At a time when our eyes are riveted on the present, and that present itself obsessed with the past, at a time when cries are being made that will shape our tomorrow, I would like to plead for time to think about the future that is being demanded.
Shahbagh has called for the banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami. In the press and social media, in parliament and ministerial podiums, we hear echoes of the same call. Meanwhile Jamaat's men create frenzy on the streets, adding fuel to the cries for a ban. If such a ban is imposed, what happens afterwards? Will the problem of Jamaat disappear with a law?
Once a minor current within East Pakistani politics, Jamaat and its student wing offered themselves as the shock troops of collaboration with the Pakistani army during 1971. The old politicians of the Muslim League offered their services too but they were mostly fat and lazy. Jamaat offered energy and with the Pakistanis looking for a militant cadre to help them confront the Mukti Bahini, they stepped into that role. Proudly, without hesitation. They were going to be the saviours of Islam in a land awash with apostates, Hindu lovers, agents of India.
With independence, Jamaat was pushed back, but in the chaos of the '70s and later, they found the conditions to regroup. With money from the oil-rich Islamic states of the Middle East, they began a long march, reaching into existing institutions and creating their own. Over time they set up banks, hospitals, businesses, and educational institutions. In the last decade they struck a strategic alliance with the BNP and were rewarded with cabinet positions, extending their reach into state institutions.
Meanwhile they stepped into a space that the state and NGOs neglected: providing services to people uncared for by others. They sponsored orphanages and madrassas for those who could not afford schooling. From the very poor to the conservative middle classes, they built a base to groom their own cadre. Their success was not peculiar to Bangladesh. Islamist parties like Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon have built extended networks by providing social services to sections of their populations.
All along, their eyes remained focused on the prize: Jamaat's vision of Allah's reign. Of course this will be administered by this world's men who have appointed themselves the representatives of God. If they come to power, they will impose Islamic rule making the country a hostile place for people who do not share their faith – Muslims who do not think like them, Hindus a special target, Buddhists, Christians, non-believers. They would impose apartheid status on women. In a word, they would like to make the country into one giant madrassa. Were they to come to power, it would spell disaster for Bangladesh.
It is tempting to believe that a ban on Jamaat will remove this scourge on our politics, this stain on our past, the viciousness we see in the present, this curtain dropper on our future. But will a ban solve the threat of political Islam? Is politics really that easy?
You can ban a party, but a party is composed of people, its leaders and followers, its voting constituency. Now Jamaat may never have been able to get beyond 10% of the vote, only 6% at the last elections, but that's still a sizeable number in a country of 150 million. They have worked hard to develop support in the border areas.
What happens to this following if Jamaat is banned?
We don't need to make this a purely imaginative exercise. Bans on Islamist parties have been imposed elsewhere. Essentially Jamaat will be forced to consider one of two options.
The Turkish option: reorganize under a different name
Bangladesh is familiar with this course. In the Pakistan period, the communists who were banned worked with sympathetic allies through the National Awami Party.
What happened in Turkey?
As religious and conservative support grew in Turkey, the Islamist Welfare Party won a majority in the 1995 parliamentary elections. They were banned. Some of their leaders joined other Islamists to launch the Virtue Party, but that too was banned in 2001. That same year Islamists from different factions launched the AKP, the Justice and Development Party. They moderated their image. They claimed to be a democratic and conservative movement not tied to religion. The AKP won an absolute majority in the 2002 elections, and despite some setbacks, the AKP has become the ruling party in Turkey. For reasons both internal and international, including Turkey's desire to join the European Union, the Islamists have not tried to impose an authoritarian Islamic regime.
Now Jamaat cannot necessarily be compared to the AKP. In fact Jamaat appears to be close to the Felicity Party in Turkey, a faction that refused to join the AKP. Some have advised Jamaat to take a road similar to the AKP, but Jamaat leaders find it difficult to shed the heritage drawn from their founder Maududi; they dream of themselves as a revolutionary party, their hands go nish-pish for a thorough Islamic cleansing of Bangladesh.
But were Jamaat to take the Turkish option, Bangladesh would simply see Jamaat reorganizing under a different name. Not much else may change. Such a course would be open to them only if the ban is a 'soft' ban, i.e. a ban on the party as it is named and formed today.
The Algerian option: insurgency
If the state does not allow Jamaat's politicians to find a different platform inside the creaky, murir-tin vehicle that passes for democracy, then Jamaat could choose to go underground.
Here it's worth paying heed to what happened in Algeria, another society born of a violent anti-colonial revolution, the war against the French in the 1950s. In 1991, the Islamist party, the FIS, was about to win the elections when the state stepped in, cancelled the elections, and banned the FIS.
The result: an Islamist armed rebellion that led to a civil war with unspeakable brutality on both sides. 100,000 people may have died. The war ended in about ten years but a terrorist campaign persisted. The economy tumbled, villages were torn apart, and the country's cultural life took a staggering blow. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, singers, theatre people, journalists were threatened and murdered. Many fled into exile.
Who knows how long Algerian society will take to recover from those scars?
The words 'civil war' are now casually tossed around. Some Jamaat-Shibir activists shout slogans for 'civil war', dreaming of a cleansing bloodshed that will free the country of nastiks, Hindus, and nastik and Hindu-influenced false Muslims. But on the other side too, there are voices who, perhaps in impatience, perhaps carried away, say they are ready for the challenge.
Take a few steps to imagine such a future. Having lived through the 1971 war, I shudder at the thought. Think hard about what a civil war could look like in Bangladesh.
This will be nothing like 1971 where we fought a war against an occupation force. This would be a war where the state, through the army, police, and border guards, will be forced to fight against a terrorist insurgency.
Remember those recent times when bombs went off at Pahela Baishakh in Ramna, at the Udichi festival in Jessore, or in cinema halls in Mymensingh. Imagine that as a regular feature of life. We don't even have to imagine much: we can simply read news reports from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
Today people are frustrated with the corrupt political system that has allowed space for Jamaat to grow. Yet if war comes, this is the same state that people will have to rely upon. Do the people really want the soldiers and police thrust into a situation where they have to wage this kind of war? Can they? Will they? Do we want the kind of militarized police state that would come with war?
Are we ready to live with daily insecurity, when you don't know if you step out in the morning whether you will return at night? When you take your life in your hands if you attend the cinema, book fairs, music festivals? Are we ready for our culture to confront this kind of threat?
A civil war will be a catastrophe for Bangladesh. We have still to recover from many of the wounds of our war of 40 years ago. Let no one take such a threat lightly.
Imagine a different future
Bans can only go so far, and handled the wrong way, can turn disastrous. Simple solutions can be seductive, but when all is said and done, ban or no ban, with Jamaat or with Islamists bearing other names, there is no shortcut to the long-haul struggle against political Islam.
Islamist politics has a minority following in Bangladesh. At most all the Islamist parties could gather 16% of the vote. But there is no reason for complacency. What is small today could grow larger tomorrow.
Islamist politics could be better resisted if Bangladesh's democracy was more civil and did not have confrontation, distrust, and corruption enshrined in its very heart. But even with all its weaknesses, the state is what people rely upon when Islamists harass and assault citizens. When they commit terrorist acts, the state must hold them in check.
If the secular state is to prove stronger than the Islamists, it must deliver in real life, in this world, what the Islamists peddle through their myths. It must deliver conditions for peace and economic well-being, the conditions for people to be fed, to have dignity and improved chances in life. And both within the state and outside, all in society who want to resist the facile utopias of political Islam must expand the secular spaces and ensure Bangladesh as a country with respect for all its citizens, for women and minorities.
Is there sufficient refutation of the clamour for Islamic law or their Khilafat state? Novelists like Anisul Hoque, Humayun Azad, and Masuda Bhatti have written dystopian novels about what a future under Islamist rule might look like. Once in a while there have been articles in the newspapers deconstructing Islamist rule. More could be done. There is plenty of evidence about what Islamic states mean in reality, not in the fantasies spun by the self-appointed men of God: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Many migrant labourers who have spent time in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have known the sting of Islamic rule, the kind Jamaat would bring here.
Beyond slogans for secularism, there has never been enough work to explain why the country should be secular and non-communal, why this is necessary for both religious minorities and the majority. Even those who stand for secularism often do not see anything wrong with describing Bangladesh as a Muslim or even Islamic country. Our leaders have enshrined Islam as the state religion. These notions have made non-Muslim Bangladeshis into second class citizens. In Bangladesh, all people – Muslims of different persuasions, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, non-believers – should feel at home, should feel they have an equal place.
Much more than Jamaat's network, with deeper roots among the people, there are secular spaces and institutions. Secular Bangladeshi culture offers something powerful that the people want, which the Islamists abhor: the right to joy, the right to beauty. Every person who enjoys music, who makes music or loves to hear music; every person who enjoys dance and jatra and theatre; every person who reads for pleasure, putting themselves in the minds of people from all corners of the earth – every such person enjoys something that the Islamists detest and cannot deliver. A pedestrian who picks up a 40-taka paperback from Sheba Publishers from a footpath vendor, seeking to enjoy a story, has already taken a step away from those who do not believe in reading for pleasure. Publishers, theatre makers, music makers, book fairs, libraries, book sellers: they are all in the front lines of a culture that offers the alternative to the dreary, lifeless dystopia of Jamaat and others like them.
This culture has strength and substance. It would have even stronger roots if all our people had access. One of the biggest failings of post-independence Bangladesh is that the energy released through the liberation movement could not be harnessed into a mass literacy campaign. Forty years later, too many of our people still cannot read.
Above all, it will be a literate and cultured population that will best resist the dour vision of political Islam.
Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator.