I want you to look at this picture–really look at it and tell me what you see. This is a horde of people in Bangladesh protesting . . . something, holding signs of preferred political leaders, people in dispute right at the front of the image, and a great diversity of belief in an alternative way of life, away from the world they have to this point been forced to endure. It is not even that the people look angry–most of them do not. It is the fact of this massive gathering, this dispute with whatever powers that be that makes me nervous. I do not understand the broad radicalism that exists within Bangladesh. I wish to explore this.
Now Bangladesh is not a huge nation, although it presently houses well more than 160,000,000 people. It is an extremely religious place, more than 90% Muslim, and they take their faith very seriously. The majority of these people are Sunni, and while this does not represent a historical ethnicity, it is the faith that dominates nearly every function of their lives. Bangladesh is one of those places that has defined a national religion for itself, and the handful of other believers (or non-believers), are an oppressed minority, trapped in a moment from the Crusades that ended more than six hundred years ago, regardless of the fact that the nation’s Constitution promises religious freedom.
Now don’t get me wrong. Bangladesh is not some primitive nation, trapped in the turmoil of a Middle Eastern Holy War. No. This is a thriving country, with a burgeoning economy, and it is mentioned on the meaningless lists of bankers as one of the primary up-and-coming nations in the world. Here. Look at something else that may define this more purely than the radicals and fanatics:
One cannot escape the density of the crowds. This is a place I would never want to live, not because it lacks beauty and its own sense of perfection, but because I simply cannot tolerate crowds. Bangladesh seems like a nightmare to me. What has caused me to believe this way, and is it possible that I am wrong? Down that rabbit hole we go:
This is a tunnel going all the way back to ancient times. It is a nation with a long history, dating to prehistoric eras. In fact, tools discovered buried deep in the ground are from the Stone Age, crude, filed rocks used to hammer things into pieces, or simply to kill. The dawn of Bangladeshi civilization goes back at least 20,000 years.
Let us move forward and start in the Copper Age, more than 4,000 years ago.
There were swarms of people all throughout eastern Asia at this time who would either pass through, or settle in Bangladesh. Located in the middle of India, whose borders are to the west, east and north, the chief divisions way back when were not about any form of nationalism, but about the babel of languages being spread from town to town, confusing everyone into what became warlike miscommunication. Rice was the major food source, and natural materials were plentiful, including the copper that gave the era its name. Bangladesh greatly benefited by its proximity to three major trade route rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna. Pottery from the developing nation was also highly in demand, making many of the people wealthy.
By the Iron Age Bangladesh was among the first nations to develop advanced agricultural and irrigation techniques. They began using coins made out of precious metals (copper had become one, since iron could be made by mixing it with much cheaper tin.) This led to wealthy merchants hording most of the copper and making it otherwise scarce. This was an early development of banking too, and this displays the greed of human nature rather profoundly in a time when most people were still learning how to live together. Swords, axes and spears were produced out of the much denser iron, and Bangladesh, with its numerous trade routes, became one of the great suppliers of weapons of war.
There are stories of the citizens of the region repelling invasions from Greece, led by Alexander the Great. Roman efforts to conquer the land were also unsuccessful, regardless of the bases eventually established on the periphery in India.
Traditionally Buddhist and Hindu, in the late 7th Century AD Islam made its way in a spreading wave from the middle east and arrived in Bangladesh before the Christians ever had a foothold. The inevitable religious violence ensued, sinking the nation into several hundred years of darkness, as religious crusades will always do to the people looking for some new form of hope.
There was a man, a missionary from Persia named Syed Shah Nasir Al-Deen, who arrived in Bangladesh to spread Islam. His initial mission of peace, however, was overwhelmed by the growing commercial Islamic movements, those, like any other corporation, who sought to plunder the land and enslave the people with the promise of paradise after a life filled with misery. By the early 8th century, just two generations after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the first south Asian mosque was built in Lalmonirhat, a place deemed nearly as holy as Mecca to many of the residents, seeking to grant themselves a higher divinity than their peers.
And yet, the division between the Muslims and Hindus (the two primary powers within Bangladesh at the time) was mostly peaceful and cooperative. This extremely well-organized society did not have time for holy civil war as commerce was still the primary faith. It was not until 1204, when a fanatic from Afghanistan named Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji arrived with an army of Islamic crusaders on the Bay of Bengal with the intention of sacking the nation, taking all of its riches, and force converting those not following the proper faith (most of the Muslims in the land included).
Bakhtiyar Khalji’s first campaign was a near genocidal slaughter of Buddhists, burning their temples, raping, pillaging and making the whole minority population fear for their lives. Many people, as at any time we are told to convert or die, halfheartedly renounced the faith of their fathers and simply went along with the rituals in order to escape death.
A truly brilliant general, Bakhtiyar Khalji was the mastermind behind the rise of Islam within India (in many ways he was the founder of what came to be Pakistan more than 700 years later), and had one of several bases there. He was put in command of numerous international armies of crusaders, hordes of violent men seeking to infect everything in their path with their own radicalism. Anything–from art work, to food, to the people themselves, that would not submit was utterly destroyed, wiped from the earth as though it never existed.
Now, it would be wrong to state that Islam has been wholly destructive to the ancient culture of Bangladesh (or even modern Bangladesh). One of the great Arabic innovations that revolutionized the world was mathematics. While there had been several different crude forms of counting in the past, and while ancient Jews had helped to perfect Egyptian and Roman monetary systems, the world of Islam provided the first experiments that would eventually lead to the development of physics, and other theoretical sciences that have since become heresy to the modern believers of the faith. Bangladesh, with its history of innovation, took great advantage of these new ideas to continue developing their culture. This is what it has led to today:
Something to consider in this time of apocalyptic visions and renewed holy war.
The nation hasn’t always been known as Bangladesh, of course. If we go back far enough we will find every nation has a diverse etymology. Most places once had no names at all (all places if we choose to go back before life bubbled up out of the volcanic slime). Bengal, and later Bangla go back to the 11th century. It was not until the 14th century that Bangla Desh was officially taken as the name for this one particular region of Bengal.
Over the next 400 years Bangladeshi culture evolved in numerous directions. The influence of Islam became so profound that the nation began resembling Persia in its habits and devotion. Industry continued to advance and the fundamentalist rule began growing lax. The people remained extremely religious, and they prayed every day, but there were other, more grounded practical concerns they had to busy themselves with. There was no time for radicalism.
This atmosphere proved to be perfect for the British East India Company to take over the nation. The great English ships arrived at the Bay of Bengal and completely overwhelmed the peasants, who had never seem anything so huge before. They were thinking of Behemoth, of the arrival of the minions of Satan, and the treatment they received seemed to justify this belief.
The British eliminated the religious hierarchy from power, executing many of the most outspoken, and established a system where the rich ruled over the poor. Most of the rich people, of course, were European colonial settlers. But there was still a massive resistance, the absolute faith in Allah as well as the Islamic commands to defy all who seek to deny the truth of Muhammad, caused widespread revivals, teaching the young a new sort of radicalism, defined by the first of a series of imposed famines, which after four years killed more than ten million people, a third of the population of Bangladesh. These famines took place from 1769 to 1773, and the initial cause of failing crops and difficult weather was exacerbated by the British East India Company draining wells and burning fields. They did not seem to care that they were losing a fortune in revenue (having conquered so much of the rest of the world made it a proper investment, they thought, to teach the fanatics a lesson). And yet despite this, in a nation so utterly ravaged, the East India Company raised taxes on the survivors (including adding fees for the disposal of the bodies of their relatives), reducing this once proud nation of independent industrialists into a poverty-stricken nest of desperation.
In 1857 there developed a widespread rebellion in India and the surrounding regions against the British East India Company. It was begun when native soldiers in the employ of the company attacked their British overseers, and spread the message of revolution to the people. Revolution caught on rapidly, the people seeming to have been waiting for such a moment. The hostilities lasted for more than a year, ultimately ending with:
But the Muslims had once more regained the faith of the people. The growing Faraizi movement was more a resistance to the lapdog mentality of Hindu landlords and other Bengali natives nominally in the employ of the British. Lawsuits were filed, and a propaganda campaign was started in an attempt to convince the people that Faraizi leader Haji Shariatullah was using the movement only to set up a kingdom of his own.
