Friday, April 12, 2013

Awakening the fundamentalists forces and threatening Bangladesh’s bliss

April 12, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Before Shahabag, the country with all its imperfections and problems was managing well on all fronts except politics. Even in politics, there was hope that the two mainstream parties would reach and understanding and move the country forward. Thus the Hefazat phenomenon is nothing less than a very bad nightmare that the Shahabag Movement (SM) and the secular forces have gifted the country. The million plus Islamic fundamentalists that Hefazat brought to Dhaka’s Shapla Chattar despite the determined efforts of the Government and the activists of the ruling party and SM to stop Hefazat activists from coming to Dhaka, dwarfed the SM in terms of numbers that had earlier led the media to term the latter’s gathering as the largest in Bangladesh for a long time. Although the Hefazat did not resort to violence, not yet, the 13 demands they made and the manner in which they made it, there is apprehension in minds of the majority of the people that the Hefazat nightmare is a real one.

The spokesman of the SM, Imran Sarkar, now at odds with the Government that has arrested some of his close comrades, has called the Hefazat “hyenas”. He probably does not have the sense either to comprehend what is happening around him or to realize that the that the movement he has led has unleashed forces that have the potentials to take a nation that had for centuries kept the Islamic fundamentalists (the hyenas by the term he has used; hyenas he had tried to negotiate with but was spurned) away from any major role in politics by liberal Islam, towards a major catastrophe. Our fathers and our forefathers successfully kept the Islamic fundamentalists at bay without the need of the constitution, the laws of the land or the government. Tampered by Sufism and other liberal traditions, they did not allow the Islamic fundamentalists any role in society other than those that they voluntarily gave them.

Thus while we have historically allowed our personal lives to be guided by the Maulanas, Maulvis and the Imams (even among these religious peoples, there are many who do  not hold rigidly fundamentalist views), we have kept other facets of our lives, for instance our political and socio/economic relationships, out of the influence of religion and the religious leaders,  not deliberately or by force, but by the way these relationships have evolved. When a child is born in the house of a Muslim family, the tradition is to find a Maulana or Maulvi or an Imam to recite “Allah hu Akbar” into the newborn’s ears. Our liberal traditions allow us to recite this call to Allah in Arabic into the newborn’s ears by an elder in the family where a Maulana or a Maulvi or the Imam is unavailable.

We need the “services” of these Maulanas/Maulvis/Imams in many other activities of our personal and social lives on a regular basis that to argue that Islam can only be a private matter in the life of a Muslim is irrational in a predominantly Muslim society such as ours or any society for that matter because a great deal of the culture of any people is deeply embedded deeply in religion. We thus hold milad mehfils and other religious functions at our homes to which we invite our relatives/ friends/neighbours to observe/celebrate many events in our lives such as the death anniversary of someone in the family or a happy occasion, etc and in such events, we also invite the Maulanas/Maulvis/Imams and their associates to our homes with a great deal of respect because without them we cannot hold these events. We pay them, give them plentiful sweets/food and send them away with great respect. But when the same Maulanas/Maulvis/Imams want our votes for a political office, we have seldom obliged.

This is how we have for centuries kept our society and ourselves from falling into the stranglehold of the Islamic fundamentalists. Since the final days of the British Raj when various political groups were vying for political power in a post-British South Asia, the Islamic fundamentalists did not lag behind. The Jamat-e-Ulema –e Hind, the precursor of the Jamat of Bangladesh and the Jamat in Pakistan, used religion/Islam to get a piece of the cake of political power after the departure of the British. In secular India, the Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Hind still exists but has changed its stance to adjust to secular India. It now believes that Muslims and non-Muslims have entered into a contract in the post-British India to establish a secular state. In Pakistan, the Jamat has gone to political power using Islam and is still a major force in the politics of the country. It, together with other Islamic fundamentalist groups, is also a major reason for the country being just a step away from being a failed state.

