Sunday, March 28, 2010

The US based Islamist organizations and expatriate Bangladeshis

The US based Islamist organizations and expatriate Bangladeshis

By Sajjad Jahir

Bangladesh was born in blood and tears. Most of the population of this land experienced a horrendous brutal occupation perpetrated by alien invaders, who happened to be Muslims by religion. The Two Nation Theory once unified the country of Pakistan, but gradually Bengalis were disenchanted and disillusioned by the hollowness of the religious doctrine of Pakistan’s basis. The twenty fifth March’s crackdown of the Pakistani military force made it clear to ordinary citizens of Bangladesh one simple matter. The Pakistani oligarchy with their perception of racial superiority and religious purity were not serving the interest of the Bengali Muslims.

The liberation of Bangladesh opened the door for Bangladeshi people’s migration to outside of the country. Many of the semi literate ones went temporarily to find menial works in the Middle East. A good number of educated folks thought of embracing Western societies as their own.

After migrating to the Western world, Bangladeshi Muslims like people from quite a few other Muslim majority countries started to face identity crisis. Are they Americans first or Muslims first? Or, are they Bangladeshi-Americans or Muslim-Americans? All those questions remain unresolved. Although most of the Bangladeshi immigrants in America do not have any sympathy for Islamist parties back home, a god number of them begin to nurture positive view about the US based Islamist organizations. Because of their uncertain future in a Western society, Bangladeshi Muslims strive to cling to the religious aspect of their self identity. The Saudi influenced mosques, Sunday’s Arabic schools for children and weekly Halaqa session gradually pull them far from Rabindranath Thakur, Lalon Shah and Jibanananda’s paradigm. In reality, the new generation of the Bangladeshi-Americans gradually lose connection to their forefathers’ secular Aboho Bangla past. In this backdrop, the US based Islamist groups have big audience to grab. Gradually, more and more Bangladeshi Muslims living in America were starting to cultivate sympathetic view about groups like CAIR, ICNA, ISNA, MPAC or MSA. They perceived those organizations as their future guardians. The two logics can come into play. Primarily, CAIR as an assumed civil rights organization can rescue them when chips are down. Secondly, religious organizations like ISNA or ICNA can salvage their Muslim self. Many of the Bangladeshi parents of Muslim background were afraid their offsprings may become too much Westernized. They did not want their children drown in “alcoholism, sexual promiscuity” or other “decadence” of a Western society. In their eye, only Islam can save them. So why not take shelter in the platforms of ICNA or ISNA?

When a single message critical of any of those Islamic fundamentalist leaning petro-dollar soaked Wahhabi front organizations comes to the notice of a confused Bangladeshi-American of Muslim heritage, he or she has to defend them by thinking “it must be a neo-con or a Zionist propaganda”. CAIR’s controversial past, some of their leaders’ shady background is well documented. That does not give any impact on the psyche of the new devotees from the land of Bengal. When a high profile ICNA leader’s alleged war criminal role in the Pakistani army occupied Bangladesh came to be open, many Bangladeshi-Americans thought this could be an aberration. Consequently, Bangladeshi-Americans of Muslim origin show a serious dichotomous world view. On the one hand, they have high regard for secularism in their ancestral land; on the other they strengthen Islamist groups in a secular society like in USA. Many of them may abhor Jamat-i-Islami in their native Bangladesh. But they feel at ease attending Bangladesh Jamaat’s counterparts ICNA, ISNA’s conferences.

The month of March is a month of remembrance for Bangladeshis all around the world. This is the month Pakistan’s brutal army unleashed a reign of terror in their ancestral homeland. In this same month the country’s Independence Day is observed. This year, the government of Bangladesh has declared to start the war crime trial. Many of the alleged war criminals belong to the Islamist party Jamat-i-Islami and their auxiliary death squads, namely, Al-Badr and Al-Shams. The leaders of Jamat-i-Islami of Bangladesh are obviously alarmed. Their presumed conference calls to the overseas comrades made one issue clear. Thwart the upcoming trial by hook or by crook. They found one ready volunteer in the process. An alleged war criminal living not far from Washington DC played the first dice. He linked up with a fellow activist in the West coast. The ball was rolling.

On 22nd March of this year, an interesting event took place in the US capital. A renowned leader in the USA’s Islamic circle, Pakistani-American Dr. Agha Saeed initiated a press conference on Bangladesh. That took place at the Washington DC’s Press Club. The 22nd March press conference drew a handful of people; only over a dozen were in the audience. Agha Saeed initiated the press conference, which was called “American Muslim Taskforce News Conference on Human Rights Violations in Bangladesh”. The question is what constitutes the American Muslim Task Force? In their press release the Taskforce is introduced as an umbrella organization that includes American Muslim Alliance (AMA), American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), MAS-Freedom, Muslim Student Association-National (MSA-N), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), and United Muslims of America (UMA). Its observer organizations include American Muslims for Civic Engagement (AMCE), Islamic Educational Council of Orange County (IECOC), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). In short, this was a conglomeration of Who’s Who of the Islamist organizations in America (read Wahhabi influenced).

There is a good possibility that a sizable percentage of Bangladeshi-Americans who want to see the Jamaati war criminals tried in their homeland, had sympathetic view about one or more than one of the above organizations. By happenstance, the 22nd March Press Conference made it clear that all those so-called Islam loving organizations are simply playing in the hands of Bangladesh Jamaat. It also exposed the ulterior agenda of CAIR, ICNA, ISNA, MPAC etc. They are friends of Jamaati war criminals, the Islamist killer machines of 1971’s Bangladesh. And last but not the least; it is now very much obvious that these groups are out there to see Bangladesh as a fundamentalist utopia.

In short, the Jamaati plan to muddy the clear water ultimately backfired.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The art of life

He knows how to live life, artfully. I am truly impressed with this man who passionately follows his calling to teach. Rushing towards the classroom with a book or two in hand, rolled-up sleeves, impeccably creased trousers and sandals, he appears without fail more smartly dressed than is expected of a philosopher. Add to this an expression of rapture in anticipation of the upcoming class and you have a romantic hero of the ‘70s in your midst. Students are always greeted with a smile that promises another logic show or another magical hour in a big classroom of a small town college in Ishwardi.

He continues to provoke an ocean of questions in the minds of his little learners and thus invariably runs late for lunch; the last of his students’ queries always lingers till the doorsteps to his house. After lunch he takes a 15-minute siesta which is synchronized with his mind clock and then half-an-hour of self study before the next class. Senior students await the hour when the logic of mathematics will melt into philosophy and synthesis will create antithesis.

Life, for him, became a pilgrimage for wisdom ever since he met his teacher Nikhil Sen at the Kolkata University. Ignoring the prevalent and narrow-minded definition of success, he instead learnt to challenge life. He didn’t sit for the competitive examination, refused to take up just any job and even rejected his family business in favor of Kant, Hegel and Hume. Of course Uttam and Shuchitra have always been his repose, just like the boat-outings with his wife on moon-lit rivers and daily evening walks for clandestine smoking away from the house.

Though I am a great fan of his wisdom but I was, at one point, skeptical of its real life implications. His school of truth, beauty and goodness seemed quite unreal in the environs of Dhaka. The principal of a college in Dhaka had once requested him to come over to the metropolitan. He courteously refused, knowing all too well the amount of time he would have to waste in proving his wisdom over and again. He was right: Dhaka is now rated as the worst city in the world after Harare in terms of habitability.

He has served tours at Pabna Edward College, Sylhet M.C. College and Rangpur Karmickel College. At the end of his institutional teaching career he took his students to Kanchanjangha to celebrate his innings. Kanchanjangha could have been an inspiration from Satyajit Ray or perhaps a symbol of his philosophy of truth, beauty and goodness.

On my insistence he wrote three academic books but then stopped writing because of his belief that teaching itself is media; dozens of his students have happily taken up teaching as a profession. And then there is the station master at the Ishwardi rail station, also one of his students, who met us with a smile, took us to his office and offered tea. I was amused at his courtesy and knowledge; he worked on his computer the whole time during our conversation. There and then I decided to make contentment my goal: surely through teaching.

Recently, I rang up this person who knows the art of life to share with him my happiness. He told me that he knew I would eventually find my way to teaching. He also told me how he has taken up another assignment to guide and teach his grandson: “He’s good in both Bangla and English but still a bit weak in Mathematics. His has an ear for music and I want him to be equally good in Mathematics even if he decides to go to a music school. He would need that for higher studies no matter what course of education he chooses.” I was surprised to hear him discuss his new student’s weakness in Mathematics. Nothing is small to him. Perhaps that’s why he could master the art of life, by seeing big in small and small in big.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

I am almost as old as Bangladesh. While I may not be considered young anymore, my country is still a child. Thirty-nine years is nothing but the age of teething in the life of nations. The country still needs to be handled with care. Before its birth, the people of then East Pakistan had dreamt of a secular and equal society with a passion that drove them to walk on the fiery path of freedom. Bengalis had to fight back the linguistic and cultural aggression of Pakistan, and keep up the struggle against discrimination and inequity.

Sher-e-Bangla, Hussain Shaheed Suharwardi, Maulana Bhashani and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, among many others, fearlessly led the march towards independence. Even though Bangabandhu may appear to some as a revolutionary leader, he initially tried all democratic ways to end the sufferings of Bengalis. But when the rulers of then West Pakistan stubbornly refused to respect his people’s will, Bangabandhu had to go for independence.

