Abdullah al-Ahsan – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 12 Apr 2021 04:37:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.6 Bangladesh was born amid Indo-Pak War in 1971 — But on 50th Anniversary, Who Owns that History? https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/bangladesh-anniversary-history.html Mon, 12 Apr 2021 04:01:00 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197181 Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – “With the Creation of Bangladesh, a Longstanding Dream of the RSS Was Achievedclaims Seshadri Chari. According to Wikipedia, Seshadri Ramanujan Chari “is a veteran swayamsevak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Chari currently serves on the National Executive Committee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and formerly served as head of the Foreign Affairs Cell at BJP headquarters.” RSS is a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that originated in the 1920s and ideologically very close to while supremacists, as one author has put it, “Trump and Modi: birds of the same feather,” The creation of Bangladesh, according to the RSS and BJP, was part of India’s nationalist agenda.

Not only for the RSS, the year 1971 was special for most Indians. “1971: The Year India Felt Good About Itself,” asserted one of the founding editors of The Wire – a well-respected Indian news and opinion website. For India “The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.” However, the feeling was not the same in Bangladesh and Pakistan. A 2019 Aljazeera article on the subject aptly observed that:

    “Close to 50 years after the war, 1971 remains poignant both at the people’s level and the state level in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. It continues to shape the lives of those who suffered and witnessed the war while also remaining central to each state’s national project. 1971 reinforces distinct narratives, emphasising liberation in Bangladesh, victory in India, and loss in Pakistan. All three countries hold on tightly to their war story and frame their images of themselves and the other through the lens of that fateful year. 1971 has left a lasting legacy across all three children of Partition.”

(Emphasis added)

1971 was the year of Bangladesh’s independence. Bangladeshis fought a nine-month long war with the then Pakistani rulers and established their independent nation. India, however, views this war as just another war against its archrival Pakistan. For Pakistan, the year 1971 was a year of disaster – the year that witnessed its dismemberment and brought disgrace. After half a century of the humiliating defeat with India, two institutions of higher education – one public and another private – both prestigious in the Pakistani context, attempted to organize a five-day conference entitled “Commemorating 50 years of the 1971 War: War, Violence and Memory” from March 23 to 27. However, according to Indian and Bangladeshi sources, the event was cancelled without any explanation. This provided the Indian and Bangladeshi sources yet with another evidence of suppression of intellectual freedom in the country. In our view, cancellation of the event is not just the suppression of scholarly discussion on the subject; for Pakistan, it is a denial of a soul-searching effort.

RSS devotee Mr. Chari wrote the article on Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of the declaration of independence highlighting BJP’s contribution to this achievement. He wrote:

According to the Organiser, “Vajpayee had welcomed Bangabandu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s historic declaration of independence and called upon the government of India to recognise the government of Bangladesh and provide necessary assistance to the freedom fighters.”

He was referring to an event of 2015 when the government of Bangladesh conferred an “Award of Liberation War Honour on Atal Bihari Vajpayee” for “his ‘active role’ in its independence struggle and consolidating friendship with India.” For me as a student of history, it is difficult to accept Mr. Chari’s claim, and this demands some reflections on some specific events at the time of Bangladesh’s independence. Did Sheikh Mujibur Rahman make the declaration of Bangladesh’s independence? No. He was arrested on the night of March 25, 1971 and was transferred to West Pakistan. Earlier, the Sheikh had led an election campaign and won landslide from East Pakistan and majority seats in Pakistan’s national assembly. He was poised to form the government in Pakistan, but the West Pakistani establishment prevented him from doing so. Some politicians ganged up with the military establishment to deny the elected representative from political power. Instead, they imposed military rule in East Pakistan. As a result, some Bengali speaking officers of the armed forces revolted and (Major) Ziaur Rahman, who later became president, declared independence of Bangladesh on March 26, 1971.

The Bangladeshi critique of the cancellation of the event in Pakistan believes that, “Although it was of no surprise that reference to genocide was missing, the unfounded narratives were a revelation to me.” By genocide, the author is perhaps referring to the indiscriminate killing of Bengali civilians by the army. Numerous authors have underscored this episode, but hardly any sound work academically describes the Pakistan side of the story. Definitely, the army killed many people and committed atrocities, but the figures have been heavily exaggerated. The story that the current Bangladeshi author conveniently forgets is the story of the killing of the Bihari community (those who migrated to former East Pakistan from the Indian state of Bihar after the creation of Pakistan) and other Urdu speaking population of East Pakistan at the time. A recently published autobiographical sketch of a former banker who lost most family members illustrate the story well. In fact, there is a direct connection between the killings of Biharis by Bengali armed groups and killings by the army. The Bihari killings started weeks earlier and in many cases, Bihari dead bodies were left open before the advancing army. If the term genocide means eliminating a specific group of people, it would apply more to the Bihari population than to Bengalis. The author thinks, “History has been murdered in Pakistan” but does not realize how partisan and distorted Bangladesh’s official version of history is!

