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Seeking answers from within
Publication Date : 10-03-2013
For the past few days, newspaper and television images of burning trains, mutilated bodies and angry mobs clashing with law and order forces have traumatised Bangladesh. As we are aware, the violent protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami were triggered by the recent death sentence verdict pronounced on their leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee. Sayedee was found guilty by a special war crimes tribunal for murder, rape, abduction, confinement, arson and forceful conversions during the nine-month period of Bangladesh’s fight for freedom in 1971.
The verdict conveys a potent message - that the social forces which perpetrate racial and religious hatred and intolerance need to be punished lest history repeats itself.
Like most of the country I, too, have been unhinged by the scale and intensity of the protests. But above all, I am filled with a sense of despair and foreboding. Is this the secular, democratic country that the heroes of 1971 fought to liberate? Bangladesh’s independence history is replete with sacrifices of freedom fighters who dreamed of a nation where religious freedom and democratic values would be honoured.
Then, why this backlash against religious minorities? Why this brazen attempt to destabilise the country by the use of brute force? Which version of Islam are these homicidal few taking their instructions from? There is no edict in Islam that teaches that human life has less value than a religious party icon and that attacking unarmed minorities is a reprisal against a judicial ruling.
Personally, I am amazed that after four decades of independence we are still debating the basic tenets on which this nation was created. Have we come to this impasse because our political leaders have been mollycoddling the Jamaat and other right wing extremist parties to broaden their power base in the Parliament? And, in the process have they unwittingly given the religious right the message that they can pursue their hate politics with impunity? Or it may be that the changes made to the secular segment of the Constitution have resulted in ambiguity on the country’s stance on religious tolerance.
I tend to believe that the Jamaat uprising is partially a failure of the liberal elements in the society who have not made adequate efforts to scale the wall of mistrust that exists between them and the hard-core religious right. The lack of communication has hardened the lines of polarisation between the liberals and the fanatics.
It is also unfortunate that, until recently, the large majority of rational Muslims in the country abdicated the public space to the religious extremists by remaining silent. The truth is that liberals by definition tend to allow divergent ideas to coexist and do not stifle dissenting voices. As a result, the views of a radicalised minority have come to represent Islam. And, mainstream Muslims are now left wondering what can be done to project the “true face” of a liberal and peace-loving Islam!
While in the midst of an internal dialogue over these issues, my thoughts floated back to a two-day symposium on Sufism that I attended last September at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. The event, which included presentations by Sufi scholars, artists, singers and dancers, underscored the universal message of Sufi Islam - that love for the Divine can best be expressed through love for mankind.
The Sufi kalams presented in the symposium transcended parochial religious differences and emphasised unity, peace and love amongst all. I was particularly struck by the secular imagery and symbolism embedded in the predominantly Muslim narrative, thus demonstrating the tolerance and open-mindedness of the Muslim Sufi saints of yore.
The sublimely beautiful words of a Sufi poem by Baba Farid, recited at the Symposium continue to resonate with me:
“Speak never a rude word to any - the Lord Eternal in all abides:
Break no heart - know, each being is a priceless jewel…
Shouldst thou seek to find the Beloved, break no one’s heart.”
Witnessing the mayhem in Dhaka, I wonder what happened to the Sufi brand of Islam with its universal message of love, peace and compassion? Where and how did we lose it? What will it take to reinstate it in the Islamic milieu once again?
To close on a positive note: for Bangladesh, the ongoing crisis may be a blessing in disguise. It offers an opportunity to steer the ship back on the course envisioned by the founding fathers. Whether or not the country will rise to seize the moment remains to be seen.
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank