June 21, 2007

The Politics of Silence

When the poet Shamsur Rahman died last summer, Jamaat-e-Islaami remained silent. It spoke volumes.

We are taught that it is the duty of every Muslim to mourn the death of another. Perhaps Jamaat did not approve of the Poet’s writings. Yet, instances of Muslims mourning the death of Muslims they had differed with in life are sprinkled throughout history. Perhaps, they had thought he was not a “true” Muslim. We are taught that Muslims do not pass judgment on the religiosity of other Muslims. That was for God alone. Yet, when the Poet died, Jamaat - that self-proclaimed champion of Islam and protector of Muslims - remained silent. They did not issue any public messages of condolences, did not attend the funeral for the television cameras to see and certainly did not see it fit to say, at the very least, that a Muslim of some note within the community had died.

This is not a polemic against Jamaat and it’s inherently anti-Islamic stance on issues and personalities relating to our Independence War. This is a short exploration on silence and its rather loud reverberations. The “political economy”, if you will, of what/who we choose to focus on when we create the little stories through which we grasp reality.

Consider the two Big Guns. Their myths about their respective Great Leaders are smeared with desert spaces whose size would scare even the redoubtable Robert Frost - in other words, with silence. No one talks of famine, of Shiraj “Crossfire” Shikder, of misallocation of precious little resources, of “from today you’re all Bangalis” or of a “constitutional” autocracy nowadays. Similarly, no one talks of rehabilitation of anti-Bangladeshi forces in the name of nationalism, of Muslim-chauvinistic elements in a multi-religious state in the name of state-building, of farcical elections or of “making politics difficult”. No one of course, except the other side. But their silence has already compromised their credibility.

And of course, neither side really wants to talk about Suhrawardy, Fazlul Haque, Bhashani, Osmani… you get the drift. Nor have any attempts been made by their governments to gather the personal stories of freedom fighters, because heaven knows, all of them surely did not fight for “nationalism” or “Islam” or “socialism and secularism” or “for our Great Leader” or “under our Great Leader”. Some merely fought to survive, for honour and self-respect and for their communities. And don’t even get me started on the silencing of women’s voices, the very women who suffered through those nine months. Or of the children who were adopted by the same Westerners that both Islamists and Marxists alike like to condemn for their “Imperialist” ways. Men, women and children - all silenced. What’s left? Two dead leaders and a bunch of people robbing us in their names.

Or think a bit more globally. Old-style communists - the few that are left anyway - always condemn “imperialism”. Yet, they consistently overlook the history of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe, as manifested in Hungary and Czekoslovakia. Once again, silence. Conversely, take the more fashionable case nowadays of one Mr. George “Dubya” Bush, who has publicly called for democracy in the Muslim world but has also publicly shaken hands with Musharraf, Mubarak and the Saudi monarchs. In other words, more silence. Islamists outside Bangladesh too practice this silence. Otherwise how can you explain the lack of sympathy when Muslim regimes oppress Muslim citizens, be they in Kurds, Kazakhs, Berbers, Rohingya refugees or Balochi warriors? Of course the one I take most personally is the silence of 1971 ...

And it’s not a recent or simply political phenomenon either. Post-modernist historians such as Said, Spivak and Bhaba have continuously pointed out how history is written from the perspective of the powerful even when written by supposedly neutral scholars. Not only does the victor write history, but s/he also gives voice to the vanquished. True, that is not the silence I’m referring to, but it leads to it. With the weakening of the vanquished voice, it becomes increasingly impossible to believe that once it was South Asia that was the more prosperous society, with a net positive balance of payments and its own functioning legal system. With disbelief comes silence, perpetuated by a thousand amnesiac PhDs as “fact” and “evidence”. That is the tragedy of silence.


Fugstar said...

the death of shamsur rahman was observed in the society, perhaps unevenly. its a matter of taste as to how far people would go in their appreciation right?

interpreting silences is very easy. the absence of a public statement is not such a big deal is it? we cant say whether or not any JI/Ummahtic type visited his grave, was at his janaza.

on the other side the deaths and acheivements of 'rightist'/religiously inclined scholars and personalities are invisibilised by the other party.

eg(just one) the assasination of prof aftab in the media last year vs the attack on prof azad previously.

of course theres places where the hurt is felt differently.

i want to write more but im about to miss juma by a mile

asif said...


You really can't have it both ways. The other party cannot be accused of "invisiblising" while Jamaat was simply being "private" and marking the occasion "unevenly". Either they are both guilty of "silence" or they are not. Pick.