No space for love in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is currently suffering from, perhaps not a wave but more of a persistent flood of extremist attacks, manifesting in the form of assassinations of various free-thinking, secular or atheist bloggers, publishers, writers and journalists. While this trail of blood may be linked to a point of origin with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy in February last year, this is something that has existed under the surface of Bangladeshi society for much longer. Conservatism, the quashing of more progressive ideals, rising belief in Islamic homogeneity, and a vicious intolerance for anything that does not fit the Sunni, Bengali Muslim identity. As mysterious men, armed with machetes chip away further and further at all opposing ideologies with violence, the space for liberal and progressive ideals in my country is disappearing. The latest in this bloody spree of “divine” executions came on April 25, when gay rights activists and editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, along with his friend, colleague, and fellow activist, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were brutally murdered by unknown assailants, linked with larger, global Islamic terrorist outfits.


The two murdered activists – Xulhaz Mannan (left) and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy (right)

(Source: Dhaka Tribune)

Mannan started the magazine, Roopbaan, to promote LGBT rights in Bangladesh. This by itself is an amazing achievement in such a conservative country. In the face of such disapproval and adversity, Roopbaan took off in 2014. Long an advocate in the development sector, especially working with LGBT rights, Mannan’s work went from strength to strength. In fact, on 14 April 2015, when Mannan successfully organized a “rainbow rally”, Bangladesh’s version of a pride parade, during the Bengali New Year celebrations, for a second, Bangladesh’s liberals believed again that the country was moving forward and for the LGBT community, especially the gay and lesbian communities who are legally oppressed, it was a landmark achievement – an announcement that these people not only exist, but are unafraid to stand up and be counted, as people, in Bangladeshi society. For me as well, long having been frustrated by regular news of tragedy, misfortune, oppression and intolerance, reading about the “rainbow rally”, during the New Year celebrations no less, brought me immense pride, and in one of those rare moments, I may have felt something akin to patriotism.


Pride parade in Dhaka, 2015


I could swell with pride for how far my country has come, and like the rest of Bangladesh’s liberals, once a proud tradition in its own right, feel hope for the future. Mannan’s murder feels like a nail on the coffin for a dream that I once thought could be reality.

This dream now seems a long way away. This year, the second “rainbow rally” was cancelled due to death threats and intimidation from a section of society that cannot bring themselves to respect (or even tolerate) other human beings. And the worst part is, this seething hate is winning. And we, Bangladesh as a nation, are allowing it to win. A Buddhist monk had his throat slit earlier this week. University professors, a profession held in such high esteem in my society, are being hacked down for no good reason. The violence is more senseless than usual. The government refuses to acknowledge that we have a terrorist crisis on our hands for fear that we start remembering that their role in how we got here. So they tell us that these murders are unrelated. That we should stay quiet. They tell us to be silent and let hate win. But for Xulhaz, for the LGBT community in my country that have now had to flee for their safety, we cannot. The pride parade is a symbol of love triumphing over everything else, and I hope, for our sake, I see it next New Years. Only then will I remember the dream that me, Xulhaz and everyone that looks forward and looked forward in my country once dreamt.


Cover photo source: Wikipedia Commons


Don’t Tell Me Who To Pray For.

One of the most prominent features of the aftermath of the brutal Paris Attacks last November, at least within my own experience of these reactions, was an exasperated post-colonial lashing out at why we should care only about the deaths of white Europeans when the Islamic State was carrying out similar attacks with alarming frequencies in locations ranging from Istanbul to Karachi.

As post upon post flooded social media – every millennia’s portable worldview manufactory – the voices rung louder and louder about why fighting terrorism only comes back into our collective stream of consciousness when white lives are endangered. Why we can’t bring ourselves to care that in the week around the Paris attacks there were 43 people killed in Beirut, 50 in Nigeria and 30 in Mali. That as we all shout, “Je Suis Charlie” and “Pray for Paris,” no one thinks to give a quick shout out to the ruined remains of what used to be the historic city of Palmyra in Syria. A life is a life, they said, and they were right. 130 dead in Paris, is 130 human beings who were victims of terrorism. And the 130 or so that died in Lebanon, Nigeria and Mali were also 130 human beings who were victims of terrorism.