After being repeatedly imprisoned, freed, then imprisoned again and tortured, Haji Shariatullah finally died a martyr. His son, Dudu Miyan, took over the movement. He led the Faraizi on a far more radical path than his father had ever intended, and managed to fulfill many of the outrageous claims that had been made about the passively resistant old man.
Since that time the Faraizi movement has gone through numerous leaders and philosophical changes, mostly towards deeper and harsher fundamentalism. When Dudu mysteriously died in 1862, he had recently appointed his two sons as his successors, Ghiyasuddin Haydar, who took over the movement to a general decline in interest and influence, until his younger brother, Naya Miyan claimed the throne, a man who was even more radical than his father.
By the turn of the century the Faraizi movement had split into several factions, ranging from the more moderate to the farthest extreme. ‘Terrorism,’ a world that was growing in popularity among the British when discussing unrest in their colonies, seemed to be exploding everywhere. There were the socialists, there were pure anarchists, religious fanatics, political extremists, racists, and apocalyptic lunatics, all seeking to tear everything in the world down, then create scorched earth heathen idols in their own image. The British were not about to stand for this. They were not. And neither were the French. Or the Austrians. The Ottomans. The Americans. The Prussians. The Germans . . .
Before World War I the Hindu population began growing increasingly nationalistic. They saw with fear that their population, which had been steadily declining for a thousand years, had finally reduced them to a minority. The Muslims were now making deals with the British, ones that would never be kept, said the Hindus, because Islam was the faith of treachery. A true holy war eventually broke out, passing the time of the World War as the British were far too preoccupied with the global conflict to bother refereeing two pagan religions fighting for colonial dominance. And even though the Muslims had started trading in good faith, the British did not really care who won their war.
After this, numerous opposing factions were formed–The Bengal Provincial Muslim League, the Khilafat Movement, the Mustafa Kemel Ataturk Secularist Forces, the All Bengal Tenants Association, as well as the swelling Indian Independence and Pakistan Partition movements. The British empire was collapsing under the strain of these political and holy wars.
It was 1947 when Britain lost India, the last crown jewel of its empire. Under the provisions of the Partition of Bengal, with the separation of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India, Bangladesh was given the freedom to chose sides. Bangladesh also decided to split apart, forming East Pakistan and West Bengal, divided also on religious lines.
In 1968 the powerful Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was charged with sedition under claims that he met with Indian military officials with plans to destabilize Pakistan. Whether he was guilty or not has never been formally litigated, although most people on either side of the issue believe it to be true.
Rahman was a socialist, and the eventual founder of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the title the nation goes by today. He was the first President, and later Prime Minister of his country. As a matter of fact, his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the longest serving person in this position.
Rahman was the political leader of the outright revolution within East Pakistan, a movement which sought to reverse the deal from 1947 and return Bangladesh to an independent nation. The response to these rising groups of armed protesters was something called Operation Searchlight, a sinister attack on perceived Bengali nationalists, presumed intellectuals, students, religious minorities, and other new-aged ‘unwashed’ figures that the Pakistani government believed did not deserve to live. This single day, March 25, 1971, initiated a nearly nine month war that has been referred to in the annuals of human atrocities as the “Bangladesh genocide.”
As many as 3,000,000 people may have died during this death march. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been arrested after winning the first Democratic election in the history of Bangladesh, the election results annulled and declared a violation of Pakistan’s bylaws. When the war ended in December of 1971, Rahman was freed and Pakistan decided to give up the fight. Bangladesh was free.
The new nation began as a coalition government, numerous political parties sharing a portion of power, but it quickly descended into a socialist dictatorship, heightened in 1974 by a devastating famine brought on by massive flooding. More than a million people starved to death as a result of this (although the official government tally remains 27,000). When pleading for help from India, that government declined to get involved, leaving Bangladesh to return to its recent enemy, Pakistan, for whatever assistance could be offered. This led, once more, to a revival of Islam in the nation, one that this time, with the population exploding, would impact the nation up to the present day.
