vortex: noun; vortexes or vortices (plural)
definition (literary): ‘A dangerous or bad situation in which you become more and more involved and from which you cannot escape’ (Cambridge Dictionary, British English, Internet edition).
SUMMER 2016 was eventful for Bangladesh. The holy month of Ramadan (fasting), June was marked by optimism as the rapidly growing urban middle class geared up for a shopping spree to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr (breaking of the fast). It was also; however, a period of heartbreaking violence, wonton killing, name-calling, and astonishing ineptitude, splitting open the fissure that had existed since the country had been founded forty-five years earlier. The historical discord between the postcolonial Bangladesh state and Bengali society was one symptom of this rupture, which was to deepen in the ensuing months.
Along with the international community, Bangladeshi around the world were stunned by the simultaneous juxtaposition of a highly optimistic budget (2016–17) and various projects touted as signs of economic growth (e.g., Dhaka Metro Rail, multiple-lane high ways, and the creation of a digital Bangladesh) with the horrific attack on Holey Artisan Bakery (affectionately known as ‘the Bakery’) in the upscale neighbourhood of Gulshan, Dhaka, where some Bangladeshi and expatriates were killed along with five attackers on July 1, 2016.
Refusing to acknowledge the incident as a political issue that goes to the heart of postcolonial Bangladesh, the state and its global allies identified this and other so-called target killings as matters of ‘crime’ and ‘law and order’— to which they responded by strengthening and deploying state security forces such as the police, Rapid Action Battalion, military, and border guards. A period of depoliticisation followed during which the principal opposition party — Bangladesh National Party — was neutralised to the point that it was reduced to organising press conferences at which journalists outnumbered party BNP leaders and workers. The BNP was incapable of mounting an effective challenge to the ruling party, either in the streets or parliament (BNP boycotted the 2014 election; hence, they have no presence in the parliament). A sense of triumphalism and inertia having descended on Bangladesh, the Awami League’s grip on state power as the ruling party now feels overwhelming and absolute. These days, politics is largely confined to rivalry and internecine fighting within the ruling party and its affiliated wings. One such example is its student organisation, Bangladesh Chatra League, whose political power is limited to collecting fees on tenders for large-scale construction projects at universities and colleges as well as to raising tolls, known as chada, from small businesses on campuses and elsewhere. This is what is occurring at the state level.
At the societal level, however, the picture is different. The world most people inhabit, society comprises the family, voluntary organisations, religious organisations, and other social institutions. It has its own dynamics and power mechanisms, which need to be in congruence with the state for peace to be maintained. When the two realms are at odds, it not only threatens the very existence of the state, but society’s efforts to save itself also have the tendency to tear society apart. It is this dissonance that fuels instances of violence such as the recent attacks perpetrated by Islamic jungi in Bangladesh. (The term jungi comes from the Persian word ‘jung,’ widely used in other South Asian languages, which means battle or war. Thus, ‘Islamic jungi’ means one who engages in war or battle for Islam. In Bangladesh, the lone word ‘jungi’ sometimes connotes radical Islamist or, in general, one who fights for establishing a state that strictly adheres to textual Islam.)
The budget and tall tales of ‘success’
IN EARLY June 2016, finance minister A M A Muhith presented an annual budget (2016–17) that painted a rosy picture of the country’s economy, claiming it is marching full-speed toward its goal of achieving the country’s status as a ‘middle income’ country by 2020. The budget’s goal is to gain a 7 per cent annual growth rate and keep the inflation rate below 6 per cent. It emphasises private-sector development by focusing on infrastructure, a prime target in Bangladesh. Indeed, the economic development prospect is so rosy that US-based business magazine Forbes notes that despite floods, tornados, and political instability, Bangladesh is surging ahead to fulfil its developmental goals and consistently remains a good place for foreign investment and business.
The primary developmental goals, however, are organised around constructing mega-projects, to which 22.70 per cent of the total budget is allocated. These mega-projects are being used by the ruling regime to showcase their achievements and at the same time blunt opposition to government endeavours by identifying challengers as ‘anti-people’ and ‘anti-development.’ Financing these mega-projects, however, reinforces the state’s continuous dependence on foreign capital and the bourgeoisie bias in development efforts.
The state has allocated Tk 1.17 trillion to development expenditures, the bulk of which will focus on mega-projects. Take, for example, the Padma Bridge, which would connect northwest Bangladesh with rest of the country. The World Bank was supposed to finance the bridge, but it joined Asian Development Bank in bailing out of the project, alleging corruption. The government responded by fomenting nationalistic fervour. Calling it a western conspiracy to thwart the country’s development, the prime minister and other ministers began touring the country, declaring the government would self-finance the project. Reality is more complex, however. Full state finance would require some US $2.9 billion, a seemingly impossible figure for the government to raise as it has had to finance other mega-projects as well. The state has already borrowed more than Tk 200 billion from commercial banks in the last fiscal year to finance mega-projects, and now it needs to borrow an additional Tk 300 billion (more than US $3.8 billion) in the current fiscal year to balance the budget deficit (Barakat, et al. 2016).
Although borrowing can sometimes appear an easy option, logistically speaking, it is a daunting task. Dhaka Metro Rail is another mega-project Dhaka promoted. It was supposed to kick off in 2011, but the project contractor — an Italian-Thai public limited company — could not arrange the necessary funds on time. The elevated expressway also presented conflicts with other ongoing projects. Considered the solution to Dhaka’s perennial traffic congestion, the rail system has been in the works for over a decade as officials conduct a feasibility study, perform route selection, and address other complex issues. Whatever the project’s financial and logistical difficulties, this and other mega-projects are regularly extolled as success stories of the government. Anyone voicing opposition to such projects (e.g., concerns about the environment or foreign capital dependency) is portrayed as ‘anti-development’ and an ‘enemy of the state.’ Such ambitious development has fundamentally altered the basic fabric of society, provoking a social transformation that has yielded far-reaching consequences — including the emergence of radical Islamist politics in Bangladesh. (Granted, Islamist politics dates back to both the colonial and postcolonial periods and Islamist political parties have been participating in the election since a democratic system was installed in the early 1990s, but the jungi Islam we are currently witnessing is unparalleled and unique, requiring a different kind of framing and interpretation.)
Over the last forty years, economic change in Bangladesh has been marked by two contradictory, albeit interconnected, issues: 1) criminalisation of the politics and economy and 2) total transformation of class structure (both urban and rural), including the emergence of new classes that remain undeveloped. One inevitable consequence of these interconnected factors is the growing class discrepancy between the rich and poor. True, this gap is nothing new in Bangladesh. Historically divided into bourgeoisie and proletariat classes thanks to its colonial background, Bangladesh featured an undeveloped class and a fragmentary, heterogeneous petty bourgeoisie lacking any connection with the economic structure of the society it dominated (Alam 2015; Alam 1996). In 1971, this petty bourgeoisie class, with its heterogeneous social ensemble, became the ruling class immediately after the defeat of the Pakistani colonial forces. It embarked on a disastrous state-building process with pseudo-socialist projects, tenaciously combined with nationalism, democracy, and secularism. This ideological hodgepodge was dubbed ‘Mujibbad’ or Mujibism. A faction of the petty bourgeoisie achieved dominance at the expense of other factions. In 1975, a coup signalled the removal of this petty bourgeoisie faction, subsequently replaced by another faction (i.e., military and ‘bourgeoisie wannabes’). Like many other postcolonial ruling classes, Awami League regime failed spectacularly to create a smooth transition from colonial nationalist agitation to postcolonial technology of power as various factions within the ruling petty bourgeoisie began jockeying for power within the fragmented regime. The military coup of 1975 heralded the demise of one faction and ascendance of another rather than a total replacement of the petty bourgeoisie ruling elite.
The present-day emergence of new class forces can be traced back to 1975. Marking the end of the ‘socialist’ experiment of the Sheikh Mujib period, the post-1975 regime opened up the economy for foreign capital in unprecedented ways and paved the way for Bangladesh’s entrance into the global capital network. The current regime of Sheikh Hasina (daughter of slain first head of government, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and supposed torchbearer of her father’s economic and political legacy) is perceived by virtually all Bangladeshi as a different Awami League from that of her father. Today’s Awami League has abandoned all vestiges of socialism present in her father’s AL while simultaneously strengthening the Bangladesh position in the global capital network (an issue we will explore later). First, let us return to the matter of growing inequality that stands in contradiction to the purportedly rosy picture of economic success painted by the regime.