And this was no plain moralistic plea, this was also dissent. It’s easy to treat this with apathy when Huffington Post publishes an article claiming that “Western Media” has ignored such and such event, putting aside the simple fact that Huffington Post IS Western Media. Media bias is real and so is reporting about media bias. It’s almost a mind-boggling form of hypocrisy, to ignore something and then jump on the bandwagon of complaining how that thing was ignored.

To say that we should also be praying for Turkey and Iraq, Syria and Pakistan should not be a competition of the value of human life against terror attacks in Europe, and it definitely should not be ignored. It is an act of dissent, to remind a near-sighted global media that there are many other people who suffer at the hands of the same extremists and that it is time we start remembering that these people also exist and that they are as important. Solidarity should not be limited to the Western world.

However, while an appeal for us to remember the world expands beyond the bits populated by those with the lowest melanin production is admirable, a resentful snarl that commands me to care about those other places is not, no matter how justified the resentment and embitterment is. I get it, I really do. I understand that this is a phenomenon created by histories of oppression and colonial legacies, that 130 lives in Paris should not mean more than 130 lives anywhere else in the world; but do not let an emotional plea of dissent against the Eurocentric hegemony cloud your understanding of the political nature of the events that happen.

There is one simple reason why for news agencies it matters more when Paris is attacked rather than Peshawar. It is because Brussels and Paris, much like New York 15 years ago, represents a stab at the heart of Western hegemony, while another bombing in Pakistan is just that, another bombing in a country that has become all too familiar with terrorism.

It’s sort of like thinking about the world map we use, where the Northern hemisphere is stretched to highlight Europe (you didn’t actually think Alaska was bigger than Mexico, did you?). We use it instead of one that more accurately depicts the landmasses on their physical size, because we still feel that need to highlight Europe. Like it or not, Europe remains an important hub of world power. This is due to colonialism, the practice by which a small island country off the French coast could rule more than half the world, amount riches beyond belief and oppress an impressive number of future countries (and later complain when the future inhabitants of these countries try to immigrate to it because of the state in which their country was left by the colonial master).

But whatever the reason may be, it is how it is today. In simple terms, while human life may be equal, terrorist attacks are not – they are indeed of varying importance. They do not happen in a vacuum. Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and innumerable other attacks are interconnected. It is important to centre our dialogue about terrorism on understanding its motives and its reasons for happening. I will not tell anyone to pray for one life over another, nor will I tell anyone how to pray. It’s an interesting point of human sentiment to pick on – the act of praying. A deeply personal decision, determined by so many things that shape up how you perceive the world.

There have been 105 terror attacks in April 2016 so far, according to Wikipedia. I will not tell you which to pray for, or whether you should. I will tell you that the media will not report everything, it has a bias and it is what it is. But I will tell you to try and understand why these events have happened and why these lives have been lost. To lose rationale would be to let terror win. To pick and choose would be to let terror win. To stand in solidarity with humanity, against terror, would be for us to win.


(Cover photo source)

You Really Can’t Stump the Trump

‘George W. Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East. […] They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction and there were none. And they knew there were none.” [Quote source]

This is a quote from a Republican Presidential Debate in 2016.  What a time to be alive. And as much as it would annoy all the progressives and liberals to give credit where credit is due, Donald Trump makes a valid point. The Iraq War was a disastrous endeavour, the repercussions arising today in the form of a certain group of crazed desert marauders named the Islamic State. Furthermore, Trump did criticize the war all the way back in 2004, a few months after the invasion.  And out of the once burgeoning number of Republican candidates, he also was the only one to have the guts to say that out loud, that too in the heartland of American conservatism and backwards thinking – South Carolina.

And to continue to defy every odd and break every rule of the US political institution, he would go on to win the South Carolina primary, beating his opponents down with such merciless candour that a weeping Jeb Bush would have to drop out of the race in the state that was supposed to be a stronghold of the Bush dynasty. It was hard not to feel for Jeb, the victim of a vicious (for lack of a better word) “trolling” campaign by Trump. From being called “low energy” to being told that maybe his mother should be running for president instead of him, Jeb never really had a chance. Maybe Trump did us a favour. Another Bush in the White House is an unappetizing thought to say the least.

Donald Trump has been the major talking point during this election cycle, single-handedly driving up CNN’s ratings and blasting through the competition with his reality-show bombast. In fact, it’s fair to say that the entire election process is just that, a reality show. A few notable titles could include “Keeping Up with Ted Cruz,” “The Real Housewives of Bill Clinton,” “Two Bushes and Counting,” “Is Ben Carson Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” etc. CNN executives, take note. I half expect Trump to turn to John Kasich in the next debate and say his trademark, “You’re fired.” Lets face it, if he doesn’t, the polls probably will.

But all jokes aside, there is a very real reason why Trump is doing so well. It’s not because he is a fascist, I think there could be arguments made as to why he is not even actually a fascist. Yes, he does say some very fascist things (All Muslims should be barred from immigrating to the States, for example) and Noam Chomsky did compare him to Hitler recently. The real complication arises from the fact that Trump is not a career politician, we have no idea what any real substantive policies will look like with the real-estate mogul as Commander in Chief. Is he actually going to build a wall along the entire border of Mexico? Maybe. I don’t think it’ll pass as it is a gross waste of public funds. Is Mexico actually going to pay for it? No. Trump says a lot of things, some very outlandish and some to his credit, surprisingly progressive. He has been attacked for funding politicians from both parties (to which he retorted Ted Cruz by saying he funds him too).

Trump is a populist. He is an entertainer, and he knows how to appeal to people. And while it’s easy to laugh along to the train-wreck political spectacles, it’s also getting to the point where one must start taking him seriously. Chris Christie months ago claimed Trump didn’t have the mettle to keep up his candidacy. This week, Christie is no longer in the race, and he has publicly endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency. Trump is obviously doing something right.

Trump has done so effectively exactly what Bernie Sanders has done, despite being polar opposites on the political spectrum. While Sanders has styled himself as the anti-institution figure of the left, a Jeremy Corbyn-lite if you will (and yes, lite, the American left is never particularly left), Trump has arisen to his throne as the Republican front-runner by doing the same thing. He is an outsider to the institution, a business mogul and not a career politician, particularly appealing to the disadvantaged and frustrated in the conservative sphere of this country. And it just so turns out that that particular demographic is horribly xenophobic and bigoted. What can you do, such is democracy. But hey, perhaps, a majority of voters are not like that, and we won’t have to deal with him in office. For now, here is a playlist of Youtube videos with Trump highlights. As it turns out, at least thus far, you really can’t stump the Trump.


(Source for cover image) 

How I stopped telling Americans to stop calling it soccer

As I write this, the Denver Broncos lead the Carolina Panthers in the 50th edition of the Super Bowl 16 to 7 with the 3rd quarter coming to an end. It’s been 2 years since the first time I saw the Super Bowl, when the Seattle Seahawks crushed this year’s champions elect, the Broncos, with a masterclass of defensive solidity. Even to someone like me who does not understand the sport, it was impressive. Two years on, I still have not figured out the rules of the game, and will turn my nose, give off an air of condescending arrogance and tell people that “Football is played with feet, and the ball that is used in American football is more like an egg than a ball”.

Yet, the Super Bowl has come to represent a spectacle of American culture like nothing else, even to the untrained eyes of a snobbish foreigner as myself. My first superbowl experience is of sitting in the Bullock lounge surrounded by the mountains of Uncle Sam’s pizzas, vast boxes of wings and the carefree fervor of people who I would venture are not regular followers of the game either. Yet, one cannot help but be drawn into the fever pitch excitement. The Superbowl is quintessential Americana, a grandiose display of nationalism cloaked, as it so often is, under the sentimental tidal wave derived from sport.

However, this article is not really about the Super Bowl at all. What I’m really writing about is how I got over my elitism and stopped complaining about the word ‘soccer’. I come from a country where every child looks back fondly at childhood memories of rainy days and muddy pitches, splashing around in filth and dirt, kicking a ball back. My country is awful at football (soccer). We’re not built for it, lacking the height, the technical skills or the diet for the game. We’re better at cricket, where one does not need to move around so much. Yet, like any other child in South America or Europe, I was regaled with stories of Bengal’s footballing past; the gargantuan crowds forming for a derby match between two mortal enemies, when Dhaka Abahani and Dhaka Mohammedan would line up opposite each other in a 90 minute duel for glory.

