by Jonathan Kay
A single spasm of violence that shook Egypt earlier this month serves as a metaphor for what’s become of the Arab Spring. In fact, it’s a useful symbol of the existential religio-political crisis unfolding everywhere in the Islamic world.
Sunday, October 6 marked the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The war didn’t end with an Arab victory. But Arab armies pushed into Israeli territory in the campaign’s early stages, and struck existential panic into the Jewish state’s citizens. In Egypt, this early thrust restored a measure of credibility and pride to a military establishment that had seen its forces annihilated in a matter of days during the Six Day War in 1967. For four decades, the date has served as a rallying point for Egyptians of all stripes.
But 10 days ago, when Egyptians took to the streets for October 6 celebrations, they were divided into two camps. “As the military’s supporters celebrated the anniversary in Tahrir Square in Cairo with music and fireworks, officers and armed civilian loyalists set upon Islamist protesters who were also trying to reach the square, driving back their marches with tear gas and gunfire,” The New York Times reported. “[The] Islamist supporters, who have re-branded themselves under the banner of the ‘anti-coup’ movement … said they intended to salute ‘the soldiers who fought the October war — so our brave army regains its commitment to the true Egyptian military doctrine and knows the difference between the enemy and its people.’”
The fact that Egypt’ Islamists and military secularists can’t even join together in staging a remembrance event for the Arab-Israeli War is telling. For a century, anti-Zionism has been the only creed binding Arab nations together (especially in Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s radical agenda is otherwise completely antithetical to the conceit of a sovereign and united Lebanese state). It’s the creed that allowed Hamas and Fatah to co-exist under Yasser Arafat, and it once gave a measure of legitimacy to the Assad dynasty in Syria.
But now, Muslims in the region are turning inward. In the propaganda and political demands articulated by the Egyptian government and its Islamist critics, Israel barely registers anymore. The memory of the last major war in the Sinai, which took place before most Egyptians were born, now is just a contentious branding gimmick. The larger question of “What defines us — secularist nationalism, or an unquestioning obedience to the dogmas of Islam?” — is what most politically engaged Egyptians really care about. Analogous debates (often accompanied by hideous violence) are taking place in Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Muslim areas of the former USSR and, in an embryonic form, the nations of the Persian Gulf.
And then there’s Bangladesh, a country that gets scant attention in the Western media, but actually is home to more Muslims than any Arab country.
Like Egyptians, Bangladeshis also are engaged in an existential, and occasionally violent, fight over the character of their nation. In 1971, what is now Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in a hideously bloody campaign that featured ethnic cleansing and genocide. The schism between Islamists and secularists became permanently embedded in the new country’s character during that conflict, because local Islamist leaders took sides with Pakistan.
Unlike the citizens of Egypt — where the legacy of the early 1970s has been a crutch to national unity — Bangladeshis remain embittered about events that took place four decades ago, especially since some of the anti-independence fighters who committed war crimes during that period later rose to become prominent Islamist political figures in Jamaat-e-Islami, an organization that now seeks the creation of a theocratic state governed under shariah, and which is roughly comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Political developments in Bangladesh and Egypt are now very much running in parallel. In August, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court banned Jamaat-e-Islami from contesting elections, just as Egypt’s new leaders have similarly cracked down on the Brotherhood. And last month, the Court sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami lieutenant Abdul Quader Molla to death for the rape and murder of hundreds of Bengali civilians during the war. (Molla is now 65 years old. At the time of his crimes, he was a college student.)
In Egypt, the political struggle between Islamists and secularists has produced moral confusion in the West. Supporting the country’s current military-dominated government is problematic, since its leaders took power through a coup. But the theocratic tendencies of deposed president Mohamed Morsi also were troubling — even if the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike Jamaat-e-Islami, isn’t prominently infested with leaders who committed war crimes.
The moral stakes are more plain in Bangladesh than they are in Egypt. In 1971, Bangladeshis saw the face of militant Islam on their own blood-soaked streets for months on end. Moreover, Pakistan itself, the country from which Bangladesh broke free four decades ago, provides Bangladesh with a case study in the depths of dysfunction, repression and terrorism produced by Muslim theocratic movements.
Bangladesh is a country with many problems, as Western critics of the country’s garment industry will tell you. But its situation can only be made worse by Islamists bent on pushing it in the direction of Somalia, Sudan, Taliban-led Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran or Waziristan. Whether in the Middle East, or in South Asia, the world doesn’t need another theocracy.
— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. This article originally was published by New Europe.
Source: National Post