I have not found any discussion on the cancellation of the event in the mainstream Pakistani press except for some scattered mention in the social media. One of the organizers tweeted announcing the conference and it seems, names and topics of some participants provoked reactions among certain elements that felt threatened and as a result, the conference was cancelled. However, quoting a tweet by an academic belonging to one of the organizing institutions, an Indian paper reported that, “According to Hassan Javid, a professor of politics at the university, there were concerns raised over scheduling the conference on 23 March, which was also the day when Pakistan officially adopted its first constitution and became a republic in 1956.” Why should the date provoke reaction to such a conference? In fact the date was most relevant because it this date that a Bengali leader proposed the establishment of Pakistan 80 years ago in 1940. Wouldn’t it be most pertinent asking questions such as why Bengalis demanded a separate nation while only quarter of a century ago they fought most passionately to achieve Pakistan? Were not the Bengalis at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement? Did the Bengalis enjoy their legitimate share in governing the country since independence in 1947? Weren’t these questions relevant to raise on this occasion?

One should raise a more fundamental question in this regard: How does one address the problem of narratives? Historian E.H. Carr had once suggested, “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.” However, a rational historian must go beyond nationalistic rhetoric and manipulation of facts. Rational philosopher Immanuel Kant upheld the “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” as opposed to Johann Gottfried Herder’s narrow Volk spirit oriented culture and history. Kant’s approach is more important now when fake news and disinformation activities have become normal both in white supremacist and caste-tainted media and in academia. In this context, one may mention Brussels based EU Disinfo Lab that exposed a pro-Indian network engaged in disseminating fake news mainly targeting Pakistan.

Since Pakistan has suffered most in 1971, it is in Pakistan’s interest to act immediately and effectively. The general trend in Pakistan in this regard seems blaming foreign conspirators for breaking the country, but such approach will only thwart the issue. Pakistan’s founding principles demand that Pakistani historians examine the extent of their guilt in the episode. Why did the Bengalis revolt against the state of Pakistan even though they fought tooth and nail to achieve Pakistan only a quarter of a century ago? Weren’t the Bengalis pushed to the wall? Why was the power not transferred to elected representatives following the 1970 elections? What would be the approximate number of people that Pakistan’s armed forces killed, how many civilians did the revolting Bengali elements kill? What was the extent of propaganda in the whole affair? Was the military alone responsible for this debacle? Who were the civilian political actors that ganged up with the military leadership? Why was its own Supreme Court Chief Justice’s report on the subject suppressed for decades? Why even half a century later almost half a million non-Bengalis who claim to be Pakistanis are still stranded in camps in Bangladesh? It is Pakistan’s moral responsibility to address this acute humanitarian crisis. This is a soul-searching issue for Pakistan. Moreover, as the Bangladeshi critic has pointed out, Pakistan must repair its textbooks on the subject. If it is not addressed, it will constantly haunt the Pakistani conscience.

Authorities in Bangladesh too must come up with an acceptable figure of both military and civilian casualties in the conflict. How many of them were Bengalis and how many were non-Bengalis? How many were killed by the Pakistan armed forces and how many by Bengali speaking militias? The most important question that Bangladeshi historians must answer as to why the whole nation has come under severe Indian domination after fifty years of independence while the same population fought most passionately against Hindu dominance a century ago? How has the current fascist government eliminated all opposition voices in the country? In this regard, 2009 Bangladesh’s para-military force BDR revolt is noteworthy. During this two-day mayhem, more military officers were killed than the number of military officers killed in its nine-month long war against Pakistan armed forces. It tried more than 800 soldiers for the bloody mutiny amidst reports of torture and custodial death. Was India behind this event? This question arises because following this event the current government has slowly tightened its grip on power and Indian sources suggest that following the 2009 Bangladesh mutiny, India rallied support for Hasina. Yes, the two events, 1971 war and 2009 mutiny, are comparable: One retired officer of the Bangladeshi armed forces has recently commented:

    “Nothing can cause us to forget the brutal massacre, however. Just think, we lost 47 officers during the entire nine months of the Liberation War in 1971. Between February 25 and 26 in 2009, we lost 57 gems. Some of the family members of the officers were also subjected to disgrace and ignominy. The bestiality of the perpetrators defies description, as much as the inability to react appropriately resists rational explanation.”