The people of Bangladesh have rejected Jamat comprehensively every time the party has participated in elections based on the legacy of liberal Islam that Bangladesh inherited. Thus, although Jamat as a party is older than even the Awami League and in a society where the people are poor, where religion is to them a social insurance against their daily miseries, where people still go to the Maulana to bless water in the name of the Allah that they take as alternative to medicine because they cannot afford to buy it, the Jamat and the religious fundamentalists have never found political favour. In fact, only in 2001 when Jamat allied with the BNP, it won 14 seats in a 300 seat parliament. Otherwise, Jamat, despite the country being overwhelming Muslim and having other characteristics that should have favoured fundamentalist Islamic parties, has never won seats more than in the lower single digit in each of the elections in which it has participated.

Thus in Bangladesh, Islamic fundamentalist forces have been successfully contained politically and the country did not suffer the fate that has befallen Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Shahabag Movement has given a body blow to this legacy and gift of liberal Islam from generations that have gone to the present generations of Bangladesh, a legacy that countries being destroyed by Islamic fundamentalism would have considered an answer to their dreams. It is this legacy, this gift that the Shahabag Movement has ruffled very badly and pushed Bangladesh towards the path that Pakistan has followed with disastrous consequences. It would of course be not fully fair to put the blame entirely on the Shahabag youth among some of the bloggers  among them are the immediate cause of the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist forces such as Hefazat as a consequence of the anti-Islam postings on their blogs. The share of blame must  fall more forcefully, on the so-called secular groups that were there with the SM from the very moment the youth landed in Shahabag.

These leaders of the secular forces have been active in the country for a long time. They are mostly from the politically defeated communists who have joined the AL as late comers and part of the civil society/cultural activists with links to the ruling party. The discredited left used Sheikh Hasina’s distrust for the so-called reformists in the party like Tofael and his colleagues to move close to the centre of political power. These erstwhile left forces with the part of the civil society and cultural activists (who have a strong pro-Indian bias) used their closeness to political power to further their favourite agenda, namely secularism. They worked from the Marxian belief that religion is “the opium of the masses” and hence had to be separated from public life if not altogether banished. To further this objective, they made the restoration of secularism in its pristine glory the very essence of patriotism and pro-liberation sentiments and did not show any inclination to allow Islam a space in the Constitution or in public life. They thus demanded the removal of the Islamic provisions placed in the Constitution after 15th August 1975 to restore the sanctity and glory of the 1972 Constitution that they thought had been contaminated by insertion of “Bismillah” and mention of Islam as the state religion. They refused to accept that these two provisions that did not in any way affect the secular and non-communal nature of society we inherited. They also refused to accept that once placed there, their removal would affect the sentiments of the majority of the people of the country.

These groups (in fact it would be a misnomer to call them  groups because  they eventually come down to an amalgam of individuals with well known public faces but no public following)  went public when the Government refused to accede to their demand for removal of the Islamic provisions after the 13th amendment. On Islam as a state religion , the ruling party refused to remove it from the  Constitution but added a sentence  to give all other religion the same standing as Islam that failed to appease these groups. Looking at this provision objectively, this  is no more than just a sentence that was placed in the Constitution after 15th August 1975, albeit with intent not honest,  but political that  did not in any way  give  Islam any special status  vis-à-vis the  other religions.. It is in fact the most benign use of Islam in politics. As far as “Bismillah” is concerned, it is the equivalent of “In God we trust” which is the official motto of the United States since 1956 and appears in all its currency notes as a public commitment to the Christian religion against the opposition of some secularists in a country that is officially secular. Is there an issue with Islam here for the secular forces of our country who cannot tolerate two benign insertions on Islam in the Constitution? Perhaps there is.

