The Long War

By Shafiqur Rahman for

Recently a friend, who is usually the image of equanimity, uncharacteristically expressed shock and disillusionment at the way the social and cultural elite of Dhaka comported themselves in the wake of the contempt of court verdict.

The friend, a well trained scholar and a hugely talented artist, knows the elite of Dhaka like a duck knows its pond, yet he was surprised to see the almost total lack of support for principles that should be essential commandments for progressive elites in any country. I have very little experience of hobnobbing with the elite compared to my friend but I have been a keen watcher of their public articulations for more than two decades and I must say, if I was surprised at the way the elite reacted to Bergman verdict, my surprise was at the tepidness of it. I expected worse.

Invoking war and struggle related imagery to portray all kinds of political, social or ideological contentions is a facile task and often adds little explanatory information but sometimes that is the most effective way to understand things as they are. I also think that war and struggle is an indispensable lens for any critical examination of collective mind of the Dhaka elite and understanding the wheels within wheels. In this article I am going to use that overused lens again but before that let me lay down a couple of generalized war related expressions that will be key to this exposition.

It is said that “There are no atheists in foxholes”; which means that when bullets begin to fly overhead. No one crouching in the trench or anyone who is about to go over the ramparts and into the no-mans-land, remains a skeptic, a rational-calculating person who can see and understand all sides of an argument. In other words, firm and unquestioning belief make far better soldiers than understanding without conviction. The second expressions is that “Only Stalin could stop Hitler”; meaning that only another totalitarian regime with equal ruthlessness and more determined singularity of purpose could have faced the Nazi land-juggernaut head on and defeat it. No democracy could have withstood the tremendous losses that the Soviet Union suffered in the beginning months of Nazi invasion and still go on fighting unrelentingly. These expressions are of course very simplistic and overgeneralized but they do not lack scholarly support.

To understand the Dhaka intellectual elite we first must understand the ‘Bangladesh intellectual paradox’, a separate paradox from the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’ of economics and development. Since my early youth I have been very perplexed by a curious complete inversion of progressive thinking in Bangladesh compared to the rest of the world. Throughout the world universalism and rationality are regarded as the bedrock of progressive thinking, in Bangladesh parochial nationalism and emotion are the guiding principles of progressives. Throughout the world progressive historians regard debunking national exceptionalism and national glory as essential for historiography, in Bangladesh progressives regard glorifying national history and suffusing it with strong emotions as the sacred duty of historians. Throughout the world the best literature are dispassionate and clinical analysis of the human and social condition, in Bangladesh the more emotions you can pour in art and literature the better is its reception to the critical elite. Throughout the world the best political commentators are those who can provide detached, reasoned analysis of political developments, in Bangladesh the best political commentary are saturated with messianic imagery and the most cloying emotional appeals.

Even without comparing with the west, I found this total inversion in Bangladesh flabbergasting when juxtaposed against neighboring countries. In India, works of the best regarded progressive historians most often go against the nationalist narratives and invite ire from the ‘patriots’. The most famous progressive political commentators in India often go against the ‘mass emotions’ of the crowd and bear the vituperative like ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘antinational’ in their daily strides. In Bangladesh being patriotic and nationalistic seem to be the highest goal of intellectuals.

In my callow, youthful arrogance I thought for some time that maybe the reason for this inversion is the provincialism of the elites of a small country like Bangladesh who are not too well connected with the progressive thinking of rest of the world. Then I gradually realized that there are thousands of people in Bangladesh who are far more informed, well-read and intelligent than me and it is improbable that this paradox is not apparent to them as it is to me. So, then, what explains the persisting paradox and almost total lack of progressive thinking in Bangladesh?

Unfortunately I haven’t mixed with the elite sufficiently to know the answer and no one has explained it to me yet. In lieu of that I often tried to play the devil’s advocate and tried to understand the rationale of my intellectual opponents by placing myself in their shoes and look for coherent justifications. I cannot say that I have found the answer but gradually an explanation became plausible to me, an explanation becoming very vivid in the post September eleven world.

It is said that study of history is basically interpretation of the past. There is some hard core of facts in every historical event or period but without interpretation, the hard facts remain disconnected and do not stand together for coherent narratives. Such is the cumulative nature of human knowledge and culture that we can only interpret history in the present frame of mind; try as you might, it is next to impossible to faithfully slide into shoes of the past. There is no doubt that the war of 1971 is the single most important historical event in our nations recent history and the war has a living breathing presence in all spheres of our public life. The significance of 1971 in shaping our intellectual landscape becomes clearer when we interpret it in our present context.

Undoubtedly the main theme of the 1971 war of Independence for us was independence, freedom from colonial rule of West Pakistan. What else was there? For three decades the progressives reminded us that along with abstract ideas like equitable justice, nationalism, the war of 1971 was also about a fundamental question, whether religion would be a guiding principle for organizing the polity and society of this country or secularism? In the naïve but exciting decades of 80s and 90s, when fundamentalist political Islam was but a remote threat to the state power, that question seemed not too crucial for us. But in the post 9-11 world, when we saw the global tumult and disruption due to pathology of politicized religion and when that derangement also came to home, that question became very relevant to us.

