Religion, ethnicity and Language in an Islamic Nation
By Sufia M. Uddin,
Vistar Publications, B-42, Panchsheel enclave, New Delhi-110017,
224 pages, Rs. 750
An average septuagenarian Bangladeshi today has undergone three changes in his nationality. He was born Indian, became Pakistani after 1947 and finally came to be called Bangladeshi after eastern province broke away from Pakistan. If religion was the basis of partition of the British India, Bengali ethnic-linguistic identity spawned the creation of Bangladesh. Emergence of Bangladesh after considerable bloodletting came as a shocker to Islamists who had by then propagated the ummah brand of Islam for over half a century and won a sizeable following. It raised powerful posers as to how to define a nation-state with preponderant Muslim population. Dilemmas have not ceased to dog the nascent Bengali nation. Even today, it is a fierce battleground for three competing versions of nationalisms, i.e., Awami League’s ethno-linguistic nationalism that embraces secularism, Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s religious nationalism and Jamaat e Islami’s Islamic universalism.
Issue of nation-state has hardly ever received the scholastic attention among Muslims as it ought to have deserved. Constructing Bangladesh is a serious yet incomplete attempt at imagining a Muslim nation-state in 20th century context. Having suffered two massive transitions, Bangladeshi identity leaves an average citizen in a Bengali-Muslim cultural bind.
Bangladeshis today struggle between the desires to be Bengali and true Muslims. Being one, does not necessarily result in denial of the other. But the Islamists, a vocal minority, do not accommodate the existence of this tension, refusing to recognize the profound attachment to region and language. The question that arises then is : Should Islamist vision of a community reject regional or culturally informed interpretations of Islam?
Author Sufia M. Uddin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Vermont in the United States, has raised all those questions that need to be addressed in today’s context. Indeed, Muslim states created out of former Soviet Union or erstwhile Yugoslavia would have to contend with the questions like what role Islam would have to be assigned in public life, state policy, education, law making, cultural policy, diplomacy etc in foreseeable future.
Fault lines of conflict between Islamic identity and Bengali identity began to surface soon after Pakistan came into being. Jinnah’s 1948 proclamation in Dhaka of Urdu being the sole national language triggered the spark. It signaled that West Pakistani establishment did not consider Bengali an authentic Islamic language. It generally frowned upon Bengali-informed Muslim culture and confused it with Hindu and Vaishnavite traditions. President Ayub Khan set up centres to de-Sanskritize Bengali language and bring it closer to Persianised Urdu. He even banned singing of Rabindra Shongeet (songs by Nobel poet Rabindra Nath Tagore that promoted universal humanism) in educational institutions under the pressure from Islamists. Wearing of bindis (dots on the forehead), saris, sindoor in the parting of hear, middle class tradition of sending the children for training in fine arts came to be disapproved. Practice of celebrating Pahela Baishakh, the new year day of Bengali calendar till then a rural practice where it coincided with harvests was discouraged. Bengalis saw central government policies and attitudes that affected Bengali culture as an assault and fought back accordingly.
West Pakistan rulers added further fuel to the spark of Bengali nationalism. Firing on a students rally demanding rights of Bengali language contributed the heroics, martyrdom and other ingredients that reinforce a collective memory to a nationalist culture long under fermentation through symbols such as songs, festivals, literature and history. Bengalis began to celebrate the Shaheed Diwas (Martyr’s Day) on Ekushey, (i.e., February 21) when women gathered to offer alpanas (paintings, typically made of rice paste, on floor or wall surfaces) at the site. The participants wore black badges and walked silently or sang Amar bhaiyer rakte rangano (coloured with the blood of my brother). The religious minority status that inspired the creation of Pakistan began to be viewed as an insufficient bond when compared with ethnic identity and common language. All these solidified the Bengali bond with Bengali culture. Rest is history.
Bangladesh’s struggle with its identity has not ended. Sheikh Mujib’s failure to address economic miseries of the infant nation and his assassination encouraged successor Ziaur Rahman to tap into undercurrents of religion and partly reverse the trend of secularism. Islam was enshrined as the official religion of the state. Islamists however fail to understand that secularism is not equivalent to promoting irreligious way of life but keeping religion away from public policy. Moreover, secularism is the best guarantee of protecting the intra-religious diversity. Needless to say that religious communities end up suffering more at the hands of the purists rather than the secularists.
Sufia’s painstaking collection of facts, historical material on origin and development of Bengali Islamic literature, analysis of inter wining strands of twin identities, and masterly evaluation of South-Asian and South East Asian Islam and expounding of variants of imaginings of the communities enhances the value of the work. Vistar Publication has done an impeccable job of publishing the book which was originally published by University of North Carolina Press in 2006. The book may serve as a primer for new thinking on nation-state among Muslim communities.