On a trip to London for a conference, in 2008, I was treated to what the organisers called ‘a typically British meal’ – chicken tikka masala. They chuckled good-naturedly about it and to me, at the time, this was kind of charming. How encouraging that this former imperial power was able to absorb its multicultural heritage so easily. Later, I learnt that the origins of this dish are contested – did it originate in Punjab or was it ‘invented’ in Glasgow? I also learnt that up to ninety per cent of Indian eateries in the UK were actually run by Bangladeshis. It simultaneously amused and saddened me that the grub in these restaurants consisted of blandified distortions of the rich cuisine of South Asia. My British Bangladeshi friends elaborated that they had different kinds of food at home. They assured me, a Malaysian who marches on his stomach, that real Bengali cuisine was way more interesting than what could be found in many of these curry houses. To summarise what I learnt – going out for Indian food in Britain meant patronising a vibrant restaurant trade run by Bangladeshis who served stuff they themselves would not normally eat. This was my personal introduction to the Bangladesh Paradox.
The Bangladesh Paradox is an oft-used expression by many analysts to explain how the country has managed to achieve encouraging economic growth despite, to put it politely, its ‘governance deficit’. The paradox is even more striking given that this is the same country that was once dismissed as a ‘basket case’ by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. While defining and recognising a paradox requires philosophical and logical rigour, phenomena that initially appear paradoxical can be exciting opportunities to learn. And, as I was discovering, the Bangladesh Paradox could apply to much more besides the country’s economy.
And so, I was not disappointed when I asked Saif Osmani, a British Bangladeshi visual artist and designer, if there were any Bangladeshi restaurants in London that he would recommend. Here was a golden opportunity for me to learn about Bangladesh through its food. Of course, he replied. ‘Increasingly people are wanting to eat authentic Bangladeshi home food, so there’s one I sometimes go to on Brick Lane and a nice biryani place in Whitechapel,’ he explained. I said I preferred simpler, smaller outlets. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘Some of the smaller cafes are better.’ I asked Irum Shehreen Ali, a London-based Bangladeshi sociologist and one of the contributors to this issue, if she wanted to join and her email reply crackled with delight. ‘I am always up for home food! I swear, it’s the thing I miss most after my family – and sometimes probably more! We Bangladeshis are food obsessed, and for me there is nothing that makes me more homesick.’
One weekday evening in mid-March, the three of us sat down to dinner at Kolapata (‘Banana Leaf’) Restaurant in Whitechapel. From the moment we met and walked from the Tube station, Irum had given me a non-stop tutorial on Bangladeshi food culture, with Saif interjecting occasionally. With home food, she explained, lunch and dinner are different. Usually people don’t eat meat during lunch – fish, maybe. Meat is reserved for dinner, especially if it’s a special occasion, for example when there are invited guests. According to Irum, when there are guests, Bangladeshis will emphasise the Northern Indian or Mughal influence, serving biryanis and curries that are richer than the usual everyday chow. Although there are now ‘biryani houses’ and restaurants that specialise in this fare, it was traditionally reserved for weddings and similar occasions because it had to be made in large quantities and was expensive.
At Kolapata, Irum declared that she was abandoning cutlery and eating with her fingers. She said eating like this was de rigueur in Bangladeshi homes. The messy Malaysian in me rejoiced and followed her to the row of washbasins to rinse our hands. Saif quickly followed suit – the peer pressured obviously worked. Then there was a brief period of mutual deflection – they wanted to know what I liked to eat but I asked them to order dishes that they wanted. We struck a happy medium by ordering enough to feed a small army.
We started with fuchka – round, crisp, hollow puri (small unleavened flatbread) stuffed with chickpea, potato and chopped boiled egg, served with tamarind sauce. Irum said this was actually a popular street food in Bangladesh. ‘Part of its charm is that we go out to eat it, rather than have it at home.’ It was familiar yet strange, in a delightful way – to me, it was like a cross between fried popiah (Chinese Malaysian spring rolls) and panipuri (an Indian street snack). But there was no time to explain this to Saif and Irum as the rest of the night’s offerings swiftly appeared on our table – beef bhunna, eelish or hilsa fish marinated in salt and turmeric and fried in mustard oil, bhuna khichuri, tarka daal, kacchi biryani and aloo bhorta. All of these elicited the same familiar-yet-strange sensations for me. I ordered a drink called borhani and Irum and Saif watched my reaction closely. It was like a salty lassi – albeit less thick and infused with jeera (cumin). It was weird and wonderful. I said I liked it which pleased Saif, who had ordered it too. Irum said it was an acquired taste.