These individuals have also brought to the public domain the view that curiously went unchallenged that secularism is the most important of the principles for which Bangladesh war of liberated. In doing so, they deliberately switched non-communalism (oshamprodaeek-ota) for secularism, two concepts that are fundamentally different. In oriental societies such as ours, it is just not possible to keep religion and politics apart. In fact, it is impossible in any society. The citizens of United States faced this reality when President George Bush unashamedly used Christian fundamentalism and Evangelical Christianity to reach the voters and succeeded in defeating his democratic/liberal/secular opponent. He did not let the constitutional necessity to keep the state and religions apart bother him. In next door India, despite the emphasis of secularism in its Constitution, the Hindu fundamentalist BJP, the Hindu Mahashabha and the RSS are not only allowed political role, the BJP was in government between 1999-2024 and again promising to return to power with no less a Hindu fundamentalist as Narendra Modi as the leader, a politician who is still denied US visa because of his direct involvement in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.

These individuals who think that the true spirit of 1971 is embedded in secularism thus misrepresent history of our liberation by switching oshamprodaik-ota (non-communalism) for secularism. They also do not properly explain what they actually mean by secularism. A casual reference to secularism as described/explained in text books would reveal that it is a hugely complex concept that has existed in history from as early as the ancient Greek and Roman and can be traced in the writings of the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rusd. In modern times, secularism has emerged as a consequence of the Renaissance where the conflict has been between the State and the Christian Church and hence of no consequence to Muslims and Islam.  British writer George Holyoake, an agnostic himself, first used “secularism” in 1851, in his writings that today has adherents from diverse backgrounds and includes agnostics and atheists. The essence of secularism is knowledge “founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, concludes to the welfare of this life, and is capable to being tested by the experience of this life.” Thus, secularism as knowledge or practice of a principle contradicts Islam at its very core because in Islam,  the life in this world and the life hereafter are inseparable; in fact that the life in this world is temporary and the real life is after death is the fundamental belief of Islam, Christianity and Judaism . 

The insistence of these individuals to force the Prime Minister to delete any mention of Islam in the Constitution suggests that they have an issue with Islam and those who uphold and speak of Islam in pubic and in politics. The Prime Minister did not relent but that did not stop these forces from speaking in various forums about the contradiction between the state principle of secularism and the two Islamic provisions in the Constitutions. These are the individuals who saw in Shahabag their golden opportunity to further their view of secularism minus Islam. So focussed were they on defeating Islam that they did not see the dangers of the anti-Islamic blogs. At first, they blamed it on Jamat but even when it became evident that some of the Shahabag bloggers were the culprits, they failed to see what was coming and did not either alert the Shahabag to deal with the matter seriously or they themselves did not acknowledge anything wrong in such postings!

The government/ruling party, overawed and worried out of their wits by the Hefataz phenomenon, made gestures to this extreme fundamentalist forces in utter disappointment of the secular forces.  It even assured Hefazat that it would look sympathetically into its 13 demands that could not have been more an anti-thesis to secularism as understood by the secular forces! Thus forced by the power of Islam, the ruling party has taken a stand directly against Shahabag and the secular forces. Unfortunately  the SM and  the secular groups are still in denial about the problems they have created for the nation.   One leader whose hanging has been demanded by the Hefazat (under Hefazat’s pressure, even he has been heard on TV quoting verses from the Quran to pacify the Islamic fundamentalists!)  attacked the government’s law enforcing agencies for not protecting his life against the Hefazat activists. He said in the media angrily that had the Shahabag activists not helped him run away from the Hefazat activists while opposing their Long March, he would have been killed! The SM and these secular forces still believe the best way to tackle the Hefazat is the strong arm tactics; only now the Government  is no longer obliging to treat them with any degree of importance.

Shahabag was only a small section of the country’s Projonmo. The media deliberately led the nation to believe it is the entire Projonmo that would revive the lost spirit of 1971.  The Hefazat too is only another section of the nation. In between Shahabag and Hefazat, there are the overwhelming majority of the Muslims of Bangladesh who are liberal minded Muslims who fear the Islamic fundamentalists who believe that these forces are too few to de-stabilize the liberal Bangladesh they have inherited.  It is the duty of all, the mainstream political parties, the civil society and the media to reach to them to set back the fundamentalist forces that have now landed at the centre of our politics with nightmarish prospects. Side by side, all right thinking people of the country who want Bangladesh to come out of its present predicament must take a serious look at the mistakes at Shahabag and the real intentions and agenda of the secular forces (individuals) that helped the fundamental forces to telescope time and land at the centre of politics and hold them responsible for trying to destroy the liberal, non-communal but Islamic Bangladesh that is our pride.