Like in other capitalist countries, economic change in Bangladesh created an enormous gap between the wealthy and impoverished. Recent studies show 66 per cent of the total population is either poor or lives under the poverty line (Barakat, et al. 2016), whereas 31.3 per cent of the population could identify as middle class and 2.7 per cent as rich. These numbers are staggering — out of 134 million people, only 4.4 million belong to the wealthy category. Barakat (2016) argues that for the last three decades, we have witnessed extensive class polarisation, which continues today as the middle class is continuously squeezed and large numbers fall into poverty. The poor, on the other hand, do not enjoy upward class mobility by climbing the socioeconomic ladder as the free market economy promises. They remain destitute, their numbers only increasing.
There are many structural components involved in poverty and poverty-stricken people, including the urban-rural aspect. More poor people live in rural areas than urban ones: 82 per cent of the poor live in rural areas, and 18 per cent are urban dwellers. Out of the 82 per cent rural poor, 60 per cent are landless, 50 per cent of households do not have electricity, and 60 per cent do not receive any state assistance. The urban area shows all the signs of lopsided economic growth, with the capital (Dhaka) continuously billed as the worst city in the world along with Baghdad and Damascus. Barakat (2016: 6) describes the ‘squatterisation’ and ‘ruralisation of urban life’ in Bangladesh’s urban centres. The growth of Dhaka into a mega-city could have resulted in the creation of an industrial base where rural migrants could be absorbed. Instead, Dhaka became a city of lumpens — thousands of mostly young, untrained, and uneducated or semi-educated roaming the city purposeless. Lacking livelihoods and support systems, they easily fall prey to activities deemed illegal and threatening by the state. Unscrupulous politicians, both local and national, routinely recruit them as ‘party workers.’ The phenomenon of chada (toll) raising relies on these individuals. Widely known as mastans, they are the reinforcers. Furthermore, as Barakat (2016) notes, Bangladesh’s population has increased 60 per cent, whereas poverty rose to 76 per cent over the past three decades. The middle class has also undergone profound transformation. Currently, five crores and one lakh could be identified as middle class, out of which two crores and seventy-one lakhs are lower-middle class; one crore and fifty-six are middle-middle class; and the remaining seventy-five lakhs are upper-middle class. While a portion of the middle-middle class moved up and became upper-middle, the lower-middle class expanded as large numbers of the middle-middle class fell and joined their ranks. The emerging super-rich class controls 90 per cent of the country’s resources. Out of a total population of 160 million, the super-rich constitute only 4.1 million. Furthermore, their number is dwindling (Barakat, et al. 2016: 7), dropping from 3.3 per cent twenty-five years ago to 2.7 per cent today. As Barakat (2016: 7) informs us, this downward process does not signify wealth distribution at the bottom and economic prosperity for the middle or lower classes but rather a concentration of wealth in the hands of an even smaller number of people. Their activities in Bangladesh can be described by deploying the notion of rent-seeking.
Investopedia defines ‘rent-seeking’ as follows:
Rent-seeking is the use of the resources of a company, an organisation or an individual to obtain economic gain from others without reciprocating any benefits to society through wealth creation. An example of rent-seeking is when a company lobbies the government for loan subsidies, grants or tariff protection. These activities don’t create any benefit for society; they just redistribute resources from the taxpayers to the company (Investopedia 2016).
The above passage reveals that rent-seeking does not contribute anything to the country’s wealth creation or development; rather, it involves self-aggrandisement at the expense of the country and its people.
In Bangladesh, rent-seeking is closely connected to yet another phenomenon known as capital flight — that is, the illegal transfer or removal of money from one country to another as a way of hiding funds accumulated through rent-seeking rather than genuine business activities. Data from the Swiss Bank authority reveals that in 2015 alone, Bangladeshi nationals deposited a whopping Tk 44.23 billion (550.85 billion Swiss francs) in various Swiss banks (Haidar 2015). The amount rose dramatically to Tk 1,991 crores in 2012; Tk 3,149 crores in 2013; and Tk 4,283 crores in 2014. From the Washington, DC based watchdog Global Financial Integrity, Kar and Spanjers show that in 2014, Bangladesh ranked fifty-first out 145 countries notorious for capital flight (2015). Below is GFI data on capital flight from Bangladesh.
