On Sunday March 9, two kinds of protests were held in Karachi in close vicinity to each other. One was a protest against the recent mob attack on the Christians of Badami Bagh, Lahore. The other was a much larger one led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (Pakistan) to protest the indictment of Jamaat-e-Islami (Bangladesh) war criminals of 1971 and the treatment of its activists by the Bangladesh government, judiciary and the police in the aftermath of the Shahbag movement against the Islamists in Dhaka.
Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami leaders have condemned the recent death sentence awarded to the Bangladeshi war criminal Maulana Dilawer Saeedi not because our Islamist party is anti-capital punishment but, as the deputy president JI of Punjab reportedly insisted, the sentenced leaders of the razakars (pro-Pakistan militias) were innocent. There was no irony in his objection over the silence of “all human rights organisations” on this travesty of justice.
To their credit, a few sole voices in Pakistan (and the music band, Laal) have attempted to crack the apathy in our media over the Bangladesh war crime proceedings and subsequent youth-based Shahbag protests for justice over the last few months. It is always important to interrupt nationalist narratives and pursue historical correctives, particularly if one’s own role has been that of the hostile aggressor and perpetrator. However, the politics of the ongoing Shahbag movement are perhaps larger than a Pakistani apology and beyond 1971. More than stressing over closure and the end of history, the youth-led Shahbag protest is demanding the maximum punishment for war criminals and the de-recognition of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and is therefore, more futuristic in its bent. The intersectional questions of religion and politics will determine not just the future of Bangladesh but also those of (post-Arab uprising) Middle Eastern countries as well. Can Pakistan move beyond its moping disinterest, defensive nationalism and/or theocratic identity politics to learn from this moment?
It is important to point out that Bangladesh is polarised on the nature, politics and narrative emerging from Shahbag itself, especially on the illiberal demands of capital punishment, the fairness of the trials themselves and indeed, the opportunism of the governing Awami League to secure its electoral future through populist moves against the Jamaat. The League is also suspected of fuelling the protest movement — an allegation that undermines its spontaneity.
On the other hand, the outing of Rajib, one of the founding activists and chief blogger of Shahbag, as an atheist by portions of the media resulted in campaigns accusing the protest of being an anti-Islam movement. His subsequent murder has been blamed on Jamaat activists. Women who are spearheading the movement have been maligned as “loose and immoral” for occupying public space and the Jamaat defence has been ably supported by well-funded, US-based lobbies. The opposition and Islamic parties have launched a counter-movement and, amidst escalating violence, there has been a re-visitation of discussions around the relationship between liberalism, secularism, religion and politics in Bangladesh and its implications for other Muslim majority contexts.
Central to these concerns are the limitations of a politics that rests on liberal squeamishness compared to the blatant and aggressive posturing and response by the Islamist groups. The most vivid symbol of such arrogance has been read in the V-sign flashed by indicted Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Kader Mullah (Butcher of Mirpur) as he exited the war crimes tribunal in February after being awarded a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Liberals are constantly accused of reneging on liberal values by setting up “Good”/“Bad” Muslim binaries and “demonising” Islamists through their criticism of their politics but when Islamists wish to co-opt liberal rights for themselves in exchange for inflicting limitations, restrictions and hegemonic interpretations on others, there is silence.
External commentators can afford to support the Shahbag movement “in spirit” while maintaining a high moral ground over the demand of capital punishment or the banning of the Islamist party — a case of classic fence-sitting. However, the fact is that the Shahbag vanguard has been unapologetic about challenging and reclaiming the non-democratic street power wielded by the Islamists. When Islamists lose elections but dominate the street, much is made of their populist credence but when liberals do so, their legitimacy is questioned and standards elevated.
Historically, the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh, like its Pakistani counterpart, has suffered electoral ignominy. The call for a ban of the Islamist party is based on the argument that the constitution of the JI is not in line with that of Bangladesh’s constitution. The line of reasoning, therefore, is that any ban is pro-Bangladesh, not anti-Islam and not about singling out the Jamaat but making sure the same law applies to all. However, it does mean that a Constitution has to be clear on its principle of secularity and while Shiekh Hasina has reintroduced the word secular into the constitution, she did not remove the bit about Islam as a state religion.
The constant refrain in Pakistan about the silent moderate majority has been viciously challenged by an increasing number of loud voices and violent mobs who are willing to make themselves heard in response to fatwas and in favour of fundamentalist readings of Islam. Gojra and Badami Bagh are just recent organised examples.
Shahbag, on the other hand, for all its flaws and contradictions, is at the very least, an organic campaign against the Islamists who renounced the concept of Bangladesh in 1971 and are now being held accountable as political apostates beyond. The movement may very well end up defining a Bangla secularism carved out through a rejection of all things Pakistani, past and potential, while we continue with ambiguity, apologia and intellectual and political confusion in determining the place of religion in Pakistan’s politics. No amount of sympathy or condolences for the Badami Baghs of today and tomorrow are going to resolve this until we have a Shahbag moment ourselves.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2013.
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