| Finding a voice
The fictional Hossain Miya’s promise of an island without either masjid or mandir in Manik Bandopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi — which the theatre group, Pratikriti, staged with great verve last Sunday — should have a special resonance for his real-life co-religionists. Their ambivalence about terrorism is highlighted by General Shaukat Sultan’s sanctuary offer to Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, if they live as “peaceful citizens” in the Waziristan mountains.
Although Bandopadhyay’s novel was written seventy years ago, Aloke Deb’s script and direction make it a contemporary essay in humanity transcending barriers of denomination. It peals a message of hope at a critical juncture in communal relations. The Vande Mataram controversy climaxed on Wednesday. Monday marks the anniversary of the day that changed the world. Reports suggest that the peril might be shifting to Bengal, which the chaos of the approaching puja threatens to engulf, from the land the Padma waters.
Even if Pakistan’s military spokesman was misquoted — as Islamabad claims but the taped interview indicates otherwise — opinion polls show that 53 per cent of Pakistanis regard Osama as a “world leader” against 41 per cent three years ago. Muslims elsewhere may be less blatant, but still, no king, president, prime minister or community leader condemns outright the violence that savaged India and Russia long before erupting in the United States of America, Spain, Indonesia and Britain. Had they done so, people would have responded with greater sympathy to poll findings of discrimination that prompted a kindly Manmohan Singh to urge people to remember that Muslims “nurse a strong grievance of not having been an active participant and beneficiary of processes of social and economic development”.
Islamic ambivalence plays into the hands of Americans who still carefully avoid language that might brand Muslims as the worldwide enemy. The Afghan operation’s name was changed from Infinite Justice to Enduring Freedom because Infinite Justice might appear to impinge on Allah’s exclusive prerogative. Similarly, George W. Bush retracted the word, “crusade”, when Muslims bristled at the reminder of Christendom’s repeated attacks on Islamic Palestine.
Notwithstanding the calumny Bush invites, and despite the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA interrogation centres, he does try to make out that the US is not engaged in a clash of religions but in “the great ideological struggle of the 21st century” between good and evil. His September 6 speech avoided any reference to Islam.
But Azzam the American’s latest broadcast was an uncompromising call to jihad. His rhetoric was very different from that of Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old British-Pakistani suicide bomber who perished on July 7 last year. Shehzad’s posthumously released video warned Western governments of more attacks “until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq”. He did not invoke religion but an anti-imperialist cause that enjoys support across a wide swathe of independent opinion in Asia, Europe and even, perhaps, America. But the gauntlet that the Californian convert flung down ordered his fellow Americans similarly to convert or face destruction in this world and damnation in the next.
The White House dismissed Azzam’s ultimatum as a “twisted view of Islam which labels as enemies and infidels those who do not have the same beliefs”. But a killer’s “Allah ho Akbar!” — a cry that chills my childhood memories of Calcutta’s 1946 riots — rang out almost simultaneously when another Islamic fanatic sprayed a British tourist group in Amman with bullets.
Azzam clearly signalled a fight to the finish between Muslims and Crusaders, with whom he lumped Zionists (Jews) and Infidels (Hindus). It was a declaration of war on the rest of humanity by 20 per cent of the global population. Innocent, law-abiding Muslims everywhere will immediately recoil from the notion of such a confrontation. Not only are they entitled to deny the role of holy warrior that al Qaida seeks to force on them, but they have a duty — as much to the world as to themselves — to reject it. The prime minister rightly pleads that all Muslims should not be tarred with the terrorist brush; but Muslims alone can, and must, ensure that this doesn’t happen by vigorously voicing their opposition to international jihad.
Their silence causes dismay, stokes suspicion and gives a handle to other zealots. The leaders of British Islam were outraged over Shehzad’s video, seeming more offended by this spotlight on a criminal than by the crime itself. One understandable concern was that the dead boy’s parents would be “devastated” to see their son on the screen. Another was that by reopening old wounds, it would encourage a white backlash. A spokesman claimed that Muslims had already “been very badly affected” and that reminders of the explosions would “just make life even more difficult, with all the media attention and the rest of the community pointing the finger, which is not justified”. Some also acknowledged that seeing Shehzad preach his gospel on the telly might incite other young recalcitrants to copy him. But in the main, the British Muslim reaction to one of their number boasting of the lives he had taken, justifying the bloodshed and threatening more, was that Muslims were being victimized.
It was almost as if all memory of the crime had to be expunged so that it might seem as if it had never been committed. This curious logic has drawn little public comment in Britain where political correctness means bending over backwards to such an extent that a new “inter-faith” surgical gown like a burqa has just been invented for Muslim patients. But despite reports of stray incidents, the feared backlash did not materialize. However, a recent YouGov survey did show that 53 per cent of Britons think that “Islam poses a threat to Western liberal democracy”. And this feeling has undoubtedly encouraged ethnic profiling and a suspiciousness on the part of the police that was previously reserved only for young Afro-Caribbean males.
When a Malaga-Manchester flight offloaded two Asian students whom white passengers regarded as suspect, Britain’s Independent newspaper called it “nothing less than mob rule”. Six British Muslim members of parliament, including three peers, claim that current policy “risks putting civilians at increased risk”. Others complain that beards, caps, veils, languages like Urdu and Arabic, and even brown skins are becoming synonymous with terrorism. Shabnam Hashim, spokesperson for the Indian organization, Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, fears a “calculated systematic demonization of Muslims.”
Even Hossain Miya, played to perfection by Satyapriya Sarkar, can be demonized for urging beleaguered fisherfolk to resettle on his island in the sun. Beard, cap and lungi make him the archetypal Muslim rustic, but the style and quality of his apparel highlight the wealth he has acquired since arriving from Noakhali in just a lungi. The chowkidar in constant attendance proclaims his power with a reach that extends to Calcutta and Dacca. His insistence on the thumbprints of beneficiaries reveals the caution of an operator who finances good works with a little trade in opium on the side. His benevolence could be enigmatic. Since this is not a review, I will not mention Gautam Ghosh’s better-known film or other cast members in Pratikriti’s engaging production. Readers must discover those delights for themselves.
But Padma Nadir Majhi is not just another effloresence of Bengal’s unending romance with the river. The many levels at which the parable operates belies contemporary versions of the Muslim plight and of Muslim interaction with people of other faiths. What remains ultimately is a Muslim’s utopia of Moyna Dweep where men of all creeds eat, work and live together.
Moyna Dweep is a state of mind. It is a vision that rebuts the widely-held belief that while all Muslims may not be terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim. If that is a lie, Muslims alone can nail it as Sarkar’s Hossain Miya does. He shows the path to sanity at a time of mounting distress.