Capital Flight from Bangladesh (in millions of dollars)
(Source: Kar and Spanjers 2015)
In early 2016, the Washington, DC based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published leaked documents on offshore banking and money laundering from the law offices of Mossack Fonseca in Panama City (ICIJ 2016). The names of 103 Bangladeshi individuals, entities, and addresses appeared in the Panama Papers. A random check of the data for Bangladesh shows numerous offshore entities, including fifty-six offices or individual links; three intermediaries; and as many as forty-two Bangladesh addresses. This list is incomplete as ICIJ has only published a fraction of the money launderers’ names to date. They are in possession of 11.5 million files and intend to release the remaining papers in due time (ICIJ 2016). A cursory review of the Bangladeshis in the published list reveals well-known businessmen who have deep-rooted political and familial connections with the political elite of Bangladesh. This explains why the individuals named in the papers have not been investigated. Although the government promised to conduct a thorough review through its toothless anti-corruption organs, no such actions have been taken. Meanwhile, rent-seeking and corresponding capital fight continues.
The social and cultural consequences of rent-seeking and capital flight can sometimes be painfully hilarious when viewed from the outside. Take, for example, the idea of Begum Para (The ‘para’ stands for neighbourhood and ‘begum’ means ‘respectable women.’ Hence, Begum Para has come to indicate a neighbourhood where respectable women reside). Referring to a story told by former Bangladesh ambassador M Sirajul Islam, journalist Faruk Wasif (2013) revealed there are neighbourhoods known to expatriate Bangladeshi as Begum Para in almost every major Western and Southeast Asian city. Wives reside in these neighbourhoods without their husbands, who are making money in Bangladesh and sending it to their wives. The women manage the money as well as taking care of the children, who go to good schools. Following is the how Wasif describes the phenomenon:
The sahibs (husbands) of these begums don’t live with them. They arduously make money living in Bangladesh. When fatigued from making money, they come and spend some leisurely time here with their families. Even Moghul begams [sic] would have been green with envy had they seen the lifestyle of these deshi begams [sic]. Their apartments are filled with luxury items; their children attend the best schools. The begums’ sole responsibility is to take care of their children and to enjoy themselves. There are many such ‘Begum Paras’ across Canada (Wasif 2013: 5).
This idea of a ‘second home’ is more than academic nomenclature and its affordability is common in many Western countries as well as wealthy South Asian countries. In 2012, the Malaysian government began what is dubbed ‘Malaysia: My Second Home’ (The Daily Star, April 27, 2012). According to Wasif, rich people in Bangladesh smuggled Tk 2,300 crores to Malaysia in 2015. Furthermore, according to Wasif (2013), this is how Bangladeshi rent-seekers obtain citizenship in countries such as Canada, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.
Underpinned by political alliances with the regime, rent-seeking activities within Bangladesh resulted in capital flight — with devastating consequences for Bangladesh. This reciprocity between state and rent-seekers produces a unique political culture in Bangladesh that allows jungi Islam to thrive — even, perhaps, causing its emergence. We will return to this issue later.
The mastermind: Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury and the Calgary cluster
MOHSIN Hamid’s celebrated novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) chronicles a young Pakistani-American’s (Changez Khan) ambiguous descent into radical Islamic politics. At the beginning, the novel depicts Changez as an all-American success story. An Ivy League (Princeton University) graduate, he lands a dream job as an analyst at Underwood Samson, a Wall Street consulting firm, where he is well-liked by his boss and colleagues and he quickly excels. Changez meets Erica, a white American and aspiring writer and photographer. She is instantly smitten by Changez, and they start dating. Erica, it turns out, is a deeply troubled woman who is still mourning the passing of her high school sweetheart. She is unable to open up, emotionally and physically, to Changez. Out of desperation, Changez suggests that when they make love, she fantasise that he is Chris (her deceased boyfriend). Eventually, Erica is institutionalised in a mental hospital. One day, she vanishes from the hospital, and her clothes are discovered on the banks of the Hudson River. Her body is never recovered. Changez learns of Erica’s disappearance after returning from an overseas business trip. He finds himself facing this personal crisis coupled with a profound existential crisis of his own. For his work, Changez was being sent to many developing countries to transact business deals. In so doing, he was helping his company and Wall Street capitalists reap huge profits. Changez began to question western business practices, realising corporations like the one he worked for enrich themselves by short-changing poor countries. After returning to New York from a business trip to Chile without finishing his assignment (which he felt was unfair), he is fired from his position. Just as Changez is confronting all of these personal and professional issues, a handful of Islamic extremists fly passenger planes into New York City’s Twin Towers, killing thousands on 9/11. Instead of feeling anguish, Changez is awed and surprised by the courage of the young men who flew the planes. After losing his Wall Street job, he returns to Lahore, Pakistan, and begins teaching at a university. His ambiguous relationship with Islamist politics begins here.