There exists a cultural divide between the US and the rest of the world when it comes to football and it’s American namesake. Americans are always seen as outsiders to the beautiful game, regardless of their efforts and their enthusiasm for the sport. Soccer is the fastest growing sport in the States, and this summer South America’s finest land in the US for the 100th edition of the Copa America. The US Men’s National Team (USMNT) are consistent performers in the World Cup, and their female counterparts are record-setting world champions.

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015

VANCOUVER, BC – JULY 05: Abby Wambach #20 and Christie Rampone #3 of the United States celebrates with teammates after winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 5-2 against Japan at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Yet the world will still groan with disdain and wince at the mention of the word, soccer. Major League Soccer will be ruthlessly mocked despite not actually being a bad league at all in terms of talent. But despite its growing popularity, soccer has also been the focus of xenophobic and close-minded rhetoric. Glenn Beck, otherwise known as Donald Trump with an even worse haircut, during the World Cup launched on a hilarious rant that nearly made Fox News’ goblin Bill O’Reilly look like a new age liberal. As taken from an excerpt cited by The Nation:

“It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us,” yipped the Prom King of new right, Glenn Beck. “It doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.”

It’s hard enough for people from everywhere else in the world to deal with America’s obstinate exceptionalism, its stubborn refusal to join the metric system being one other example. Unfortunately, I could not find full quotes for Mr. Beck’s flattering words about the global game. I’ve heard that it involves a conspiracy theory about the creeping influences of communism coming over from Europe in the shape of Marx’s manifestos printed on soccer balls and anthropological musings over how the Native Americans played soccer with severed heads and this is of course 100% factual and not at all the ludicrous ramblings of a xenophobic idiot.

But regardless of the far-rights’ view on a sport whose governing body has more member states than the UN, my interaction with this cultural divide has been far more understanding. I no longer cringe if someone says “soccer”. Sports is one of those irrational things that we throw our hearts behind, used as both a tool of authoritarian nationalism and as a tool of revolutionary ideals. It’s been called as a distraction for the working class to keep them obedient in a system that exploits them, and at the same time, has laid witness to demonstrations of the working class’ discontent. Sports are a spectacle, to be witnessed with awe and to be considered beyond the score line and into the territory of its impacts on culture, human ideas and even, the nation as a concept.

Even sitting here at Clark, where athletes complain about being outcasts in the type of antithetical social dynamic which exacerbated my culture shock because this school is so different from everything the movies told me, I remember sitting in the Kneller, in the middle of a group of Chinese grad students yelling ourselves hoarse in the basketball game against Worcester State last semester (of course, this would be overshadowed by the far more important topic of race and racism on campus that would come to a boil at a planned protest at the game).

I have come to stop caring whether its handegg or football or whether its soccer or football. It doesn’t matter. Whatever other qualms I have with the NFL: a horrendous track record on athlete safety and especially concussions, the poor treatment of cheerleaders, the grotesque monetization of the sport converting it into an orgy of sponsorships and allowing Coldplay to do the halftime show this year, all of which are justifiable grievances, I will no longer partake in the sustaining of a meaningless cultural divide, and refuse to further the creation of the otherness and exceptionalism between America and the rest of the world over a word.

Call it whatever you like, soccer, football, futbol, it doesn’t change what it is. At the same time, the “handegg” joke is so stale at this point, and just creates worthless antagonism. Just as Glenn Beck is guilty of being a dismissive xenophobe, so is every foreign sports fan who claims that they cannot be drawn into the spectacle of the Super Bowl.  I’m going to stop talking now. The Broncos won, swatting away the over-achieving Panthers. And despite not understanding the game, despite not being from anywhere near a NFL team, I am greatly upset at this.


Censorship by Machete : Silencing Secularism in Bangladesh

In February, Avijit Roy and his wife walked through the bustling stalls and the shadows of foliage in the Dhaka University campus. Because it was February, the annual book fair was taking place, and they had, like thousands of others, come out to experience an event tied quintessentially to the country’s national identity. Sixty odd years ago, the first big spark of the nation, of independence had been lit under the bullets of police when students had taken up the charge for their right to speak in their own language. Sixty odd years later, Avijit Roy, a noted atheist blogger, a US citizen, on those same streets that had once been awash with the blood of those who wished to speak, was hacked to death by religious extremists slighted by his writing.

