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Was Ziaur Rahman Responsible For Islamic Resurgence In Bangladesh?

By Taj Hashmi

11 July, 2006

When people run out of arguments, and especially when those are based on fallacies and lies, they resort to mere fabrication of facts as admitting ignorance amounts to defeat. Hence the prevalence of the culture of lies and concoctions in Bangladesh. This is done in self-glorification and the height of one’s glorification lies in the successful portrayal of one’s adversaries as dwarfs not giants, villains not heroes. This is done more in the arena of politics than anywhere else. Consequently as Zia becomes a villain, held responsible for whatever has gone wrong in Bangladesh to his political rivals, so is Mujib among his opponents. Of late, Zia is held solely responsible for the Islamization of politics and the polity of Bangladesh. Even the recent surge in “Islamic” terrorism, including suicide bombing in the country, is imputed to Zia and his political successors and allies. This essay aims at analyzing facts and differentiating those from fiction with regard to Islamization of Bangladeshi politics and society.

It is noteworthy that many, if not the most, educated Bangladeshis at home and abroad cannot differentiate between Islamic militants and political Islamists, or between “communal” Muslims and Islamic militants and / or adherents of political Islam. They have hardly any idea about Islamic resurgence and militancy elsewhere in the world. They have sketchy to no idea about the causes of communalism and separatism in the Subcontinent during the last hundred-odd years. They think religiosity and support for Islam-oriented government are the two sides of the same coin. Moreover, they also impute communalism and chauvinism to extreme religiosity of people involved in promoting communal hatred and / or participating in communal rioting.

Had they known the facts, they would have used the expression “chauvinism” not “communalism” to denote the anti-Hindu prejudice of the majority Muslim community. And by now it would have been crystal clear to them that ultra-orthodox Muslims belonging to the Jamiatul Ulama-i-Hind, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and others, who do not belong to any political parties or groups such as the Tablighis, never took part in communal rioting and benefited from the expropriation of Hindus in East Pakistan after 1947 and in Bangladesh since 1971.

This ignorance gets further premium from the ongoing political rivalry and animosity between the BNP-Jamaat Coalition Government and the Awami League-led Opposition. The latter leave no stone unturned to establish its thesis that both the BNP and Jamaat are “communal” as well as promoters of the pro-al-Qaeda “Islamic” terrorists, including the Jamaat-i-Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB). The prospect of getting cheap and easy political leverage out of such over-simplifications has led to the absurd thesis that the ruling parties (BNP and JI) have been the main promoters of “Islamic” terrorism including suicide bombing, in the recent past. What no social scientist would ever consider as a plausible theory is being sold among large number of educated Bangladeshis.

So is the lame thesis of portraying Islamists as “communal”. A communal person is not necessarily a devout Muslim or Hindu. One can be agnostic or atheistic and communal/chauvinist at the same time, as communalism and chauvinism are positively correlated with economic, political and social issues and problems, not necessarily with people’s religious beliefs and ideologies. Business and job opportunities and competitions for scarce resources and opportunities breed, nourish and promote communalism and chauvinism. Race, religion and language are mere red herrings to mobilize support for the vested interest groups who cannot compete with the dominant classes belonging to different religious, ethnic or linguistic groups.

When we look at both the Pakistani and Bengali nationalisms through the prism of political economy we find out that while secular-educated middle class Muslim leaders promoted the Pakistani and Bengali nationalisms, the bulk of the mullahs opposed the movements for separate homelands for Muslims or Bengalis in the 1940s and 1971, respectively. So, it is not fair to portray the mullahs as communal as most of them neither supported the communal partition of 1947 nor the creation of Bangladesh in the name of Bengali nationalism as they rightly believed they had nothing to gain (rather something to lose) by such partition and separation.

Another very lame thesis is in circulation among Bangladeshi intellectuals, politicians, journalists and students. This is about holding Ziaur Rahman responsible for the Islamization of the polity. This absurd thesis postulates that had General Ziaur Rahman not replaced “secularism” with “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” in the preamble of the Constitution and had he abstained from incorporating “Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim” (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful) at the very beginning of the Constitution, Bangladesh would have remained “secular”, as it was presumed to be under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The proponents of this absurd thesis also highlight how Islam re-entered into the body politic of Bangladesh after this honest-cum-cruel and over-ambitious Ziaur Rahman had allowed the Islam-oriented political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and Muslim League to operate in the political arena of the country. These parties, which had openly collaborated with the Pakistani occupation army in 1971, were banned to function in Bangladesh under Sheikh Mujib.