The Gulshan bakery attack was a suicide mission — previously unheard of in Bangladesh. Such a phenomenon is usually found in distant territories such as the Middle East, Europe, and United States. Who are these young Bangladeshis who attacked Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1, 2016? Their life trajectories are not unlike Changez Khan’s.
The subsequent investigation revealed Bangladeshi-Canadian Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury was the mastermind and chief architect of the attack. Tamim, whose nom de guerre is Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, was born on July 25, 1986, in Sylhet, northeast of Bangladesh. His parents moved to Canada when he was a child. He grew up in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and eventually obtained Canadian citizenship. Tamim attended J L Forster Secondary School and excelled in track and field. He majored in chemistry at the University of Windsor, graduating in spring 2011. While in Calgary, Tamim formed a group called Calgary Cluster with several other young Canadians: Damian Clairmont; Salman Ashrafi; Gregory and Collin Gordon; and Farah Shirdon. This diverse group possessed varied backgrounds. Born Muslim, Ashrafi was educated at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and was married with a child. On a similar career path to the fictional Changez Khan, he was employed at an energy company, Talisman Energy. In November 2013, Ashrafi was involved in a suicide attack in Iraq that killed him and forty others. The Gordon brothers and Clairmont were white converts. Clairmont relocated to Syria to fight with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. He was captured and killed by the Syrian Army in January 2014 (Both the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra are against the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime and would like to see it toppled. The west, however, sees the Free Syrian Army as ‘moderate’ and helps it with logistics, whereas al-Nusra is viewed as radical and does not receive the West’s support). In an interview featured in Dabiq — the slick English-language magazine that publishes activities of IS —Tamim (a.k.a. al-Hanif) praises the emergence ISIS in Bangladesh, saying it has:
…terrified the kuffar (infidels) in the region in general and in the atheists and secularists who mock Islam and our beloved prophet. But it is not the methodology of the Khilafah’s soldiers to send mere threat of Allah. Rather, we let our actions do the talking. And our soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the prophet, and every other apostate in the region (quoted in Khandaker: 2016).
In the same interview, al-Hanif calls on Bangladeshi police, army, and intelligence working under prime minister Sheikh Hasina to ‘develop some sense of shame and manhood and free themselves from being slaves to a kaffir woman,’ calling on them to quit their jobs before his group ‘get[s] a hold of them and slaughter[s] them one by one.’ Tamim, a.k.a. al-Hanif, says many Muslims heed his call to join the ranks of what he calls ‘soldiers of the Khilafa.’ Tamim saves his bitterest scorn for Bangladesh’s right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami as they failed to implement the ‘law of Allah’ and its leaders attended various religious ceremonies to honor ‘masses of cow-worshipping, pagan Hindus.’ Though evidence is murky, Tamim visited Syria in late 2012 following an episode of ‘harassment from the police’ in Calgary, Canada (Khandaker 2016). From there, he traveled to Bangladesh, possibly with instructions from ISIS to organise a mission in Bangladesh. The Gulshan bakery attack occurred on July 1, 2016. Nearly two months later, Tamim and other militants were killed in a police raid.
And then there is Nibras Islam (age twenty-two), one of the Holey Artisan Bakery assailants killed by the Bangladeshi commandos who stormed the café. Known as a fun-loving young man, Nibras came from an affluent family and was not particularly religious according to those who knew him. A handsome young man always sporting a smile, Nibras majored in business administration at North South University, a well-known private university in Bangladesh. After completing his education, Nibras attended the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, campus of Australia’s prestigious Monash University. People who knew him in college describe him as a playboy who loved the company of beautiful women, football, and pop music (both western and local) and preferred partying to studying. He was a fan of Shraddha Kapoor, a Bollywood film star whose internet pictures are both seductive and raunchy. A picture of Kapoor wearing a skimpy dress hung on his bedroom wall. In a Facebook ‘confession,’ a ‘fan’ of Nibras Islam posted the following message on October 11, 2014: ‘Nibras Islam!! You are cute. But very hard to spot. Tell me when i can see you. Your smile just makes my day’ (Prothom Alo and Dhaka Tribune).
After the café attack and subsequent killings of other jungis — including alleged mastermind Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury — Bangladesh press, government officials, intellectuals, and even high-ranking law enforcement officials immediately got busy searching out the ‘reasons’ for such a diabolical act, speculating about ‘causes’ for the ‘problem,’ and offering its ‘solutions.’ Even prime minister recommended that parents spend more time with their children to address the issue of militancy. This seems to be the consensus and the overriding conventional wisdom. However widely believed, this kind of argument is deeply flawed, and an alternative explanation is required.