They assured me that most of what we ordered was festive home food. I asked them to rate each item on a scale of one to ten. The fried eelish fish came out tops (a nine from Irum and eight from Saif), followed closely by the bhuna khichuri (an eight from both) and beef bhuna (a seven). The other dishes fared quite well but the tarka daal only mustered a mediocre six (they complained it wasn’t properly dressed in toasted mustard seeds or topped with crisp garlic). Although the rating exercise was impromptu, it was serious business. Irum wasn’t kidding when she said part of the joy of eating for her was the monitoring and evaluation that came afterwards.
But our conversation did not revolve solely around food. We went back and forth between admiring the food and discussing the Liberation War, Nadiya Hussain (the Great British Bake-Off winner), the politics of language in Bangladesh, radicalisation and terrorism, gender and sexual diversity, and the perils of gentrification (referring specifically to East London). I was struck by how seamlessly Irum and Saif discussed Bangladesh, filling the gaps in each other’s narratives or offering differing perspectives on the same issue.
Upon further reflection, their exchange made me think of a project by Katy Gardner and Kanwal Mand, from the University of Sussex, who conducted interviews with British Bangladeshi primary schoolers in East London. One of the children’s explanation of desh (home) and bidesh (foreign places) was particularly instructive:
Q: Where is your desh?
Max: I’d say Bangladesh.
Q: What, your bidesh?
Max: My home is England … that’s my bidesh.
Q: So, your desh is Bangladesh?
Q: What does desh mean? Is it home?
Q: And what does bidesh mean?
Max: Bidesh means home and desh means away.
Q: Are you sure, I thought it was the other way round… I may be wrong. I thought that desh was your home and bidesh was away.
Max: I dunno.
Q: Ok… let’s say where is …home is England?
Max: And away is Bangladesh. I got family in there that I don’t really get to see… Once in a blue moon.
It might be tempting to take this as a ‘kids say the darndest things’ moment and laugh. But perhaps Max (a pseudonym) has articulated something deeply profound – in a globalised world, is it possible to distinguish between ‘home’ and ‘away’ so easily? According to the researchers, Ted (another pseudonym), put it more simply: ‘My “away” is here.’ It is thus possible – and not paradoxical – to have a relationship with two countries that are both ‘home’ and ‘away’. This makes sense because, to me, the bits and pieces that Irum and Saif shared were part of one larger, integrated picture of Bangladesh and its diaspora.
This edition of Critical Muslim focuses on Bangladesh while bearing these nuances in mind. But before exploring these subtleties, some basic background is necessary. Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan on 26 March 1971. Immediately, the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight – a sustained military effort in what it still considered East Pakistan. The army detained Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League who proclaimed Bangladesh’s independence and, with the help of militias, it killed Bengali students, intellectuals, politicians, civil servants and military defectors during a war that lasted nine months. As Qayyum Khan puts it in his essay, ‘on 16 December 1971, Bangladesh emerged on the global stage of independent states with an empty treasury, a destroyed infrastructure and a traumatised population who had suffered inhuman tragedy at the hands of the Pakistan Army.’ And then in 1974, the fledgling nation-state was ravaged by a famine that claimed thousands of lives.
Pundits predicted that Bangladesh would not make it. But, as Khan maintains, these ‘doomsday soothsayers’ were wrong. The country has not only survived, it has prospered – especially when compared to its South Asian neighbours. However, Khan emphatically resists descending into smugness. Instead, he probes the governance issues that gave rise to (and sustain) the Bangladesh Paradox. He offers a sobering assessment of the failures of democratic administration – executive, legislative and judicial – and the toxic structure of party politics. He goes to some very disturbing places, saying that true darkness set in early for the young country, when Mujib and his family were assassinated in 1975. The nation was plunged into constitutional chaos, paving the way for a series of brutal military dictatorships, corruption and the politicised manipulation of Islam. Even the restoration of democracy in the 1990s is now under threat again, this time from a civilian administration. Still, Khan gives us a glimmer of hope at the end – namely, the activism of younger, more conscientised Bangladeshis – but argues that this too can be snuffed if we ignore the heart of the problem:
Bangladeshis never had a national debate on what kind of a nation state they want. The vote for [Awami League] in the first national elections of Pakistan in 1970 was for provincial autonomy to end the discrimination Bengalis faced in Pakistan, not for independence or secession. When the Pakistan army unleashed terror on East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the people took up arms and with help from India put an end to the Pakistan army’s murderous occupation and liberated their land. But they never had a national discourse on how their country would be different from Pakistan.
For Khan, the lofty ideals in the country’s Declaration of Independence – that elected representatives are honour-bound ‘to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice’ – have yet to be delivered.
