Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Social capital amidst extremism and mediocrity


Bangladeshi academics must reach out to combat rising violence and intolerance – or are they part of the problem?

LET US begin with an understanding of the state and the place of academics in Bangladesh. From a methodological standpoint, the spheres of the state can be thought of as being divided into three sections. The first is political society, which includes the actors and agencies that possess coercive power – government military, police, laws and regulations, and the like would all be included here. The second is the market, where economic power resides. Indeed, in certain circumstances, this sphere could possess enormous power, to the point of becoming the determining factor in essentially reproducing the state. Bangladesh is a good example in this respect, where critics maintain that only a half-dozen or so importers control 60-80 percent of all imports. If this is the case, it is not difficult to understand the enormous profitability in having a political-business nexus that can ensure this monopoly – another name, of course, for endemic corruption.

The third and final sphere is the so-called civil society, which focuses on reproducing social capital. This would include academics, students, intellectuals, civil-rights groups, the media, cultural bodies, even sports clubs and other associations. In addition to intellectual discourses and social networking, trust plays a key part in reproducing social capital. As one critic has noted, “Nothing happens if you don’t trust people … Social capital is strongly dependent on rich durable networks which develop trust.” Fortunately, Bangladesh has abundance of the value system of trust, as has been corroborated not only by national surveys, but also by the fact that it is the birthplace of micro-credit, which is essentially founded on trust.

Academics, therefore, are not only part of civil society, but are also key actors when it comes to recovering, nurturing and disseminating trust in a society. This raises an inevitable but important question: Have academics in Bangladesh remained true to their vocation? Conversely, what happens when academics cross certain boundaries to begin profiting from the coercive elements of either political society or the economic market? By extension, in a country such as Bangladesh, does the role of the academic run the risk of contributing to the business of ‘reproducing extremism’?

Before delving into these questions, let us ground this discussion in the words of Mohandas K Gandhi. Once, while being interviewed by an American journalist, Gandhi put forward that there was no caste system in India, and offered an impeccable line of logic to back up what many would consider an outlandish conclusion.

“What about the Brahmans?” asked the journalist.

“Brahmans were supposed to provide knowledge, but today they are busy making money, so there are no Brahmans,” Gandhi responded.

“What about the Kshatriyas?” the journalist continued.

“The Kshatriyas were supposed to protect the country, but today the British are ruling us, so there are no Kshatriyas.”

“What about the Vaishyas?”

“The Vaishyas were supposed to trade honourably, but today they are engaged in unfair trading practices, so there are no Vaishyas.”

The journalist was getting exasperated. “Surely,” he asked, “you would agree that there are Sudras?”

“The Sudras were supposed to do menial jobs with the full dignity of a person but, today that is not the case,” Gandhi responded. “They have been robbed of their dignity, so there are no Sudras!”

In our case, extending Gandhi’s logic would imply that there are no academics of merit engaged in reproducing social capital in the highly politicised, polarised, partisan context of Bangladesh. This, of course, is only partially true, and would stand only for some self-willed if not self-aggrandised academics. But let us first reflect on the complex nature of issues relating to combating extremism and the role of academics. There are two sides to this problem – the structural and the intellectual, though the first certainly feeds on the second. Let us look at the structural first.

Politics, business, extremism
Let us first consider academics as ‘party-demics’, those that become particularly involved in politics in relation to political parties. On the surface, this would seem to be a mere exercising of democratic rights. But the post-independence experience of Bangladesh has shown that such academics have mostly ended up engaging in party politics – or worse, bringing partisanship within the boundaries of the academic institution, with Dhaka University being a classic case in point. Interestingly, Bangladeshi academics have become ‘party-demics’ not so much by inviting the government into the corridors of academia, but more by succumbing to the call of the government, which hopes to keep academics under its sway. In this, the government has succeeded in two ways. First, by conflating ‘state responsibility’ with the responsibility of the government, and making annual budgetary provisions to public universities at the sole discretion of the government. Second, and more nakedly, the regime in power has become the key actor in appointing academics both within the university (including the posts of vice-chancellor and pro-vice-chancellor) and outside, in academically and financially rewarding jobs.

Given such a structure, academics could not help joining the rat race of seeking the attention of the party in power – or, for that matter, even the party in waiting. In such a situation, academics become hostage to the party bosses and cadres, which inevitably include ideologists, fanatics, and even the musclemen mastans. The reproduction of social capital is thus compromised, to the point of making party politics the ends and means of academic life. And, as in national politics, where alliances and numbers play a critical role in strengthening one’s constituency, when called upon the academics do not hesitate in conspiring with forces colluding with religio-extremism. We will return to this issue.

Then there are the ‘business-academics’, who get caught up in the world of money. Perhaps this is somewhat inevitable, given the meagre salary available in public universities, forcing many to take up part-time jobs in private institutions or to take up business entirely. The concern here is not so much with the former, although it is true that even in such cases the intellectual pursuits of the academics inevitably suffer. Rather, the concern is with the latter category, under which academics fall easy prey to the political-business nexus. With time and economic exigencies, many end up becoming particularly partisan. If significant profit is promised by forces colluding with religio-extremism, then the prospect of a nexus between the political, business and academic in the service of extremism becomes a very real possibility. There lies the fear.