The saga of conventional wisdom
THE early 1990s marked the prelude to a tumultuous decade. The Soviet Union —along with its socialist opposition to global capitalism — began to unravel and eventually collapsed. In the west, specifically in the United States, these turbulent events coincided with the publication of two seminal texts — Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations (1993, 1996) and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1989, 1992). Setting the tone for the decades to come, these two books and their theses are directly connected with the emergence of radical Islam worldwide and Islamic jungi in Bangladesh in particular. Both texts reintroduce the often historically hostile relationship between the west and the Islamic world.
At the risk of oversimplification, I will provide a summary of these books below. Huntington argues that after the collapse of Soviet Union, the binary world (i.e., the United States versus the Soviet Union) vanished, and with that, we are witnessing the end of ideological conflict as well. This signals the demise of the nation-state and simultaneous rise of civilisational/cultural clashes. In this schema, Islamic civilisation stands against western civilisation as Islamic culture (and Islam in general) is hostile toward western liberal ideals like pluralism, individualism, and separation between religion and state. At the same time, Islamic civilisation does not adhere to fundamentals of the western world.
Whereas Huntington discusses the ‘clash of civilisation’ between the west and Islam, Fukuyama (1989, 1992), on the other hand, lauds the triumph of western liberal capitalist democracy. In a pseudo-Hegelian and orthodox Marxist historical deterministic vein, Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy is the ‘last’ resort for ‘mankind’ since the one alternative to liberal democracy disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He claims liberal democracy allows individuals to succeed in an ever-expanding, increasingly globalised world. In Fukuyama’s mind, a free market economy guarantees a world free from conflict, oppression, and deprivation.
Criticisms of Huntington and Fukuyama’s theses — both in the popular press and academic circles — are too numerous to list here. Both published initially in conservative journals: Foreign Affairs (Huntington) and The National Interest (Fukuyama). Inherently Eurocentric and ahistorical, both articles were written in a simple, straightforward manner as the Washington, DC, foreign policy establishment was the actual intended audience. Take, for example, Islam in Bangladesh. Huq (2015) alludes to the fact that Islam is unique in this part of South Asia, and this uniqueness informs Islam’s relationship with nationalism and secularism in the Bangladeshi nation-state. The particular form Islam takes in Bangladesh reflects influences by numerous pre-Islamic — especially Hindu — religious and cultural practices. Edward Said asserts that Huntington fails to grasp the idea of diversity within Islam and specificity among Islamic societies. To Said, Islam could be viewed as one religion with the understanding that believers come from different places; cultural practices are fused with Islam, giving each culture’s interpretation of Islam distinguishing traits. In other words, not all Muslims speak with a single voice on political and ideological issues.
Take for example Islam in Bangladesh. As previously mentioned, Huq (2015) argues that constructs like secularism and nationalism are historically framed within the historical peculiarities of Islam. Said (199), on the other hand, in his critique of Huntington, suggests his inability to grasp the internal diversity within the Islamic faith causes Huntington to view ‘Islam’ as a single entity and Muslims all over the world as speaking in a unified voice. US sociologist Charles Kurzman (20) explains that terrorists comprise a miniscule fraction of the more than 1.6 billion Muslims, who make up roughly 23 per cent of the world population (2010 figures). If we consider Huntington’s thesis at face value, there should be far more terrorists and ordinary Muslims furiously ‘clashing’ with the west. Currently, the total population in Bangladesh is 150 million, 92 per cent of whom are Muslims. The horrendous murder of innocent people at the Holey Artisan Bakery does not reflect the politics of most Bangladesh Muslims.