The ruling party has a more important reason to look seriously at SM and the secular groups because they   have landed it into a l predicament that could be politically more disastrous to it than the issues of the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny and share market scam. It has the powers to restore the country to its pre Shahabag status to tackle the dangers from the Islamic fundamentalists. A free and fair election to help the nation choose its next government would go a long way to restore the nation’s position vis-à-vis the Islamic fundamentalist. A failure to do so will create more instability and would be the natural breeding ground for the fundamental forces that SM and the secular groups have unleashed.

He writer is a retired career Ambassador

Syrians suffer from mistakes in Iraq

Daily Sun
April 7, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The decade milestone of the Iraq war would have all but been forgotten in the United States had it not been for what has been happening in nearby Syria. A decade ago, the United States left the war on terror in Afghanistan unfinished and entered Iraq on premises that it was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and therefore had to be taken down. The US administration also argued that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda, the terrorist network accused to have carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Both the arguments to enter Iraq were very strong in the backdrop of the build up that was created by the western media following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Further, Saddam Hussein was projected as reincarnation of the devil for human rights violations his regime carried out in Iraq. Although the issue of human rights violation by Saddam Hussein on his people was a correct assumption; the primary reasons to enter Iraq, namely that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction and was harbouring Al Qaeda were proven  wrong. In fact, it was revealed that the administration of President George Bush had misled the country delibertely on both the issues to take the country to war in Iraq.

That Iraq war has cost the United States in human and financial terms that are mind blowing. In fact, the costs have been so huge that even describing these as mind blowing would be an understatement. Statistics are powerful tools in analyzing costs of wars but in case of Iraq, statistics cannot correctly put across what the war has meant to the Iraqis as 10 years down the road, the country is still suffering deeply the scars of the war. For the United States, the scars are equally devastating. The financial costs alone have been so high that it would have raised hundreds of millions in the developing world out of poverty had the money been spent there.  A research done at Brown University has come out with a figure of US$ 3.7 trillion as costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a strong hint that ultimately, the costs could reach US$ 4.4 trillion. A similar study at Harvard has estimated that the costs would cross the US 6 trillion!

In terms of lives lost, the Iraq war has been a human designed humanitarian disaster. The US alone has lost over 4000 men and women in uniform. Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq up to March this year has been 122,366. Unofficial estimates of civilian deaths are out by some sources as high as a million. There is no family in Iraq today that has not lost a near and dear one as a consequence of the US war in Iraq and in the violence that the country witnessed under US occupation and after the US helped establish a “democratic” transition in the country. The violence and civilian deaths, though greatly diminished, are still continuing.

These depressing statistics are making Americans both in government and in ordinary station in life take a critical look at the reasons for going to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and future involvement in wars abroad.  In fact, both the administration and the Republicans in Congress have so far side stepped the fact that this year has marked the 10th year of the start of the Iraq war because there is very little to cheer about. It is now the generally held view in America that the US led Iraq war, the huge human and financial costs it made in that country notwithstanding, has not made the country democratic that was given by the US administration as a major reason for the war once it was revealed that Iraq neither possessed the WMDs nor were the Al Qaeda terrorists present there. Although the sectarian conflicts among the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds have been brought to some manageable limits, it cannot be said with any certainty that the sectarian problems that Saddam Hussein had pushed under the surface by force would not emerge again in the future. On the negative side, after one decade of Iraq under the US and US backed government in Baghdad, the influence of the Iranians in Iraq that was nonexistent while Saddam Hussein was in charge is very mush visible.