Yes, Bangladeshi historians must re-examine the two events and find rational explanation for both events, because one may find Indian connection in both. There are evidences of Indian infiltrators in 1971 participating in provoking Bengalis in killing Biharis and leaving dead bodies in front of the advancing army.

It is also noteworthy that after coming to power with Indian support the current government in Bangladesh has been crushing the opposition since 2009. It first targeted those who supported united Pakistan idea in 1971 and then started politics of abduction and disappearance against all opposing voices. The US State Department has just released its 2020 country report with a long list of crimes. Historians of Bangladesh need to address these questions and Bangladesh too needs to incorporate them in textbooks in order to establish itself on a solid ground.

India also needs to conduct some soul-searching on its “achievements” of 1971. It is not only the BJP; the Indian National Congress leaders too hardly accepted the establishment of Pakistan. Indian nationalist leaders have always blamed Pakistan’s founding fathers Iqbal and Jinnah for diving the British India, but they never realized that their caste-ridden mindset will eventually compromise human dignity and thus real democratic value and that is why they seemed to have felt that there was no other alternative for British Indian Muslims but to have a separate nation. Indian leaders have conveniently forgotten that benevolent Jinnah got B R Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, elected to the Indian Constituent Assembly in 1946 through Bengal Muslim League. Jinnah wanted well for India, but Indian leaders continued with their conspiracy to break up Pakistan. They trapped Pakistan and unfortunately Pakistani leaders continued to fall into those traps. However, after half a century since 1971, the situation has changed. India has fallen into its own trap: the Hindutva ideology now has already isolated minority Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians – in fact, all minorities from political participation. In Pakistan, military dictators suppressed dissent opinion and minorities and in India Hitler-style, democratic forces are performing the same job. If India continues to pursue the same scheme, it will soon impact the mainstream and India will encounter the same fate as did Pakistan in 1971.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

New look for Bangladesh 50th anniversary of independence

Turkey Turned the Hagia Sophia back into a Mosque: Is it Consistent with Muslim Values, the Dialogue of Civilizations? https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/consistent-dialogue-civilizations.html Wed, 22 Jul 2020 04:04:35 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192160 (Special to Informed Comment) – Debates are currently going on regarding the destiny of the Hagia Sophia (literally “Divine Wisdom”, the sixth-century cathedral built by Eastern Roman emperor Justinian) in Istanbul. President Erdogan made a kicked off this dispute with his declaration a few days ago allowing Muslims to pray at the venue. This wide-ranging debate is a positive development because it raises important issues that relate not just to the Turkish government and society and the Eastern Orthodox Church; it concerns civilizational relationships – a phenomenon that dominates politics and international relations today. Many thought provoking ideas have emerged both at popular and academic circles on the subject. I think it is important that we engage in this exercise and try to get the best out of it.

People with different orientations are responding to this announcement differently. Some are reacting against modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1935 decision to convert the facility to a museum. Many from this same group of people seem to be concerned about the honor and respect for Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, who took Constantinople in 1453, who is reported to have been praised in the hadith that predicted the liberation of Constantinople. Another group appears to be motivated by Turkey’s glorious past and for them the Sultan had made significant contribution to build Turkey’s global image and any action that undermines Sultan Mehmet’s legacy would harm this image. Meanwhile the Turkish apex court has come forward with a judgement that the 1935 decision to change the status from a place of worship to a museum as illegal and therefore returning the facility to worshipers would be the only right action to take.

Our question here, however, is whether the Sultan made a mistake by converting the functioning church to a mosque and whether we must – the later generations – approve all actions of our heroes irrespective of their validity and consequences. In my humble opinion, it was a mistake on the part of the Sultan to convert the venue to a mosque. In this context, one must keep in mind that committing mistakes is human and our father Prophet Adam (on whom be peace) committed a mistake in the beginning of human history. In the current milieu, one should remember an event during the liberation of Makkah under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Following the liberation ‘Abbas, the prophet’s uncle, demanded the key of the Ka‘ba from the clan Bani ‘Abd ad-Dar who were not yet Muslim. The Prophet granted the request. Immediately the Prophet received the verse “Allah commands you to deliver trusts to those worthy of them; and when you judge between people, judge with justice. Excellent is the admonition Allah gives you. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing (4: 58).” The Prophet understood the implication and instantaneously returned the key back to ‘Uthman ibn Abi Talha and his cousin Shaybah ibn ‘Uthman, the two representative figures of Bani ‘Abd ad-Dar. The rationale behind this act seems to have been that the clan was traditionally maintaining the trust of the people with the key and had been providing the necessary services to pilgrims, and therefore there was no need to deprive them of the charge. The Prophet received guidance from the Creator because he was in direct touch with Him, but for followers the mechanism is, as has been suggested in the Qur’an, is to counsel one another (103: 3). Therefore, the followers of the Qur’an must analyze ideas and events to counsel and correct one another’s mistake even though centuries might have passed.

