Despite leanings towards moderation and religious-cultural pluralism, Islamic revivalism is organised and commands public support in Bangladesh.
Durga Puja is the biggest annual Hindu Bengali festival. The festive season coincides with the nine days comprising Navratri, and culminates on the tenth day, Dashami or Dussehra. This year, the festive season was marred in Bangladesh by violence targeting Durga Puja venues after Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and affiliates claimed Hindus desecrated the Quran by placing it derogatorily on Lord Hanuman’s lap or, as potent rumours claimed, at Goddess Durga’s feet.
On the back of rumour-mongering over social media, multiple Puja venues, Hindu homes and temples were attacked. As of this writing, news of fresh attacks are still coming in. This is an attempt to contextualise the attacks and the situation prevailing in Bangladesh.
Jamaati allegations of Quran desecration are born out of creedal assumptions about religions being in conflict with each other. Jamaatis believe every religion is like their own, defined at their core by the aim of achieving supremacy over other religions and manifesting its strictures as law of the land.
Iconoclasm, the act of destroying false places of worship and demeaning false objects of worship, gains its significance as a gesture constitutive of Islam’s victory and shirk’s defeat. In Islamic lexicon, shirk means wrongful association of divinity with false gods, idols, belief in multiple gods etc.
Invested in the clash of religions, it did not occur to the Jamaatis that Hindus have no compulsion to insult or demean Islam or other religions, during festivals or otherwise. Unlike Islamic ghazis taking pride in breaking idols, razing false houses of worship and erecting mosques at those spots (read: Babri Masjid in Ayodhya) as religious deeds acquiring highest merit, there is no psychological need or religious requirement for a Hindu to place the Quran at a Hindu deity’s feet, much less their lap. Solemn occasions in Hinduism are not spent thinking up ways to insult Islam.
Moreover, Hindus revere Goddess Durga and Lord Hanuman so greatly that they are likely to consider being placed at her feet or his lap an unparalleled blessing. If Hindus wanted to demean the Quran, they would have placed it in the hands of Mahishashura or in the mouth of the ten-headed Ravan on Ramleela, not at Ma Durga’s feet or Lord Hanuman’s lap.
Manufacturing a pretext to attack shirk is a choice weapon emanating from Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul A’la Maududi’s arsenal. In Tafhim-ul-Quran, his masterpiece, he opined notwithstanding the status of lying as a grave sin in Islam, practical life necessitates the telling of lies, and thus it is not only permitted but mandatory.
Bangladesh watchers know accusing religious minorities of desecrating the Quran is a standard technique employed by Jamaatis to foist culpability on them, which then serves as a pretext to attack them. Accusations of blasphemy rang loud in 2017 after copies of the Quran were found defecated on, provoking a massive wave of persecution in which hundreds of Hindu homes were torched in a single night.
It was later discovered the man who defecated on the Quran was Muslim. In 2016, the innocuous event of a Hindu minor sharing an already circulating photo of Lord Shiva sitting atop the Kaaba invited fundamentalist wrath.
In 2012, Buddhists were blamed for burning a copy of the Quran, leading to a conflagration resulting in the destruction of 2000 Buddhist homes. Jamaati instigation is pivotal in these attacks on minorities and their religious places of worship which are carried out with specific intent to demean sacred objects, break idols, loot precious items and put adherents of the false religions to the sword.
The ghost of Maududi looms large behind every false accusation of Quran/Islam desecration. With such illustrious precedent, it is a matter of small importance whether the Quran was planted at the deity’s feet or morphed photos were circulated. The net result is the same: virtuous lying to further the cause.
Parties Of Islam
Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) literally means 'party of Islam'. The nomenclature provides an important key to understanding Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party. Founded in pre-partition British India in 1941, present day branches in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are successor parties to the original founded by Maududi. These branches have adopted functional autonomy out of compulsion in the post-partition trifurcation of independent states, but their ideology and thought categories spring from common roots.
The other group behind the attacks is ‘Islamic Shasantantra Andolan’ (ISA), or 'movement for Islamic rule'. Unlike JeI, this party is not prohibited from contesting elections. In the 2018 general elections, ISA became the fourth largest party in terms of votes. Though very distant from the ruling and principle opposition parties, by itself it is a significant development as ISA left behind a cohort of socialist, democratic and workers’ parties. ISA’s conceptual and organisational links with JeI are intimate.
Maududi advocated Iqamat-e-Deen as a complete system of rules, regulations and codes of conduct for every station of life with roots in the first principles of Islam — “as plants sprouting from Islam’s roots”. JeI’s express purpose is the propagation of divine prophetic guidance to the world. The crucial link between prophetic revelation and prophetic way of life is law.
The Jamaati’s foundational belief is that only those laws revealed by the creator are legitimate. Every other body of law is human-made, hence their claim to legitimacy is pretentious falsehood. In JeI’s universe, secularism is ‘la din’, without religion; a Muslim owes no allegiance to human-made, godless constitutions. He obeys, serves and accepts the authority of his creator alone.
Islamic Andolan began as a group to bypass legal sanctions on JeI and negative public perceptions for its role in the 1971 genocide. Mati-ur-Rehman Nizami, inspirational leader of Bangladeshi Islamic revolutionary movement and hanged in 2016 for war crimes, authored an instructional book for the cadre called Islami Andolon O Songothon (Islamic revolution and organisation).
