My Fears Regarding Bangladesh

I heard someone say that a river of blood flowed in Sri Lanka last Sunday. When 359 people die and around 500 more are injured, the resultant blood surely does look like a flowing river. But why this carnage? Why so much hate? What terrible thing had those people done and to whom?
In the middle ages there used to be religious wars, the Crusades, where people of one religion would slaughter those of another. We would like to believe that we have become more civilised and that in our civilised societies all faiths and creeds coexist in excellent harmony. But it would be as good as denying the truth if we deny that the religious wars are still going on around us. Muslims are killing Christians, Christians are killing Muslims and Jews, Jews are killing Muslims and vice versa, Buddhists are slaughtering Muslims, Muslims are killing Hindus who in turn are killing Muslims – this is what is going on. No matter how much we would like to believe that we have risen above religion, that our identity as human beings is all that matters at present. No, it’s still one’s religious identity that is paramount. Even now one’s racial, caste and gender identities take precedence over everything else. In New Zealand, the racist, Christian terrorist was fully aware that he was killing Muslims. It has been said that the man was taking revenge for the disabled, Christian girl in Sweden who was crushed under a truck by a Muslim terrorist. In turn Muslim terrorists have deliberately targeted Christians in Sri Lanka by bombing the churches and the hotels where foreign tourists usually stay. This was their way of avenging the deaths of the fifty Muslims who died in the shooting in the New Zealand mosque.
Rumour has it that it is ISIS, in association with a Sri Lankan Islamic organisation named Tauheed Jamaat, that is behind the attack. It is not easy for a small minority organisation of a small country to train eight-nine people as suicide bombers and carry out a series of coordinated bombings to kill hundreds of people. ISIS has issued a statement accepting their role in the carnage. Although there have been previous instances where the ISIS has issued false claims, this time it might not be so. The Indian government had sent a missive to Sri Lanka warning them of an imminent attack on the churches, information that India had gleaned from an arrested ISIS agent. But despite the warning, the Sri Lankan government had not taken adequate measures. Had they taken heed they would have perhaps not let Easter celebrations take place in any of those churches and the hotels too would have been put under strict surveillance. The President of Sri Lanka has said that he had not been aware of the warning from India and that if he had known he would have taken the necessary steps. Perhaps India should have made more of an effort to explain to Sri Lanka the severity of the matter and ensured that they take adequate and urgent precautions to safeguard the security of their citizens.
People of one religion are slaughtering those of another. When will this war of religions end? The bomb blasts in Sri Lanka are presumably in retaliation of the mass shooting in the mosque in New Zealand. Again some Christian terrorist somewhere will avenge Sri Lanka by murdering more Muslims, who in turn will rise up to take revenge – this cycle of violence and murder has no end, it can go on for eternity. As it is religion is not the only thing over which wars are fought in this world. The war of genders, waged by men against women, is as relentless. Women are harassed, their movements are restricted, their rights are violated and their freedom is curbed, they are made into sexual objects, raped and murdered – all this goes on as before. The rich are waging a war against the poor – everywhere you look there is a war going on. Sometimes I fail to comprehend how a race so intelligent as ours, one that has built spaceships and nearly completed all necessary arrangements to travel to Mars some 54.6 million kilometres away, has still not been able to rise above the unnecessary, useless, irrational and immature contradictions that plague us.
I fear for Bangladesh. The way people have been brainwashed in the past one-two decades is incredible. Once there had been space for differences of opinion in the country. People could, very naturally and without any fear, perhaps even with a bit of pride, claim that they did not believe in religion, or the afterlife, or heaven and hell, or winged horses flying about in space. Today if one says they do not believe in such things the person will have to apologise and recant or risk being killed. One religion, all stories of said religion, all customs, rituals and superstitions, everyone has to believe in all of these things together or risk inviting disaster. Can you truly imagine a wonderous country such as this? A country that had been built upon the promise of secularism has now closely and fatally embraced religion. Religious leaders have spread like a virus and Islamic lectures and teachings can be heard echoing from every locality. In the name of religion the youth are being brainwashed and inexorably trained into hating women and non-Muslims. Those who do not believe in religion are being incarcerated by the government while the ones who are spreading hate, envy, misogyny and terrorism in the name of religion on a daily basis are revered. They cannot be touched, their actions cannot be critiqued. There was talk in the middle to control the teachings and public lectures of certain leaders, but who has the grit and determination to interfere in such matters! With their silent encouragement the government and the common people, both blinded by religion, have made these local religious teachers so very powerful that they now do whatever they want with impunity and expect the government to beat a hasty retreat every time. They know fully well that the government will bow down to them as it has done before. Thanks to them a large number of the youth are now religious, some doggedly so, future Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz or Mir Sami Mubaswir in the making. Any day now explosions will perhaps rock Bangladesh.
The factory producing terrorists no longer needs the cover of night to operate. In broad daylight scores of people, all blinded by religion, are being incited to hate and murder non-Muslims because it will bring them good fortune and pave the way for their ascent to heaven without awaiting Judgement. What if one day these people, like the terrorists of Sri Lanka, decide to attack churches, temples or the mosques and places of worship of the Shias, Bahais and Ahmadiyyas? What if these people one day cause another heinous incident like the one at Holey Artisan Café? What if they bomb the hotels? I’m sure they will; the way terrorists activities are on the rise it will be surprising if they don’t. Numerous agents of ISIS have been killed but its ideology lives on and it’s making the rounds of the entire globe.
Which race has managed to progress by simply building temples and mosques or by remaining immersed in religious dogma? There is not a single example. Rather, whatever we recognise as the ideals of a civilised and developed nation, the kind of places where people of all religions wish to move to and settle, all such countries have managed to separate religion from state, education and society, perhaps almost even from life. Despite not being blinded by religion how are they so kind, tolerant and humanist? Truth be told religion has very little, if anything at all, to do with kindness and humanism. If there is anything it has any business with then that is politics. Politicians, as well as the religious leaders, use religion solely for their own gains.
I will kill even if I have to die in the process – many Muslims don’t turn back from becoming suicide bombers. There is no dearth of such Muslims in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, knowing fully well that they will perhaps die in the process. They consider such a death glorious and the fault lies in their beliefs. How these beliefs have come to be, what has helped in nurturing them, I doubt anyone has concerned themselves with finding the answers to these questions. Is the government doing anything to address the issue? Only killing terrorists in gunfights does not solve anything. The ones who had been beside themselves with grief at the shootings in the church in New Zealand are the same ones who are celebrating the terrorist attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka. Perhaps these people are the terrorists of tomorrow! It is the responsibility of the government to keep such potential threats under surveillance. This too is a sort of a warning. The way Sri Lanka had ignored the warnings it had received, if Bangladesh too makes the same mistake then the outcome of it will perhaps be as tragic as the former. Not once but time and time again.