Perhaps the challenge that is most visible to the rest of the world is the rise of religious extremism and violence. In recent years, secular bloggers, sexual minority activists, foreigners, Hindus, Buddhists and Bauls – a local community of musical mystics – have been murdered, many of them hacked to death. In July 2016, the gruesome terror attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in an affluent part of Dhaka stunned the country and sent shockwaves elsewhere in the international community. It heightened the already considerable climate of fear within Bangladesh, even amongst folks who initially thought they were immune. As Sadaf Saaz, one of the founders of the Dhaka Literary Festival, puts it:
For days afterwards, we were silently making sure we knew our suras (when the rumour went around that those had been spared knew their suras [Qur’anic passages]). Would I have given in and put a headscarf on, to save my life, to pacify them, these young Turks? Would I start to dress differently now?
It is thus tempting to use Bangladesh as yet another example of how the scourge of terrorism is taking over the entire Muslim world. Yet even in this heinous development, it helps to recall the Bangladesh Paradox. Compare, for example, the brutal murders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy in 2016 and the historical tolerance towards hijras (often glossed as ‘third gender’) in Bengal.
Hijras are not unique to Bangladesh – hijrahood is an institutionalised subculture throughout South Asia. Over the last ten years, hijra activism has gradually resulted in improved legal status in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 2009, the Chief Justice of Pakistan ordered that the hijras’ distinct identity be recognised in national identity cards – a decision hailed by activists. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognised the ‘third gender’ and upheld their rights to education and employment. In Bangladesh, the official recognition of hijra rights came through a cabinet decision in 2014. Yet Pakistan and Bangladesh have also seen increasing hostility towards LGBT activism. In India, the historic decision by the Delhi High Court in 2009 to read down anti-sodomy legislation – much hailed by local and international LGBT activists – was subsequently reversed. Bangladesh is thus not alone in displaying this apparent paradox between pro-hijra and anti-LGBT attitudes.
There are, however, unique manifestations of hijrahood in Bangladesh that make it a valuable case study in its own right. Across South Asia, hijras can be generally understood as, in the words of anthropologist Adnan Hossain, ‘feminine-identified male-bodied people who desire “macho” men and who sacrifice their male genitals to a goddess in return for spiritual prowess’. The region-wide hijra subcultures draw upon both Hindu and Muslim (specifically Sufi) mysticism and asceticism. But they also emphasise different storylines and symbols depending on their location and surrounding demographic. Hijras in India, for example, usually justify their practices through the ‘Hindu veneration of androgyny’. The connection between hijrahood and Muslim cultures in India has also taken a particular direction, given the increasing stigmatisation of Islam by Hindutva nationalists. Hindu-born hijras who identify with Islam might be indirectly or subconsciously doing this to symbolise solidarity with a misunderstood minority.
In Bangladesh, however, the reverse does not happen. According to anthropologist Adnan Hossain:
Muslim-born hijra in Bangladesh do not identify themselves as Hindus based on their ritualistic observance of Hindu-marked practices and beliefs…. Similarly, although there are also Hindu-born hijra in Bangladesh, they generally adhere to and identify with their religion of birth and there is no communitarian pressure on the Hindu-born hijra, or chaiton as the hijra call them, to become surki, the hijra term for Muslims.
Hossain argues further that many Bangladeshi hijras often accompany other Muslims on chilla (proselytising trips). The ones who can afford it go to Makkah to perform the haj. Some communities are even on ‘very good terms with the [local] imam’. Hossain observed a milad (religious festival), led by an imam who made du‘a (supplications) that specifically included the hijra attendees.
If the picture is so rosy, then why the hostility towards other sexual minorities? This is why it is important not to romanticise the status of hijras. Despite achieving legal recognition, Bangladeshi hijras still face discrimination and prejudice when trying to utilise various public services. And because of their hybrid and mystical religious practices, hijras are also vulnerable to attacks by radical Islamists who want to stamp out what they see as deviations within the religion.
It is a question of fact and degree, however. For wider Bangladeshi society, hijras are a more familiar sight and part of the traditional social fabric in a way that newer forms of LGBT activist groups are not. Anato Chowdhury thus characterises the position of the government and wider society towards hijras as ‘arm’s length acceptance’. Yet even the wider reactions towards LGBT activists and communities have not always been overtly hostile. As Chowdhury points out, from the 1990s onwards, the government has either tacitly supported HIV-centred work by the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or displayed indifference towards Boys of Bangladesh (BoB). Things changed, however, when Roopbaan – a newer organisation that published a magazine of the same name – entered the scene. Roopbaan was far more visible and generated greater media interest than Bandhu or BoB, which irked several Muslim organisations, including the National Tafsir Committee and the Awami Olama League, which is affiliated to the ruling Awami League.