It contains an exposition of Iqamat-e-Deen: “Iqamat-e-Deen means establishing Islam as the victorious ideology of society. If a country is governed by a code of law differing from Quran-Sunnah, people therein cannot follow divine guidance despite personal devotion. Man is a social animal. He has no choice but to follow those who have power. Therefore, if the rulers are un-Islamic and oppose Islamic values, people will not be able to follow Islam”.
Explaining the role of Jihad Fi’sabilillah, he wrote “In the course of Islamic revolution and Jihad, conflict and confrontation are inevitable”.
Destruction of shirk is an integral part of Iqamat-e-Deen. In the Bangladeshi context, it means overthrowing the constitutional order and elected government in favour of a regime that will adopt Sharia and all the trappings of an Islamic regime. In the eyes of the Jamaatis, the present government and the party populating it are doubly corrupt because it endorses secularism, nationalism and democracy on the one hand, and permits polytheists and idolaters to hold their religious functions on the other.
Quoting Sura at-Tawbah (9:111) “Surely Allah has purchased of the believers their lives and their belongings and in return has promised that they shall have Paradise. They fight in the Way of Allah, and slay and are slain,” Nizami opines this verse directs the establishment of Islam’s total victory and removal of ‘fitnah’ and ‘fasaad’ from society. Fitnah means slander, spreading falsehoods about the deen. Fasaad means rottenness, corruption, depravity, immorality. Those committing fitnah are mischief-makers in a Muslim land. Unfolding events leave little doubt about how these weighty terms are being applied in Bangladesh.
One sub-chapter in the book is devoted to ‘maroof’ and ‘munkar’. These are Arabic terms translated as virtue and vice in English. Islam watchers will recognise these words in an instant. The department for promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice is associated with the Afghan Taliban, specifically with its first reign of terror between 1996 and 2001.
The appearance of this terminology in Nizami’s book and its relation with the Bangladeshi Islamic revolutionary movement is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is the same mindset in a different garb, in very different circumstances. Bangladeshi Jamaatis and Islamic Andolanis have the same objective as did the Taliban: capture of state power and its use as an instrument to implement Islam.
The State And Islam In Bangladesh
There is a widespread tendency in India to view Bangladesh through the lens of culture and language, particularly because it seceded from Pakistan on the basis of language and political autonomy. Despite leanings towards moderation and religious-cultural pluralism, Islamic revivalism is organised and commands public support in Bangladesh.
Like in other Muslim countries, there is virtually no serious challenge to the comprehensive domination of Islam. These are conditions suitable for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, even of the crude Jamaati and andolani variety. Demands of decency and political correctness may lull the critical faculty into under-evaluating the attacks on the biggest Bengali Hindu festival as the handiwork of fringe Muslim extremists and trouble-makers, but in all honesty there can be no doubt that the attacks are expressions of righteous zeal against idolatry and polytheism.
The Bangladeshi state is helmed by a secular-minded Prime Minister who has asserted that the culprits will be brought to justice regardless of their religious affiliation. But the Prime Minister’s assurances received a rude blow when a group of goons set an ISKCON temple on fire the very next day after the Prime Minister tried to assuage the victim Hindu community. Hanging war criminals who collaborated with the Pakistan-army led genocide is a sterling achievement of the Prime Minister, but the same firmness is not being applied in safeguarding Hindus and other minorities.
The Awami League presents itself as a force of good and dangles the prospect of a fundamentalist-dominated Bangladesh to reinforce its claims to governance. However, it is advisable to remain sceptical about such comprehensive dichotomy, particularly in the face of complaints by victims of persecution of grassroots Awami Leaguers’ collusion in Jamaati militancy. This disturbing claim has to be investigated carefully, but the secular Bangladeshi media have given it short shrift.
At any rate, realistic assessment suggests the government will dither in wielding the staff of danda for fear of inviting greater disorder, take the escape route of quietly prosecuting selected individuals, and explain away the events as ‘disturbances’ provoked by isolated extremists. The need to balance is necessitated by the fact that Jamaatis lost four activists to police fire, giving yet another pretext to fulminate against the godless government. Whether justice will be done or not time will tell, but one gets the feeling the ruling party is not going to be too keen for justice to be seen to be done.
In the long run, there is no substantial strategy to rein in the durable challenge posed by Bangladeshi Jamaatis and affiliates prepared to terrorise the government into compromise and acquiescence. The alternative is suppression using the force of law, but that seems to be an unsavoury prospect for the ruling party facing compounding legitimacy crisis.
On the other hand, in spite of all their failings, Jamaatis enjoy the reputation of being ‘Allah ke bande’ and are driven by inexhaustible desire to shape the country according to their image. In the long tug of war between secularism and Islam in Bangladesh, therefore, the plight of religious minorities is aptly exemplified by the old proverb ‘between the devil and the deep sea’. From the Hindu as well as Indian viewpoints, placing any hope on Awami League is going to bear only bitter fruits. The ‘secular’ party has a large support base of ‘devout Muslims’, and is very cautious to avoid being seen as disrespectful to Islam.
Food for thought: Bangladesh’s predicament stems from tensions between demography and law. One of Maududi’s most well-known aphorisms state “an Islamic state may be a Muslim state but a Muslim state may not be an Islamic until and unless the Constitution of the state is based on Quran and Sunnah”. The import of this statement has to be pondered over at length. Islamic revolution cannot be comprehended until there is clarity on this point.