La Ikraha Fiddeen

Back in the day there was never any compulsion at home about praying and roza or fasting during Ramadan. Before going to bed at night Ma used to ask which one of us wanted to fast the day after. Those who wished to would tell her, as would those who did not. During the last hours of the night she used to wake up only those who had told her they would fast, for sehri, the pre-dawn meal. The rest would continue to sleep peacefully. Anyone who woke up for the pre-dawn meal had to be careful not to disturb the ones who were asleep, make sure they did not make too much noise.

It was same with namaz as well. Those who wished to pray, did, and those who did not want to did not have to. There were no recriminations regarding this either. The ones who wanted to pray did not attempt to force those to pray who did not and the latter too did not make any attempts to disturb the former during the namaz. These rules were neither written nor regularly espoused, they were sort of like natural laws. If you are hungry you will eat, if you are thirsty, you will drink, if you feel sleepy, you will sleep.

During iftar or evening meal Ma would ask everyone to gather together. We would all sit around the table and Ma would serve iftari to everyone with equal care and attention. Whether you were fasting or not, everyone got the same food. Back then I did not appreciate it but now I do – our house had been the ideal one.

Our house was not close enough to the mosque for us to be able to hear the azaan or call to prayer. In the 60-70s, even in the 80s, there were not that many mosques in the country. However, those at home who used to pray never had to face any difficulty regarding the time of prayers. There were clocks on the walls of course. Plus, Ma could tell from the sunlight on our yard if it was time for namaz yet.