One should also look at the prophetic teachings about treatment of non-Muslims. The Prophet in his covenant with the Christians of Najran pledged: “I commit myself to support them, to place their persons under my protection, as well as their churches, chapels, oratories, the monasteries of their monks, the residences of their anchorites, wherever they are found, … Nor is it permitted to destroy any part of their churches, to take parts of their buildings to construct mosques or the homes of Muslims.” He extended similar covenant to other Christian communities living in other areas of Arabia. Following the prophetic tradition the second caliph ‘Umar (may God be pleased with him) extended similar pledge to non-Muslim communities in Jerusalem when it came under Muslim rule.

Ideally, Sultan Mehmet II should have extended similar treaty to the Orthodox Church when he liberated Constantinople in 1453, but circumstances at the time were different. Indeed the Sultan seems to have taken the action in accordance to demands of his time. Muslim places of worship at the time were being confiscated and converted to churches and other miscellaneous treatments in the Iberian Peninsula. In addition, one should note that at this time there was no Muslim places of worship in Istanbul. The Fatih Sultan Mehmed Mosque which is located about four kilometer away from Hagia Sophia, came about decade and a half later, the Suleymaniye mosque, which is over three kilometer away, came more than a century later. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque next door to Hagia Sophia was founded in 1617, more than century and a half later. Therefore, there was a genuine need for Muslim place of worship in the city. However, circumstances have changed in the 21st century, no mosque is being converted to church in Spain these days, and the need for prayer space for Muslims in Istanbul does not apply any more. In fact, churches in many western countries have now opened their doors to Muslims for worship. Therefore, it is only proper for the Turkish government to reconsider the whole situation in the light of changed circumstances.

Questions are being raised about the legal implications of wars of conquest – what happens when wars end – how should victorious parties treat defeated parties? What happens to properties of the subjugated? Should one treat places of worship differently from other properties? Some apologetics have come forward with a document suggesting that the Sultan purchased the property where Hagia Sophia is located from priests who were responsible for it. Argument has also been put forward that the venue was vandalized by Catholics in one of the Crusades and was not being used for religious purposes when the Sultan liberated the city, and therefore the Sultan was absolutely justified to restore the facility to a place of worship. However, in our view, Hagia Sophia should not be compared with any normal place of worship. In fact, the abode is reported to have been a place of worship for centuries before the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had built what he called Hagia Sophia or the House of Divine Wisdom. One should ignore occasional lawlessness in such places. Could we not maintain the same status for which it was built? If the Prophet of God could afford to trust a non-Muslim clan to administer the key to the Ka’ba, who are we to deny key to the house of Divine Wisdom to its original holder? However, handing over Hagia Sophia to the Orthodox Church could happen only in an ideal world and we hardly live in an ideal realm.

In a world mired by the clash of civilizations thesis, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) seems to be a good platform to initiate any such discussion. In order to reduce world tension the Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero called for an alliance of civilizations at the United Nations General Assembly in 2004 and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came forward to co-sponsor it. Although the institution began its journey for conflict resolution in 2005 with the blessings of the UN Secretary General with a lot of enthusiasm, with the passage of time it seems to have lost excitement. In an atmosphere of nation-state sovereignty, it is always difficult for international organizations such as UNAOC to make an impact in international politics. This is particularly true for nations such as Spain and Turkey, which do not have veto power in the United Nation Security Council. Yet for Spain and Turkey to come forward in order to address a crisis created in the name of clash of civilizations. Keeping in view Spain’s past record, it was a great gesture on the part of the Spanish government to come forward not only with the proposal of an alliance of civilizations, Spain also withdrew its troops from Iraq at a time when many Muslims had become victim of the so-called War on Terror. Perhaps that is why Turkey came forward to co-sponsor the Spanish proposal. However, circumstances have changed over the past decade or so. Mr. Zapatero is no more in power and Spain does not seem to be following the alliance of civilizations agenda actively any more.

