While most Bangladeshis are secular, a large minority is inclined towards Islamic fundamentalism. Hence Sufism, a doctrine of universal love at a time of hate, is important
Shahriar Kabir’s new documentary, Mithat’s Dream: The Story of a Young Dervish of Konya, comes when the world is facing a surge of fanatical extremist ideologies driving increasingly violent movements. While secular but retrograde ideas are also on the ascendant, religion-based fanatical doctrines are at the forefront of the fundamentalist resurgence. The most conspicuous of these is Wahhabi-Salafist Islamic fundamentalism, with its medieval social, cultural and political agenda, which has spawned organisations like the Taliban and the Islamic State and unleashed savage violence in many parts of the world.
Bangladesh is one of the affected countries. Sheikh Hasina has successfully countered the terrorism and lawlessness associated with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, underlined by the mass killing at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1, 2016. That, however, is one part of the response needed. The other is countering its ideological challenge, which continues in Bangladesh where a number of organisations preach the Wahhabi-Salafist creed.
A significant section of Bangladesh’s population is receptive to their preaching. Two questions arise here. What kind of people want to lead fanatical mass movements? What kind of people join these? In The Fear of Freedom (aka Escape from Freedom), Erich Fromm attributes the phenomena to sadism and masochism. According to him, one is a part of one’s mother’s world in early infancy and is wrapped in the cocoon of security it provides. As one grows out of it and faces the wider world on one’s own, physical, emotional and mental developments lead to the emergence of “an organised structure guided by the individual’s will and reason….one side of this growing process of individuation is the growth of self-strength.” The other side is an increasing feeling of aloneness which leads to a growing feeling of insecurity as one faces on one’s own the world with “all its perilous and over-powering aspects.”
According to Fromm, the way to overcome this feeling of loneliness and insecurity “is to relate spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of one’s emotional, sensuous and intellectual capacities.” Not many are able to do this. They seek security in sadistic domination and/or masochistic submission. According to Fromm, “All the different forms of sadism go back to one simple impulse, namely, to have complete mastery over another person, to make him a helpless object of our will, to become the absolute ruler over him, to become his God, to do with him as one pleases.” Fromm further writes, “the annihilation of the individual self and the attempt to overcome thereby the unbearable feeling of powerlessness are only one side of masochistic strivings. The other side is the attempt to become a part of a bigger and more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it. This power can be a person or an institution, God, the nation, conscience or a psychic compulsion. By surrendering, one loses one’s strength and integrity as an individual and freedom but one gets a new security and new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges.”
Fromm points out that both sadistic and masochistic tendencies can be present in the same person. Both facilitate the rise of fundamentalist and totalitarian mass movements—-the former by inclining people to dominate others and exercise total control over the movements and their followers and the latter by inducing submission. Bangladesh is haunted by memories of genocide and mass rape unleashed by the Pakistan Army during the 1971 liberation war, the repression unleashed by the military dictatorships and civilian regimes fronting for the Army that ruled between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975 and Sheikh Hasina’s first innings in power (1996-2001), and the largescale fundamentalist violence witnessed when the coalition government between Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, which Begum Khaleda Zia headed from 2001 to 2006, was in power. The feeling of collective insecurity born of all this is compounded by other factors like poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters.
The military dictatorships and the BNP-led governments had suppressed all references to Sheikh Mujib’s and the Awami League’s role during the liberation war, amended the 1972 constitution, destroying its secular character and actively promoted fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat. As a result, while the majority in Bangladesh remain secular and tolerant, a large minority is now inclined toward Islamic fundamentalism and the violence and terror it spawns.
On the ideological plane, this trend has to be fought by projecting the idea of a secular Bangladesh and liberal and moderate face of Islam. Hence the importance of Sufism with its message of universal love. Shahriar Kabir, along with executive producer Kasi Mukul, help to bring this message to the fore through Mithat’s Dream: The Story of a Young Dervish of Konya, an audio-visual narrative that transcends the frontiers of an individual’s life and focusses on the ethos and doctrinal contours of the faith. Their effort is particularly relevant in the case of Bangladesh which has a strong Sufi tradition since the time of Hazrat Shah Jalal. A disciple of one of the greatest exponents of Sufism, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-2073), he travelled to what is now Bangladesh in 1303 and settled down in Sylhet. The film needs to be widely viewed.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)