Immediately after the Gulshan café attack, journalists and TV pundits chronicled the events in a media frenzy. Television networks covered the unfolding events live, often interfering with security officials’ operations. During the first forty hours of the attack, both government and media were busy identifying perpetrators. After mopping-up operations ended, soul-searching commenced as journalists sought to determine the ‘causes’ of such a heinous crime and offer ‘solutions.’ Instead of the ‘clash’ thesis, we are being fed the equally dubious and somewhat bizarre notion that it is ‘the breakdown of the family’ and ‘lack of proper socialisation of children’ that has caused the ‘derailment’ and subsequent crimes of today’s youth. The widely circulated Bengali daily, Prothom Alo, published a series of articles on this theme. Take, for example, journalist Sohrab Hasan’s piece ‘Lost Youth, Lost Bangladesh’ (August 20, 2016). Six days later, the newspaper published a similar piece by Badiul Alam Majumdar (a well-known figure in Bangladesh civil society) stating, ‘Derailed youth needs to be brought back in proper ways’ (August 26, 2016). In addition to their condescending tone, these articles share the theme that Bangladesh youth have gone astray and need to brought back to ‘proper ways’ (supothey) to save the country. This parallels the government’s line of thinking in addressing the ‘causes’ and ‘solution’ to jungi Islam. Cabinet ministers, security personnel, and even prime minister Sheikh Hasina herself called on Bangladeshi people (desh bashi) to spend more time with their children and carefully monitor their comings and goings. Since most of the Gulshan café attackers were highly educated in private universities, the government told administrators and faculty at those universities to keep regular attendance; if any student misses four classes in a row, university officials are to promptly inform state security officials. In other words, the state is turning parents and teachers into sleuths and informers.
Sohrab Hasan’s column identifies the following reasons for the ‘derailment of today’s youth’: 1) addiction to internet and various social media; 2) loneliness and frustration; 3) attraction to religion by the young; 4) and lack of proper role models. Majumdar (Prothom Alo, August 25, 2016) agrees with all of Hasan’s observations and adds a few of his own. Although Majumdar speaks of both the domestic and global dimensions of jungi Islam in Bangladesh, the ‘derailment’ thesis looms large in his discussion, and he ponders ways to instruct the Bangladesh young in ‘good/proper ways.’ He gives all kinds of vague, abstract recommendations for ‘solving’ the issue of jungi extremism. These include instilling in youth a sense of patriotic nationalism and keeping them busy. Majumdar mentions the ‘Youth Ending Hunger’ organisation he founded and operates. The young Bangladeshi involved in this programme engage in activities such as sports, education, health awareness, and volunteering in the community (e.g., tutoring poor children). Majumdar concludes such activities help keep young people from adopting self-destructive behaviours and political extremism, thus teaching them ‘proper ways.’
Like their counterparts in many other postcolonial societies, young people have played a significant role in Bangladesh’s political and cultural history. In all of the mass upheavals (e.g., the language movement of 1952, anti–education policy of 1962, anti-authoritarian movement of 1968–69, national liberation movement of 1971, anti-authoritarian movement of the early 1990s), students and fellow youths were at forefront and often set the agendas, which politicians then followed (Alam 2015, 1996). In each movement, the political discourse was democratic, and popular discontent with the establishment served as a formidable catalyst. Now the question remains, in the early twenty-first century, why are some Bangladesh young people embracing a regressive ideology of jungi Islam? This is a highly complex issue and simplifying it to the ‘breakdown of family’ may not give us the answer we are seeking.
Authoritarian democracy as dictatorship lite?
IN BANGLADESH as in other parts of the Islamic world, jungi Islam is a political movement that uses religion as ideology and a tool for mobilisation to achieve popular support. It would be difficult to argue that jungis are pious Muslims. Their primary objective is political: to create the just society western-style democracy and capitalism have failed to achieve. The emergence of jungi Islam illustrates the profound disjuncture between state and society that exists in present-day Bangladesh. The economic consequence of this division is escalating inequality along with deeply rooted corruption among the elites, propaganda about economic success stories notwithstanding. Since jungi discourse is political, however, its emergence is specific to political and historical juncture in Bangladesh society. We turn to this issue now.
Since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, two watershed moments have informed the current political system. These are: 1) the 1975 military coup that removed the nationalist petty bourgeoisie (Awami League) and paved the way for a military dictatorship (first under General Ziaur Rahman and later General Ershad) friendly to global capital) the fall of this military dictatorship in the late 1990s, which ushered in democratic governance. In 2014, the current Awami League government came to power through a questionable election.
With the Gulshan bakery attack, a thorny question emerged as to why such an atrocity would occur during a period of state-induced optimism about progress and growth. These Islamic jungi did not come from poor, deprived families — they are the children of affluence and arguably direct beneficiaries of the ‘economic growth’ the government so tirelessly promotes. The attack shatters the conviction that capitalist economic growth fosters democracy and openness. Rather, it proves the contrary. This ‘failure’ suggests the emergence of jungi Islam in Bangladesh is the outcome of the paradoxical correlation between global capital-sponsored ‘economic growth’ and the country’s continuous descent into a form of authoritarianism I call ‘dictatorship lite.’ We have already discussed the first part of this argument; now we turn to the latter.
