Working from the moral ground

Freedom Fighter liberation war

by Ruby Amatulla

Throughout history, we find that many of the best minds think alike. For example, in two vastly different eras, we find that two different famous leaders in these eras took quite similar paths when facing difficult situations. They pardoned their enemies in order to achieve reconciliation and progress. These decisions left very important legacies for the successors of these generations, as their decisions halted further polarisation or conflict and thus helped their respective societies to heal faster.
It is extremely pertinent that we in Bangladesh take note of these historic measures. Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Abraham Lincoln in the United States chose similar options for conflict resolution.
In spite of the desire for revenge and retribution among their followers, these leaders remained firmly restrained, offering their respective people more effective ways to negotiate better outcome. Although they still allowed some exemplary punishments for top criminals, they offered ample opportunities to reconcile and transform for the vast majority of individuals.
After 27 years in jail, Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa in 1994. He still stood firm on the principles of amnesty, confession, and reconciliation, as he desired unification and societal progress for his country. While many in his own African National Congress (ANC) party and cabinet remained dead set on bringing perpetrators to justice, he advocated pardon and integration. This was not easy. After three centuries of white colonial rule and oppressive apartheid policies, forgiveness of the killers required a powerful moral will. However, this policy of amnesty and reconciliation ultimately helped South Africa to stabilise much faster than would have been expected in any other way.
As another example, President Abraham Lincoln saw the slow but imminent victory of his Unionist army over the Confederates in 1863, and issued a “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” whereby he intended to unify the nation. This amnesty helped to heal deep national wounds, and integration and progress took place much faster than ever anticipated. The nation became much stronger after integration, especially compared to the most bloody and brutal civil war in the nation’s history, in which about 750,000 people perished.
One cannot forget one of the best examples of collective forgiveness in human history, set by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in seventh-century Mecca. After thirteen years of persecution and seven years of war against the Muslim community, Muhammad’s eventual victory in Mecca did not result in retribution. In fact, it resulted in a policy of general amnesty for the Meccans! It is difficult to narrate how eagerly many Muslims wanted to take their oppressors to justice. In addition, pockets of resistance still existed, and many diehard enemies were still bent on fighting. However, the policy of general amnesty ultimately won them over, and the entire battle theater quickly stabilised after a long saga of bloodshed.
Being an ordinary person I have had difficulty overcoming pent-up frustration and anger regarding the sacrifice of my family during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Three of my brothers and one of my uncles were freedom fighters, only one of them survived. I still vividly remember that my family had to be driven from place to place in fear of the Pakistani army and their collaborators, as my father was a high official who had defected. They spent many sleepless nights in a boat, hiding in swamps filled with mosquitoes. All of those memories still haunt me. However, I have learned about the power of amnesty and generosity in bringing about win-win outcomes.
Thinking about the Shahbagh square, the vigour, dedication and unity demonstrated there is commendable. It is encouraging and uplifting to see that our youth can come together like this for a cause. However, it needs leadership and wisdom so that this kind of popular surge can serve the nation. Leaders with a sense of history and priorities can guide these spontaneous forces to become a true contributor to the nation’s welfare. Without leadership, we have seen how the “Occupy” movements in the West and the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt ultimately dwindled down and failed to be more than marginally effective.
Bangladesh is inundated with serious problems — a huge population, rampant and pervasive corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power at every levels of governance, and many other issues. These problems are making society unstable and the future uncertain. We need visionary leadership to get us out of this deep quagmire.
A healthy society must comply with the rule of law. While we appreciate the drive of the youth, we cannot be swayed from good governance and right decisions.
I do sincerely differ with Jamaat, and as a Muslim I disagree with many of their rigid and narrow interpretations of the religion. However, I also believe in diversity and pluralism in a democracy. I believe that the best course of action is to engage with them constructively and to offer an opportunity of transformation through peaceful coexistence.
Let us not forget that smaller groups of extremists can take nations hostage. The cases of Pakistan and Afghanistan are right before us.
The spirit of engaging constructively with others is the quintessence of democracy and social progress. As a nation we should strive to live with others who differ.

The writer is Executive Director of US-based Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress. E-mail:

Source: The Daily Star