It says in the Quran, ‘la ikraha fiddeen’, ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. I believe this to be the most valuable ayat or verse of the Quran and if one were to adhere to this verse with all diligence it can possibly ensure world peace. Islamic scholars usually explain this ayat thus – ‘Islam has nothing to do with coercion, force, persecution or another such destructive behaviour. All such things are against the principles of Islam. Religion is premised upon beliefs and wishes. Forcing someone into reacting or coming to an agreement is not supported by Islam. In fact, Islam prohibits strife and discord, feuds and conflicts, rioting and vandalism. Creating terror, committing the murder of an innocent, such things are unforgettable crimes in Islam.’ Now the question is how many people actually adhere to this explanation?

What I fail to understand is why do Muslims not adhere to the teachings of the Quran that they claim to be so proud of. Allah has decreed that there is no coercion in religion. It is but expected that Allah’s true believers should abide by His counsel. But is that how things happen in reality? In the UAE a new law has been instituted whereby if anyone is found having eaten or drank outside food during the month of Ramadan, they are going to be heavily fined and jailed for a month. In Bangladesh the restaurants are forcibly kept shut during the day and if anyone is found having flouted the rule the fasting mob arrives and vandalises their restaurants. Do even thirsty non-Muslims have no right to seek water somewhere during this terrible heat wave? Someone wishing to quench their thirst is met with intimidation, violence, and destructive outbursts. Those not fasting remain in constant anxiety regarding the ones who have chosen to fast. Many of the latter believe that someone eating or drinking anything in front of them is an insult to their person. I used to eat my fill sitting right in front of my fasting mother and she used to be happy seeing me content. Many a day she used to feed me as well and never did she feel I was insulting her in any way. Neither did I ever feel that she loved me any less because I had refused to fast. My mother was a very honest and pious woman, she knew how to respect one’s choice of not fasting. Today most religious people are sorely lacking in this quality; they run on the assumption that intolerance and injustice are necessary requirements for religion.

The ones who fast expect to be in Allah’s good graces at the time of Judgement. Is it not enough? Why do fasting Muslims seek to demand respect from the ones who do not fast? And why must we show the fasting Muslims any respect at the cost of our human rights by not eating food at the restaurants? Isn’t respect supposed to be mutual? Respect can be accorded only if it is reciprocated, isn’t that so? And is someone’s sense of respect so fragile that it feels slighted at the sight of another person eating in front of them? Ma used to say if we managed to stick to our resolve and control our desires even at the sight of someone else eating or drinking, it was going to make our roza even stronger and more effective. Does no one think like this anymore?

In Bangladesh, people start shouting or making a commotion and in the neighbourhood to get up for sehri at the end of every night. The chaos usually wakes everyone up, even the ones who are not interested in sehri. Do they have no right to sleep if they wish to? The same can be said about the azaan as well. Back in the day when there were no alarm clocks or mobile phones perhaps the shouts and cries of the local boys used to be pretty useful for the ones who needed to wake up for sehri. In this age of technological advancements, such excesses are completely unnecessary. I’m sure everyone knows how to set an alarm in their mobile phones; even if they don’t it hardly takes a couple of minutes to learn!

The ones who wish to fast have the right to do so; the ones who don’t wish to should have a right to choose too. Every human being has the right to be a believer or a non-believer. Across the world, people have a right to practice their own religion. Not just that, the religious also have the right to be critical of those who do not believe in religion. But non-believers don’t have the right to say anything critical of the former – if they do so it results in harassment, legal trouble, jail time, exile or even murder. Religion is a personal matter. Anyone who wishes to practice a particular religion should be allowed to do so just as anyone who does not wish to should be allowed to do as they please. How can the nation, the state or society force someone to practice a religion? Does that mean religion will never show us a possible path to liberation, it will always end up putting people in shackles? The nation is for everyone, not just the majority but the minority as well. It is the duty of the government to treat everyone as equal.

The government of China has forbidden the observance of roza in the Muslim neighborhoods of the country. This prohibition, however, applies only to government officers and workers, leaders and workers of the Communist Party and students. I understand that students should not be made to fast to protect their health. Leaders and workers of the Party, being communists and atheists, perhaps are expected to not observe the roza. But not all government officers and workers are atheists. If they wish to fast, why should they not be allowed to do so? Perhaps the government wishes to convey that since fasting results in fatigue it can disrupt work at the office during the day. But what about those who can tirelessly work even while they are fasting, why should they not be allowed to fast during Ramadan? Not all who fast sit and doze off at work! I strongly condemn this embargo placed by the Chinese government.

