted deep wounds as much as Palestine. The pro-Israel stance taken by most Western governments is evidence to many Muslims of the hostility they feel in the world at large. (Palestine’s Arab neighbours, while resolutely anti-Israel, have also neglected the cause, but nobody mentions that, as I wrote here.)
Though the United States armed and supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was because they were fighting the Soviets. A Cold War battle by proxy, if you will. The Afghanistan war that started in 2001, spearheaded by the United States, felt like yet another attack on Muslims – impoverished, war-ravaged Muslims at that.
But it was George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, begun in 2003, that really sealed it. It was unjustified (except to earn Halliburton billions in reconstruction contracts), naïve (removing a dictator and creating a vacuum that was quickly filled by volatile factions) as well as criminal. The Iraq invasion escalated the injustices felt by Muslims around the world. It was the best recruitment an extremist start-up could dream of. (The US authorities also imprisoned a large number of fighters in the same jail in Iraq for years. This allowed the prisoners to organise and train themselves – while being sheltered and fed at American taxpayers’ expense – to birth Isis.)
In unreliable times with few secure prospects, joining an extremist group can embolden a young Bangladeshi to feel part of something bigger, and ground their existence with a higher cause.
(3) Or does it, as most Bangladesh stories go, begin in 1971?
First, some history: the British, in their wisdom, partitioned India at the end of their colonial rule in 1947 into Hindu-majority India in the middle, and Muslim-majority Pakistan to its east and west. The two wings of Pakistan had different languages, ethnicities and cultures. The only thing we had in common was religion. Power for both sides was centred in West Pakistan. When an East Pakistan-based party and its leader – the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – democratically won the nationwide elections in 1970, they were blocked from taking office.
To quash a revolt, Pakistan – blessed by that beacon of democracy, the United States government – sent over their military might to cripple us even before our formal declaration of independence, and a brutal war followed for nine months.
But we had few factories, oil fields or other resources they could readily destroy. Our backbone was our culture. We had poets and writers, intellectuals and professors. The Pakistan military drew up a kill list and targeted them one by one.
The Pakistani army also went through the country, systematically raping women and killing civilians. Photographs show mutilated bodies flung into high piles in villages and towns across the country. The destruction was horrific, the tragedies uncountable. It was genocide. Millions of people were killed, millions more were displaced.
India sided with us and we won our independence, becoming our own country on 16 December 1971.
There were a number of Bangladeshis who aided the Pakistani military in hunting us down and killing us. Their motives were primarily religious – wanting to stay united with another Muslim-strong nation. These traitors became known as war criminals. For numerous political reasons, they faced little retribution over the decades for their actions. Some even rose to political prominence in major parties, and became heads of large banks and big businesses.
Our history for the past 40-odd years has been tumultuous. Heads of state have been assassinated. Governments have been taken over by the military. Political parties are largely dynastic. Our current Prime Minister is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; her lead opponent is the wife of a former leader.
In 2010, with Awami League heading the government, a tribunal was set up to investigate war crimes. The International Crimes Tribunal’s first sentencing three years later of a war criminal, found guilty on five charges, was life imprisonment.
This mobilised an uprising by students, progressive bloggers and activists who demanded a death sentence for the convicted – for the sake of justice as well as a concern he would otherwise be released from prison as soon as the government changed hands. This protest became known as the Shahbag movement.
As the war criminals up for trial largely belonged to the fundamentalist party, counter protestors claimed that those pushing for the death penalty were anti-Islamic. It was during these protests nearly three years ago that a blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was first hacked to death with a machete for espousing atheist views.
The Shahbag protestors were named and monitored by the religious right, and so began the infamous kill list, which was to expand, with different groups making their own variations. It has the eerie echo of the kill list drawn up by the Pakistani military in 1971.
Out it spreads
The targeted killings have in recent months escalated and expanded beyond bloggers. Two foreigners are shot at close range near their residences. Catholic priests are attacked near their churches. Shia gatherings are bombed, resulting in death and maiming. Two policemen, on two separate occasions, are hacked to death in broad daylight.
Older relatives who are sensible engineer types tell me they avoid being out in public now. They don’t go unaccompanied anywhere. They don’t even speak with people they don’t know, because what else do we talk about, even casually? After the weather and traffic, conversation falls to the political situation. And who knows who supports whom these days. They say being devoted to their faith doesn’t protect them any more.
Writer friends tell me they’ve stopped walking outside, as they used to even a few months ago, to go to the head of the street to call a rickshaw, or wait for their driver to bring round the car. Now they embark and disembark only behind guarded gates. Don’t take a chance, they advise me.
An uncle tells me to take my security seriously because I’m a blogger. I remind him I blog about fighting depression and finding creativity – when I’m not blogging about making organic skincare. How could what I write be remotely controversial? My uncle says that most people here don’t know what a blogger is, but now it’s become synonymous with ‘atheist’.
A friend says another blogger who also does not write about political or religious issues was followed. I make the terrible mistake of repeating this to my mother. One day as we come home, going down to the basement parking of our building as we always do, and not via the ground floor reception, a man steps out of the shadows and into the lift with us. He hasn’t come out of a car – the only reason to be in the basement. He doesn’t press any buttons. He follows us out of the lift and onto our floor. As we walk to our flat, he doesn’t ring any doorbells but starts punching into his phone. My mother points all this out to me when we’re inside our flat. I say there could be a dozen explanations. But whoever he is, she says, now he knows where you live.