In February 2016, the murder of the secularist blogger Avijit Roy – who happened to be a supporter of sexual minority rights – was something of a catalyst. It was quickly followed by the murders of other bloggers and eventually also of Roopbaan activists Mannan and Tonoy. Yet, as Chowdhury points out, the reactions to the murders were more unsettling. On one hand, mainstream human rights organisations, including the National Human Rights Commission, were reticent about condemning the murders too publicly. The government also refused to condemn the murders outright, and instead chastised those who had offended people’s religious ‘sensibilities’. This was amid the government’s own increasing vulnerability to Islamist retaliation due to its efforts to bring war criminals – many of whom allegedly have Islamist connections – to justice.
The Bangladesh government thus asserts it is against Islamist violence, yet it often capitulates to the sentiments it claims to abhor. To be fair, Bangladesh does not have a monopoly on this particular dilemma. Numerous Muslim-majority states are faced with the same situation, from Morocco to Malaysia. Thus, what initially appears to be a pro-hijra/anti-LGBT paradox is perfectly understandable, given the specific intersections of culture, politics, gender, class and religion.
For Zeeshan Khan, the Islamist-secularist binary has to be tackled head on. Like Qayyum Khan, Zeeshan acknowledges that Bangladesh never developed a clear narrative about itself upon independence. In particular, Zeeshan argues, ‘Bangladesh never quite made peace with the strains of Islamism that were injected into its political corpus during the 1971 war of liberation.’ Instead, the war’s trajectory created a storyline that ‘placed Pakistan on the side of Islam and Bangladesh on the side of forces hostile to Islam’. Although this narrative appeared to lay dormant for a couple of decades after independence, it was incubated by developments in national politics and transnational Islamist activity. Beginning from the 1990s, however, a resurgence of Islamism – constantly edging closer towards violent jihadism – began ‘pushing at the gates’ of the state.
Zeeshan contends that the best antidote to toxic ideological wars is greater awareness of history. The Sultanate of Bengal, established in 1352, maintained a political distance from the Delhi Sultanate for more than two centuries and developed its own brand of multiculturalism. For example, before the arrival of the Muslims in Bengal, Buddhists were persecuted in the court of the Brahmins, which the Bengal Sultans stopped. According to Zeeshan:
The Sultans were generally appreciative of both Hinduism and Buddhism, culturally at least, and eventually absorbed much of their art and mysticism, grafting chunks of the older culture onto their own. This is the syncretism that has characterised Bengal’s politics as well as its theology ever since, a theology that was developed, in no small part, by conversations between Muslim Sufis and Hindu Sadhus.
The Chishti order of Sufism was nourished by vibrant exchange with surrounding Hindu-Buddhist cultures. Muslim Sultans even commissioned Bengali translations of the Ramayana, which mortified the Hindu aristocracy. The politics of the British Raj, however, planted the seeds of division between Bengali Hindus and non-Hindus, which then fed into the movement for Partition. Urdu was to become the language of Muslim Pakistan because Bengali was perceived as too ‘Hindu’. This, in turn, catalysed the Language Movement in East Pakistan that galvanised the movement for independence. Yet the idea that Bengali is not ‘Islamic’ enough still informs the sentiments of Islamists within Bangladesh who continue calling for it to be de-Sanskritised.
Again, it is counter-productive to idealise history. Zeeshan clarifies that the Sultanate of Bengal also exhibited periods when Islam was regulated and expressed in punitive and exclusionary ways. It is therefore just as possible to reclaim a Bengali past that celebrated Muslim pluralism as it is to highlight historical precedents for home-grown extremism. The point, however, is that we can draw upon the multi-layered history of the Bengali Sultanate to give contemporary debates ‘political depth’. Most importantly, in the war of ideas, this awareness of history can ‘defeat the Islamist assertion that Bangladesh is a post-colonial and therefore “Western” creation, divorced from its original orientation as an Islamic kingdom’. It is high time to distinguish between being an Islamic as opposed to Islamist state.
Where do we start, though? The nation-state, after all, cannot be transformed through intellectual debate alone. Entrenched agencies and institutions – many of which are colonial legacies – can block or quash well-intentioned attempts to empower citizens that upset the status quo. This is clearly the case with the historical rivalry between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Which incidentally brings us to yet another paradox – that of duelling female leadership (or the Battle of the Begums, if you like) which has not necessarily translated into gender equality on the ground and, worse, has exacerbated patriarchy and authoritarian rule.
Bangladesh is not alone in having been governed by female leaders who inherited their authority from towering male figures. Just look at its South Asian neighbours. Bangladesh is unique, though, in that from 1991 to 2008, it had a two-party system dominated by two women – AL’s Sheikh Hasina and BNP’s Khaleda Zia. Power was transferred via elections that were largely free and fair, marred by a failed and rescheduled election in 1996 and a military coup in 2006-7. According to Irum Shehreen Ali, however, since the AL’s landslide victory in 2008, ‘BNP has been all but decimated as a political force’. BNP boycotted the 2013 elections, accusing them of being rigged. AL took power again and since then, Sheikh Hasina has ruled with an iron fist.
According to Ali, the presence of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as prime ministers and party leaders has enormous symbolic power, but their track record on improving women’s participation in politics has been disappointing:
Neither of them challenged the patriarchal and dynastic bases of political power, given that their claim to leadership and legitimacy is via male relatives. For both AL and BNP, the presence of women who reminded voters of strong, beloved leaders such as Sheikh Mujib [Hasina’s father] and Ziaur Rahman [Khaleda’s father] proved to be effective branding. They represent continuity in a nation defined by familial identities, hierarchal relationships and authoritarian leadership. Their alleviation to power depended on the male party membership and in exchange for loyalty, neither Sheikh Hasina nor Khaleda Zia has rocked the patriarchal boat. For reasons of political expediency, they rewarded the men around them, many of whom are seasoned political operators, with resources, institutional control and policy-making influence. They acquiesced to male dominance in the political space and their attempts to change gendered political power structures for women were tokenistic.
The duopolistic nature of politics makes things worse. Political victors use their advantage of incumbency to dominate all manner of political, legislative and bureaucratic resources and crush the opposition. Ali elaborates: ‘they reward loyalty by giving supporters access to resources. They often ensure loyalty through violent intimidation and vote buying.’ Thus, even with laws and policies ostensibly meant to improve women’s political participation, the odds are stacked against them. Yet, despite the herculean effort, numerous Bangladeshi women are passionate about making a difference from the grassroots.
Furthermore, from a grassroots perspective, women often negotiate politics in unexpected ways. Here’s another paradox – the appeal of ‘covering’ amongst Muslim women despite the objections of several secular-liberal feminists. Many established feminist activists still cast radical Islam or Islamism as the prime danger to women. According to Dina Siddiqi, their analysis rings hollow when the purportedly secular state pursues neo-liberal policies that are equally damaging to women, especially those from working class backgrounds. Of course, not all feminists follow the conventional secular-liberal script that portrays religion as ‘always already regressive, patriarchal, and by definition against women’s interests’. Rather, people like Seuty Sabur, anthropologist at BRAC University, Dhaka, and labour leaders such as Nazma Akter insist that working class women’s experiences of religion must be taken seriously. For example, instead of fearing madrassahs as potential hotbeds of misogyny, many working-class women find them appealing because they offer workable day-care options, which employers (and the state) neglect to provide.
For Siddiqi, the politics of gender and Islam cannot be separated from an analysis of class and the economy, specifically the government’s neo-liberal development policies starting from the 1980s. This is when Bangladesh entered the global garment industry as an outcome of ‘externally imposed structural adjustment’. (Recall that barely a decade previously, this was a country reeling from devastating war and famine and was an infamous ‘bottomless basket’.) However, the garment industry needed cheap and preferably female labour. Middle and upper class women already had professional jobs while rural women – middle class as well as poor – worked in domestic settings. Yet the labour market did get filled with millions of women and girls who migrated from rural areas to Dhaka and Chittagong. Suddenly, they were highly visible in public and many became the breadwinners in their families. Men back home started to resent them even though their working lives were hardly paradise – conditions were often exploitative and unsafe. Still, this combination of their newfound mobility, public visibility and paid employment made many of them targets of scrutiny. Were they getting uppity or succumbing to immorality? For many, the solution was a balancing act. They needed to work, but they also needed to be regarded as ‘good’ women – many thus chose to cover. Amid all of this, the lack of legal safeguards meant that the women remained vulnerable to harassment and appalling working conditions. At the same time, however, the changing religious landscape meant that particular expressions of Islam were becoming dominant – particularly Salafi or Wahhabi-inspired interpretations.
Siddiqi therefore does not argue that garment workers will be treated any better if political Islamists come to power. Rather, she stresses that any analysis of the ‘dangers’ of Islamism must also be accompanied by an equally hard-hitting critique of the secular state’s violation of women’s rights. And understanding the appeal of certain expressions of Islam among working and middle-class women entails recognising the gaps left open by the state. One hand cannot clap.
