In the global literary circuit, London-based Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam is a rising star. Her second novel, The Good Muslim, like her first one, is based on the Bangladesh Liberation War. It cleaves through the upheaval in a fictional Maya Haque’s life at “a time when religious fundamentalism was a whisper in the wind”. The war leaves her confused between an ungodly past and a frantically religious present.
Bangladesh, much like Maya, has been asking itself a question for more than a quarter century it hasn’t been able to answer: ‘Are we Muslim or Bengali?’ The militant attack in an upscale Dhaka cafe last week is only a brutal imprint of this larger historical muddle.
Most analyses in the popular press have focused on the immediate global security concerns, including the Islamic State. The place to begin understanding the turmoil of a nation that heroically founded itself, posted a decent human-development record and has great potential going forward is Bangladeshi society. The country’s problem is political and sociological. Terror is but a mere imprint of the former.
Recent events have further sharpened polarisation in a country that always had two contesting nationalisms and two parties with opposing worldviews.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League won elections in 2009 held under a caretaker government with a two-thirds majority. While religiously motivated murders of liberals have risen, the Awami League government too has displayed a political culture that brooks no dissent.
A wave of Muslim nationalism has since clashed violently with a secular Bengali nationalism, which is steeped in Bangla ethno-cultural identity, literature, poetry and lifestyle.
This escalation comes amid high-profile executions decreed by the war crimes tribunal, which was set up by the Hasina government to try those accused of atrocities during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. One might ask if a restorative ‘truth and reconciliation commission’, like the one that saw the end of apartheid in South Africa, would have better served Bangladesh than a retributive war tribunal.
Jamaat-e-Islami’s incumbent chief and former agriculture minister, 75-year-old Motiur Rahman Nizami, was executed on May 11 for war crimes and he was the fifth such collaborator and fourth Jamaat leader to be hanged for war crimes. The Jamaat has cried vendetta. Collaborators like Nizami did facilitate Pakistani soldiers in killing civilians wantonly during the 1971 war, but the tribunal has been internationally criticised as a sham .
Many Islamist groups have now stepped out of the shadows. The killing last year of Bangladeshi-American writer Avijit Roy and gay-rights activist Xulhaz Mannan earlier this year grabbed global headlines.
Clausewitz’s saying that ‘politics is war by other means’ is apt for Bangladesh. The country’s history has been a history of political trench warfare between the governments led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaledia Zia to foist their hegemony. They forget that it’s an established political theory that political hegemony works not through coercion, but co-option.
The Awami League claims for itself a de-facto status as the party that midwifed the nation by first leading the autonomy movement and later the liberation war. The BNP positions itself as a party that wants Islam as a reference point and its main gripe is that the Awami League wants to deny its part in Bangladesh’s founding.
The consequence of this animus means both have failed to discern a popularly acceptable national identity which could secure Bangladesh’s political foundations. It is worth recalling the country adopted a hurriedly formulated Constitution that was not subjected to the cut and thrust of debate.
With its own distinct Muslim social formation, Bangladesh can’t be a Pakistan-like society, as the BNP is accused of envisioning. Neither can it be the France of South Asia with a fiercely agnostic laïcité-like form of secularism that Awami League seems to be sometimes articulating. Indeed, the Awami League backed the Bangladesh high court’s decision to keep Islam as the state religion and just this month, its government talked of sending troops to defend Mecca in case of an Islamic State attack. Bangladesh may have a long fight against terror awaiting it at home. The first step is to fix is its broken politics.