Raza Habib Raja
Bangladesh and Pakistan are similar and yet different. They are similar as both of them are Muslim countries and both have Islamists in their midst. And yet they are different as the latter is definitely more embroiled in Islamic extremism than the former.
Bangladesh to be fair is a more moderate country compared to Pakistan. And this moderation owes to many factors. Bengalis are foremost nationalists and this characteristic to some extent acts as a counter balance to emergence and possible dominance of Islamic identity. Moreover Bangladesh is also ethnically more homogeneous compared to Pakistan which naturally reduces the need to use Islam as a “unifying force”. Bangladesh’s creation and the justifying narrative are based on ethnicity and consequently, religion though important, would never assume the kind of dominance which it receives in Pakistan. And in fact the last factor has enabled Bangladesh to become secular at least in official capacity.
And last but not the least is the dominance of intellectuals in the public sphere. Bangladesh has a rich intellectual milieu which has resulted in relative dominance of intellect and rationality in the public sphere.
And yet, Bangladesh, though to a lesser extent, has also grappled with the problem of extremism. And this extremism has often targeted the intellectuals. Many years ago Tasleema Nasreen was forced to flee Bangladesh and seek asylum abroad.
But it is the latest killing, of the blogger Avijit Roy, which has really shocked everyone. It has once again reiterated and reminded that no matter how “secularized” a country becomes, the menace of Islamic fundamentalism is not to be taken lightly. This reminds us that a country’s work or efforts have to go much beyond declaring a country secular. And above all this reminds us that there could be no free debate in the presence of religious zealots in general and Islamists in particular.
What has happened is shameful and it should be condemned and taken extremely seriously. And seriousness demands that Bangladesh does not make the mistakes ( or were those “mistakes” and not deliberate choices) which Pakistan made.
Religious fundamentalism has to be clamped upon and it is not just authorities targeting extremist physical sanctuaries, but going beyond that. It is about cultivating an atmosphere of free speech and interaction. And it can not be done unless religion is relegated to only personal sphere. It does not even belong to public sphere, let alone state.
And let me say it clearly to all those who have been supporting RSS excesses also! The fact that RSS is not like ISIS does not justify its actions. Hindutva may be milder than militant Islam but it is still religious chauvinism.
If your justification for RSS excesses is more reprehensible Islamist excesses, then it is a poor excuse no matter how “enlightened” you are! The fact that Hindutva is not as regressive as Islamism does not mean that it is justified.
Religious chauvinism is regressive in general and no matter what religion, faith belongs to only private sphere. Let’s be united here.
But there is a silver lining here! There were many who came out on the streets and protested in Bangladesh, something which I have never witnessed in Pakistan; but then Pakistan is already a lost case.
Bangladesh is not a lost cause! Despite all of this, it is alive and kicking. And I hope it remains vibrant!