China is criticised the world over for it’s an anti-democratic and anti-human rights stance. This move to ban Muslims from fasting too has been criticised. But the Chinese government has stated that it keeps strict surveillance on it’s Muslim dominated provinces during Ramadan to suppress terrorists and separatists. Accordingly, the government has decreed that no cafes and restaurants must remain closed during Ramadan. That at least is the right decision I believe. On the other hand, the Muslim nations have gone the opposite route of China when it comes to Ramadan and fasting and banned the consumption of food or drink even if someone is not fasting.

If Islam does not become more liberal then it’s Muslims who stand to lose the most. Numerous people around the world today are against Muslims. Muslims are not anymore trusted, most fear them or recoil at their name. Because of a handful of terrorist organisations Muslims, in general, are coming to be identified as intolerant, murderous barbarians. It’s Muslims themselves who must take up the onus of ensuring Islam becomes more liberal. They must prove to the world that they are not merely intolerant terrorists, that they do not condone the actions of Muslims radicals, that they believe in forgiveness, kindness, human rights, women’s freedom and in the freedom of expression. Unless human rights and democracy are respected there is no way Muslims can hope to earn the respect of the conscientious people of the world.

The Chief Minister of West Bengal, despite not being a Muslim herself, pray namaz and observes roza. As much as any of us can claim that she does not do any of this sincerely, that she does everything for Muslim votes, but even then I don’t believe anyone should attempt to make her stop doing these things. She has the right to practice any religion she wants. Who says someone does not possess the right to observe more than one faith at a time? Just like we have the right to forsake religion if we wish to, we also have the right to practice more than one if we wish to. But we must be careful to remember one thing – in the eyes of the state a person who believes in a particular religion and a person who does not believe in any are both equally important, they are entitled to the same rights.

What We Need Are Slogans For Ours Rights

Politicians of the subcontinent, once they have won their elections and are at the cusp of beginning their tenure as MPs, always swear oaths in the name of Allah or Bhagwan that they will dutifully carry out the responsibilities of their office. Things are far more acute in the US where MPs swear in with their hands on religious texts like the Bible or Quran. Do an MP’s personal religious beliefs play any role in the running of the state? As a secular nation, India must strive to foster a stronger belief on the constitution than on religion. An MP who is respectful of their nation’s constitution and of their country’s laws, who wishes to serve the people simply because they love their nation, someone who wishes to see society grow and prosper, for people to have access to good education, healthcare, and security, such a person does not need to swear to someone’s name. Such a person can dedicate themselves to the service of their country and its people without any sworn oath. Those who dedicate themselves in such a manner do so because of their principles and not because they believe the Almighty will punish them if they fail to live up to their oath. And those who swear in the name of God before assuming office, do they not break their oaths? In fact, they do so quite often. Besides, it’s not as if such people are truly so staunchly religious that they will not commit an injustice just because they have sworn not to do so. They continue to break the oaths they have taken in the name of their gods, insulting the latter time and again and rendering the oaths futile. There is absolutely no need to drag religion or God into the swearing in of new MPs, especially in a secular nation.

In countries which still have a constitutional monarchy, MPs continue to swear to serve the king or queen. In some cases, people swear to serve the President. Despite having completely separated the church and the state some European nations continue to hold their swearing-in ceremonies in the name of God. Or they seek the Lord’s blessing in the running of the country. At least among the East European countries at present one does not have to swear an oath in the name of God. On the other hand in most Muslim nations oaths are sworn in the name of Allah.

The other day the new Indian MPs, while they were taking their oaths of office, could be heard chanting the slogans aligned with their personal religious beliefs. Politics is gradually becoming all about sloganeering. Some chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’, some chant ‘Allah Hu Akbar’. Can the Parliament at least not be kept separate from one’s personal religious beliefs? In India, different people worship different gods. Some believe in Ram, some in Ganesh, some in Durga while some are devotees of Hanuman. But everywhere what has been spread is the slogan of north Indian Hindu fundamentalists.

