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Book Review
Bangaldesh today
Reviewed by Yoginder Sikand

Name of the book: Freedom Unfinished—Fundamentalism and Popular Resistance in Bangladesh Today
Author: Jeremy Seabrook
Publisher: Zed Books, London & New York
Year: 2001
ISBN: 1-85649-908-1
Pages: 243
Price: $25 /14.95 Pounds sterling [paperback]

Bangaldesh has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Islam has had a long and chequered history in Bengal, having first been introduced by Arab traders and then followed by Sufis and Muslim armies in the thirteenth century. Islam in Bengal has, as elsewhere, a flavour of its own. Sufi missionaries used local motifs and concepts to spread the message of Islam, giving rise to a distinctly Bengali syncretistic Islamic tradition. For the ulama, the guardians of shariah-centred Islam, this tradition has for long been a target of attack, demonized as ‘Hinduistic’, as akin to polytheism and as representing a ‘wrongful innovation’ [bidd’at] from the path of the Prophet. 

Seabrook’s book ostensibly seeks to deal with this challenge of Islamic scripturalism and the response that it has evoked among the Muslims of present-day Bangladesh. But as the perceptive reader will note, it actually contains little discussion of the phenomenon of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. One cannot help but suspect that the dramatic sub-title of the book is no more than a clever sales gimmick to prey on what now seems an almost insatiable appetite in the West for horrific tales of ‘Islamic’ barbarism.

As a sympathetic account of life in Bangladesh this book excels, and, clearly, Seabrook has his heart where it should be. He provides a heart-rending account of the daily torment of sheer survival in this most poverty-stricken country in Asia. Despite the endless travails of floods and cyclones, disease and illiteracy, mounting inequalities and corruption, the ordinary Bangladeshi, he shows, simply refuses to give up hope. Seabrook’s travels take him to the remotest corners of the country, where he meets tribal activists, Muslim peasants, Hindu landless labourers, NGO workers and abandoned widows. Narrating their stories, he provides a fascinating, if heart-rending, account of how the poor in Bangladesh see their own lives and the way their own country is run. Heroic tales are told of popular resistance to oppression, to diktats of village Mullahs, to rapacious moneylenders, to the hired hoodlums of petty politicians and to the machinations of multinational corporations. For a view from the bottom, this book excels.

Where the book fails to deliver, however, is in its discussion of that much bandied-about phenomenon of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. Seabrook appears to have little familiarity with academic discussions on Islamic revivalism, although he does recognize the crucial distinction between Islam as personal faith and ethics, and Islam as political ideology. Yet, to brand all Islamic movements as ‘fundamentalist’ is erroneous, for the differences between and divisions among them are crucial. 

We are told how ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, acting as barely concealed fronts of capitalist/feudal/patriarchal privilege, see the work of NGOs as threats to established hierarchies, and hence the numerous attacks on development agencies throughout the country. 

This might be true in the case of some Islamist groups, but then there are other powerful Muslim groups, such as the Tablighi Jama’at, who consciously dissociate themselves from all worldly involvement, which the book does not care to mention. While it is indeed true, as Seabrook argues, that politicians, capitalists and feudal lords, propped up with Saudi and Western largesse, have employed Islam as a convenient tool for stifling dissent, to see Islam in this way as a monolith is grossly misleading and one-sided. Of the numerous Sufis in Bangladesh who are involved, in their own small way, in helping the poor, or of Islamic social work organizations, we are told nothing, and one cannot help but suspect that the silence is deliberate. 

This is perhaps one of the most sensitively crafted books on life in contemporary Bangladesh, and the author clearly is a master wordsmith. Those looking for a serious discussion of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’, as the book promises to provide, are, however, likely to be disappointed.

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