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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number

Fundamentalism — A Threat To Our National Survival

Saturday 27 December 2014

by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury

In the 1960s, when I was working for a Dhaka daily, a world tourist came to our office and wanted to talk to us. He was the famous Nigerian traveller and Left political activist, Olabassi Azala. He was touring the world campaigning with anti-imperialist slogans and meeting all the famous leaders of the then Third World such as Pandit Nehru, Nkrumah, Soekarno and others. I was assigned to meet him on behalf of my daily and I welcomed him to my desk reluctantly. He told me, he meets his travel expenses by writing articles for newspapers of the countries he visits, and that he wants to give me an article on the socio-political problems of the then East Pakistan. I asked him whether he was comprehensively aware of these problems. He said when he went to any country he minutely studied the problems of the land and its people. So the problems of the people of East Pakistan were not unknown to him.

I was surprised seeing his motorcycle which he used to travel across continents and that motorcycle had the autographs of Nehru, Sukarno, Nkruma, Nasser and others. He spoke of his personal interactions with them. He was a socialist and said that nationalism initiated by Nehru or Nasser would fail because of its lack of total commitment to socialism. He said, in this subcontinent, communalism was still the basis of nationalist ideals. This is a great danger for the whole subcontinent. I was gradually very much impressed by his social conceptions and political analysis. He told me that his father was Muslim and his mother was Pagan. In his country, Nigeria, there is inter-religious marriage but nobody has to change his/her religion for the sake of marriage. So his mother did not give up her pagan beliefs after marrying a Muslim. He was named by his father as Mohammad Rafiq while his mother named him Olabassi Azala which is a pagan name. After he grow up he took up his mother’s paganism rejecting the Muslim faith. I was very curious and asked him why he took to Paganism which is a very old system of beliefs compared to the new religion of Islam. His explanation was, Islam came to Africa not as liberator but as a conqueror. It was the symbol of imperialism in Africa, so he embraced his mother’s old religion, which he thought, was the root of African civilisation.

This eventually led to a more controversial discussion. Azala said that the Bengali Muslims were still suffering from identity crisis because the invading Muslim powers isolated from their natural culture and history. In other places like Persia and Indonesia, people were converted to Islam in large numbers; they changed their faith but held on to their old culture. But in Pakistan, especially in the east wing, the Muslims who were converted from the lower strata of society to Islam, they were taught to believe that the local culture was not theirs and that it was anti-Islam. He said that the most unfortunate thing was that people of Pakistan worshipped the invaders such as Bakhtiar Khilji and condemned their own national heroes. Bakhtiar Khilji came to Bengal to plunder the resources of this region and not to preach religion. Whether the then King of Bengal, Lakkhan Sen, was defeated by Khilji’s horsemen soldiers or not, has not been proven and is not a historical fact. For him, it was very surprising that Muslims in Bengal praised Bakhtiar Khilji as their national hero and condemned their own King, Lakkhan Sen.

Olabassi Azala asked me a simple question: We condemn Lord Clive for his plunders and for killing the then independent King of Bengal, but what will happen if a group of Christians in Bengal claim Lord Clive as their national hero now? The question was rhetorical. What he meant was, religion cannot be the basis of nationality, and no one should choose their national hero, especially if they are foreign invaders, on the basis of religion. He said Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s greatest mistake was to divide India on the basis of religion and this has brought great sufferings for the Muslims of the subcontinent. After establishing Pakistan, the same Jinnah advised a few crores of Muslims, who remained in India, to become perfect Indian nationals. This was a great contradiction of his two-nation theory. If a great number of Muslims could become Indian after Partition, why couldn’t they all become Indian without Partition? Their faith is Islam but their culture is Indian. On that basis, Indian Muslims could be a strong part of the Indian nationhood and influence the socio-political scenario of subcontinent. Instead, they are now divided in two different countries, Pakistan and India. Still the Muslims in Pakistan are not united. There was hatred and discrimi-nation between the two wings of Pakistan and in Pakistan also, Sunni Muslims are not prepared to accept the Shia leadership and demanded that the Shia and Ahmadiya communities should be categorised as non-Muslims. Azala said his fear was that there will be a war between the two parts of Pakistan and the conflict will be within and between the Muslim inhabitants. It will be a full-fledged war, not the previous Hindu-Muslim riots. Muslims will kill Muslims.

I met Azala more than half-a-century ago. Now I wonder how this Nigerian traveller could perceive that a war was to take place between the two parts of Pakistan and few lakhs of Muslims would die at the hands of the people of their own faith.

We are now searching for clues, after 200 years of Western education and domination, as to how fundamentalism could rise in such an ugly manner. Currently in Iraq and Syria, the IS is fighting for establishing the Islamic Khilafat; they are not fighting with Richard the Lion-hearted, leader of the first crusade, but they are fighting with their own Muslim brethren and killing them in thousands.

In Bangladesh, the target of the Jamaat and other jihadist groups is not only the minorities but a vast number of Muslims. To save mankind from religious atrocities, even the Prophet of Islam, through his historic charter of Medina, declared that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all belong to the same Ummah. By uniting the people of Medina, irrespective of their religion, the Prophet (PBUH) thwarted the aggression from Mecca. In the new emergent Bangladesh, the founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, could foresee that his country and people cannot survive without a strong national identity and that identity would be Bengali nationalism, a socio-cultural and geographical identity, and not a religious one.

By killing Bangabandhu, and destroying his secular ideals, Bangladesh is now facing the greatest danger from the blood-thirsty fundamentalists. Religion was always used to exploit the people’s mind and lead them towards disunity. It was very strange when the Indian National Congress started the independence movement against the British Raj, they could not attract the Indian Muslims to join that movement. Gandhi had to evolve new tactics to call all the Muslims to start a movement to revive the old Khilafat and it was called the Khilafat movement. That time, Jinnah was a secularist leader and he warned Gandhi that this Khilafat movement, based on old medieval ideas, will not do any good to Indian Muslims. Rather, it will lead them to self-destruction. The irony was that a few years later Jinnah himself started the Pakistan movement, which was the consequence of the Khilafat movement and Pakistan was nothing but a demand for establishing a modern Khilafat. With the death of Jinnah and other modern Muslim League leaders, Pakistan started falling into medievalism in the wake of efforts to become a Sharia state. Now Pakistan is a failed state, devastated every day by drone attacks.

Bangladesh is fortunate that they have very strong secular cultural roots from Charyapad to Tagore and Nazrul Islam. This is a great bulwark against the rise of fanaticism. Sheikh Mujib and other secular leaders are the products of this great secular cultural heritage and their political role saved Bangladesh from becoming a second Pakistan. At the right moment, Bengalis were united under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib and came out from the medieval feudal structure of Pakistani statehood and declared their independence.

I have no doubt that if Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, we would have had to face similar devastation and daily American drone attacks. Our salvation still lies in secular and democratic statehood and in the bond of secular nationalism. Some people think that in this age of globalisation, nationalism will be a meaningless concept, but the dismember-ment of the Soviet Union and the rise of small, national republics as well as the cry for separation from Britain in Scotland (though not yet materialised) are strong evidence that nationalism still plays a vital part in nation-building and guaranteeing its progress.

Bangladesh is passing through a great crisis period due to the rise of religious extremism. After many defeats secularists are now preparing to unite and fight a vicious enemy of our national existence. We need modernity and advancement. Fundamentalism will drive the nation backwards. Hence, this is the right time we overcome our crisis of national identity and build a democratic Bangladesh based on secularism by defeating the fundamentalist demons in our social and political life.

The author, a repued Bangladeshi journalist, is residing in London for the last 40 years.