Sign of the times
I thought I’d adjusted to this world. I know to never leave unattended baggage anywhere in public. I pack my carry-on in a way so I don’t get delayed by inspections in airports. I’m used to passing through metal detectors when entering hotels, malls and movie theatres.
It’s a (macabre) sign of the times that where my friends and I used to call each other from across the globe on birthdays, now we do it when there’s been a terrorist attack in our respective cities – New York, London, Bombay, Paris – and we ring to ensure the other is fine.
A war photographer I know once shared his experience on the battlefields. He said that if the gun was pointed at you, there was no hope – you were as good as gone. What you had to watch out for was getting hit by a stray bullet.
To me, the stray bullet used to mean being in the wrong place at the wrong time – caught in a crossfire, hit by a bus, on a plane with a suicidal pilot – just horrible luck in its utter randomness. But now with so much feeling so risky in Bangladesh, it’s as if the stray bullets are coming thick and fast. Dodging them means being on perpetually heightened alert. Is this what’s causing my anxiety? And should I be worried that one word too far and I could have the gun pointing at my temple instead?
I’m surprised by how emotional I feel. I am one of life’s drifters and my loyalties are idiosyncratic. I felt my most British watching the 2012 London Olympics. I support Italy in the World Cup. My happy place is India. But like the sucker who didn’t realise it was important until it’s gone, I have a hole in my heart where a country used to be.
I’m not like those who left the country to settle abroad. They’re mostly all Yay Bangladesh, shouty about their loyalty, while being relatively detached and unaffected by what’s going on, even if they have family here. Neither am I like those who live here, whom I liken to the proverbial frog sitting in cold water that’s been put to boil, unable to realise the temperature’s slowly rising. But I’m close enough to feel the heat.
Friends message me photos of their travels, the food they’re eating. I feel as if I’m looking at the world through a thick sheet of glass. Everything is muffled, muted. It feels like I’m depressed or in mourning. I guess I am in mourning. But when someone near you dies, you get calls from people murmuring their condolences. But nobody phones to regret the loss of your country as you knew it.
I began the grieving process much earlier than everyone else. Even as I spoke of things changing, there were disbelieving snorts and eye rolls over how alarmist I sounded. But I was like the elephant who can feel vibrations of a tremor miles away, even though the sky is blue and the birds are chirping. Now nobody thinks I’m being melodramatic any more.
After being thoroughly consumed by this I finally, with help, learned to detach myself from it. At first I felt disloyal doing so – people were dying and being terrorised – but the circular thoughts had become paralysing. Besides, Bangladesh was no safer because I was sitting in different parts of the world wringing my hands, fretting on its behalf. Once the fog lifted, I began to view things in a new light.
Much of my despair was coming from what I call the impossibility of it all. Staying on this path means we only go deeper into destruction and darkness. There can never be enough retaliation to soothe us over our deepest hurts. Trying to annihilate the other side is not a historical recipe for success. What possible solution could there be?
Unable to sleep one night, I pulled out a DVD from a pile I’d borrowed from friends. The film was Invictus, based on the period Nelson Mandela became President of a South Africa just emerging from its horrific past. Always a great admirer of Mandela in principle, I hadn’t really imagined what those early days in office, after 27 years as a political prisoner, were like. In my visit to South Africa last year, I kept asking everyone I met: how is it possible to change people’s mindset from one day to the next? How did they go from being so horrifically segregated under apartheid to now living with at least a surface level of ease? The film explains it: Mandela in his leadership role chose the path of forgiveness.
It can sound facile, so I ask myself the question too – can I forgive? Members of my family were targeted, killed, imprisoned and tortured by the Pakistani army. There is no family in Bangladesh who was not affected by the atrocities of 1971. And the brutal murders of recent times in the writing and publishing community by those who want to strike fear and terror in our hearts so that we succumb to silence – is it possible to forgive them?
What I come back to is this: it does not serve us to match rage with rage.
Forgiveness does not mean condoning their actions, or that they should not be held accountable for their actions. Far from it. A fair and transparent legal system is a powerful route to resolution.
But that is separate from forgiveness. Forgiveness is the choice to move beyond anger, hatred and revenge. In the film, Mandela says: ‘Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.’
Forgiveness is the path to peace. Forgiveness requires far more courage and strength than retaliation. It’s not a move that appeals to the small-minded more concerned with status, image and prestige. But it is the right move. And as of now, it is the only move. He who disarms wins. The prize is not just having the moral high ground, but peace in the soul.
‘I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’ — Martin Luther King, Jr
Pablo Picasso painted Guernica when the Nazis bombed this Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. It’s considered his most famous painting, as well as a profound anti-war symbol from the art world.
‘Now it may seem so far from where we all are/ It’s something we can’t neglect/ It’s something I can’t neglect/… Bangladesh, Bangladesh.’ Listen to George Harrison who took his Beatles fame and created the first aid concert at Madison Square Garden with Ravi Shankar in 1971 in the Concert For Bangladesh.
Charlie Chaplin brought out The Great Dictator, his first ‘talkie’, in 1940. Playing multiple roles in the film, he’s best remembered for this remarkable scene as the dictator playing with the globe: