Published in the Daily Star on 3 November 2008.
A cycle of outrage over baul statues has created many surprising and dissonant coalitions: youngblood (Charu Kala protests), musicians (bauls and fusion bands), signifiers (wear a gamcha in support), and shushil (umbrellas at National Museum). And diverse editorial tactics: cowardly capitulation (Afsan Chowdhury, New Age, 20/10/08), stop it before it’s too late (Kamal Lohani, Janakantha, 21/10/08), king’s men (Hana Shams, Daily Star, 21/10/08), core heritage (Inam Ahmed, Prothom Alo, 28/10/08), middle ages (Audity Falguny, Shamokal, 29/10/08), Islam’s tolerance tradition (Humayun Ahmed, Prothom Alo, 27/10/08).
Humayun Ahmed is worth studying, because the novelist presumes exhaustive theology research is needed to settle the issue. Invoke Byzantine painting of Mother Mary spared by the Prophet, Sheikh Sadi’s mazaar statue, paintings of animals preserved by Hazrat Omar, and IOJ will retreat to their barracks. It is what Jeebesh Bagchi described in the context of debates about Kashmiri Pandits as “the mistaken belief that if you just keep piling up enough facts, the other side will be stunned into silence.” Theological debates, important as they are, will not be sufficient to navigate a political conflict.
A few writers move to a quiet space and outline other elephants in the room. Badruddin Umar (Shamokal, 28/10/08) asks why elder intellectuals focus on a pawn and avoid naming state machinery. Rahnuma Ahmed (New Age, 29/10/08) highlights how political forces have been targeted for twenty months, with the exception of Jamaat e Islami and allied “Islamist” forces. Finally, Faruq Wasif (Prothom Alo, 29/10/08) talks about the convenient timing, providing maximum distraction from the spider web of election ’08.
Return for a moment to Audity Falguny’s rhetoric of “middle ages” — it gets the outrage adrenalin pumping, but gets lost in the distraction maze. Study closely Amini’s press conference after the statues were removed. Threatening destruction of “Awami League era” statues and railing against cantonment “Shikha Onirbaan“, he plays the role of charlatan. Even his use of the vernacular, “Heida ami dekhi nai” (about BNP-era statues), seems designed to tickle perceptions. A man who talks like the Dhakaiya of jokes (”Korta aitasen na jaitasen?”), how can he be a serious threat, right? How easy to ridicule, and forget the real beneficiaries and puppet-masters.
In 2003, similar protests were the excuse for a willing government to ban Ahmadiyya Muslim books. While filming that confrontation for my project “Muslims or Heretics: My Camera Can Lie,” I had a moment of camera schizophrenia. In the rough cut of that film, there was grainy, blurred footage of Khatme Nabuwat rallies, filmed from distant rooftops. The impression was (on-screen and in my head) of ravenous mobs that could only be filmed from a safe distance. Outside the cage, as it were.
Returning to the project after a six-month gap, I started directly filming rallies and found a jarring reality. “Shangbadik bhaya ashche” they would shout, and part ways so I got the best vantage point for my video. During one “death to…” speech, I found my crowd shots obstructed by ten press photographers, all gunning for the best angle of angry faces before their filing deadlines. A BBC cameraman reached up on stage and moved the microphone away from the mufti’s face, to get an unobstructed shot. No one blinked at this intervention by a representative of the “imperialists” being masticated on stage. The “fiery Islamist rally” is now a form of performance art, it needs that BBC camera as oxygen. The audience is inside and outside borders, and the international eye is often more critical — without getting on an “Enemies List,” this politics cannot survive.
What we have is a two steps forward one step back, catch-and-release “Islamist” project. These periodic fracases push the political debate away from our real crisis of hyper-capitalist over-development twinned with basic needs under-development. We move instead to a space of polarised battles between the yin and yang of “Islam in danger” and “the Islamists are coming.” Every few months, a new bogey: Madrasa students, Khatme Nabuwwat, Hizbut Tahrir, Islami Oikko Jote, Jagrata Muslim Janata. Somewhere in an overseas think tank, yet another “next Afghanistan” report.
All this can lead to the highly artificial “consensus” opinion, inside government and among international players, that some Islamist representative must be brought to the national negotiating table. What a convenient setup: specter of “radical Islamists” drives a fear-debate, and then the largest Islamist party steps forward as “moderate Islamic” voice. Give us enough seats, and we will control the Aminis.
December 2008 approaches with the denouement of “level playing field” electoral math. Cartoons, statues, women’s bill, everything can feed into that equation. The myth of the “Islamist bloc” or “religious sentiment” was used by state apparatus in 1977 and 1982 to bleed secularism’s body parts. 2008 is trying for a replay of that tired script.
Perception brutalises reality, and the dominant trope the state pushes is of “Islamists” as ferocious warriors who can bring any government to a standstill. Or that “militant Islamic” groups are about to take over this country. This allows governments to maintain power and security agencies to expand surveillance into every sector of citizen life (Dhanmondi barbed wire barricades and body checks of young men at 11 pm). But where does the perception of a powerful “Islamic bloc” come from? In history, the groups that actually posed strongest street-based challenge to state power were Awami League in 1968-70, JSD and Sarbahara Party in 1973-74, and university student led bipartisan moha-jote of 1988-90.
Jeebesh Bagchi proposes a hard reboot: “In most cases the terms these days are being set by people with extreme performative position and acts. In India now, Modi has set the term around two axes — “state terror as security” and “development without dissent.” Now, how do you work through these axes? We need to think hard as to how to bypass or steal away these conceptual frameworks.
We write and film and photograph and protest, not to stop an “Islamist threat” but to take control of the terms of the debate. To bring the focus back to real political issues: the asphyxiated democracy project, an end to security panic, and to the brutal daily absence of roti-kapra-makan.