The agonies of Bangladesh (and British ‘Islamo-fascist-left’ conspiracy theory)

Ben Hayes responds to Nick Cohen's call for the left to 'pick sides' over the Shahbag protests in Bangladesh

February 22, 2013
6 min read

Photo: Rajiv Ashrafi/Flickr

I gave up buying the Observer for the same reasons Nick Cohen gave up on the left: the Iraq war, which the paper championed. The joys of social media, however, mean I have kept up with the lengths to which he goes to promote his ‘What’s Left?’ thesis. In case you missed it, said thesis derives from a refusal to accept the left’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq and other ‘liberal interventions’, which persuaded him that by implication (and via some ‘useful idiots’) the entire left has lost the plot and tacitly supported/supports Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Hamas, suicide bombers, Colonel Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and so on. While he has made many perfectly reasonable arguments about the need for opponents of imperialism and injustice to apply the same standards to dictators and repressive regimes, the subtext is always the (neo-con) righteousness of war against ‘militant Islam’, which he equates with fascism.

His latest Observer column, ‘The agonies of Bangladesh come to London’, broke new ground in terms of dedication to this cause. The crux of its argument is as follows: (1) secular, Tahrir Square-type demonstrations are currently taking place in Shahbag junction in Bangladesh, inspired by a flawed trial for war crimes of members of Jamaat-e-Islami (an organisation that participated in the Pakistan army’s horrific atrocities against the uprisings that led to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971); (2) a solidarity demonstration in east London was attacked by stone-throwers on 9 February, allegedly by people sympathetic to Jamaat; (3) the attackers are allegedly connected to a mosque whose establishment has been supported by people on the ‘scoundrel left’, which supports Bangladeshi ‘Islamic extremists’; (4) multiculturalism ‘can’t be liberal’ because it allows Islamic extremism to flourish; (5) it’s 1936 all over again and the left is on the wrong side of history: both in Dhaka and London, liberals must ‘pick sides’.

So let’s take the Pepsi Challenge. At face value, #Shahbag is the latest incarnation of a wave of protests that have swept the world since Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square – it has already been branded a ‘Bengal Spring’. Young, liberal, tech-savvy Bangladeshis have occupied Dhaka and refuse to go home until their demands are met; the protests have spread throughout the country. So we’re on their side, right? Of course, except that a large, youthful demonstration does not a Tahrir Square make. Tahrir was primarily about democracy and revolution; Shahbag is first and foremost about vengeance and demands for the death penalty for convicted war criminals. Not an easy one for us liberals, as Nick points out.

But surely we can fall in line behind the Shahbag demands to expunge Jamaat-e-Islami – the ‘Islamo-fascists’ – from Bangladeshi public life. Sure, except that the Shahbag protests are not simply or even expressly anti-‘Islamist’ (a concept that is far easier to reconcile at Harry’s Place than in Bangladesh itself, which is of course an overwhelmingly Muslim country); they are against ‘Razakars‘, collaborators and war criminals. And they are against an entire generation of corrupt politicians that has failed to deliver social justice and development following the country’s violent birth – or at least they might be if the ruling Awami League wasn’t backing and exploiting the protests for its own political ends.

This elicits another problem for us liberals: as recently as 1996, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was part of the Bangladeshi government, in a coalition with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). While all of the major Bangladeshi political parties are seen to harbour war criminals, the Awami League has selectively targeted JI and the BNP for ‘accountability’ in its discredited tribunals. It is of course horrifying, as Nick Cohen points out, that a prominent Shahbag blogger appears to have met his violent death at the hands of JI sympathisers, but the same organisation cannot be blamed for threats to journalists, the disappearance of opposition BNP members, deaths in police custody or extra-judicial killings. Politics may appear to have taken a back seat since the Shahbag protests erupted, but few would deny that civil war is a distinct possibility. Black and white enough for you to ‘pick sides’? What about peace and reconciliation and international law, a solution to which other liberal commentators have pointed?

We should not be deceived: only through the clarity of Nick Cohen’s righteousness can this be reduced to a simple tale of ‘liberals’ vs. ‘Islamists’ befitting a ‘clash of civilisations’. As for the ‘agony’ of ‘Bangladesh coming to London’, all these events really tell us is that diaspora communities bring their politics and their grudges with them (just like political commentators married to simplistic narratives). Using this as a stick to beat British multiculturalism is nothing but shameless politicking. The scoundrel right must be delighted in such articulate bidding.

I am grateful to Suhas Chakma for his comments on a draft of this article.

Ben Hayes is project director at Statewatch and a fellow of the Transnational Institute (Twitter @drbenhayes)

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