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A Novel Forces Bangladesh to Weigh Its Future as a Secular State

August 07, 1994|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She recently returned from South Asia

WASHINGTON — When Muslim clerics in Bangladesh labeled feminist writer Taslima Nasrin a blasphemer and called for her execution, they set off a chain reaction whose consequences are still unfolding. Mass demonstrations in the capital of Dhaka alternately support and condemn Nasrin's controversial novel "Lajja" (Shame). Secular women's organizations defend her right to free expression; conservative ones criticize her beliefs.

The Nasrin affair is about women's rights as well as free speech. But the role of women in Bangladesh's changing society is only one chapter, albeit significant and symbolic, in the country's continuing struggle to balance the demands of democracy with the impulses of religious orthodoxies.

In Bangladesh, this is particularly compelling. The country's history is defined by an exceptionally bloody--indeed, genocidal--war of independence in 1971. When Bangladesh, then-East Pakistan, fought West Pakistan, questions of religion intersected those of politics because a significant portion of its population was Hindu. East Pakistan was proud of its secularism and the political ethic of equity and equality that flowed from it. Its sense of democracy was anchored in its demography.

The current strains between religion and politics caused by Nasrin's novel not only tap these undercurrents of schism. They also stoke fears that recent democratic gains will be lost in the cacophony of street politics.

Soon after achieving independence, Bangladesh's dreams of a secular democracy were sacrificed to army rule. Assassinations and autocracy marched hand-in-hand. The long regime of Lt. Gen. Hussain Mohammed Ershad seemed to cement the army's role in politics and government. Only after he resigned amid protests in 1990 and elections were held a year later did a semblance of democracy re-enter politics. The elections pitted Sheik Hasina Wajed, the daughter of the assassinated first president of Bangladesh, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, against Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of former president Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981. With Zia as prime minister, a tentative democracy returned.

But she inherited a political history clouded by an unexamined past. Neither the genocide of the war of independence, nor questions concerning possible collaboration between Bangladeshis and the Pakistan army during the war, nor the assassinations of two presidents were confronted publicly. Judicial commissions impaneled to look into the assassinations were disbanded before they might embarrass the army. Possible ties between the Bangladesh army and resurgent Islamic groups were only the subject of whispered rumors. Bangladeshis live in a world of suspicion, wary of what their neighbors or colleagues might have done during the war or military rule.

Democracy in Bangladesh is thus built on a foundation of official silence. In political terms, this silence translates into the absence of accountability. And this, in turn, accounts for a government unsure of its moorings. Adverse circumstance, rather than affirmative programs, seems to shape its political bearings. Bluster barely disguises political weakness.

When the army retreated to its barracks, the doors to the past slowly opened to bitterness and despair. Published reminisces of the war evolved into a public movement to redress the grievances of its victims and punish their alleged killers. In a highly politicized environment, a small movement for public accountability quickly gained the color of communal prejudice--among Muslims of different language groups and between Muslims and Hindus.

These divisions coincided with a resurgence of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami party. The Jamaat, once the handmaiden of the Pakistan army and presumed to be a beneficiary of Bangladesh's army as well, speaks on behalf of the religious right. It spearheads the anti-Nasrin campaign. Although small secular parties have tried to steer politics back to issues of responsible government, the momentum of the anti-Nasrin movement--and Prime Minister Zia's inability to balance politics and religion--threatens their limited success.

All these events form a backdrop for Nasrin's novel, and its unruly reception. The novel's inelegant but incisive descriptions of sectarianism pointedly blame the Bangladesh state for manifold irresponsibilities--fostering division rather than community, playing on religious difference rather common secular concerns, ignoring the wishes of the majority to succor the whims of agitating minority clerics. "Lajja" draws unfortunate parallels between the Pakistani discrimination that led to Bangladeshi independence and the inequities that Hindus in Bangladesh face today. It blames Bangladeshi Muslims for discarding not only Hindus but the secular state that all Bangladeshis were promised.

No wonder the government is torn between the complicated emotional histories that surround the public pillorying of Nasrin and its verbal commitment to democratic secularism.

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