By focusing on women’s experiences, the pieces by Ali and Siddiqi demonstrate that the state is not merely a juridical construct (an observation that applies not only to Bangladesh). It can also be seen as a network of relationships – formal and informal – with their own power struggles to determine who gets to impose order (or disorder) on society. In other words, what we call ‘the state’ is not just made up of formal laws, bureaucratic agencies and political power – it is also built from lived realities that vary from person to person and group to group. In Bangladesh, some of these lived realities are informed by incredibly traumatic experiences which have a ripple effect on other people. For Onjali Raúf, a British Bangladeshi Muslim woman, the discovery of the Birangona – or ‘women heroes’ of the liberation war – was life changing.
During the war of independence, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls – some as young as seven years old – were systematically raped, tortured or murdered by the Pakistani army and its Bengali collaborators. For Raúf, the tragedy was also that, as a British Bangladeshi, she only learnt about the Birangona as an adult after watching a play in London in 2014. This is what unleashed a fresh hunger to find out about this dimension of her personal story, which was never discussed within her own family. As a Muslim woman, Raúf was stunned by the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s military and its collaborators:
From the foot-soldiers who carried out the crimes to the leaders of Islamist parties who condoned them, that any man claiming to believe in God could not only commit or condone a rape but perpetrate it in the belief that Bengali women were ‘gonimoter maal’ (war booty) – especially those belonging to the minority Hindu population – remains beyond my imagining or understanding.
Raúf’s indignation is understandable but, as a non-Bangladeshi, I was surprised when, during our dinner at Kolapata, Irum Ali said she had always known about the Birangona. Growing up in Bangladesh, she was saturated with stories about the martyrs for independence – men and women. Saif Osmani added that his own father was so wedded to his perspective of the 1971 liberation war that questioning it was tantamount to blasphemy. For Osmani, the focus of the story now is about he can allow his own identity as a British Bengali Muslim to flourish.
This issue of Critical Muslim cannot pretend to be exhaustive. But it can give a taste for how many ways the story of Bangladesh can be told, depending on the individual’s perspective. For a non-Bangladeshi, even the country’s brief history can be overwhelming. Hassan Mahamdallie recounts his own journey of discovery in his ode to Dhaka. Mahamdallie meets an impressive range of socially engaged Dhakaites, including a human rights-focused photographer, an architect committed to a just approach to urban slums, a teacher, a maverick left-wing politician, progressive student activists and academics. Every single one of them is concerned about the state of the country’s politics and every single one bursts with passion to build a better Bangladesh.
Mahamdallie finds several pockets of hope, but his wonderment is taken to another level when he goes to Kushtia, a town located a hundred miles west of Dhaka and around fifty miles from the West Bengal border. Nearby is a shrine to Lalon Shah, the nineteenth century mystic and social reformer who was a seminal influence on Bengali thought and culture. Mahamdallie’s companions urge him to follow and catch the Dol Purnima (Moonlight Festival), celebrated by mystics and Lalon’s followers. It is here that Mahamdallie has what he describes as a most fascinating encounter with Farhad Mazhar, a seventy-year-old ‘leading member of the ’68 generation of revolutionaries; schooled in Marxism, but of the New (anti-Stalinist) Left’.
Mazhar is one of those rare figures whose commitment to leftist principles has remained steadfast through the decades – ‘I don’t give a damn about Bengali nationalism,’ he tells Mahamdallie – but has never entailed demonising religion. At the same time, he has not endeared himself either to the AL or BNP. And there he is, at the Dol Purnima, celebrating the legacy of Lalon. For Mazhar, this is not a dose of opiate for the masses. No, he jokes with Mahamdallie – he is not about to go to New York and ‘start Hare Krishna’. Instead, he sees in Lalon’s legacy a political movement which was also a spiritual movement. This is Mazhar’s way of contributing to a leftist discourse that critiques injustice by drawing upon people’s local traditions and spirituality, instead of focusing on Eurocentric Enlightenment ideals. He tells Mahamdallie:
I understand that in the West the Enlightenment wanted to break the power of the Christian Church, because it was an oppressive force. But that is particular to Europe. Our thinking, culture and practices are very different…. Progressives, in trying to reject [the reactionary face of religion] have also thrown away its core…In the battle against imperialism, we need to rediscover that which is our own asset, the core of our being.
This is why he engages with and writes about Islam but without being an apologist for Islamism, even when he is among Muslim leaders:
They think I’m not a good Muslim: I don’t follow shariah, I don’t go to prayers very often – but I do fast very well. I tell the muftis that Bangladesh is a brutal state run by killers and robbers – what’s the point of demanding shariah law on the top of a state that is getting more and more fascist?
Mazhar is living proof that one man’s paradox is another man’s paradigm shift. But not all of Mahamdallie’s encounters were this hopeful. There remains the question of how Bangladesh is going to manage its minority populations – especially when some minorities pose more problems to national identity than others. Mahamdallie highlights the plight of the Biharis, an Urdu-speaking population of around 300,000 that originally moved into East Pakistan after the partition of India.
The Biharis were considered a fifth column during the war of independence because of their collaboration with the Pakistani army and anti-liberation paramilitary groups. During and after the end of the war, they were subjected to collective punishment – violent reprisals, arrests, mob attacks, dispossession and mass killings. These were significantly at the hands of the Mukti Bahini (MB, Freedom Fighters or Liberation Forces), formally organised by the Mujibnagar government in July 1971. This guerrilla force was made up of Bengali troops within the Pakistan army who revolted and joined the Liberation Movement as well as civilian fighters. But the minefield of national and political loyalties make it difficult to assess the full extent of the Mukti Bahini’s role. Were they simply indefatigable war heroes? Or might some of their actions also count as war crimes? Were they perhaps anti-Pakistan proxies of India? This is where the wounds of Bangladesh’s war of independence remain open for a vast number of people – some more visibly than others. In this climate, questioning the established view of the country’s genesis can be akin to sacrilege.
What we do know is that many Biharis ended up stranded in refugee camps and became stateless. Even as they were exposed to retaliation within Bangladesh, successive Pakistani administrations were also reluctant to repatriate them. In 2008, 150,000 Biharis who were minors in 1971 or born afterwards were finally granted citizenship and voting rights. Yet many Biharis who grew up in the refugee camps remain socially isolated, under-educated and live in sub-standard conditions. In Dhaka, they remain vulnerable to mob violence and forced eviction from their settlements. The Biharis represent yet another difficult intersection in the development of Bangladesh’s national narrative – how to balance justice and reconciliation.
The challenge presented by the presence of the Bihari population is also being played out in the bitter debates about justice for war criminals. Some of this can be seen in responses to those who question the official version of the 1971 war. In 2011, the academic Sarmila Bose – a Bengali and granddaughter of Indian independence hero Subhas Chandra Bose – ignited controversy with her book, Dead Reckoning, which she described as ‘myth-busting’. ‘I am only trying to question the existing narratives of the 1971 war in view of data I have gathered while working for the book,’ said Bose at the US launch. One of her claims was that there are ‘obvious exaggerations’ about the number of people killed or women raped by the Pakistan army. Bengali activists and intellectuals in India and Bangladesh accused Bose of distorting the facts and being an apologist for the Pakistan military. Three years later, the British journalist David Bergman was found guilty of contempt by a Bangladesh court for questioning the 1971 death toll.
And then there is the question of what to do with convicted war criminals. In 2013, Abdul Quader Mollah, secretary-general of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty of beheading a poet, raping an eleven-year-old girl and shooting 344 people during the 1971 war. Yet when he emerged from the court, he flashed his supporters the victory sign – because he was only sentenced to life imprisonment, not death. A protest movement swiftly grew around Shahbag, in the heart of Dhaka, with crowds chanting ‘Fashi chai!’ – ‘Let him hang!’ So here is yet another paradox – how could a movement standing for a progressive, secular Bangladesh so unequivocally call for the death penalty?
These painful debates might seem like more than enough to burden a young country, but Bangladesh also faces a more fundamental threat – the catastrophic impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Because of demography and geography, the country’s population is particularly vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise and extreme weather events. Bangladesh lost 5.9 per cent of its GDP to storms between 1998 and 2009. By 2050, it is projected that 27 million people will be at risk due to rising sea levels. (Bangladesh has a current total population of 161 million, which is projected to rise to 202 million in 2050.) Increased flooding will threaten rice production and exacerbate illnesses from dengue to diarrhoea.
On an encouraging note, the government of Bangladesh knows that the picture is dire and is doing something about it. It has passed appropriate policies and set up the required agencies to help the country mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement is also meant to spur developed countries to provide the resources – financial and beyond – that are desperately needed by more vulnerable countries like Bangladesh. However, the distribution of these resources from the global North to the South is currently blocked by bureaucratic inertia and power imbalances between rich and poor nations. It is indeed alarming that even an issue as urgent as climate change seems to be fraught with neo-colonial nonsense. What is even more disturbing for people in Bangladesh is that the efforts to respond to climate change are also being stymied by domestic governance failures. If nothing changes soon, we might be discussing not the Bangladesh Paradox but an impending Bangladesh Apocalypse.