If the Turkish people were to be convinced in returning Hagia Sophia to Christians, they would like to see the return of mosques that were converted to churches and other facilities in the 14th and 15th centuries in Spain back to Muslim hands. In other words, both Spain and the Catholic Church will have to revise their history and correct their mistakes. Pope Francis has expressed his “pain” and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has expressed that he has been “saddened and shaken” at Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia but, in our opinion, both must do more to earn respect and trust of Muslims. The UNESCO too must do more to help Muslims regain their civilizational heritage in Spain. As for the government in Turkey, it too does not seem to enjoy the same higher moral ground that it had enjoyed in 2005 to impress the Spanish government. Mr. Erdogan’s AK Party has slowly centralized power through a new presidential system. In addition, the cordial relationship Turkey had developed with neighboring countries, particularly with Greece and Armenia during first decade in power, does not seem to be continuing any more. These are not good signs for gaining trust either nationally or internationally.

In our view, Hagia Sophia issue has the potential to not only revive the moribund institution and rekindle its mission and vision; it has the potential to generate trust among all world civilizations. It is always difficult to relate ideals with realities. The Hagia Sophia issue principally demands spiritual consideration. Both political and religious leaders should put their hands on their heart and think what Mawlana Rumi would have done in this situation. My faith tells me that not only Rumi, Sultan Mehmed II too would now have been pleased if a decision on the matter were made based on Divine Wisdom.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBC News: “Turkey’s Hagia Sophia turned back into a mosque, causing a divide”

The Coronavirus and Geo-Politics: Trump’s Xenophobia and Weapons of the Weak https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/coronavirus-xenophobia-weak.html Sat, 02 May 2020 04:01:04 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190641 Istanbul (Special to Informed Comment) – The coronavirus pandemic is not over yet and anyone hardly knows when and how it will end, but many observers of international affairs are already expressing their views on the subject. The current situation is very worrisome and everyone wants to get out of it as soon as possible. Therefore, most professionals feel the impulse to participate in this discussion. Although there is a consensus that the world will be different in post-coronavirus atmosphere, there are sharp disagreements on the nature of those states of affairs. “Global trade will partly recover, but more of it will be managed by governments rather than markets,” says Richard Haas, president of the Council of Foreign Relations. He also believes that, “Civil liberties will be treated by many as a casualty of war,” and “Ideally, the crisis would bring renewed commitment to building a more robust international order.” Stephen Walt, a Harvard academic, thinks that since the 1918 “influenza did not change the big power rivalry;” this pandemic too will “strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism.”

Another establishment strongman Henry Kissinger, a former US national security adviser who is famously reported to have said, “Depopulation should be the highest priority of US foreign policy towards the Third World,” believes that, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order.” On the political front the French President Macron has said, “Many things that we thought were impossible are happening.” So, what should we expect in the post coronavirus world? “The day after when we have won, it will not be a return to the day before, we will be stronger morally,” Macron claimed. Really? Wouldn’t it be foolish to believe that one will come out strong when one does not even know what is happening? We need to examine possible scenarios in post-coronavirus world. Honestly, since no one knows when this pandemic will end and how it will end, it is almost impossible to expect what to expect at the end of the tunnel. Yet ignoring such enterprise will not serve the purpose of studying history. Such studies, however in our view, one should take in a broader perspective of history.

Parallels in History

The closest parallel to the current pandemic, in our view, are the 14th century Black Death and 6th the century Justinian Plague. Referring to an earlier similar world crisis, one history textbook – Worlds Together Worlds Apart – records, “people who had enjoyed prosperity and good government for centuries now lived in utter disbelief that the world had been turned upside down and that the wicked triumphed over the virtuous.” Interestingly, both the Justinian Plague and the Black Death, according to historians, originated in China, and resulted in millions of death all over the world. The first lesson that one derives from these two experiences is that it will be a mistake to expect that the crisis will be over in weeks or months. Some of the earlier epidemics lasted for years with aftershocks for decades and sometimes even close to a century! One of the aftershocks the current pandemic is already happening – the economic depression. Literally millions are lining up for unemployment benefit. It may soon lead to a food crisis. Economic depressions following pandemics are not new phenomena, however. We know very little about developments following the Justinian Plague, but historians generally hold the view that the Black Death actually created opportunities for Europe’s poorest people.” According to one author “The end of feudalism, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and the rise of the middle class all occurred in the wake of the Black Death.” Therefore, if we are interested in learning from history, then we must try to empower the poor and the middle class. Are the rescue packages that are being declared by various governments directed toward empowering the poor or like 2008, these are only attempts to save large corporations? I am sure; the current lockdown has provided us with the opportunity to contemplate.