As a child growing up in Bangladesh, I had gone to mosque on Eid just as I had gone to Hindu temples on Durga Puja, celebrated Buddha Purnima and had Christmas dinner. Religion to me had always been part of my culture, with its varying beliefs and traditions, and I had always looked on all of them with warmth. But while it appeared that these diverse religious practices were accepted, or more precisely, tolerated, atheism was not. I chose to not be religious when I was 12. And soon after, I chose to be an atheist.

This choice was not always liked by people, even parts of my extended family, but they would always tolerate it. I wrote a blog when I was younger, mostly ridiculous nonsense, yet I would openly exclaim my lack of faith. I was never afraid that someone would hurt me for it. I wasn’t living in an intolerant society such as Saudi Arabia or one of those other countries that had blasphemy laws. Today I worry that someone will find my teenage ramblings in some corner of cyberspace and promptly murder me in cold blood.

Avijit has not been the first, nor the last, in this rampage against secularist voices. In 2013, Rajib Halder, a blogger tied to the Gonojagoron Mancha (National Awakening Platform) was killed by similar machete wielding assailants. The Gonojagoron Mancha had been calling for the banning of the Jamaat-E Islami, the largest Islamic political party. Since Avijit’s death, at least three more bloggers, Oyasiqur, Ananta Bijoy and Niloy Neel, have been murdered in similar fashion. The latest was an attack on Avijit’s schoolmate and publisher, Faisal Arefin.

This spate of bloody murders offer a few different interpretations, but they require delving into the intricate cluster of factional, vindictive and populist politics of the country, especially its recent history, which is still by any measure a sizeable tome of information. What has struck me personally however, as a secularist, as someone who has rejected religion like these victims, is the intolerance that has been on display throughout these murders. I have always tried to understand the roots of radical Islam, the roots of fundamentalism in general and have defended against the xenophobia that is prominent in the typical Western response. “Not all Muslims” was the message splattered on my social media after the Paris attacks. “ISIS does not represent Islam” someone piped up. And I agree.

Radical Islam is not the same Islam that I saw in my country. This brand of intolerant Wahabbi Islam is not what I had seen in the mosques as a child. In fact, to speak to this, Islam in Bangladesh had never even resembled so closely the Islam of the Arab states, just as Islam in Indonesia had never resembled the Islam of the Indian subcontinent. Islam in the Bengal delta came with Sufis, many emigrating from what is today Turkey and others from Persia. Sufiism is an offshoot of Islam that is a lot more flexible, more musical in its traditions. To see that brand of tolerant, accepting Islam be replaced by this hateful breed of Wahabbi Islam is hurtful. To see it being used to silence people with differing points of views, is repulsive.

However, as nice as it may be for me to whimper about a tolerant, cultural religion that I witnessed, the reality is that there are militants in Bangladesh hunting down secular and atheist writers and bloggers. The murder of two foreigners, a Japanese and an Italian, over the last few months has brought to question that these assailants, who have claimed ties to Al Qaeda and ISIS, may soon start mobilizing against others, including Hindu and Buddhist minorities. A shootout at a Shia mosque last week is another ominous sign. In fact, the latest issue of the ISIS online publication, Dabiq, highlights Bangladesh as the next hotspot of ISIS activity.

But while these elaborate, intricate political game of spies happens, there are still those who would dissent, who would speak out, not even just about their religious views, who must now hide for fear of losing their lives over their opinion. And isn’t that exactly what these attackers want? Regardless of my own views, no one should ever have to die for stating what they believe, or for that matter, what they don’t believe. To balk in the face of such adversity would be to concede, would be to give in to radicalisation. And it is not just secularists or atheists that must act to hold on to the ideals of secularism, it is the diverse religious communities in Bangladesh. I stand for free speech. I stand for tolerance and acceptance of all faiths. And maybe, that’s why I’m writing this article.


For further reading:

(Cover image source)

Bareesh Chowdhury (Clark ’17) is a new writer on our blog, from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Welcome, Bareesh!