What needs to happen, then? For Sharbari Ahmed, one of the writers of the US television series Quantico, much responsibility rests with writers and artists like her. A first-generation immigrant to the US from a Bangladeshi Muslim family, Ahmed’s voice could be marginalised on many different levels. According to her, as a migrant, Muslim woman, her biggest existential threat is her own president, Donald Trump – who incidentally is also a climate change denier. Yes, she considers herself and her friends ‘woke’ – ‘conscious of the inequities and double standards of race and class relations in this country’. But the challenge is how to stay woke and turn consciousness into effective action. For Ahmed, this means being even more committed to writing fearlessly, even at the cost of cosy acceptance in Hollywood. People like her must challenge American imperialism, right-wing nationalism and Islamic extremism and probe the unholy alliances that have sometimes materialised between all three:
To deny that America’s links with Wahhabism and Zionism are not fuelling much of the instability in the region would be as myopic and foolish as to think that having a black president for eight years would somehow destroy the racial divide. I know that America worked with the Taliban to fight Soviet control of Afghanistan and created a monster there. I know that by supporting the Saudi regime America is essentially supporting Islamic extremism to the detriment of Muslims the world over, including me. I also know this is by specific design. I must explore these disconcerting things in my creative work so I can make sense of the world I am now living in but also because there must be a variety of nuanced voices bearing witness to this latest dark night of the American soul.
Ahmed’s sentiments also capture what each contributor brings to this issue. They comprise a ‘variety of nuanced voices’ who explore ‘disconcerting things’ in each of their pieces. They each caution against the cost of doing business as usual in Bangladesh and among its diaspora. And, to me at least, they each reconcile the Bangladesh Paradox in their own way.
I have realised, however, that the Bangladesh Paradox is a bit of a red herring. See, my initial craving for Bengali home food did not come out of nowhere. It started when I visited a close friend, Shoab, up north in Manchester. One afternoon, on a whim, we stopped over at his family home. Unfortunately, the entire household was out at a wedding, but there were four different curries on the kitchen stove. As a gluttonous Malaysian, I’m intimately familiar with food being constantly available at home. But four curries on the go? Shoab chuckled and said this was normal with Bengali families. He explained that each curry was probably prepared on a different day – so these were different curry generations co-existing. When one pot finished, it would be replenished with a fresh batch, and so on. And each dish was made by a different family member – sisters, sisters-in-law or aunts. It truly was a celebration of the family’s collective palate.
‘Would you like to try some?’ said Shoab. ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ I replied. We sat down to what was, to this day, the most memorable impromptu lunch I’ve ever had. I was particularly surprised by a dry-ish fish curry, with its layers of delicate yet spicy flavours. Shoab told me the name of the fish, which I promptly forgot. It reminded me of whitebait or anchovy. ‘Why have I never had anything like this before?’ I asked. He said these were tiny, bony fish, meant to be eaten at home with your family. They weren’t fancy enough for guests or restaurants. I said, quite emphatically, that I’d certainly order this in a restaurant.
This is why, when I went to dinner with Saif and Irum, I was forthcoming about my desire for fish. And they happily obliged by ordering fried hilsa. As much as I enjoyed it, though, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind – hilsa is a species in the herring family and what I ate at Shoab’s was definitely not herring. Furthermore, my enjoyment of the fried hilsa has since been tempered by my discovery that this is a species under severe threat of depletion. This and the sobering reality of climate change mean that, in good conscience, I don’t think I can ever have hilsa again – or, at least, not for a very long time. I found out later from Shoab that the fish we had at his family home was keski, or Ganges river sprat. I was hoping that by some miracle, unlike hilsa, it could still be found in abundance. Sadly, this is highly unlikely – overfishing is endemic everywhere, not just in Bangladesh.
I wish there was some nifty and inoffensive metaphor in these little food vignettes for the bigger story of Bangladesh. But the only parallel I can think of is fairly obvious. The only way to ensure people can keep enjoying hilsa, keski and all other kinds of fish is to consume less – far less – than we currently do. Individuals need to make more ethical choices while the entire fishing industry also needs to change, urgently. Perhaps it’s similar with Bangladesh. It’s a complex, exciting country. And even at their most critical, so many of our contributors are fervently proud of their culture and heritage. We can also marvel at how Bangladesh has developed so impressively despite its governance failures. There are certainly good reasons to be hopeful, given the tenacity and creativity of so many Bangladeshis across the desh and bidesh. Yet the Bangladesh Paradox is comforting only up to a point – how long can the country develop sustainably in the face of environmental degradation, authoritarianism and religious militancy?