Richard Eaton in his book Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760, notes that existing theories explaining the rise of Islam in the Bengal Delta, far away from the Arab world, may be reduced to four basic reasoning: Immigration Theory, Muslims being descendants of those who migrated to Bengal Delta from the Iranian plateau or sailed across the Arabian Sea; Religion of the Sword, Hindus being forcefully converted by Muslim rulers and soldiers; Religion of Patronage, non-Muslims of the pre-modern period being converted to Islam to receive non-religious favours from the ruling class, such as relief from taxes, promotion in the bureaucracy and so forth; and, the Religion of Social Liberation, lower castes converting to free themselves from the discrimination of the rigid Hindu caste system being attracted to Islam for its equality philosophy. Eaton however argues that all these theories are inadequate.
Islam in Bengal was greatly influenced by Sufi culture. Noted historian Joya Chatterji suggests that although Islam first came to Bengal in the 12th century, it expanded in the 17th and 18th century during the Mughal period with the pioneer saints who came to Bengal Delta, mainly from North India. These pioneer saints were the first Pirs (Sufis). They cleared up the forest in the marshy, forested delta and sowed the first rice crop. They did so with the Mughal state’s support which gave them the ownership of lands for revenue. The Pirs were remembered by later generations of Bengal Muslim for their Islamic teaching as well as power over nature. After their deaths, the locals built shrines in their memory along with the mosques the Pirs built in their journey to this part of the world. Over the period, the shrines and mosques became the social and cultural hub of the new communities growing around them. The Pir cult played a crucial role in the creation of popular Islam in Bengal which was non-political, mystical and ritualistic. It retained the core concepts of religion Islam (the five pillars of Islam) and incorporated local culture.
This syncretic and inclusive Islam gave the Muslims in Bengal a sense of solidarity with other communities that lived around them. For centuries Muslims in Bengal co-existed with other communities peacefully. The problem started in the colonial period. The concentration of Hindu and Muslim population in Bengal first came out in the Census Report of 1872. In the following decades religions in the Indian subcontinent including Islam were politicised which eventually led to the creation of Pakistan and India. Politicisation of Islam did not stop after Bangladesh was created. After Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, successive governments in the country exploited religion for political benefits. When HM Ershad was in power he gave a permanent political culture to religion by declaring Islam as the state religion.
Today, religion is exploited blatantly by Jamaat-e-Islami and their ilk in Bangladesh. Even the BNP and the Awami League take turns to pander to extremist groups to win in elections. Despite this, the syncretic version of Islam is still practiced by most Bangladeshi Muslims. This is similar to what we see in Indonesia, Malaysia etc. However, globalization often attempts to upset the current balance. We see Wahhabi practices, including intolerance and violence. Such religious extremism and violence are not rooted in our Islam and culture.
Jamaat-Shibir’s Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood
In the face of recent violence by Jamaat-Shibir, it is worthwhile to examine our relationship with this party that rejects the cultural and ethnic identity of majority of Bangladeshis to create a pan-Arab Muslim identity and solidarity. This pan-Arab Muslim identity is alien to most Bangladeshis.
Jamaat-Shibir supporters forget that when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, West Pakistani Muslims in Pakistan did not see East Pakistani (Bengali) Muslims as equal. In fact, the Pakistani narrative in erstwhile East Pakistan was that Bengali Muslims were not masculine enough and enemies of the state influenced by Hindu culture. During the Liberation War, there were special instructions to the Pakistani Occupation Army to carry out mass rapes so that East Pakistan could be populated with ‘masculine and real’ Muslims. The Pakistani Occupation Forces in complicity of local collaborators killed millions of Muslims in 1971. Muslims killing Muslims, so much for the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Pakistani Army and their local collaborators were butchering Bengalis, there was not a single country from the Islamic world protesting it. In fact, it was Hindu India that came to rescue a Muslim majority Bangladesh.
Bangladesh receives most of its foreign aid from non-Muslim countries, e.g. Japan. Though we do get aid from the rich Arab world, we are seen as ‘Miskins’ (beggars) by them. Our Bangladeshi migrant workers are treated in an appalling manner not only in Arab countries but also in Malaysia despite their undeniable contribution to the economies of these countries. This is also the behaviour Bangladeshi tourists often get, particularly in the Middle East.
In attempting to create a singular Muslim identity and an Islamic state, Jamaat-Shibir continues to attack Hindus in Bangladesh time and again. Here it is worthwhile to point out what Jamaat-Shibir practices is not Islam but politics of hatred under the cover of religion. This is manifested by atrocities on Hindus, destroying public utilities and killing people in the name of religion that we have seen again during the recent violence over the War Crimes Trial.
Jamaat-Shibir also spreads intolerance against its opponents, including those considered to be atheists. Recently, five students of my alma mater North South University have been arrested for the killing of blogger Rajib. They claim they were “performing their religious duties”, under the influence of a Shibir leader. Ironically, the predecessors of Jamaat-Shibir supported an atheist before Partition to form a homeland for Muslim. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, was in fact a staunch atheist who used to drink alcohol and eat pork. Thus the politics of Jamaat is inherently opportunistic and fundamentally flawed. The predecessors of Jamaat-Shibir supported Jinnah because it suited them at that time, just as it suits them to kill those considered to be atheists as their political opponents today.
So, what is the solution to end religious extremism and fanaticism propagated by Jamaat-Shibir in Bangladesh? There are some discussions on banning Jamaat-Shibir, but that may not be easy in a democratic country. Besides, banning Jamaat-Shibir will make their activists go underground and become more violent. This is where Shahbagh brings up hope. In Shahbagh, we have seen an unprecedented mass reawakening on our founding values of the Liberation War through demands of justice for the 1971 Genocide.
Led by the young people, Bangladeshis have come together to reject the brand of religious extremism that was the pretext for the atrocities four decades back. In a democratic country, it is the mass awareness and rejection of such extremist parties by the people in elections that works as euthanasia and a long term solution. With Shahbagh, the euthanization of Jamaat-Shibir has already begun.
Rizwana Shamshad is an academic of South Asian Studies.