Without getting too deep into the question of what constitutes democracy, we can easily argue that opposition and a vibrant civil society are crucial prerequisites for democratic governance. Without these, we experience an erosion of freedom, lack of accountability, and what Jason Hickel (2016) calls ‘political capture’ or ‘colonisation of existing political forms by existing elite.’
Once the largest party in the country, the Bangladesh National Party has been reduced to a platform that occasionally issues press statements. The party in power, Awami League completely ignored their demands for a fresh election. Because the BNP boycotted the controversial 2014 election, the parliament became a circus in which the ruling party can do whatever it wishes and members fawn over prime minister Sheikh Hasina, often in absurdly comical terms (One member of parliament from Narayanganj (near Dhaka), a thuggish character from the ruling Awami League named Shamim Osman, declared that nobody can harm the prime minister as she became an aouwalia — a holy person with divine power). The Jatiya Party is led by clownish former General Ershad and party stalwarts serving in the prime minister’s cabinet. Ershad named his own wife, Rowshan Ershad, to the post of senior co-chairman of the JP, and she became the ‘leader of the opposition in the parliament.’ The absence of any viable opposition gives the government carte blanche, which has in turn paved the way for authoritarianism.
In May 2010, the government entity Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission temporarily banned facebook. Although neither BRTC nor the government publicly provided any reason for such ban, newspapers carried stories ostensibly based on government sources indicating the ban was due to satirical cartoons depicting Mohammad as well as the prime minister and leader of the opposition in an unsavoury manner. The government arrested the offender for the ‘crime’ of ‘spreading malice and insulting the country’s leaders.’ By condemning bloggers for publishing content potentially offensive to Muslims, the government indirectly sanctions the jungis’ charge that such individuals are apostates and deserving of assassination.
This apparently contradictory juxtaposition of democracy and authoritarianism is described by Badrul Alam Khan (2015) as ‘one-legged Bangladeshi democracy’ (2015: 193). Khan identifies this phenomenon as the problematic rise of the Bangladeshi bourgeoisie, suggesting this ‘difficult’ rise and the associated ‘weakness’ of the bourgeoisie are connected with the nation’s unstable political situation. Tautological arguments attributing the ‘weak’ bourgeoisie and authoritarian democracy to an unstable political context are nothing new. Intrinsic to the decolonisation process, this line of argument generated heated debate in Africa, South Asia, and Central and Latin American countries. Given the unprecedented reach of global capital and subsequent ‘death’ of the nation-state, however, this notion needs to be reformulated on a case-by-case basis. In Bangladesh, authoritarian democracy and its rationale appear different from, for example, the Philippines, where a democratically elected head of state, Rodrigo Duterte, and its government extra-judicially killed hundreds of alleged drug peddlers and addicts; instead of prosecution, the Duterte government enjoyed widespread praise and support. Thus, following Michel Foucault’s insight, we could argue it is not a question of ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ and ‘developed’ or ‘undeveloped’ bourgeoisie; rather, emphasis should be on the effects of Bangladeshi claiming bourgeoisie status. This issue merits a thorough investigation but is not the focus of this paper.
Civil society and democray: the way out
JUNGI Islamic activities took yet another dark turn when Bangladesh’s first female suicide bomber strapped on a suicide vest in the Dhaka neighbourhood of Ashkona, killing herself and severely injuring her five-year-old daughter. The Bangladesh state, predictably, described it as an isolated incident and blamed deranged men for indoctrinating innocent women into jungi violence. Monirul Islam, chief of the Counterterrorism and Transnational Crime Department of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, claimed jungi men use women as consumer products, brainwashing them and turning them into jungi (Prothom Alo June 4, 2017). Once again, we are back to the familiar blame-the-family game. Instead of being distracted by simplistic explanations for the rise of jungi Islam, we should instead examine the deeper sociocultural and political roots as explored in this article. The true antidote to the jungi menace is democratisation of every sphere of Bangladeshi society, meaning popular participation in all aspects of power — economic, political, and ideological. Defeating jungi Islam is essentially a political process requiring wide-scale engagement. Only then can Bangladeshi shape a country they desire and deserve.
S M Shamsul Alam is a professor of sociology at the department of economics and social science in BRAC University.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Power, democracy and dissent