Like Gandhi and Jinnah, Bangabandhu changed the course of South Asian history by giving the people of Bangladesh the right to chart their own destinies. But whereas in India Gandhi is considered above any political reproach and in Pakistan Jinnah gets equal respect from all political quarters, the same cannot be said of Bangladesh where honoring Bangabandhu depends solely on political egos. Deep political polarization questions even his patriotism, let alone popularity.

In India not even the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party dares to question or criticize Gandhi or no Congress politician claims superiority of Nehru over Gandhi. In Pakistan even the People’s Party cannot pull off comparing Bhutto to Jinnah. Yet, in Bangladesh efforts to denounce the Father of the Nation by aimless comparison with Ziaur Rahman continue unabated.

On March 7, 1971, Sheikh Mujib addressed the nation in which he gave the final signal for an armed struggle for freedom. The declaration of independence was made a couple of weeks later on March 26, 1971, but that was just a formality. The people of Bangladesh already knew in their hearts what was announced that day.

As a journalist I have worked with several veteran broadcasters and radio engineers who were instrumental in establishing the then clandestine radio station, Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, in 1971. These broadcasters and engineers have repeatedly confirmed publicly, and to me personally, that then Major Ziaur Rahman was invited by broadcaster Belal Mohammad to read out the declaration of independence as a mark of the army’s support to our freedom fight. On March 27, 1971, veteran broadcaster Abdullah Al Farooq witnessed Ziaur Rahman reading out of the same declaration on behalf of Sheikh Mujib. History will always laugh at the immature attempts of BNP to portray that reading of the declaration by Ziaur Rahman as an act of independent or individual announcement of freedom. After all Ziaur Rahman was an unknown voice on the airwaves at that time; he fought the war of independence as a sector commander under the military leadership of General Osmani and the civilian leadership of Sheikh Mujib.

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, Bangladesh became mired in conspiracies, coups and counter coups. To hold the fledgling nation together, a socialist leader, Colonel Taher, released Ziaur Rahman from house arrest and convinced him to take over the reins of the country. (The fact that Colonel Taher was later court martialled and sentenced to death under the very leadership of Ziaur Rahman is a story for another time.) As Sheikh Mujibur Rahman already had the status of being the Father of the Nation, attempts by BNP to snatch that status is nothing but futile and divisive. If such an accolade is necessary for the continuation of hereditary politics then perhaps Ziaur Rahman can be honored as the Brother of the Nation. BNP supporters and their Jamaat friends would do really well to learn from their Indian and Pakistani counterparts that giving respect to the Father of the Nation is synonymous to paying tribute to the birth of a nation.

When Ziaur Rahman himself never claimed the Kalurghat radio address as his own declaration, should the BNP do so? And then there is also the audio evidence of him reading out of the declaration of independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujib. Throughout his years in power, Ziaur Rahman remained silent about Sheikh Mujib, possibly because he had to rehabilitate Mujib’s killers and ‘71war criminals. But he never publicly downplayed Mujib. Yet, BNP MPs have shown no qualms about using uncouth language against the Father of the Nation. The Awami League MPs are no better, using their brute-majority voice in using similar politically incorrect words against Ziaur Rahman. This quarrel has all the echoes of the Lilliputian-Blefuscudian conflict, with enough dough for endless media entertainment.

How come we never see this ferocity of political competition when it comes to ensuring basic necessities like food, shelter, security and human rights? As a result the party in power is left alone to tackle such issues in whatever little time it can spare from this continuous sparring for future votes. This strategy works well for every opposition party: it ensures victory in next elections. What these political parties need to understand is that such an-eye-for-an-eye political tactics have lost their adrenalin factor for the masses, because while they bicker for power, the voters of Bangladesh watch from the sidelines as their loved ones die unattended in government hospitals or their kids fall prey to malnutrition, fall victim to university gun fights, extrajudicial killings, militancy and so on.

Bangladesh recently managed to get the western nod of approval in tackling militancy, but the ongoing extrajudicial killings and unrest in Chittagong Hill Tracts will attract even less investment and earn the country a bad image. But then who cares about image. Dhaka has been assessed as the worst city in the world after Harare in terms of insecurity and traffic woes.

Ideally, our political leader should be spending sleepless nights over such multi-edged crisis, instead of appearing in news clips as wrestlers or soap opera villains. Countries of the same age as Bangladesh have earned at least a middle income status. In today’s modern world, national issues like the honor of the Father of the Nation and freedom fighters or agendas like war criminal trials are tackled by competent legal systems, and not by making a mockery of them.

BNP should maybe think ten times before abusing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or supporting war criminals and militant forces. And Awami League, as a veteran political party, should be more careful about defaming Ziaur Rahman. Both parties are now at the crossroads where they need to decide how they want to be remembered: with respect or with hatred. Hasn’t enough time been wasted for Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia to respond to the mass appeal and stop this ‘much ado about nothing’.