We find the reflection of this lame and cheap, over-sold thesis in the following assertion by the moderator of an E-forum run by expatriate Bangladeshis in North America:

One question that naturally comes to mind is - did Ziaur Rahman
really understand and therefore agree with the ideals of
our liberation war in 1971? Otherwise, how could he destroy
the fruits of many years of sacrifice and hard work in a whim!
Credit must be given to him for brainwashing one whole generation
and manipulating the religious sentiments of people so successfully!
What was he after! Unlike his son, Tareque, Ziaur Rahman has seen
in his own eyes what the Pakistanis and their Bangali Islamist
cohorts have done in 1971! Still, what he has done to the
country is an unpardonable crime, IMO.

Without being disrespectful to the above assertion, which is the main thread of arguments of the average honest, sincere, patriotic, secular, liberal democrat Bangladeshis, I would simply like to differ with this over-simplification of the complex reality.

At the outset, I would like to remind those who think Ziaur Rahman’s promoting Islamic symbolism eventually Islamized the polity that despite their hard line approach towards Islamists, Nasser of Egypt, Ben Bella and Boumedienne of Algeria, Reza Shah of Iran, Taraki-Kamral-Hafiz Amin-Najibullah of Afghanistan and Sukarno of Indonesia failed to save their countries from the clutches of Islamic fanatics and militants. While Nasser toyed with the idea of Arab nationalism, secularism (to the extent of proclaiming that Egyptians were descendants of the Great Pharaohs and builders of the pyramids) and socialism, and executed Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb for sedition, neither Muslim Brotherhood has petered away nor has secularism been well-entrenched in Egypt. The case of Turkey is also very interesting in this regard. Mustafa Kamal, the founding father of the country, not only adopted an ultra-secular policy, but also jailed and persecuted Islamic fanatics. And we know who are in power in Turkey today. So, it is too trite to assume that leaders alone can transform the political ideologies, economic systems and cultural norms of countries.

What charismatic leaders like Gandhi and Jinnah, Mustafa Kamal, Nasser and Sukarno failed to achieve, it is too much to expect from someone like Ziaur Rahman, a leader by chance and default and without much charisma, to retain or transform the ideologies and cultural norms of the people in Bangladesh. Leaders do not drop from the blues or emerge out of the bush; situation turns individuals into leaders, who again are not born with certain charisma but their hard work, dedication, honesty and above all courage turn them into charismatic.

The only charismatic and undisputed leader Bangladesh had during the past fifty-odd years was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, due to the situation beyond his control and understanding, his charisma was fast evaporating like camphor soon after his return from Pakistan in January 1972. By 1974 he was out and out an alienated, discredited and nothing but a failed leader to his millions of erstwhile supporters and die-hard admirers. Since nothing succeeds like success; and I may add “nothing fails like failure”, with the failure of the Mujib government to deliver the promised goods in his utopian Golden Bengal within less than two years of his ascendancy as the Prime Minister, it was only a matter of time that his oft-touted package of Nationalism-Democracy-Socialism-Secularism, also sold as Mujibism, would die a natural death. There is no point in glorifying or condemning Ziaur Rahman or any other hero or villain, depending on who is evaluating the post-Mujib leaders like Zia and Ershad, for the “death of secularism” (actually a still-born child) and rise of political Islam in Bangladesh.

By answering the unasked questions, which are taboos in Bangladesh, one may come closer to resolving the tricky problem as to why the country achieved in the name of Bengali nationalism (secularism and socialism were very remote issues during the Liberation War of 1971, at least among the hoi polloi who supported, helped and fought for Bangladesh) within five years or so after independence replaced “secularism” with “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”, initially in the preamble of the Constitution and finally everywhere in the state machinery.

Bangladesh experienced further Islamization during the autocracy of another military dictator. General Ershad (1982-1990), the Corrupt, also publicly known as a debauch and most likely an atheist, further amended the Constitution by incorporating Islam as the “state religion” in 1988. Had Islamism been the legacy of the generals-turned-rulers, the subsequent governments since the overthrow of corrupt Ershad, especially the one run by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujib the founding father, during 1996 and 2001, would have restored “secularism”, by at least amending the Constitution, restoring its “secular and socialist” character. They could not do so simply because any move to de-Islamize the polity would be very unpopular and dangerous for the incumbent rulers. Three successive elected governments after the overthrow of Ershad the Corrupt, even could not muster enough courage to change the weekly holiday from Friday to Sunday, as it had been throughout the Pakistani and Bangladeshi periods prior to the change by Ershad in the 1980s.

The unpleasant questions, taboos to many Bangladeshis, are as follows: Have not Bangladeshi Muslims turned much more religious than what they had been during the Pakistani period (1947-1971)? Are not Bangladeshi politicians, including those belonging to “secular” Awami League and paradoxically to the Communist Party, raising Islamic slogans and adopting Islamic symbols, “Allah is Most Powerful” being used in the Awami League banners, to come closer to the average Bangladeshi Muslim voter? The honest answers would be in the affirmative. One may highlight the fact that on the eve of the 1996 Parliamentary Elections, Sheikh Hasina in all her public appearances in rallies, press and TV interviews appeared in a ubiquitous black hijab (never seen before being used by educated Bangladeshi women) and full-sleeved blouse, holding prayer beads in her hand. She successfully used these “Islamic” symbols to get elected as the Prime Minister. Are all these symbolic and socio-politically significant Islamic gestures and regulations by-products of Ziaur Rahman’s “whim”, to paraphrase the E-forum moderator? The answer is a big positive “No”.

As discussed earlier, Zia was not charismatic at all. He was popular as he could read the public mind much better than Mujib did. Moreover, he had an advantage as he experienced in the wake of the bloody August 15th military takeover (outcome of a joint civil-military conspiracy) how various Islam-oriented and even “secular” leaders successfully manipulated the Islamic sentiments of the people to legitimize the putsch. Clever Zia also felt the pulse of the people, who for all the negative reasons by 1975 had turned into avidly anti-Indian, anti-Awami BAKSALI one-party government under President Mujibur Rahman and pro-Islamic, if not pro-Pakistani. There is no reason to believe that only the former collaborators of the Pakistani occupation army in 1971, mainly belonging to the obscurantist Jamaat-i-Islami and the Anglo-Mohammedan Muslim League, favoured Islamization of the polity but many erstwhile supporters of Mujib and Bangladesh had been turned into “Islam-loving” mainly out of frustration and apprehensions about “secularism” and “socialism”, which incidentally did not restore their cherished Sonar Bangla or Bengal of Gold.

There is no doubt that Zia played the Islamic card to get support from the Islamists as well as from the average Bangladeshi Muslim who finds no contradictions between his religiosity and support for Bangladesh. It is worth mentioning here that not only Islam-oriented / “Islam-loving” Bengalis collaborated with the Pakistanis in 1971, but many secular, and even pro-Chinese leftists preferred Pakistan to Bangladesh, which they apprehended, would either merge with India or would be under Indian tutelage. As the “India factor” was an important catalyst, Zia and others took full advantage of this factor. India sheltered and armed several hundred pro-Mujib Bangladeshis in the aftermath of the August coup in 1975, who under the leadership of Kader Siddiqi (a freedom fighter) led several incursions into Bangladesh for more than a year. This move further strengthened the anti-Indian lobby in Bangladesh, who found Islam the only viable and politically expedient weapon against India and the left-over of the tiny pro-Mujib loyal Awami Leaguers.

Mujib’s appalling nemesis, his being portrayed as “pro-Indian” soon after his becoming the Prime Minister in 1972, unified most of the Islam-oriented people during his life-time. Many of them either joined the apolitical Tablighi Jamaat or lent support to Maulana Bhashani who openly questioned and challenged Mujib’s modus operandi and “Indian hegemony”, real or as perceived by many anti-Mujib Bangladeshis since 1972. The hyper inflation and non-availability of essential commodities, rampant corruption, unprecedented nepotism and distribution of political favour to close kith and kin of Awami League leaders-cum-freedom fighters sharply polarized the country soon after the Liberation. The bulk of the anti-Mujib, anti-Awami Leaguers found Islam as the best alternative both as an ideology and refuge for the disempowered people having no connections with the ruling party unlike the nouveau riches emanating from the lower middle classes and upper peasantry having the right connections.

The economic situation was so bad for the average Bangladeshis, who mostly had supported Bangladesh and suffered a lot during the Liberation War, that it became almost impossible to meet one’s ends without having any additional source of income through fair or unfair means. They soon realized how hollow had been the promise of Sheikh Mujib and his party, who on the eve of the decisive Parliamentary Elections in 1970 (the last one in united Pakistan) had assured them that once voted to power, the Awami League government would provide rice, the staple, at fifty paisa (half a rupee or taka) per seer (slightly less than a kilogram) and atta (brown flour) at twenty-five paisa per seer. However, to the chagrin of the masses, rice was selling at ten taka per seer in 1974. All other commodities – meat, vegetables, salt, sugar, edible oil, clothes – were simply beyond the reach of the middle classes.

The poor became poorer and thousands perished during the famine of 1974. Many became openly restive, some joined certain underground leftist organizations, and some found the newly formed National Socialist Party (JSD) by a group of freedom fighters under the leadership of Major Jalil and Abdur Rab as an alternative to the Awami League. The abrupt end of the JSD due to its infantile adventurism by early 1974 and the brutal suppression of the clandestine leftist groups, including the killing of thousands of their cadres and supporters by the police and the paramilitary Rakkhi Bahini, especially the killing of Siraj Sikdar in police custody in January 1975, left the Islamic forces as a viable ally for any would-be leader in post-Mujib Bangladesh. Ziaur Rahman was that leader, albeit by default and sheer luck, who for the sake of political expediency used the Islam-oriented forces.

