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Rise of Islamism leaves its footprints on the secular culture of Bangladesh

The syncretic culture of Bangladesh as symbolised by the life and work of Tagore and Narul is under severe stress. Photograph: (Others)

WION Dhaka, Dhaka Division, Bangladesh Jun 07, 2017, 06.28 AM (IST) Rahad Abir

In addition to English and Bengali, my three and a half-year-old son is learning a bit of Arabic in school. He is in playgroup. Once I happened to be in his sports room. What children do there is play with toys and watch rhymes. The very first rhyme they were to hear was: Bismillah Bismillah in the name of Allah.

Later one evening, I found my son flipping through his school book and reading to himself Arabic alphabets. My wife was impressed. Who wouldn’t be, particularly, in a country like Bangladesh where Arabic is not a mere language, but the symbol of Islam.

I remember my school days. From third grade, we had mandatory Religious Studies. Islamic Studies for Muslim, Hindu Studies for Hindus. And the books were akin to moral science. The world is more advanced now. That is why, probably, children at present are taught religion a lot earlier.

But the scene is not same everywhere. Public schools follow a combined curriculum set by the government, where religion starts as a compulsory subject from the third grade. Private schools, especially pre-schools enjoy their own liberty. Education, like many things else, has become a mushrooming business in Bangladesh. A bit of inclusion of religion in studies, no matter how young the children are, could make all the difference. This practice is mainly to persuade parents rather than ensuring children a proper education.

Noble Laureate Rabindranath Tagore famously said, ‘‘First know your own mother tongue, then English.’’ He travelled widely and saw that without using its own language a nation cannot prosper. Since the birth of Bangladesh, the quality of education has suffered. Exam questions leak is a constant problem. As the rate of successfully passing an exam has gone up, the standard of education has steeply gone down.

The other day a cousin of mine requested me to fill up a bank account opening form for her. Why? It is written in English. But my cousin has a BA degree. What type of graduates is the country breeding that they cannot even fill up a simple form in English?

For the disastrous nature of the Bengali medium education system, a significant number of parents are sending their kids to English medium schools. And then, largely for the poor, there is the madrasa education system. And very recently, the government has given recognition to Dawra degree of Qwami madrasa as equivalent to the status of a masters degree. Thus, presently, in Bangladesh, there are four types of education system.

A few weeks ago, the ruling Awami League allegedly approved a project to build mosques and Islamic cultural centers in every district and sub-district across the country, with over $1 billion in funding from Saudi Arabia. Even though the Saudi government subsequently denied any such funding. For long the Kingdom has been known to spread Sunni extremism through these sort of donations around the globe.

Also, early this year, changes came in the school text books of Bangladesh to appease the Islamist groups, particularly Hefazat-e-Islam. Let us look at a piece regarding this issue published in New York Times on February 3, 2017. ‘‘The Bengali letter “o” used to stand for “ol,” a yam; now it stands for “orna,” which is a scarf worn by women for modesty. Texts by non-Muslim writers, such as the classical poet Gyandas or the contemporary novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay—have been removed. Also gone are a small excerpt from the Ramayana, a Hindu classic that Islamists reject as foreign to the Muslim canon, and songs of the Sufi icon Lalon Shah, whose syncretic faith is anathema to Muslim conservatives.’’

That is not all. The removal of the statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court building shocked the secular minds of Bangladesh. Taking this as a victory, now the Islamist groups want demolition of all statues from the country.

Our language and culture are not out of danger in these darkest moments. The celebration of Bengali New Year did not go smooth this year. Some fundamentalist groups protested terming the festivities un-Islamic and Hindu culture.

So here we are. The consequences of Islamism are everywhere—in thinking, even in clothing. Over the last twenty years, there has been a remarkable increase of women wearing hijab and burqa. In the streets of Dhaka, it may also seem normal to spot a five-or six-year-old girl, fully covered, walking by.

Unfortunately, symptoms are everywhere that the syncretic Bengali culture of Bangladesh is suffering at the hands of Islamic extremism.

Rahad Abir

Rahad Abir is a fiction writer from Bangladesh. He is the recipient of the Charles Pick Fellowship 2017-18.

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