Of the Sheikh Up and the impossible Sheikh Off

Posted in politics by jrahman on August 17, 2011

In 2002, about a year after 9/11, October 2002,Alex Perry wrote an article in the Time magazine called ‘The cargo of death’Deadly Cargo‘.  The article alleged that in the aftermath of the ouster of Taliban, a group of hardcore Al Qaeda operatives (including Al Qaeda number 2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri) landed in Cox’s Bazaar coastChittagong, basing themselves in the Bangladeshi territory to wage jihad in South and Southeast Asia.  Within weeks of the publication, Bali was rocked by suicide bombing around the same time.

A few months later, Bertil Lintner wrote a coverstory for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review titled ‘Bangladesh: a cocoon of terror’.  With a blatantly orientalist image of Tungi’s Bishwa Ijtema as a visual aid, the piece argued that Bangladesh was on the verge of being taken over by the radical Islamists, and the government was either turning a blind eye, or worse, elements within the government were promoting the jihadis.  Within months of this article, Bangla Bhai and JMB appeared on the scene, followed by assassinations of Awami League leaders, and serial bomb explosions around the country.

Whether the stories written by Perry and Lintner were correct or not, by 2006, ‘Bangladesh had a jihadi problem and the BNP government was incapable of dealing with it’ became the conventional wisdom.  Even when Bangla bhai and co were captured, this image didn’t change.  It’s not that the government didn’t try.  Perry was invited back in the country, given access to RAB commanders, the then prime minister gave an interview, and lent her helicopter — Perry in fact wrote a cover story in Time in mid-2006 praising the Khaleda Zia government for turning Bangladesh around.

But reputations, once made, are hard to change.  BNP was considered incapable of dealing with the jihadi menace, and that was that.  And even if they were not 100% accurate, the Perry-Lintner articles, by describing what were about to hit Bangladesh, contributed to the reputation that BNP failed to shake.

Four recent articles in the Economist — India and Bangladesh: Embraceable You (a news report), Bangladesh looks back: misusing the past (an online blog post), The poisonous politics of Bangladesh: reversion to type (editorial), and In the name of the father (opinion essay) — are likely to similarly cement the reputation of the Awami League government, and particularly the prime minister.

These articles — very likely written by Simon Long, Tom Joehnk and Adam Roberts and/or James Astill — allege that Sheikh Hasina is becoming increasingly autocratic, settling personal scores against real and perceived opponents, using the war crimes trial as a political weapon, rewriting the constitution to rig the next election, and building a cult of personality around Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  I have been following Bangladesh for over a decade now.  Never have I seen any Bangladeshi leader receive such sharp personal criticism.  Whatever factual accuracies of each specific point, collectively, the extremely unflattering image the prime minister acquires will be hard, if not impossible, to shake off.

Meanwhile, the articles have definitely led to a shake up among the Dhaka chateratti.  From usually sensible Afsan Chowdhury to reliably nonsensical Syed Badrul Ahsan have taken shots at the Economist.  But so far, most of them either seem to miss the big picture, or are written on the basis of fantastical conspiracy theories.

This is an attempt to cover some points that I haven’t seen made elsewhere.

Consider the kind of articles that were written about Bangladesh in the western press a year or two ago — Nick Kristof : Bangladesh does better than Pakistan by educating girls, Amy Kazmin: Bangladesh shrugging off the global recession, Sadanand Dhume: Bangladesh as a role model for the Muslim world.

The imperialist west has it in for Bangladesh?  Obviously Kristof-Kazmin-Dhume didn’t get the memo.  Never mind that the Economist and Financial Times are sister concerns, and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journals are ideological rivals.  The notion that western media outlets to the bidding of their respective foreign ministries and governments is simply idiotic.

It is possible to quibble over the details of Perry-Lintner, Kristof-Kazmin-Dhume, and the Long-Joehnk-Astill accounts of Bangladesh.  And that kind of pedantry has its benefits.  But if we only focus on the details, we will miss the forest for the trees.

And the forest, the big picture meta point, is that each of these narratives capture the way things are (were) in Bangladesh.  Bangladesh did seem to be at risk of Islamist violence, and the BNP government was callous about it (if not complicit in it).  Similarly, Bangladesh has been doing great economically, even as Hasina becomes increasingly autocratic and builds a cult of personality around Sheikh Mujib.

So pedantry aside, what are the other questions we should ask.

A simple question is why the foreign journalists write what they write.  Most journalists are motivated by the desire to ‘be the one to call it right’ — whatever ‘it’ might be.

That then raises the the question why all of a sudden Bangladesh is ‘it’.  Why this heightened interest in Bangladesh?

My theory is that Bangladesh is, indeed, doing well economically, attracting attention.  But if Dhume has already written on the positive sides of Bangladesh, Joehnk has to cover something else.

