Shahbag’s clarion call for Islam

Sanjay Kapoor

In an earlier column I commented on how Wahabi influence had laid siege to societies zealous about preserving the rights of women. From Maghreb to Mashreq, an effort was being made by the flawed interpreters of Islam to ignore cultural dissimilarities and dress up believers in their own vision. Progressive societies in North Africa, Arabia, and Asia that had seen many women experiencing extraordinary freedom till more recent times have been forced to now subscribe to the practice of women leading their lives behind the veil or under the chador. The secular bastions, though sustained by brutal dictatorships, have been systematically dismantled through extreme violence in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. There are other countries like Egypt and Tunisia that have succumbed to this orchestrated march of history and submitted to the demands of obscurantist clergy drawing legitimacy from the political rise of the West-backed Muslim Brotherhood. 

I had cited the example, in my earlier offering, of the happenings in Cairo’s Tahrir square where the secularists were engaged in a bitter fight against the Islamists to preserve the cultural and religious plurality of their society and also the freedom that women enjoyed. In Tahrir Square, women were physically and sexually targetted to scare them from participating in the protests. Men who tried to protect them were also roughed up. Interestingly, the anger of the secularists that did not want the gains of the Arab Spring to be stolen by the religious political parties was ignored by the Western media. This is a point that I had made in my earlier column, based on some incisive reporting in Egypt’s Ahramonline, which stated that many of the West-based journalists and media outfits tried to tar and rubbish them as demonstrations by the remnants of the old regime of Hosni Mubarak. The resentment against the Muslim Brotherhood government and the manner in which it was going about vesting all powers in the presidency and trying to be a modern-day Pharaoh did not fit into the Western narrative. 

A corroboration of this Western strategy to facilitate the fundamentalists’ coming to power in Egypt and other countries and supporting them elsewhere has come most recently from Bangladesh. Since February 5, this turbulent country has witnessed unprecedented demonstrations against the religious party, Jamaat, after a leader, Abdul Quadar Molla, was awarded life imprisonment by the International War Crimes Tribunal for committing “crimes against humanity”. 

Molla, who is fifth in the Jamaat hierarchy, stepped out of the courtroom smiling and raising his hand in a “V” sign for his supporters who had taken to the streets to demand his release. His happy and victorious countenance enraged Bangladeshis who had suffered horrific crimes committed by the Pakistan Army with the help of collaborators. Many of those who suffered the Pakistan Army’s brutalities were looking for closure in the war crimes trial and also to ensure that the religious ideology responsible for the violence and mayhem of the past never stages a comeback. Fuelled by the rage of a society that saw hundreds of thousands of women raped, lakhs of people killed or turned into refugees, citizens began to converge at Dhaka’s Shahbagh. 

The anger and spontaneity of the agitators, demanding death for war criminals like Molla, took everyone by surprise. The Shahbagh protesters also demanded the banning of the Jamaat and primacy to the values of the freedom struggle and Bengali culture. The Muslim fundamentalists, given a free run in every society, were challenged by ordinary people saying, “Cholbe na ( it won’t work anymore)”. The protest continues as I write, but it has not got due attention from the Western media or its lackeys in the Indian press. 

Interestingly, the Western media had been running a campaign against the war crimes trial and talking about the poor quality of evidence without really recalling the horrendous genocide in Bangladesh. The Guardian hit the nail on its head when its Nick Cohen talked about how the liberals were displaying indulgence for theocratic obscurantism in places like Bangladesh. The London-based granddaughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gita Sahgal, has formed a Centre for Secular Space to challenge the narrative, which finds acceptance from the British government and the West, that Islamic radicals like the Jamaat are the real representatives of Islam. Sahgal, who fought with Amnesty International, believes the Jamaat perverts Islam. The Bangladesh upsurge is a watershed moment in the life of South Asian Islam which is accommodating, deeply secular and has enriched the culture of this region. Can Pakistan see a Shahbagh?

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2013

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