Problematic religious rhetoric must be countered through a finer application of faith and harmony
If you watch videos of the various whaz and mehfils that happen across the country, and listen to the ignorant, yet raucously delivered rhetoric being spewed by our “learned” Alem shomaj, you realize with increasing dread that we are standing at a dangerous precipice and staring into a narrow ravine replete with stalagmites, upon which our entire civilization may be imminently impaled.
The religious men delivering these blustery speeches are not religious men at all but especially astute political actors who are adept at creating narratives that put Islam on one side, and virtually everything else -- art, literature, music, pluralism, education, secularism, intellectualism, logic -- on the other.
The roaring, swelling crowds in these videos and the millions of likes and shares reveal to us that these men have very strong and far-reaching popular appeal. They are expert, seductive orators and tens of millions of Bangladeshis are under their charismatic sway. Often, they rise in a great tumult when these god-men are challenged or when they are instigated by them to do so.
This is a deeply disturbing development. A great darkness threatens to fall over our culture and our land. In these speeches, everything that is not a madrasa-led and hadith-driven phenomenon is denounced, while inflammatory, derogatory labels are used to describe individuals whom they hold in contempt and institutions that are not their own.
This has included members of the current government, the judiciary, and the Bengali Republic itself. To say these speeches are seditious would be a gross understatement; they are far more than that. They are the incontrovertible evidence of an entirely subversive counter current and one which is acutely aware of both its agenda and its authority.
But we’ve been here before. In fact, sometimes it feels like we haven’t much been anywhere else. Half a century ago this week, other agents of doom tried to throw a great darkness over our land by murdering academics, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, writers, poets, and artists. The act was hideous and unforgivable, but it was naked in its brutality. The current attempt is far more sinister, and also much more effective. The target this time isn’t just enlightened individuals, but the light itself -- they wish to snuff it out inside everyone and have made quite a lot of gains in doing so.
So how is this to be fought? It’s hard to tell and easier to think about what has not worked so far. Gagging or brutalizing them has not, and will not, work.
Those attempts are themselves blights upon the purpose of civilization, and darkness cannot be defeated with more darkness. Besides, it only encourages them and gives them an upper hand in the form of victimhood. It allows them to say they are fighting forces of darkness too -- the Zalemoon.
Similarly, refusing to engage with their rhetoric will not be enough. An argument cannot be won if none is being made, and shouting “secularism!” at a person making a theological argument is like playing tennis against someone who is standing across from you, but on a different court. It’s absurd. Love it or hate it, a theological point can only be answered with a theological counterpoint, and no one among the more enlightened, educated sections of society seems willing or effective enough to co-opt the current Islamist narrative, a narrative which is so devoid of any sort of intellectual or spiritual merit that it ought to be child’s play to take it apart. Yet there it stands, unassailable and spreading.
It also won’t do to try and disabuse the very peddlers of this narrative of their folly, nor will it work very well with their most ardent fans. They are so certain of their road to heaven that the hell they wish to create to be able to travel on it is nothing more than an occupational hazard. Trying to change their minds is like trying to get an accused on the witness stand to applaud your cross examination and concede the point. The intended audience of the exercise is not the accused, but the jury, who, in this case, is all the impressionable, well-meaning people of the country just trying to get to the truth of a matter.
And that’s where the story both begins and ends. If millions of ordinary Bangladeshis are following these problematic Pied Pipers, with their cacophonic nonsense, it must mean that no tune within earshot is appealing to them more.
This begs the question as to why nothing more melodious has been played for them. Or perhaps it has been and they aren’t able to appreciate it.
Raising their sensibilities and our own would be one way to find out, which is why the way to keep the light on in Bangladesh is to bring forth millions of open and creative minds through a finer application of both faith and harmony, in all of the ways in which those words can be used.
Zeeshan Khan is a journalist and lawyer.