By Zeeshan Khan
October 28, 2015
A thick pall hangs over Dhaka today. For the first time in its 400 year history, Shia-Sunni sectarian violence has darkened its doorway and opened a new front in Bangladesh’s rapidly escalating conflict with Salafist supremacism.
The first victim of this abominable backsliding is a 16-year-old boy, named Sajjad Hossain Sanju, who had come to watch the annual Tazia procession that goes out from the Hussaini Dalan in Old Dhaka, an establishment as old as Dhaka itself. The bomb blasts that took his life injured over 100 others as well, some very seriously.
On Ashura, the 10th day of the Arabic month of Muharram, Shias commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and third in a line of Shia Imams that trace Prophet Muhammad’s lineage down to his 12th descendant.
Imam Hussein was murdered in Karbala, Iraq, along with his family, during a succession dispute in the early days of an Islamic polity and the date has been marked with mourning rituals by Shia Muslims ever since.
But Shias are not the only ones that mark the tragedy, many Sunni Muslims fast and hold special milads or services, and this is particularly true in a country like Bangladesh, where even though Shias constitute only 1% of the Muslim population, the day is observed with devotional music and religious services that can be heard all night and well into the early morning, across the capital, Dhaka.
It’s not unusual, for centuries, Islam in Bengal, and much of South Asia, has been comfortable with its fused and composite identity, drawing from various Islamic sources in a manner that makes it difficult to tell one from the other.
One of the very first works in Bengali Muslim literature is a book called Maqtul Husain, which was written in the 1400s and recounts the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala.
Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s 18th century poetic novel, Bishad Sindhu, arguably one of the most popular books in Bengali literature, is also about Hassan and Hussein and the events at Karbala. Bangladeshi folk theatre, jatras, almost always include a performance about Karbala, and khutbahs at most mosques in the country include a reference to Ali, Hassan, and Hussein.
None of these have any sectarian connotations; there has never been a significant Shia population in Bengal, and neither the books nor the plays are produced by Shias for Shia audiences. They are just standard components of Islamic culture in Bangladesh.
The Hussaini Dalan, which was commissioned in the 1600s by Prince Shah Shuja, a Sunni, has never inspired any hostility in all the years that it has stood.
In fact, many of the people injured in the attack were Sunnis who had gone to attend the Islamic ritual, unconcerned about which denomination it belongs to, as they have done every year for the last 400 years.
This level of harmony is common in Bangladesh, even outside an Islamic context; Hindu Pujas are routinely attended by Muslims and Hindus alike, across the country. None of this has ever been an issue in Bangladesh, not that is, until a strident and divisive Salafism started taking root here.
For nearly two decades now, the syncretic nature of Bengali Islam has been strategically subverted by a virulent new strain of Muslim thought, which seeks to “purge” Muslim countries of influences it arbitrarily deems impure.
Taking its cues from movements in other Muslims countries, movements that are coalescing, alarmingly, into a single, global phenomenal, Salafists in Bangladesh have taken shots at a range of rituals, practices, and beliefs that are warp and weft of the country’s religious fabric.
Bit by bit, they are advancing, supplanting Bengal’s indigenous spirituality with a distorted, imported ideology that seeks to create a Wahhabi-inspired society that will adhere to only one point of view — theirs.
They have attacked virtually everyone that contradicts this singular perspective — taking lives from among minorities, secularists, atheists, writers, artists, musicians, teachers, and Sufis.
But that’s a good thing, really. Instead of being shocked by the breadth of their hatred we should recognise it as an opportunity to fuse together and face our common enemy as a solid, united front.
The fact that they are taking on so many groups only means that they have several opponents to deal with at the same time, something that is a challenge even for the strongest of fighters.
We have to recognise them as a threat to our collective existence, and not just to certain parts, and stand against them as one, because if we don’t, we will be only be making true the old prophecy that goes:
“First they came for the Hindus, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Hindu.
Then they came for the Urdu-speakers, and I did not speak out.
Because I was not an Urdu-speaker.
Then they came for the Nationalists, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Nationalist.
Then they came for the Ahmadiyyas, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not an Ahmadiyya.
Then they came for the Artists, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not an Artist.
Then they came for the Secularists, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Secularist.
Then they came for the Bauls, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Baul.
Then they came for the Atheists, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not an Atheist.
Then they came for the Shias, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Shia.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”