One Forbes article claims that, “As the ripple of COVID-19 careens around the globe, it’s forcing humankind to innovate and change the way we work and live.” The articles makes nine future predictions – all technical – none philosophical or even structural. Will we learn from the Black Death experience? As noted above, our intellectual and political leaders would like to see stronger nationalist governments in post coronavirus world, but isn’t our current situation very similar to pre-14th century Europe? Aren’t certain elites manipulating both authoritarian and democratic regimes? Aren’t states trying to out-smart one another? In this connection, what comes to my mind is the story of Israeli spy agencies stealing coronavirus testing kits destined for another nation. Last March Israeli Mossad was reported to have “obtained coronavirus testing kits for the country,” for which the spy agency received messages of appreciation both from the Prime Minister’s office and from the director general of Health Ministry for acquiring “required and vital equipment from abroad to help with the coronavirus crisis.” Israeli media also reported that, “the Mossad haul included 100,000 kits procured from Gulf Arab states that do not formally recognise Israel but which have pursued low-level coordination on regional security challenges such as Iran.” The implication is that, since the country for which the goods were destined doesn’t recognize Israel, Israel had every right to “acquire” the equipment. I fail to understand how this conduct is any different from those of pre-14th century European feudal lords.

Are we more Civilized than pre-Renaissance Europe?

We ask this question because scholars have observed progress of Western civilization differently. While sociologist Robert Nisbet in his 1980 publication has expressed skepticism regarding Western progress, cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker in his Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018) claimed that “the Enlightenment, science, reason, humanism, and progress, keep improving our world until today, making it a better place day by day.” Are we really making progress based on reason, science and humanism? On the eve of the last New Year’s Day, Pinker further supported his thesis with some statistical information that, “Though civil wars persist, the overall rate of deaths in wars of all kinds plunged a hundredfold between 1950 and 2005, from 22 per 100,000 people per year to 0.2. After rising to 1.5 in 2014 during the horrific Syrian civil war, it halved to 0.7 in 2018.” However, I fail to understand how Pinker could ignore almost half a million dead and millions more wounded and displaced in Afghanistan and Iraq during the early years of 2000s. Even if one considers these numbers simply as collateral damage, how can one disregard abusive behavior that came with this? However, on human casualties Pinker has a cautious remark – “pandemics that could hop continents and cyber-sabotage that could bring down the internet” in 2020s, but “safeguards for such possibilities have worked so far, which “must be strengthened.” Will the strengthening of safeguards ensure our civilizational progress? I am not sure whether Pinker would hold on to his thesis in view of the developments since the beginning of the year, could we still assert that we are still walking along the Renaissance humanism. In fact, an in-depth analysis may demonstrate that the current situation could be worse than that of pre-Renaissance Europe.

We are all familiar with what nationalism brought to us during the first half of the 20th century. Witnessing developments in pre-WW1 Europe, Oswald Spengler came up with his The Decline of the West thesis. Historian Arnold Toynbee then followed the same approach, studied 26 different world civilizations, and concluded that:

If there was any validity in the writer’s procedure of drawing comparisons between Hellenic history and Western, it would seem to follow that the Western society must, at any rate, be not immune from the possibility of a similar fate; and, when the writer, on passing to his wider studies, found that a clear majority of his assemblage of civilizations were already dead, he was bound to infer that death was indeed a possibility confronting every civilization, including his own.

We all are aware of the failure of the League of Nations in preventing the WW2 happen. Isn’t the performance of the United Nations much worse than that of the League of Nations? Some UN member nation-states are nakedly using the concept of national sovereignty to suppress dissent voices as evidenced in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Should one accept civil liberty just as a consequential casualty of reinforced nationalism when one reads reports of healthcare workers in many countries being punished only for highlighting fact that their governments were lying about providing them with adequate necessary kits for treating infected patients? Could we still call ourselves civilized! If the current situation doesn’t lead us to contemplate and looking for its causes and remedies, I don’t know what will!

Why do Pandemics Happen?

Contemplation on possible causes of the current pandemic! Our current knowledge of natural sciences seem to have failed the test of finding the origin of what President Macron calls “an invisible” enemy. As a student of humanities and social sciences, I am persuaded to look into history for possible clues, and interestingly I find plenty of evidences – the likes of the Justinian Plague and the Black Death in history of world civilizations. However, the question is – what does one understand from the stories of pandemics and other catastrophes in history? Were those simple natural calamities or those events might have any deeper meaning? Is there a connection between social upheavals and natural disasters? Religions generally deal with such questions and discuss ethical and philosophical matters that also involve questions about the purpose of life and human creation. The question of religion is a sensitive subject, however, for most natural and social science disciplines today. Could one venture into examining the question from perspectives of reason, science, humanism and progress?

Most scholars today try to comprehend the human nature by only studying post-14th century European history. Although historians generally agree that religions permeated life in all civilizations in history, religious teachings are not generally given serious consideration when looking for causes of natural calamities. However, one should not forget that due to scant reliable sources about ancient civilizations, a great degree of misperception dominates our understanding of religion today. To complicate the subject, religion and science turned out to be opposing phenomena. George Sarton in his voluminous Introduction to the History of Science has demonstrated that until 18th century theology was a part of scientific enquiry, but in the 19th century social sciences developed different methodologies for comprehending religions from practices of followers rather than their declared ethical and philosophical standing. Today one witnesses diverse responses to the current coronavirus catastrophe.

President Trump declared a day of prayers but in practice has been using the phenomenon for his political interests. Some Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics came forward with solace and recommendation of prayers and contemplation during this time of tests and explanations about how pandemics occur due to their perceived immoral practices. Some Hindus came forward with the recommendation of drinking cow urine to cure. While some have identified the pandemic simply as a divine punishment, others, mostly fervent followers, have sought miraculous cure of the disease; some faultfinders found scopes for attacking religions. According to a Bangladeshi writer when “human beings are in peril, gods flee first.” A Pakistani “scientist” has found reasons to accuse the Prime Minister Imran Khan for his alleged “denial” of Darwin’s evolution theory. In India, the Islamophobic mass media outlets have found a good reason to attack a small minority Muslim group for “spreading coronavirus” in the country.

Thoughtful scholars, however, have made significant contribution in studying the subject. Based on his readings of earlier civilizations, the 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun identifies “moral decadence” or zulm as “one of the great threats to civilization,” while defining moral decadence as inequality and injustice in a broad sense. In his Muqaddimah or introduction to world history explained how ruling elite monopolize resources and deny the common people of economic opportunities that leads civilization or ‘umran to decline. The 20th century historian Arnold Toynbee is more specific. After studying world civilizations he explained “history as shaped by spiritual, forces,” and submitted that, “civilizations sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.” Unfortunately, most policy makers and politicians today are either not familiar with pre-Renaissance history or they do not want to take so long view of history.

Is the Pandemic a Divine Punishment?

How does one differentiate between the explanations of researchers such as Ibn Khaldun and Arnold Toynbee and those of the Pennsylvania lawmaker, or the Israeli Rabbi or Al-Qaeda leaders? Academically it is not difficult to distinguish between the two sets of observations. However, the question is – how does one relate social upheaval with natural disasters? The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant legitimized his “conjectural beginning of human history” with regard to the progression of the human actions related “their first beginning” with what he called “a pleasure trip sketched out in the Old Testament.” Could we also visit the Old Testament for our purpose? Prophets Amos, Isiah, Jeremiah warned their peoples against greedy wealthy moneylenders abusing and depriving small farmers of their possession and take them to bondage. The prophets, according to a history textbook, “denounced the pomp of the heartless rich and hypocrisy of the pious Jews who worshipped God in the prescribed manner but neglected their social obligations to their neighbor, and demanded justice.” One will find similar ideas in the Qur’an (107: 1-6). In fact, these teachings are common in every civilization in history.

It is very difficult to establish connections between social upheaval and natural calamities. One major problem in comprehending this issue is that lay clerics try to relate every calamity with one or more perceived social evils. It is important to bear in mind that warnings are not always followed by immediate calamities and not all calamities are punishment. However, if one takes the example of above-mentioned Biblical prophets, one finds the events occurring in a span of about two and half centuries. Prophet Amos lived in the middle of the 8th century BC; prophet Jeremiah lived during the earlier part of the 6th century who witnessed siege, occupation, and destruction of Jerusalem – an action that included the rage of the temple of Solomon that continued for almost two years. Historians have not recorded all natural calamities that occurred during the period between Amos and Jeremiah but the former’s messages must be considered a warning for a major disaster. Nevertheless, our knowledge of history suggests that one should not generalize all natural calamities into one category – some have been warnings, some punishments and some might have been normal events. The Qur’an utilizes history as a source of knowledge next only to revelation: It appeals its readers to travel around the earth and learn from the experience of earlier communities and from the ruins of earlier civilizations (6: 6; 10: 13; 10: 94; 10: 102 etc.) The Qur’an insists that its followers must seek guidance from history rationally and wants its followers to find signs of the Creator’s mercy and power in the transformation of lifeless earth to flourishing civilization (36: 31-34).

What does the Current Situation Indicate?

