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General News    H3'ed 5/5/18

The Age of Fundamentalism

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The other night I watched Left Behind on YouTube. Watching Nicholas Cage is always a treat. I expected the film to be science fiction, but it turned out quite differently. For, besides the great actor, there was another - God.

A few months ago, my wife and I watched mother! in a local theater. In less than two hours, we saw God, Adam and Eve, Abel and Cain, Mary and Jesus!Why do Americans make religious films? They're a nation of fundamentalists. Indeed, the word comes from there.

In fact, fundamentalism is everywhere: there's Muslim fundamentalism, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist fundamentalism. Why?

Every secular religion has failed. The death of the Soviet Union signaled the demise of Marxism, which had pinned all hopes in this world. Nationalism, that supremely secular religion, wilted in the world. Bangladesh, for instance, was founded on the myth of Bengali unity. However, the people proved very Islamic. Even ten years ago female students in my class used to wear jeans and shirts. Now many of them wear hijab. Even nine-year-old girls wear hijab.

The latest religion, democracy, which is a very this-worldly aspiration, has decayed. Russia was supposed to be the prototypical democracy. Democracy there lies dead. And the most successful economy in the world, the Chinese, has never been a democracy.

In Bangladesh, democracy came in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a donor-sponsored affair. The donors had been propping up General Ershad as a counterweight to communism. When that threat disappeared, they pushed him aside. There were only three democracies in Africa in 1989; in 1991, there were thirty. I remember how the corridors of Dhaka University pulsated with Marxist ideas in the 1980s. My Marxist teachers gave up their political beliefs and went to America to do their PhDs. In fact, back then, you weren't an intellectual if you weren't a Marxist. Now, an intellectual is someone who believes in democracy.

The demise of communism ushered in democracy - and this was a tragic transition. Violence flared: in Bangladesh, two political parties emerged, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by the widow of a former military dictator, Khaleda Zia, and the Awami League, led by the daughter of a former civilian dictator, Sheikh Hasina. These two women unleashed their thuggish parties on the streets and innocent lives were lost. During the last anti-government agitation, bystanders were burnt to death (whether by the opposition or the ruling party nobody knows).

To check the rigging of elections by the ruling party, it was decided that a caretaker government would supervise all elections. This prompted the parties to rotate in power - as the western donors wanted. But these elections were themselves rigged (see The Economist). The European Union and western organizations said that the elections were free and fair - just because they wanted the parties to transfer power every five years, and for the country to be declared a fully-fledged democracy. Bangladesh is ruled by foreign powers; the country has never ruled itself.

The caretaker government couldn't stop the violence, which reached a peak in 2006 when the army took over. The country breathed a sigh of relief. The western donors allowed military rule seeing that violence had got out of control. However, they would not brook military rule for long. In 2008, the army handed power over to the secular Awami League instead of the religious BNP. The days of the caretaker government were over.

There are no issues in Bangladeshi politics. All issues -such as capitalism versus socialism - have been settled. The only issue left was religion. The Awami League had been the party of nationalism and secularism. The BNP began to stand for Islam.

Secularism in Bangladesh does not mean this-worldliness. The word cannot be translated into Bengali. In Bengali, the word means 'neutrality between religions': the state would promote all religions equally. Pakistan, of which Bangladesh had been its eastern part, was founded as a country for Muslims. The Awami League stood against Islam, and the country splintered. Today, Bangladesh is a deeply religious country, especially among the middle classes. When the BNP was in power, it persecuted the minority Hindus. Indeed, Bangladesh is ripe for a fundamentalist makeover.

Whenever a strongman is removed from power in a Muslim country, fundamentalism takes over. Democracy has sapped the state, which is seen today as weak and ineffective. (There have already been fourteen lynchings this year in Bangladesh.) People turn to the other world. Even in a secular society like Malaysia, a single fanatical party can infect the whole democratic practice.With the advent of democracy in Burma, Buddhist fundamentalism reared its head and resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingyas who poured into Bangladesh - and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi uttered not a word of protest. Countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have successfully fought fundamentalism. In Egypt, a military ruler has routed the fundamentalists. Before the sanctions on Iraq, the mosques used to be empty; after the sanctions began to bite, the mosques filled up. Sanctions killed 1.7 million Iraqi children (The Economist), enough to turn the sternest atheist otherworldly. And the current legislators had nothing better to do than ban alcohol.This is how western civilization has turned secular states into religious ones.

In the 1960s in Pakistan, military strongman Ayub Khan had the guts to annul the Islamic law of intermediate marriage: this required a divorced woman to marry another man before she could remarry her former husband. Now, any woman in Bangladesh (a former part of Pakistan) can remarry her divorced husband. More recently, a statue of Lady Justice was erected on the Supreme Court premises. Muslim civil society reacted with outrage. The government had to remove the statue. This is redolent of the Taliban and Islamic State destroying ancient monuments. The change 'twixt now and then.

I observed earlier that fundamentalism is everywhere. There is, however, one notable exception: Western Europe, home of the Enlightenment. But it is not the Enlightenment alone that makes Europeans secular (in that case Americans too would be secular). It is the power of the state: the state spends more than 40 per cent of GDP; the state makes it almost impossible to fire workers; this results in high unemployment because firms don't hire if they can't fire, but the unemployed get generous benefits. The reverse is true in America, where the state is kept deliberately weak. Losing your job, according to Paul Samuelson, causes half as much stress as losing your spouse. Also, the European Union has launched a heroic effort to throttle nationalism where it was born,

The secularism of the Awami League is peculiar, to say the least. Awami Leaguers are not only against Islam, they are pro-India and pro-Hindu. They are not secular. Their religion is Hinduism, which naturally makes them unpopular. If there were a free and fair election today, the opposition BNP would win hands down.

Western donors know that. After the extremist massacre of non-Muslims in an upscale restaurant in the capital and the death of all the jihadis involved, they realized the fissile nature of a Muslim polity. On the other hand, donors want to spread democracy. How will they square that circle? In my opinion, western donors will continue to back the ruling Awami League even if that means no democracy.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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