Sunday, 17 February 2013

Nick Cohen on Shahbag

We have yet another unreservedly pro-Shahbag article in the Western press, this time by Nick Cohen in Guardian's CiF. He recently had another piece in the Spectator praising Gita Sahgal's efforts in establishing the Centre for Secular Space in east London.

Cohen starts off by making the usual simplistic comparison of Shahbag with Tahrir square, forgetting that Tahrir square was about toppling a tyrant while Shahbag is primarily about demanding a death penalty for alleged war criminals and banning Jamaat-e-Islaami, which happens to be conveniently aligned with the interests of the Awami League-led government. There are also calls for secularism, but these seem to be limited to the extent of requiring JI (or 'Jamaat politics', as one often sees on social media) to be banned. I have not heard for any calls to throw out articles in the Bangladeshi Constitution in blatant contradiction with secular principles, such as the ones stating that the state is based on "high ideals of absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" and that "The state religion of the Republic is Islam".

He then blames "Islamist theocratic fascism" for massacres of the Bengali population in 1971, while forgetting to mention that the Pakistani regime at the time was led by a military figure, President Yahya Khan, who was quite fond of alcohol and at best paid lip service to religion. The idea that "Islamists" and only Islamists are capable of communal violence seems to be quite popular with the likes of Cohen and Sahgal. Such simplistic views cannot account for Bengali violence towards the Bihari minority in 1971, or the oppression of the Chakma people by rampant Bangladeshi nationalist ideology ever since the Liberation.

Although it is a fact that JI sided with the military regime (a morally despicable decision in the opinion of this author) - in order to preserve the unity of Pakistan, according to them - it is by no means clear  to what extent JI and its members committed atrocities during the war. That was what anyone with a sense of justice hoped the ICT would have established by impartial investigation, but instead they gave us trials marred by disappearing witnesses, external "advisors" writing up documents (possibly judgments) for the judges and the prosecution, intimidated witnesses and an endless list of other irregularities. Essentially, at the end of all this, we will know nothing more about the crimes of '71 and JI's role in them.

Cohen summarises the Pakistani ideologue Mawdudi as someone who "wanted a global war to establish a caliphate". While Mawdudi and his ideology are highly problematic, such a simplistic evaluation does not stand. Mawdudi and his Jamaat-e-Islaami (certainly in its early stages) were seen by many young intellectual Muslims at the time to be a welcome and refreshing alternative to the stale discourse of the orthodox ulama, the molvis and the peers. To see this, one doesn't need to look further than the University of Chicago orientalist and modernist Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman. Rahman, despite being highly critical of Mawdudi, found it fit to note at the beginning of his important book "Islam and Modernity" that the passing away of Mawdudi constituted a "loss to Islam". The British Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar was in his youth a Mawdudite himself, but became more critical of him later on in life. Sardar notes that

Unlike other Muslim reformist thinkers of the 20th century, Maududi was passionate about democracy. He favoured gradual reform and believed social and political change in Muslim societies would arise through individual transformation. But he believed that only pious citizens could produce a pious Islamic state.

This is hardly the description of a fanatical Bin Ladenite zealot, which is what Cohen and many at Shahbag seem to reduce him to.

As for Cohen's praise of the Quilliam Foundation: the founders of QF have been discredited in the eyes of the vast majority of muslims in the UK for their branding of everyone and anyone as potential dangerous extremists, while at the same time enjoying the fame (and cash) lavished on them by the previous Labour government and frolicking with neo-cons and Arab tyrants.

Cohen ends his article with the following

The most bracing effect of the demonstrations in Dhaka and London is that the terror is not being forgotten and liberals are being forced to pick sides. Let us hope that they stop picking the wrong one.

One is again forced here to either subscribe to the shallow nationalist narrative coming from Shahbag, or be branded as a supporter of "Islamist theocratic fascists". In the eyes of Cohen, the "theocratic thugs" of JI are infinitely worse than the "secularist thugs" of the Awami League, even before looking at what evidence for thuggery there is on either side. One is not allowed to be critical of both. It is precisely this lack of balance which makes me a pessimist about Shahbag and what it stands for.

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