Now, how do journalists find their stories?  They talk to people.  And is there any doubt that the Dhakaiyas sharing beer with foreign journalists will fret about Hasina’s increasing heavy handedness?  Is there any doubt that the Anglophone chateratti will complain about the way Yunus was treated?  Anyone not seeing the cult of personality being built in Dhaka has surely been brainwashed into the cult, and even foreign journalists can see that!

The question then is, what will these articles and the hit to image lead to?

The government reactions notwithstanding, I think the prime minister is very conscious about her actions, and the hit to her reputation.  I have always maintained that Sheikh Hasina is an exceptionally able politician — you don’t increase your vote share 5 elections in a row otherwise.  The notion that she is blinded by personal vendetta is, I find, a tad bit simplistic.  In fact, I contend that she was perfectly aware of the consequences such as a western backlash when she took on Yunus — she is, I believe, much smarter than many of her acolytes.

Of course, there are personal issues.  For one thing, the fact that so very few people dared to help her in her darkest hour must gnaw away at the deep of her mind — she wouldn’t be human otherwise.

But more importantly, seen from her perspective, a cult of personality around Mujib makes perfect sense.  She saw what happened to the party in the 1970s.  She saw what the petty, squabling leaders were up to in 2007.  If she is to save the party, what is a better way than to appeal to the emotional bond of Mujib?

As the generations that lived through the Mujib era depart, hagiography can only help her partisan needs.  Ultimately, whether her government will survive beyond 2013 will depend on the establishment’s hard-headed calculations.

The real significance of these articles may be that the establishment is souring on AL to a degree that the prime minister didn’t factor in.

If any Awami leaning reader finds that thought worrying, and if any BNPwallah is cheerful about these articles, then I urge you to read them carefully again.  For all the stinging rebuke of Sheikh Hasina, the Economist is hardly supportive of BNP — its leaders are terrible, corrupt people, who are still widely unpopular.

And to the extent that these articles reflect the urban bhadraloks’ view of BNP, it’s not hard to understand where the views come from.  Never mind the massacre in 1975.  When the entire country was grief-stricken after Saturday’s shocking accident, Khaleda Zia saw it fit to cut a 67kg birthday cake, with the presence of the supposedly moderate leaders like Mirza Alamgir, MK Anwar and Sadeq Hossain Khoka.  If that is not cluelessness, then the word has no meaning.


4 Responses

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  1. Udayan said, on August 17, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    “Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by bags of Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh …” July 30th 2011

    “THE election of December 2008 seemed to mark a watershed for Bangladesh. In the fairest poll in the country’s four-decade history, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina (pictured), swept to power …” – August 13th 2011

    Were these written by the same person, do you think?

  2. Rumi said, on August 18, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Few points,

    1. The title of Alex Perry fantassy was ‘deadly cargo” .,9171,364423-1,00.html
    2. We tend to miss another big forest. This is the 15th amendment. It is like 4th amendment. An unbelievable backward move. As serious an attack to democracy, freedom, as serious a stab on the back of the nation. You don’t understand the enormity of total destruction if you are within the zone of devastation, it needs a removed remote asessment to get a better view of the total devastation. It took a couple of years for the folks in Bangladesh to understand what 4th amendment really meant, similarly it takes a emotionally removed foreigner to see the devastation caused by 15th amendment. I feel this clearer vision makes the Economist throw the warning shots about Bangladesh. Its partly about 15th amendment, its party about changing minds of affluent Dhakaites.

  3. jrahman said, on August 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Rumi bhai, thanks for the link. The post has been updated accordingly. The point about being able to see the big picture from a distance is very valid, of course.

    Udayan, even if they were not written by the same person, they were approved by the same editor — this much we can be sure of. And the two statements are not as contradictory as one might think.

    I’m somewhat amused that people are taking the ‘bags of Indian cash’ literally. The image of Indian High Commission people carrying jute bags (tholi) full of wads of cash is somewhat less fantastical than Zawahiri puffing his sheesha in some comfortable Deshi mansion. We now know that while Perry’s story was wrong, Bangladesh did have serious Islamist problem, and its territory was used by extra-territorial elements. Similarly, is it a flawed assessment that AL was supported by Indian campaign advice? And even if we accept the first sentence as 100% factually accurate, that there were indeed ‘bags of cash’, how does that contradict the fairness of the poll?

    Did people go out and vote on 29 December 2008? Did the election result reflect the public mood? Speaking only about Dhaka, I can say from personal experience that the answer is ‘yes’ to both questions.

  4. The Indian Connection 2 « Mukti said, on September 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    […] we can rule out the hoi hoi time thesis.  And we have talked about the Economist elsewhere.  Let’s recap the other two speculations: Whatever transit might be worth economically, […]

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