Saturday, August 15, 2015

Whatever Happened to Bangladesh?

Saudi funding sows a whirlwind of extremist Islam.

Bangladesh had a difficult birth, with war and something close to genocide. The irony is that the killers and rapists were Islamic co-religionists from West Pakistan, now called Pakistan. Bangladesh was saved by the Hindus of India, who drove Pakistan out of a country about which it cared evidently less than nothing. Yet Islam and Islamism survived, and seems to have come to the fore vs the other main cultural thread, which is Bengali culture.

Bangladesh has been in the news recently for the murders of four outspoken atheists, particularly the brutality and impunity with which they were carried out. Why? Why has the virus of Islamism found a home so far from the core Arab areas whose extremism we take for granted? Money seems to be the short answer. Money that funds innumerable mosques, madrassas, and a variety of terrorist groups. The private madrassa system in Bangladesh has grown enormously over the recent decades, now rivalling the state educational system, which has been forced to offer its own madrassas of a hybrid nature that combine modern and Islamic education.

The private madrassas couldn't exist without large infusions of money, (donations), since they are typically free to students. The government spends about 50 million a year on its own system of madrassas, which should give an idea of the money involved. A large amount for a poor country, but very little for a country like Saudi Arabia, whose petro-wealth makes supporting ultra-conservative Islamism all over the world relatively easy, both by way of state policy, and by private donations. Charity is a very important duty in Islam, and is prone to chauvanistic and political interpretation, funding jihadist groups, proselytizing, and fundamentalist educational activities.

There are two important native institutions of Islamism in South East Asia. One is the Deobandi school or movement, and the other is the Jamaat -e-Islami political party. Deobandis are more conservative than the mainstream Barelvi Muslims, who preserve local and mystic Islamic traditions. The Deobandis are more by-the-book, holding to the Hanafi school mostly, and putting importance on following some major tradition. This contrasts with the evern more extreme movements like the Salafists, who renouce all the traditions after the first three generations and thus base their interpretations on the Koran and Hadiths, without regard to current scholarship, mainstream schools, or famous Islamic universities.

So there are more or less Calvinist schools at work here, from the culturally traditional Barelevis, who are nonetheless quite divisive in their own right, having supported the Pakistan movement and countless instances of anti-Hindu violence, to the Islamically traditional Deobandis, to the Islamically fundamantalist Salafis and Wahhabis. Of the latter, if they had wanted to recapture the Islamic golden age, the roughly 500 years from 800 to 1250, with its cosmopolitanism and scholarship, that would be a worthwhile enterprise. But trying to recapture the days of the first generations, with their incessant bigotry and warfare, in the current age, is naturally a recipe for global disaster.

The Jamaat -e-Islami is analogous to the Muslim Brotherhood, (or the Christian Fellowship, for that matter), in working assiduously to propagandize for a religio-political fundamentalism and to place its acolytes in powerful positions. It has an interesting distain for nationalism, viewing the modernizing movements of Nasser and others in the mid-20th century Islamic world as distractions from the world-wide revolution that would bring Islam to the head of affairs globally. It was outlawed for its violence in supporting West Pakistan at independence, but was later legalized by an Islamic dictator and now is a minor party with outsized power in the parliamentary system of Bangladesh.

The extent of funding flowing from the Gulf states to Islamist enterprises in Bangladesh is very hard to judge, as it goes under many routes and guises. There are several billions in remittences from individual Bangladeshis working in the Gulf states, (and subject there to Islamist propaganda, naturally), perhaps a billion in direct foreign aid, extensive business relationships including the curious and secretive practices of Islamic banking, and unknown billions in private charity. This is not to mention the Haj and its associated opportunities for propagandaOne example: "The Saudi Arabia-based al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, banned internationally by United Nations Security Council Committee 1267, has come under suspicion, along with other charities from the Middle East, for financing terrorism in Bangladesh."

All this is working against the indigenous, orthogonal culture of Bengal, which is Buddhist/Hindu as well as Islamic, literary, and rather non-violent. A recent podcast about Rabindranath Tagore tells some of the story. But Bangladesh was and remains torn between its Bengali and Islamic identities. The Islamic union with Pakistan certainly went sour, (as do all relationships with Pakistan, apparently), yet with the Gulf states putting their thumbs on the scale for decades, we end up with continuing schizophrenia, culture war, Islamic fundamentalism, and violence.

Will Islamism burn itself out anytime soon? It seems to be powered, not by its own logic or success (see the problems ISIS has in governing anyone in a popular manner), but as a bitter reaction to the long-term decline of Islamic culture, set against colonialism and continuing cultural dominance of the West. A reaction to modernity; to Muslim powerlessness in the modern worlds of technology, cultural soft power, military power, scholarship, creative arts, feminism, gay rights, political theory, ... the list could go on. There is a great deal to be bitter about. In Bangladesh, the majority remains moderate, democratic, and peaceful. Why outsiders like the Saudis and Pakistanis would want to stir up hatred is, as usual, not clear except on a psychoanalytic plane. As usual, a belief system seeks to bolster its tenuous believability by making as many people adhere to it as possible, by fair means or foul, since success is itself a form of truth in the Darwinian world of culture and ideas.

  • Another review of Islamism in Bangladesh, if a bit right wing. 
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