If we analyze the current situation in the light of our discussion above, we should not miss the point that influential politicians and policy makers are unwilling to draw any lesson from history. President Trump is not only politicizing the pandemic, his administration is also reported to be giving out federal loan indiscriminately to large corporations. However, the most dangerous is the growth of Sino-phobia in US politics. President Trump is accusing China of concealing information about the outbreak of the disease although according to an Israeli media report the “US alerted Israel, NATO to disease outbreak in China in November.” One author wrote, “The Pandemic Won’t Make China the World’s Leader.” Another has claimed that, “China, America’s most powerful rival, has played a particularly harmful role in the current crisis, which began on its soil. Still another says that, “the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure that Washington can bring to bear on Beijing will put Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) he leads under enormous strain.” Trump is playing a dangerous game in raising tensions with China, and who knows where such a conflict could go?

This raises a question about the objective of social science research. Should the researches be directed toward finding the truth or directed toward promoting certain interests? Is it very difficult to identify certain elites within the nation-states promoting their group interests in the name of national sovereignty? Within the last three decades, we have witnessed how the former Harvard academic Samuel P Huntington had manipulated history to promote his clash of civilizations thesis. He said, “50 percent of wars involving pairs of states of different religions between 1820 and 1929 were wars between Muslims and Christians.” Even a primary student of history knows that these wars were not religious wars; colonial interests and nationalist ideologies motivated actors of these wars. In addition, more than 50 percent of the total world population during this period was either Christian or Muslim. Is it then surprising that these actors happened to have been either Christian or Muslim? In other words, the clash of civilizations thesis seems to have been contrived to promote certain interests, but unfortunately, the thesis became the cornerstone of US foreign policy during the first couple of decades of the 21st century.

If Washington continues to raise tensions with China, there is a strong possibility of the current situation deteriorate to a very low level. One opinion essay has already claimed “that China is pursuing—mainly cyberwarfare techniques and antisatellite weapons.” I do not know whether Pinker even conceived of the current pandemic situation when wrote the article, a cyber-warfare will definitely lead our world to Stone Age. This reminds me of Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf’s statement that, “The US had threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” in ’01 unless it cooperated in the US-led war on terror.” The clash of civilizations thesis soon brought the War on Terror that resulted in millions of death, wounded and displaced. The process of demonizing the people of Palestine and Kashmir had begun almost at the same time as the establishment of the United Nations and by the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century the Uyghurs and Rohingyas joined group of deprived and dispossessed. The rest of the world hardly saw this development as discrimination and injustice against innocent people.

What we can do to Restore Normalcy

Our knowledge of history convinces us with certainty that normalcy will return but nobody can determine a timetable for that. Our knowledge of history of the Black Death also tells us that the post-pandemic Europe witnessed opportunities for the poor. Circumstances forced economically weak feudal elites give in to demands of time: Opportunities had to be opened to the public. Could we do the same this time? The current international structure will hardly allow such opportunities for common people very easily. Policy makers are already talking about “reinforced nationalism,” but our knowledge of history suggests that such solutions will be disastrous. The pandemic may slow down or perhaps be brought under control, but that is not going to take care of the ripple effects – the financial and perhaps food crises that are going to follow. The Trump Administration’s recovery packages look so superficial – most likely, it is simply printing notes, but this will definitely backfire. Gold or similar wares – not gun power – must support currency notes.

Almost all civilizations in history teaches us that religions permeated creation of trust in securing cooperation of people through ideas of divine authority. The divinely selected chiefs were entrusted with the responsibility to treat every single human being with dignity, equality and justice. If we apply this principle today for recovery from the pandemic, we must free ourselves from the control of institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and the UN Security Council etc. We must understand that these institutions are not just mid-20th century creation: their foundations are centuries old. Behavior of the elites that control these institutions is not very different from the “heartless rich and hypocritical pious” against whom the Old Testament prophet Amos had warned. The plunder of Bengal wealth at the end of the 18th century, confiscation of the Suez Canal in the 1870s, scramble for Africa are only some known events in this regard, but the suppression of Indian cotton industry to promote British cotton industry is not widely known.

Are we in a position to challenge the ruling elite today? My understanding of history and world affairs today tells me that, we are. The Palestinians, Kashmiris, Uyghurs, Rohingyas and perhaps many more are perhaps under are artificially locked-down, but the rest of the humanity is capable to stand against arrogance, corruption and exploitation by a tiny elite. They are capable to bringing change – not Obama type change, but real change. What is needed is to come out of the corrupt financial system. It should not be difficult to begin with low-level barter trade and establish confidence and trust based on human dignity and mutual respect. This approach will build trust among participants – a criterion that Ibn Khaldun has pointed out as necessary for a flourishing civilization. The mutual trust will demand transparency in governance and in the process; common people will find opportunities that in turn generate economic growth and prosperity. It will be a slow process but it will be more dignified, durable, participatory and respectful.