The reality in Iraq today has been the curse for Syrians who suffering atrocities worse that what Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein.  The civilian deaths at the hands of the murderous Bashar al- Asad’s regime have already claimed 70,000 lives. More than 1.1 million have fled the country where they live in conditions “soaked and frozen by the chilling rains of the Mediterranean winter” that will no doubt claim many more lives.  Richard Cohen has pointed to these facts in  an article in the Washington Post recently: “The war threatens to destabilize the region. The Kurds in Syria’s north are restless. The Palestinians, refugees in Syria from their one-time homeland are refugees again in Jordan. Lebanon is awash with Syrians, fellow Muslims of a different sort. The ethnic nitroglycerin of that country- an unstable mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, various Christians and Druze- looks increasingly fragile.” The situation in Syria, if Bashar al- Asad is allowed to continue, will eventually threaten “US allies in Israel, Turkey in Jordan”

Richard Cohen went on to state in no uncertain terms that there is no chance of Bashar Asad either seeking exile in Moscow as some have suggested or retreating. He expects  the civilian slaughter to continue and “bloodbath will follow bloodbath, a settling of scores from the recent past; the distant past and – just for good measure – the imagined past. Kill before you can be killed. It is the earliest form of hedging.”  He analyzed wars as those of choice and necessity. He described the Iraq war as one of choice “and imbecility” and criticized the Obama’s administration for failing in Syria that he felt should have been a war of necessity for the United States.

Many other political analysts in the United States like Richard Cohen   have likewise criticized President Obama’s lack of affirmative action in Syria, even those who had supported US’ intervention in Iraq and are now well aware of the costs to America and Iraq and the fact that the Bush administration had taken the country to Iraq on false pretexts. Although they are conscious of the fact that so far the US has not sacrificed a soul in Syria and have limited costs to millions in US$  as against trillions in US $ in Iraq, they are worried that if the US remains with its hands-off policy in Syria, it will encourage a human disaster much worse than Iraq.

They are also worried that the policy of the Obama administration will also adversely impact the standing of the United States in the region. According to one of them, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, the US influence is the region “is plummeting”. In another piece in the Washington Post, he has written that not just France and Great Britain but every neighbour of Syria “has been shocked and awed by the failure of the US leadership” and that it will not be Iraq but Syria that “will be the turning point when America ceases to be” indispensible nation as Bill Clinton had described the United States.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, CFAS

What went wrong with the Shahabag Movement?

Friday April 5th 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The government’s decision to arrest 3 Shahabag bloggers to appease Islamist forces who are planning a march to Dhaka on April 6th, forces that the government had called as a front of the Jamat, leaves no one in doubt that the Shahabag Movement (SM) has finally ended unsuccessfully. Dr. Irman Sarkar, the leader of the Shahabag Movement who had the power to ask and get anything from the government just a few weeks ago, condemned the government strongly and demanded their release.  The government, under threat from Islamists that the SM has awakened, is in no mood to even bother to listen to Dr. Imran Sarker because he and the SM have become victims of politics of the ruling party.  Dr. Imran Sarker and his Shahabag comrades would do themselves good if they woke up to reality plus and went back to what they have been doing before Shahabag. Many of them will and perhaps Imran Sarker too but  if they have some of the qualities that those who supported them have said they have when the going was good for them, they should look back and find out why their movement failed after raising so much hope.

The drama surrounding the SM changed so abruptly that one has to scratch one’s head to be convinced about the end of a movement that just two months ago was being championed by the ruling party, a section of the secularists/intellectuals with links to the ruling party and a media heavily favouring the ruling party as the harbinger of a  new dawn, a force that would rekindle the dying “spirit of 1971” that had unified a nation to fight and win freedom and finally bring home the fruits of our glorious war of liberation of 1971. The ruling party was one of the first to champion the SM because it saw in it the potential to turn the difficult predicament into which it found itself with the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny and the share market and general failure in governance, to its advantage.

Initially, the ruling party succeeded in turning a movement that should have been directed against the government to its fullest advantage. The issue that had brought the youth together was the failure of the ICT to hang Qader Mollah. The ICT and all aspects of the trials of the alleged war criminals were the responsibilities of the Government. The government/ruling party had spent the last 4 years dismissing the claims of the opposition that the trials were politically motivated and the ICT was not properly constituted to hold the trials. They had assured the people that justice would be done and the accused in the war crimes trials would be punished in the present term of the ruling party government.  Therefore the youth should have gathered at Shahabag and expressed their anger at the Government. They did not or could not as the government/ruling party cleverly took control of the movement through some known cultural activists of the ruling party and the secular/intellectual forces with links to the ruling party backing them.

In fact, the cultural activists of the ruling party who represents the secular/intellectual forces very cleverly manipulated the SM and delivered it completely into the laps of the ruling party after their initial opposition to allow ruling party Ministers and leaders the chance to address the nation from their forum that had raised hopes that the youth were non-political. The government then provided the movement with all the logistics it required as well as security lest Jamat and its activists caused its members physical harm.  The government did not want such a heaven sent opportunity to push the opposition into the corner to be wasted. All seemed to be working in favour of the ruling party and the SM was soon carrying out the political agenda of the ruling party against the opposition.

Had the anti-Islam postings in the blogs of some of the Shahabag activists not been revealed, the SM  and the ruling party together would have made the ambitions of the opposition in the context of the politics of the country history, if not permanently at least in the context of the next elections in the country. Instead, the ruling party finds the tables turned on its head on the issue of Islam and caught with a new political liability that may eventually prove to be more damaging to it than all the damages that many thought that  the Padma Bridge, the Hallmark and Destiny and fraud in the share market would do to the chances of the ruling party returning to power for another term.

The ruling party is now taking steps to correct the mistakes they made with Shahabag, like arresting the bloggers. They have also assured the Islamic forces planning to march on Dhaka to demand that those amongst the Shahabag bloggers who insulted the Prophet (pbuh) be hanged, that they will not allow anyone in the country to do so.  Ministers were sent to these extremist Islamists to assure them that the offenders who attacked Islam would be punished. Instructions have been sent to dismantle the SM in an u-turn that is embarrassing and could be politically disastrous to the ruling party.   Only the future will tell whether the ruling party has missed the bus in its attempt to correct the mistakes it made with the SM. For the sake of the country, one would like to expect that it succeeds in cooling down the Islamic sentiments that the SM has rubbed the wrong way.  If it does not, the country would suffer in a very serious way. Nevertheless, there is a price that it must pay for encouraging a force without checking its credentials and it may not find the way to retrieve the harm that Shahabag has done it politically, that easily. Supporting the SM in retrospect may have been a major political blunder of the ruling party.

When political parties make mistakes, they pay the price. It is the role of the secularists intellectuals with links to the ruling party and the media in the Shahabag movement that must be subjected to some serious scrutiny because they would not be called to pay any price for their role although they also contributed to SM’s ignominious end that has pushed the country towards a civil war.  The youth had undoubtedly attracted the attention of the nation when they appeared initially with their message, their enthusiasm. They could have been guided to achieve the ideals that they sought to achieve. They could have united the nation and revived the spirit of 1971. Instead, these secularists/intellectuals went to Shahabag without checking the background of the youth and straightaway, termed their movement as the “Liberation war of Projonmo”  when they saw in the movement potentials for helping the ruling party politically and furthering their own agenda on secularism minus Islam. In urging the movement to fight a new war, a war they believed was not finished in 1971; they pushed the youth into the conflict ridden politics of the country. In fact, they did more. They pushed it to achieve their political agenda. They  used SM to ban Jamat and remove the Islamic provisions in the Constitution so that the state principle of secularism would not be tarnished by Islam!