‘Allah Hu Akbar’ is just as dangerous a slogan. Muslim jihadi terrorists in various countries across the world use this very slogan while decapitating innocent non-Muslims and non-believers. It can only be an act of intelligence to keep the Parliament separate from religion. The Indian subcontinent was divided because of religion, and even now religious fundamentalism and terrorism is a huge problem here. In Pakistan as well as Bangladesh, with the rise of religious fanaticism, serious security issues are being faced by the minorities, the secular individuals and women. While in Kashmir problems with Muslim terrorists have continued to cause trouble, elsewhere a new threat has emerged in the form of Hindu fanatics modelled after their Muslim counterparts. These people are more interested in shouting religious slogans than in slogans demanding the people’s rights to food, clothing and shelter, education and healthcare, security for all and the right to be able to freely express their opinions. For this reason, even politicians find it in their best interests to serve the purpose of religion in order to satisfy their voters. Or perhaps it is the politicians who ultimately encourage the public to place religious beliefs above all else. This serves to reduce the government’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the welfare of its people since they find it is easy to gain popularity by fanning the flames of religion.

Some political parties, while serving the needs of minorities, had completely forgotten about the Hindu majority of this country. That they too exist, that they too are citizens and they too vote. This time around these parties have learned a lesson that this forgotten faction can easily rise up in agitation. The political parties have had to pay for their sustained negligence this time. The moment the question of conserving the rights of a Hindu citizen comes up, it has become commonplace to accuse someone of having a Hindutva agenda. But the Hindus who wish for the appeasement of Muslim fundamentalists to end are not the ones who have dedicated themselves to the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. The ones who want to establish such a Rashtra instead of a secular one can rather be termed as Hindu fundamentalists. If the latter had taken a turn towards terrorism for the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, if they were to begin murdering non-Hindus to wipe them off the face of this country, only then could they be truly accused of anything, and not before that.

Besides, if Hindus have been facing discrimination for centuries, deciding to oppose this systemic discrimination does not in any way mean establishing a Hindu state and slaughtering all Muslims or driving them out. Such people are merely adherents of Hindutva, something that is far less dangerous than Muslim fundamentalism. The true reason behind this wave of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ that is sweeping across this country, even West Bengal which has traditionally been secular, is this longstanding tendency of politicians thinking only about the interests of Muslim clerics and maulavis at the cost of the interests of the general Hindu populace. There is no reason to belittle this reaction of everyday Hindu citizens as merely ‘Hindutva’.

Even today it has not been possible to ensure the peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims everywhere in the subcontinent. Till the date that can be achieved both Hindus and Muslims will continue to remain preoccupied with religious dogma and I doubt whether that will truly serve in anyone’s best interests. The political party that will not ignore the Hindus, the one that values Hindu votes, is the one that is in power today and so very popular at that. It’s not as if everyone has voted them into power with love. It has more been a vote against the political parties who have so far only been interested in appeasing the mullahs etc. It’s only in India that I have seen most political parties chase after the minority vote rather than the majority one. The reaction we have seen among the Hindus this time has managed to make the politicians sit up straight. It is important that we give equal value to everyone as human beings, irrespective of majority, minority, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, atheists, rationalists, white, black, rich or poor. It is a grave crime to discriminate against people on the basis of religion, wealth, class or caste. It’s also a crime all these politicians have committed, not that they will ever admit it.

A few days back two Hindu convicts were murdered in a Bangladeshi prison. They were killed because they were Hindus. In Pakistan, too Hindus and Christians are not safe. In India recently there has been a marked increase in Islamophobia among certain groups of Hindus who have gone to the extreme of lynching people for allegedly having eaten beef. When will this enmity between Hindus and Muslims end? This huge landmass was partitioned into two just to reduce this enmity but seventy years hence the antagonism has not abated in any way whatsoever. Has this mutual hatred and antagonism been artificially produced or is the animosity entirely original and without any solutions! If Hindus and Muslims remain such sworn mortal enemies for centuries then whatever else one might expect from these two communities, peace will not be one of them. I don’t believe that hate has no end or that resentment is perpetual. People across the world have proven time and again that all hostilities eventually come to an end.

When I was young I too used to walk in processions and shout along with the others – ‘We want food, we want clothes, we want a life worth living’. I too used to walk in protests meant to rock the city demanding health and education for all. But times have changed. Today, more than rights what is articulated in political slogans comprises religious beliefs and agendas. There is nothing easier than feeding religion to a soul. Instead, what is truly difficult is to ensure a better standard of living for the people, to make them educated and aware, to provide them employment opportunities and good working environments and ensure the total eradication of all discriminatory practices. It’s perhaps best to ask the politicians to do the difficult deed rather than the facile one.