Rahman was assassinated in 1975, and this led to a time of coups and counter coups that would last all the way until 1990. Two and a half months later, the leaders of the coup that toppled and killed Rahman were gunned down, five of them altogether. A military junta took over the government after this, in 1977 naming army chief Ziaur Rahman the new president.
Ziaur Rahman (no relation to the former Prime Minister) had been the army leader during the 1971 uprising, and had actually declared Bangladesh independent in the days before the genocide began. As president he resumed the policies of Mujibur Rahman, removing business from government control, reinstating freedom of the press and free elections, and attempting to restore the ruined infrastructure that had only gotten worse during the years of chaos that had just passed. He was assassinated in 1981 in another military coup d’etat.
The next ten years featured an unending series of governments being overthrown, more assassinations, imposed martial law, governmental corruption, and mass uprisings. It was 1991 that saw a pause in this when Khaleda Zia was elected the first female prime minister of Bangladesh.
Zia was married to the late Prime Minister Ziaur Rahman. She had been active in politics since her youth, and was known to be a strong and forceful personality. She emitted a show of power that the men of the previous ten years lacked. When she was elected in the first free election since her husband’s last one, at first she was taken as a revelation, a return to normal life and peace. Such was not to be the case.
What happened was the opening of a vicious partisan battle between opposing political parties (and ideologies). After her first term of six years ended, Zia was roundly defeated in the parliamentary elections, raising opposition leader Sheikh Hasina to the highest office. The battle between these women undermined much of the earth-shattering reality of two females competing uncontested for control of this nation of more than one hundred million people. The pettiness of their political disputes resembled the same thing that has been seen since the very dawn of republican democracy, complete with name-calling and smear campaigns.
Hasina lasted in office until 2001, when Zia regained the seat in a highly contested election, one that saw allegations of voter fraud and fixing by other high powered politicians. In 2006 Zia was overthrown by a new military coup, although this one with some seeming justification. Two of Zia’s sons were arrested on corruption charges and Zia herself was about to be arrested as well, but she fled to Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, in 2004, while Hasina was leading the opposition party, terrorism once again broke out in waves, seeing the murder of several high opposition party leaders, the massacre of numerous party followers, and a failed assassination attempt against Hasina herself. It is widely suspected that the attempt was engineered by the Prime Minister, with the help of some of the new generation, post 9/11 Islamic radicals that Zia found herself growing increasingly aligned with, not so much on faith, but as a force willing to do just about anything to win.
In 2007 Hasina was charged with graft and extortion by the temporary military government, fearing that she would regain power should a free election be held. She had been outside Bangladesh since the assassination attempt, and was deeply offended and challenged by a declaration that she was banned from returning home. She did so and was promptly arrested, then charged with plotting the murder of four random supporters of a rival political party. Due to popular protests, as well as growing international attention, the charges were finally dropped.
Hasina’s legal problems continued into 2008, allegations upon allegations being hurled at her (some of which, most likely, she was guilty). She even finally spent some time in jail before being paroled shortly thereafter due to ‘medical problems.’ The following year she was re-elected Prime Minister.
In the most recent election, Hasina’s party won 288 of the 300 Parliament seats, a result that led the opposition leader to declare farcical, that got Human Rights Watch involved, and which led The New York Times to ask “Why produce nonsensical election results when polls indicated that Mrs. Hasina would likely have won a fair election handily?”
The whole campaign was marred by violence in the streets and some rather curious, Trumpian statements that did not resemble her declarations of the past. People have been murdered and Hasina seems to have abandoned the idea of freedom in favor of a smothering control, declaring that “If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights.” And this is all that seems to matter any more, not just in an ancient land like Bangladesh, but everywhere. Everywhere in the world. Bangladesh, with its long, trans-formative history, could be taken as a model of the ups and downs of open society, the pressures of politics, and the dangers of radicalism of every stripe.
©2019 Lance Polin