When the youth demanded capital punishment for the accused in the war crimes, they had the nation enthralled and expectant because except the Jamat, there was consensus for such a demand.  If they had been allowed to pursue this line after the government changed the ICT laws so that the government could plead once an accused was given punishment less than a capital one, they would have been on course to ensuring that the accused before the ICT would not get reprieve as Qader Mollah did. In fact, they had even ensured that Qader Mollah would again be brought to trial and given capital punishment. Then influenced by the secular forces, they demanded the banning of Jamat. Thereafter, the partisan nature of the country’s politics became as clear as day light in the Shahabag Movement. The ruling party through the secular forces planted in the movement its political agenda one after another.  The secularists planted in the movement their agenda of reviving secularism minus Islam. Together they pampered the Shahabag youth in such glowing terms that it made the leaders of the Shahabag Movement think of themselves larger than life. It was with their encouragement that Dr. Imran Sarker made that audacious statement that the Shahabag Movement was stronger than the government.

The secular forces linked to the ruling party and the government with the media as an ally worked hand in glove for the ruling party’s political agenda. It was however the secular forces who worked as the conduit for the government with the Shahabag leaders and supported all their demands without caring for their legality. In fact, they did not just bother to care for legality; they also set aside issues of human dignity and propriety. Thus when Shahabag demanded that the government must change laws so that Qader Mollah could be brought to trials again and hanged, the whole heartedly backed them. They should have cautioned the Shahabag youth that their demand conflicted directly with the principles of law and jurisprudence and that sensible people abroad would immediately dismiss the movement on this demand alone. They should have also cautioned them that after such changes in the ICT laws by the government under demand made by them, death sentences on the accused would be suspect by simple application of common sense to the outside world that was not happy with the way the Government was conducting the trials. They watched and supported young children as young as five/six years old crying hoarse demanding the hanging of the alleged criminals! It is sad that not one of them saw the sadistic nature of such a demand when young kids were brought to do such acts!

They forgot that we have in the country a legal, elected government. They listened to the Shahabag youth like it was the government and followed them obediently. They thus urged people all over the country to answer the call of the Shahabag youth and come to a standstill for 3 minutes.  Their urging was so successful that the Governor of Bangladesh Bank proudly led his staff out and stood in 3 minutes silence to show their obedience to the Shahabag Movement. The Bank made sure that the picture of the Governor and his staff obediently listening to the dictates of the Shahabag youth was prominently displayed in the newspapers. In fact, ministers did the same thing that the Governor did with his staff.  When these youth leaders in a state of surreal sense of authority that these secular forces had put in their heads demanded that flags be hoisted as a time determined by them, the secular forces saw nothing wrong in such a demand although they knew that there are prescribed rules governing the hoisting of the national flag and no private individual or group has any right to interfere with such rules!

The movement of the youth took a critical part of Dhaka’s unbelievably weak traffic system to create their space. Across were two major hospitals of the country, PG and BIRDEM. Had the movement been for a day or two, it would have been bad enough. The movement carried for days, weeks, months. It does not need common sense to suggest that the Shahabag movement caused massive damages/dislocations/losses to the traffic system of Dhaka, to patients trying to get treatment in the two major hospitals and to businesses on the Elephant Road. Yet the secular forces that guided the Shahabag Movement remained silent to such gross interference in the lives of the people. In fact, the secular/intellectual forces who guided and supported the SM took leave of their senses and backed all demands made by the SM so that their own agenda on secularism, Jamat and Islam would be fulfilled.

In the belief that the movement would lead Bangladesh to glory by reviving the spirit of 1971, these intellectuals asked no questions who these young men and women were. They did not ask that although the demand to give the maximum punishment to the war criminals was a great one and that the youth had to be welcomed for making the demand, why they were silent about more serious problems in society, like for instance, issues of corruption, Hallmark, Destiny, sharemarket.etc. The last four years under this government have been particularly a bad one for the youth. The educations institutions of the country have been subjected to criminalization that the country did not witness in the past and the ruling party’s student wing was using these institutions as their fiefdom.  These issues together with many more, like eves teasing in educational institutions that have become such a menace that regularly girls are omitting suicide, should have been the core concerns of any youth movement in the country. Yet at Shahabag, the movement was silent about these issues. Why did the secularists/intellectuals who saw the omissions not speak out? What was the reason behind their silence?

When the anti-Islam blogs became public knowledge, these secularists/intellectuals failed to see the dangers or alert the leaders of the SM. In fact, they misled them by trying to deflect the responsibility for these postings on the Jamat and Shibir. On behalf of the youth, they expressed anger on those who exposed these blogs. They demanded one particular newspaper be closed and its editor arrested for exposing the bogs’ anti Islamic postings.  As a consequence of their ill- motivated  support  for the Shahabag movement, they were greatly instrumental in the expected way the movement has ended; a movement, largely partisan in favour of the ruling party and totally insensitive to the real issues of concern in the society and totally oblivious to the importance of Islam in the country.

Unfortunately, there is no way to hold these secularists/intellectuals responsible for their role in the Shahabag Movement although their support and encouragement has  to a great extent brought the country face to face with the greatest dangers the country has faced in the last 42 years of its existence. The aftermaths of the Shahabag Movement are still unfolding although the movement has more or less ended with the ruling party now having drawn the line with the arrest of the three bloggers. But at this stage, it may be safely said that as much as a vast majority of the nation supported maximum punishment for the alleged war criminals, they want much more that no one should dare disrespect Islam and Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

The Shahabag movement has also revealed the force of the media in present Bangladesh, albeit negatively. It has shown what the media can do if it gets together for a thoughtless cause and ends owning it. Instead of being objective of the Shahabag movement, it became partisan; in fact, it acted as the media of the movement.  It represented the voice of the youth and the secular/ intellectuals as the voice of the nation without caring to find the truth; that between Shahabag/ intellectuals and the nation, there was the overwhelming majority of the people whose opinion on Shahabag they assumed to be positive even after the anti-Islamic blogs became public. If it had acted as a responsible media and pointed the mistakes that the SM did, it could have done itself, the youth movement and the nation great credit instead of pushing the country to the brink of a civil war. In the end, it gave a small section of the country’s youth a national forum and tried to launch them to national leadership. It also gave a section of the country’s secularist/intellectuals a forum to carry forward their agenda of secularism through Shahabag. On both counts, the media failed to do what it intended to do because it assumed things and events without and did not seek truth and reality. To make amends, even though partially, the media should now pursue the secular/intellectual forces and tell the public what they would do now that the government has dropped SM as a hot potato.

Shahabag’s lessons will sink for better or for worse for the country depending on what lessons the actors of the Shahabag drama as parties/groups/individuals take from it. It is still early to conclude on all the lessons from Shahabag. This notwithstanding, it may not be off the mark to suggest one major lesson from Shahabag. No matter what the Constitution says about the state principles, democracy, nationalism, socialism or secularism, all must find a way to blend with Islam. It should not be difficult because Islam has blended with the most important of these state principles for the Shahabag movement/and the section of the secularists/intellectuals that supported Shahabag, namely secularism, for centuries without any problem. Whether Islam and secularism would remain the way it has blended for centuries would depend to a great extent on the secular forces and what stand they take on Islam in future.

They should consider the planned march of the Islamists towards Dhaka on April 6. This could be the most dangerous development out of Shahabag so far. By its insensitivity, the Shahabag movement has awakened this danger for the country in which their contribution has been significant; the prospect of what was never a possibility for the country; the prospect of fundamentalist Islamic forces becoming strong to challenge for political power. One has to pray for the country so that the government does not make any more mistakes with this Islamist forces under the influence of the secular forces within it folds.   It is time for the government/ruling party to draw a line as it has with Shahabag with the secular forces for its own sake and the country so that both Islam and secularism can find their own space in society as it has for many centuries,

The writer is a retired career Ambassador