Finally, we must look at academics as ‘academic-extremists’. Bangladesh already has a few of these, some of whom are currently awaiting jail terms. Militancy and extremism, after all, are first and foremost intellectual exercises, which only later express themselves through violence. However, the complicity of the state, particularly the activities of some of the actors and agencies within the government, cannot be ruled out in the birth of ‘academic-extremists’. Police interrogation of mastans and former ministers currently incarcerated seems to validate this contention. A quick response would be in the form of a dialectic: the structural infects the intellectual, while the intellectual reproduces the structural. Let us look at this in more detail.

Incapacity in extremis
Broadly, in Bangladesh there are two categories of intellectuals, including academics. The first are those who are intricately connected to the regime or ruling social class. The second group can be thought of as the dissenting or revolutionary, those who disown their class and challenge the status quo. Both owe their early conceptualisations to the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. What is important in contemporary times, however, is not so much how they differ in class affiliations (with which Gramsci was most concerned), but rather what they are actually advocating and the manner in which they are hoping to accomplish that goal. In this, let us return to the question at hand: When does an academic turn into an ‘academic-extremist’? In this, my observations will be limited to the Islamic domain, but the argument could be extended to other religious communities as well.

First, mediocrity is an undeniable factor when it comes to the issue of religio-centred extremism within the Islamic domain. In Bangladesh, there is little doubt that ‘academic-extremists’ have been significantly influenced by a rigid – or, more appropriately, an ill-informed – version of Islam, the Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. We do not need to go into detail, except to point out that the general interpretation of Islam is no longer in the hands of the meritorious. Rather, partly due to Muslim despots and partly to colonial domination, the interpretation has over the centuries landed in the hands of the mediocre. Amidst this evolution, academics have failed miserably to contain rigidities and extremism, not so much for want of motive as for want of Islamic scholarship.

A second factor in this would be ‘mediageneity’, or a love of media attention. Ideally, academics, particularly at the tertiary level, are supposed to ‘publish or perish’. But if you have a mediocre academic, or one who has become lethargic due to institutional dysfunction, it is likely that such an individual would settle for a ‘no publish, no perish’ policy. One way to be noted, then, would be to become an academic-extremist, which opens the door to becoming a well-known leader overnight. One prominent example would be Muhammad Asadullah al-Ghalib, a professor of Arabic Studies at Rajshahi University, as well as a top leader in the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who was arrested in February 2005. Today, Ghalib is not known for his publications, but rather for his advocacy of violence and extremism. Who would have known him otherwise?

The third and final factor can be thought of as ‘mechanicality’, with the fear of humans turning into machines – the worry of many thinkers over the centuries, including Freud, Weber, Tolstoy and Tagore, among others. This past March, Shashi Tharoor, the former Indian UN official, offered some interesting thoughts on a not-so-pleasing coincidence: research at Oxford University by sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog pointing to a correlation between engineering and terrorism. Tharoor wrote:

[Consider] the evidence: Osama bin Laden was a student of engineering. So were the star 9/11 kamikaze pilot Mohammed Atta, the alleged mastermind of that plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and their all-but-forgotten predecessor, the chief plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef. The Oxford scholars, after putting together educational biographies for some 300 known members of violent Islamist groups from 30 countries, concluded that a majority of these Islamist terrorists were not just highly educated, but a startling number of them are engineers. Indeed, according to Gambetta and Hertog, nearly half had studied engineering.

This correlation, of course, need not be limited to engineering. In fact, it can be broadened and blamed on a mindset nurtured much earlier. A comprehensive education, whether secular or religious, is what is missing in the academic of modern times. And ‘intellectual certainty’, or intolerance, has come home to roost while disciplining minds in the name of education.

Ideological drive
Mediocrity, mediageneity and mechanicality are, of course, as much intellectual as they are structural, all prone to religio-centred extremism in the business of terrorising the state and public alike. This circle, therefore, has to be broken if a more healthy role is to be accepted from academics in combating extremism. So, what is to be done?

The intellectual campaign needs to be geared up, and on this Bangladeshi academics are slightly blessed. Bengal, after all, is one of the domains of the hyper-tolerant Sufis, as well as the relatively more receptive (and juristic) tradition of the Hanafis. There is therefore significant hope, despite the fact that the latter has lately been increasingly influenced by Saudi-Wahhabism. The problem is, as the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi points out, the “Muslim’s duty to turn into a rebel against an imam who makes unjust decisions.” Over the years, two opposing schools of thought have emerged, including in Bangladesh: the intolerant and often bloodthirsty Kharijites, and the rationalist Mutazilah. These two differed in terms of the means to be employed in this rebellion, but (again in Mernissi’s words) still “shared one basic idea: the imam must be modest and must in no way turn to despotism.”