He also found political and symbolic Islam very useful for legitimizing his military and quasi-civilian rule, till his luck deserted him on May 31st 1981 when he was gunned down by some soldiers at Chittagong. Ershad soon succeeded Zia by toppling the elected government of President Sattar in March 1982. He was most likely instrumental in the killing of Zia. This general, as discussed above, went much ahead of all his predecessors in “Islamizing” Bangladesh as he needed legitimacy more than anyone before and after him.

In sum, Islam re-emerged in the socio-political, cultural and even economic arenas of Bangladesh not long after 1975. The so-called “interest-free”, deceptive “Islamic banks” are the latest innovations in the economic sector. Both fear and apprehensions about “secularism” and “socialism”, which eventually would turn into Godless communism, as some mullahs surmised, paved the way for Islamism. Certain rash and imprudent acts by the Mujib government, such as replacing the Quranic verse “Read in the name of your Lord” by “Knowledge is Power” in the coat of arms of Dhaka University in 1972, alienated many Bangladeshi Muslims from the state-sponsored ideology of secularism. Mujib and many Awami League leaders failed to realize that neither secularism nor socialism can me grafted on the body politic of the state, which has not yet gone through the essential evolutionary or revolutionary stages to adapt itself to these concepts. Secularism works only in a post-industrialized capitalist or socialist state, not in pre-modern peasant economies like Bangladesh or Pakistan where religion, fatalism and next-worldliness preponderate under the aegis of dominant clerics and conservative patrons and elders.

Another flaw in the logic, which justified official induction of secularism and socialism as two of the four state principles of the country, was that the mass support for Bangladesh by the people did not signal their rejection of the “two-nation theory” and the concept of private property. The support was mainly negative, due to the brutal mass killing, rape and humiliation of the Bengalis by the Pakistani occupation army. The masses were not at all prepared for secularism or socialism as the alternative ideologies to Islam, Muslim brotherhood and solidarity. And as mentioned earlier, had the new ideologies brought prosperity, the rule of law, equal opportunity and egalitarianism, Bangladeshi Muslims eventually would have partially accepted these concepts for pragmatic reasons. But the truth, another taboo in Bangladesh, is that the lower classes, including what was known as the middle class up to 1971, became much poorer in the wake of the independence. Consequently Islam emerged as the last refuge for the majority and as a political alternative for an assertive and organized minority due to the clandestine activities of the various Islam-loving political parties after 1972.

It is noteworthy that both in Pakistan and Bangladesh Islam re-emerged as a refuge, a powerful political ideology, symbol of unity and cultural identity of Muslims. The “loss of East Pakistan” from the Pakistani view point forced Pakistani politicians, both from the ruling and opposition parties, to re-Islamize the polity to save the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country from further disintegration. This is reflected in “secular-socialist” Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto’s lending support to the demand for Islamization of the country. The 1973 Constitution earmarked Pakistan as an “Islamic Republic”, as it was under the 1956 Constitution abrogated by Ayub Khan in 1958. In 1974, the Bhutto government officially declared the Ahmadi Muslim community of Pakistan as a “non-Muslim minority” to appease the influential Islamist fanatics. His successor, another General Zia further Islamized the country out of sheer political expediency to legitimize autocracy in the name of Islam.

To conclude, we may assume that man-made disasters, gross mismanagement, rampant corruption, blatant nepotism and favouritism, black marketing, hoarding of essential goods, hyper-inflation, famine and semi-famine condition for the marginalized people, which were the main characteristics of the country during the 1970s under a “secular-socialist” regime, Islam had to rise as the alternative ideology for the distressed people. Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, the bulk of the people of Bangladesh being pre-modern and fatalist in outlook, Islam emerged not only as an alternative order but also as a sanctuary to comfort and protect them from “divine retribution” and man-made disasters.

Ziaur Rahman, very much like Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq, championed the cause of Islam through his various measures, including “Bangladeshi Nationalism”, which is not only appropriate from the viewpoint of political science but it also draws a demarcating line between the Muslim majority Bangladesh and the Hindu majority Indian state of West Bengal. Since charismatic leaders like Gandhi, Jinnah and Mujib had to yield to the political will of their followers by tactfully respecting their views, the non-charismatic Ziaur Rahman had no better option than Islamizing the polity and his politics, as desired by the majority. Had the majority of Bangladeshi Muslims been resentful to the concept of Islam as the “state religion” and other measures, symbols and practices performed, adopted and promoted by the state machinery, the successive governments by now would have been able to change them for the sake of secularism and modernization.









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