There can be no understating the threat that fundamentalist political Islam poses to our society and nation. In Bangladesh, political Islam has not reconciled itself with democracy and modernity even to the halfway extent like AKP of Turkey. The face of political Islam in our country is not men in suits discussing policy as part of civil exchange but a mass of crazed bearded people demanding blood or prescribing medieval punishment for all kinds of transgressions. They may lack the RPGs of ISIS or AK47s of Taliban but the spirit of their language is same. Bangladesh, a most densely populated and precariously balanced country, cannot afford to experiment with religious fundamentalism in power for even for the shortest period. We do not have the oil resource that is vital for any sustained experiment with fundamentalist religion in power. Such an experiment sans oil would make our socioeconomic conditions worse than Afghanistan under Taliban.

I do not know to what extent this threat was apparent to our elite during the early decades since our independence but this is clear now to all those who want to see. The devil’s advocate in me reasons that the elite of Bangladesh feel that the war of 1971 put only a temporary check and the threat reared its head at the earliest opportunity; the war remains an unfinished business to them. And they feel that universalism, rationality, freedom of expression are but poor defenses against such a formidable foe in a under-developed country like Bangladesh where the mass is almost totally unconversant with such esoteric ideals. They feel that the only effective defense against virulent religious fundamentalism is promotion of another fundamentalism; only a Stalin can stop a Hitler.

That’s why the elite in Bangladesh have constructed another fundamentalism, a fundamentalism based on national glory, sacrosanct past and hallowed individuals. The elite feel that the only way to safeguard the social gains that we have made in the last four decades from the barbarian hordes amassed before the walls of the city is to unquestioningly adhere to this faith and fight for it. Like any fundamentalism, this narrative has its sacred, its profane and its rituals. Like any fundamentalism, the sacred myths of this fundamentalism must be protected against not only all profanity but also all critical examinations. Therefore in this long and continued war, there is no room for skeptics in the trenches, all dissents and wavering must be summarily squelched. Arguably, author Zia Haider Rahman referred to this fundamentalist regime when he recently stirred the teacup by calling Bangladesh a land of dead ideas.

There is no question about which kind of fundamentalism is worse threat for Bangladesh. At its worst, one kind of fundamentalism would render Bangladesh an increasingly chaotic kleptocracy. At its worst the other one would lead to a murderous, totalitarian theocracy. So it is not hard to see the choice that a learned and informed member of the elite would make.

We can also question the need for a vibrant culture of dissent and freedom of expression for development of society and economy. East Asian countries, our in-fashion idols of development, are not renowned for diversity of thinking and tolerance of dissent in their society. They are, on the other hand, very nationalistic and Confucian societies where primacy of national glory is unquestioned and collective consensus is emphasized over individual dissent. And we can all see how the lack of dissent in these societies have affected their development!

Here I would like to discard the shoe of the devil’s advocate for the time being and make some brief arguments against adhering to small fundamentalism as the only bulwark against big fundamentalism. First of all we are not disciplined, regimented people like the East Asians; everything in our history and culture points out that we are a vibrantly argumentative people who can rarely remain steadfast in determined pursuit of a purpose. Rather than East or South East Asia, South Asia and in particular India shows us the realistic path towards development through democracy, a path that is stumbling and meandering but robust against internal and external changes.

It is also hard to see the viability of our brand of nationalistic fundamentalism against a global fundamentalist movement that promises unlimited glory in this world and eternal bliss in the next. Fundamentalism is hard to sustain in the long run because of contradictions rising within or the evolving external environment. Strong fundamentalist movements keep the contradictions in check with promises of great reward and threats of excruciating fate. Nationalist fundamentalism is more unstable because of greater inherent contradiction; the ideology purports to champion the aspiration of the whole nation but by the very nature of power it can only bolster one faction at the expense of others. The contradictions in fundamentalism of our elite are still greater because it is diametrically opposed to the very pillars on which it is founded. Not only it is against the spirit of democracy but it is also against the ethos of secularism. It suffices here to mention that politics based on religion is not banned in any secular democracies of the world.

The need for a higher purpose is one of the basic characteristics of human life. Fundamentalism provides that purpose in simple, easy to understand ideals. However, simplicity do not automatically mean coherence. Often the incoherence in the ideals of fundamentalists are too obvious for even the most dedicated follower to ignore and manifestly flawed ideals cannot be sustained without huge promises or grave threats. I think that nationalist fundamentalism of our elite is a utterly cynical ideology that may be also very inadequate for keeping religious fundamentalism at bay. I hope to expound later on why I think rationalism and humanism would be much better weapons in that fight but for now let me don the shoes of the devil’s advocate for one last time.

The way things are going, the nationalist fundamentalism of our elite may not need to be sustainable for long. Each and every day religious fundamentalism is discrediting itself in front of the world and raising the ire of general people with mindless violence and depraved inhumanity. No country is isolated in today’s world and surely our domestic religious fundamentalists will be receiving bulk of that ire from our people by virtue being nearer and therefore more threatening. Religious fundamentalism, by virtue of being a global movement, also bears the responsibility of every action in the globe. The global reaction may turn the tide soon enough and Bangladesh will not be separate from that reaction. So our nationalist fundamentalism just needs to limp on for another decade or so. Meanwhile there must not be any skepticism in the ranks and all hands should remain unwaveringly vigilant at the ramparts.

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