As time went by, however, and as the Mutazilah were condemned and systematically driven out by the Muslim despots, particularly following the usurpation of power by al-Mutwakkil in 847, the Kharijites re-defined themselves in the context of newer despots and those championing the cause of extremism – including Hanbalism, or the more recent Wahhabism. Are the academics of contemporary times well-enough equipped to confront the latter, which has succeeded in making Islam in Bangladesh relatively more intolerant and violent? Or are they uncomfortable with the prospect of recovering Mutazilah and restoring its place in Islam, which could result in delinking them from the state’s much-coveted favour? After all, the state prefers unrestrained obedience to rational free thinking.

Of course, lack of religious knowledge need not be blamed for all of the intolerance and extremism in the Muslim community. In 2005, researchers at the University of Chicago’s Project on Suicide Terrorism found no relationship between suicide attacks and education, not even in terms of a country’s wealth and level of extremism. In fact, the Chicago study, looking at the beliefs of 384 out of 462 suicide attackers between 1980 and 2003, found that 43 percent were religious and 57 percent secular. The evidence, instead, points more in the direction of ideological drive and group dynamics, indicating the presence of both secular and religious compulsions for violent extremism. In the case of Bangladesh, therefore, there is an urgent need for academics to intensify critical research and reflection, and not engage themselves in a priori formulations and politically soothing conclusions. The former would certainly help to reproduce social capital, while the latter would only serve coercive and ill-bred economic forces.

Constant, critical voices
Certain structural innovations are required to make space for academics to ponder and pursue the intellectual. Let us consider three in particular. First, racial politics in public universities, including Dhaka University, must come to an end. This refers, of course, to the ‘party-demics’ and their obsession with party politics and partisanship. Several years ago, I came across a slogan written on the wall of the residence of Dhaka University’s vice-chancellor: bornabad nipat jak! (Down with racism). In class, I told my students that I was happy to see such writings on the walls, and the interest the students were taking in problems affecting the United States and South Africa. But my students quickly corrected me: “Sir, these writings are a call to shun the politics of the teachers!”

A double-layered delinking is required for the role of Bangladeshi academics to be meaningful in combating extremism. The autonomy of public universities must be fully restored, which can be achieved by replacing the current system of appointing academics to key posts. The formation of independent (national or international) search committees is necessary. In addition, we need a process to delink the student bodies from the ‘party-demics’ and party politics in general. This should not be understood as a suggestion to do away with the student unions. On the contrary, the students and the student unions need to be salvaged from party politics, and put into the service of reproducing social capital.

The second structural innovation relates to public insecurity, including corruption and extremism, and the academic input required to contain them. Incidentally, Bangladesh’s current caretaker government is said to be in the final stage of forming a national security council, which would attend to all national crises, from natural calamities to political misgovernance. That such national security councils, of one shade or another, are present in most countries around the world is taken as justification. But what is the organisational structure of this proposed body, including its composition?

Given the quasi-legal circumstances in which the issue has gained prominence in Bangladesh, it is likely that such a council would consist of members of the government, including the military and the opposition, with just a smattering of non-partisan members of civil society. In fact, if the council is to have a constant yet independent flow of information and analysis, then it cannot do without having a research cell made up mainly of capable academics, researchers and scholars. The council, of course, would require intelligence and media cells as well, but without the information from both of these cells going through a process of critical vetting, it would be impossible for the members to judge the merit of any crisis, and subsequently to recommend unbiased policy options towards its resolution.

It should be noted that the discipline of security studies in general is itself short of scholars and scholarship, and that there is an urgent need to institutionalise it given the current state of insecurity – in Bangladesh itself, but also regionally in Southasia. Without a steady stream of fresh, creative minds, constantly discussing security issues and recommending policy options, there is always the possibility of taking recourse to ‘old wine in new bottles’, what could be referred to as the ‘statist’ resolution to issues of a non-state or post-national nature.

The final structural innovation relates to the need to disseminate the intellectual output of the academic into the mainstream public discourse, beyond the corridors of the institution. Workshops, seminars, dialogues, poster campaigns, newspapers, columns and the like, while reproducing social capital, also go a long way in highlighting the menace and need for combating extremism. In this, the broad-based impact of the visual medium, including documentaries, cannot be overstated. This realisation would imply that academics and academic institutions, if they are to have a central role in combating extremism, must now turn increasingly towards the visual, perhaps even by way of starting up their own television channels.

This may sound a bit farfetched at the moment, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility, particularly for large institutions such as Dhaka University. Administrators could start down this path by expanding their college’s audio reach, by starting up or strengthening FM radio broadcasts; this could utilise the support of all faculties – arts, science, business, social science – and could have the students directly engage in programming. This is certainly one very strong way of linking the public directly with academia. One way or another, Bangladesh’s academics must ensure that they have something to say and that they are heard, if they are to seek the involvement of the public in combating extremism. #

First published in HIMAL Magazine, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2008

Imtiaz Ahmed, a political scientist and prolific writer on political issues. He is a professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka