The Blood on the Media Presses in Bangladesh: Creating the Mood Music for the May 5th Massacre

What happened on the 5th of May 2013 in Dhaka is nothing short of a massacre and will go down in the history of Bangladesh as such. The ramifications are rippling through the country and the wider diaspora as I write this article.

A week ago, reading the op-ed columns of any self-proclaimed secular newspaper, you would get the distinct sense that the Hefazat-e-Islam and their 13 point demands are totalitarian, of foreign (Saudi, Wahhabi) origin and go against the syncretic nature of true Islam that exists in the minds and hearts of the establishment, as opposed to the one practised by the ignorant masses.

As someone schooled in enlightenment principles at secular institutions, and having studied a few years in a Qawmi Madrassah, I want to explore the false and distinct binary fears and concerns one commonly comes across in internet forums and op-ed articles and editorials.

Subaltern Bigots of Hefazat-e-Islam vs Enlightened Liberal Secularists of the Establishment

This argument deduces that Hefazat-e-Islam and Islam in general is the antithesis of modern enlightenment principles and both are doomed in an eternal existential battle, with victory being declared when one party vanquishes the other.

For me there is no inherent conflict, and I want to point to an alternative narrative, as exemplified in the meeting between Mary Fisher, a Quaker Evangelist, and the then Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV. Mary Fisher was imprisoned for her beliefs in England on three separate occasions and on her travels to North America. Yet when she went to proselytise to the Ottoman Court, she was listened to politely and offered an armed escort for her protection.

Her experience in a Muslim country left a deep impression on her. Upon returning to England she wrote, a glowing account of the tolerance she received toward her belief by in the Muslim lands. This stood in stark contrast to the the intolerance she suffered at the hands of her fellow Christians, towards her non conformist teachings.

The experience of Mary Fisher had an impact on many Enlightenment figures in England and Scotland and their views on religious toleration. One of those being John Locke and his seminal work, A Letter Concerning Toleration.

This concept of toleration, which has its roots and principles in the practices of the first Islamic Community in Medina was carried forward in the South Asia in the modern era, by, amongst others, Sheikh ul Hind Mahmudul Hasan and his students Moulana Hussain Ahmed Madani and Moulana Bhashani, through the idea of Composite Nationalism, that a nation is not built on a single identity but on a geographical area, composing of several identities and communities. Moulana Hussain Ahmad Madani argued that Hindu and Muslims constituted a single nation and should work together to free themselves of the British Raj.

Allama Shafi Ahmad, Hefazat’s leader, is a student of Moulana Hussain Ahmad Madani. Therefore I find it galling when journalists and newspapers deliberately paint a picture of a man and the movement he leads as communal, when his teacher and inspiration was a contemporary and a colleague of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhal Nehru in the freedom struggle against British Rule.

This tolerance is exemplified in the geographic location of Hathazari Madrassa, the headquarters of Hefazot Islam in Chittagong. The area lies between ChittagongCity and Rangamati, a small patch of land between the hills and the city limit. On the southwest it starts with Hathazari, Fatikchhari is a dozen kilometres northward and Raojan and Rangunia to the east. Within this small piece of land we have the three biggest establishments of the three major schools of Islam in Bangladesh. Hathazari Darul Ulum Madrasah with its 50, 000 mostly residential students is the largest Qawmi Madrasah in the country. A little to the south, Chittagong University and surrounding is a hub, Jamaat-e-Islami and Shibir. A few kilometres north is a centre of syncretic Islam in Bangladesh, and the Maizvandari shrines. These three bodies do not like each other, yet they have co-existing peacefully for decades.

Foreign and Extreme Islam vs Native Moderate and Syncretic Islam

Hefazat-e-Islam and Hathazari, which is the Bangladeshi offshoot of the Deobandi seminar in India are distinguished by their scholastic, hadith-based tasawwuf, or scripture based sufism. The origins of this feature of the school go back to Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Waliallah Dehlawi. Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi  was a contemporary of the Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jahangir and the founder of the Mujaddidi Naqshbandi Sufi Brotherhood. Emperor Aurangzeb was initiated into this brotherhood later on.

The Deoband seminary was set up by Islamic scholars as a response to the formal dissolution of the Mughal Empire and Muslim rule in India, by the British after the uprising 1857.  Although primarily a non-political movement focusing on education and the preservation of conservative Islamic values, the school and its branches have been involved in political discourse during critical periods in the history of the Indian sub-continent. For example, the movement played a critical role in the Quit India movement under Moulana Mahmudul Hassan.

In Bangladesh’s history, the political involvement of the movement is personified by the activities Moulana Husain Ahmed Madani in Sylhet and Moulana Bhashani. Both of whom were students Moulana Mahmudul Hassan.

The history of Deoband shows that the genealogy of Hefazat-e-Islam is not that of a foreign origin emanating from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan but is interwoven into the very fabric of Islam in South Asia and Bangladesh, both in the private sphere though devotional Sufism, and in the public sphere in speaking out against oppression, as exemplified by the lives of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Sheikh ul Hind Mahmudul Hassan, Moulana Hussain Ahmad Madani and Moulana Bashani.

Cynical  Politics trump Democratic Values

As a product of secular enlightenment education, like Mary Fisher and John Locke, I do not see the Hefazat-e-Islam as a threat. Inherent in the movement’s history and genealogy I see a familiar friend, imbued in the universal principles that all rational human beings share and recognise, those of the pursuit of truth and the respect of others.

The antagonism towards Hefazat-e-Islam is nothing to do with the values it holds.  It is due its perceived threat to the current Awami League hegemony.  The Awami League past and present has enjoyed good relations with Deobandi scholars and institutions. This is best illustrated by Anwaruzaman Choudhury, the secretary general of the Awami League in the UK and prospective parliamentary candidate for a seat in Sylhet. His family patronise and manage Deobandi education in Bangladesh. The family manage a Qawmi Madrassah in Sylhet, ‘Sheikh Fazilatunnesa, named after the mother of Sheikh Hasina. The madrassah has been patronised by Sheikh Hasina herself and leading members of the Awami League.

As per directives of their political masters, the controlled press, exemplified in Freedom House’s 2013 report, and led by Prothom Alo, the Dhaka Tribune and the Daily Star went into overdrive, branding an apolitical group to be some form of existential threat to the state. This created the mood music both at home and abroad, for the violent crackdown by the security forces of unarmed protestors.

Members of the secular, self-proclaimed liberal establishment of Bangladesh and abroad, should display the reality of the rhetoric they espouse. They should go beyond pandering to prejudices and engage with groups like Hefazat-e-Islam and participate in a genuine debate. As Noam Chomsky said, as an intellectual one has a choice, either you serve truth or you serve power, you cannot serve both.

Source: The Khichuri