What started as an effort to try crimes committed during our Liberation War has turned into a fight about the place of Islam – or the lack of it – in our national politics. The optimism of Shahbagh suddenly seems like an event from the distant past. In the last two months, we have witnessed Jamaat’s backlash at the ICT verdict, Khaleda Zia first decrying the Shahbagh protests and then calling on the military to intervene and finally the government’s U-turn to arrest the very bloggers who garnered public support for completion of the trials. If this did not leave most people confused, Hifazat-e Islam descended upon Dhaka with thousands of its supporters and its own list of demands.
I will not pretend that I know much about Hifazat-e Islam and I suspect that I might not be alone in that respect. Yes, there are obvious parallels between its demands and much of what Jamaat-e-Islami stands for. But it did stage one of the biggest demonstrations in recent memory and for the most bit, a peaceful one, especially considering the size of the crowd in attendance. It also has specific demands, albeit controversial ones, and demonstrated a degree of organization unusual for a group few of us have heard of before. As such, the government is now in a position where its neutrality is on the line – it listened to Shahbagh’s demands in a show of populist beckoning and had to lend Hifazat an ear too. Technically, the latter is no different in terms of a civic movement without any purported political affiliation. While the number of men clad in white was a cause of concern for many Dhaka urbanites, it may very well be a part of our larger society (read ex-Dhaka) that is strongly rooted in Islamic values and that may represent another facet of public opinion. Nothing wrong with that in a functioning democracy.
However, what is concerning is the theme of Hifazat’s demands. I will refrain from analyzing specific points as each merits its own discussion. However, there is a marked antagonism against people, values and institutions that are not viewed as sufficiently Islamic. There is a sense of attributing a binary status to Bangladeshis as either religious or nastik. The fundamental problem with this manifesto is that it attempts to define what is morally good for us versus what cannot be tolerated at the national level. But who defines what is sufficiently Islamic or inversely, what exactly is nastikota? This question is not an easy one to ask in Bangladesh. Celebrating Pahela Baishakh is a perfectly moral – and importantly harmless – celebration of our heritage but because it’s not rooted in Islamic traditions, many may come to see it as contradictory to our religious sentiments. Or take the instance of religious minorities – most of these ‘non-Islamic’ communities can exist (or at least are tolerated on paper by Islamist parties) but Ahmadiyas are guiltier than any of the other minorities. Women cannot mingle with men and yet Khaleda Zia, a female leader, has had a long political career leading a party of mostly men while vehemently supporting many an Islamic party. Perhaps more damningly, our most prolific Islamist (read Jamaat) political leaders — by most accounts — are guilty of perpetrating crimes that are both immoral and un-Islamic but lay claim as the advocates of our right wing moral establishment.
The lines of morality start getting blurry very fast. And it is a blurrier proposition for a society like ours that cannot be defined by one identity or the other. For a country as diverse as ours, our broader value system is a product of our history and geography. If the Pakistani junta succeeded in oppressing us in 1971, right wing fundamentalism may not have been as startling today as in an independent Bangladesh. Perhaps our fate would have been similar to communities in Karachi and Quetta. But our history is different. We fought a war along the lines of our identity that allowed us to uphold our Bangali heritage but also did not do away with thirty days of fasting when Ramadan comes around. That is our very history and it’s an undeniable part of our identity. Or if we were closer in geography to Iran, perhaps we would have witnessed the spill over effects of a theocratic Shiite government next door in 1979. But we are factually closer in location to India and happen to share our language and culture with our ‘less than Islamic’ neighbours across the border.
But we do need to be careful at an objective level. An important contribution of the Hifazat manifesto is – the slander of the Prophet (SAW) cannot be tolerated. Some may argue for freedom of speech and one’s right to express differences but freedom is also not absolute. The moment our actions start to harm others, physical or otherwise, then that freedom can be a risky proposition. In such an event, we should expect a government to step in to prevent any discrete harm to a majority of the members of society. If any blogger (the new catch all term in town) has deliberately defamed any religious figures, there is likely to be public support to prevent such an act and the government acting on that can be a justified move. One does not need to be affiliated with Jamaat or Hifazat to take offence at any blasphemy towards the Prophet (SAW) and as long as it is not a political witch hunt to appease a certain party, a government intervention has its merits.
Fortunately, the government has so far demonstrated a good degree of maturity in responding to the Hifazat movement. In her recent interview with the BBC, the Prime Minister was explicit in her support of preventing any blasphemous acts as demanded by the Islamist group but held her ground against the need to institute a new law for that purpose. Perhaps the best response in the coming months is for the government to encourage Hifazat to take part in the upcoming national elections. If the platform has valid demands, its supporters will vouch for its manifesto at the polls. But till then, the issues of morality in our society are better left as they have been defined by our collective history and experiences and the status quo is a far stronger proposition than attempting to implement the narrow view of one particular group of society.