A little over a month ago, in the last few days of the Ekushey Book Fair, writer Avijit Roy was brutally murdered. His wife sustained injuries, and more importantly has possibly been scarred for life, having witnessed a loved one being hacked to death.
Avijit Roy’s father, Professor Ajay Roy, is known to many. Avijit himself was an American citizen. A combination of these, and other factors, has probably incited law enforcement in showing more attention to this case than is usually afforded for hate crimes in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, we are yet to see much progress. And as is usually the case, other newsworthy events have come along and the general populace have become appropriately distracted. Sadly, there is no news that will fill the lives of his loved ones.
Meanwhile, on March 30, under broad daylight, another online activist has been killed in a fashion eerily similar to that of Avijit’s. I have no stomach for gore, but news reports mention meat cleavers being the weapon of choice. For someone who locks himself in during Qurbani, the mental image those words conjure are horrifying to the highest possible degree.
Two of the three culprits in this case where apprehended right away, with no little help from the local residents. Turns out both of them are madrasa students, one of them from the infamous Chittagong madrasa operated by Allama Ahmed Shafi. I have no intention to repeat the somewhat naïve assertion that madrasas are evil and the root of all problems. The fact remains that madrasas are filling a need, addressing concerns of the commoners of this country. In a sense, we have allowed these institutes to flourish, simply by making sure that a significant portion of the country has no other option but to depend upon them.
Religious motivations aside, a substantial proportion of students go to madrasas, either because their parents cannot afford more conventional schools, or because they have no proper family to provide for them. It is rather facile to question their choices without really trying to gain a better understanding of their circumstances. These children end up in madrasas simply because they have no other options, and unfortunately too often, this is where their heads are drilled with mistrust and hatred of anything that is different, anything that questions their beliefs.
Why would the madrasas be doing this? One obvious reason of course is that at least some of these organisations are being funded by certain extremist quarters that do not approve of a secular form of government. It is perhaps an interesting correlation, that these hate crimes seem to have really picked up since the Jamaat-e-Islami had their top leadership imprisoned and tried for war crimes, and were marginalised as a political party. Make of that what you will.
But we cannot shirk all responsibility either. What made it possible for these madrasas to flourish and attract so many children and young adults? The simple fact that they cannot afford better options, and there are few significant social programs or frameworks in place that will assure a safety net of aid and education or any better alternative. One simply cannot turn a blind eye to such a large fraction of the nation’s population, and then show outrage when they are co-opted and manipulated by quarters willing to provide them with opportunities, albeit at the price of their blind allegiance. If we are honest with ourselves, we are pushing a fraction of our youth to these people every year, simply by not doing anything to give them a better chance at life.
This is a battle of ideologies, a battle for hearts and minds, a battle between intolerance and enlightenment. And right now, we are losing, because while we busy ourselves with arcane theoretical issues, the opposition is readying itself to win over our future generations. The time has come. We either engage in including those marginalised in our country’s mainstream, or accept with resignation that the enemy will win, simply because for whatever motives, they are doing more for the poor, hungry, and desolate.
Hammad Ali is a freelancer and an adviser for Bangladesh Math Olympiad Committee, Society for Popularisation of Science in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Open Source Network.