23rd November 2020   •   opinion
Bangladesh and faith: Why Tahmima Anam's book still resonates now

Image: Tahmima Anam
“She had lost her husband, found God, and she had defied everyone, and been the first to cover her head, turn her back on her country and face life after life.”

Tahmima Anam’s book 'The Good Muslim' isn’t new but one that feels like an appropriate metaphor for the religious unrest that has defined Bangladesh in recent years.

During the recent uproar in France over Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, thousands of Bangladeshis spilled onto the streets of Dhaka to express their anger. Videos of religious protesters burning pictures of Macron and supposedly homes of Hindu neighbours were being circulated too.

In Bangladesh, a country built on an identity of secular ethnic solidarity, the corrosive creep of religious fundamentalism has been alarming. Over the last decade the Jamaati Party, an extremely conservative religious group, has become increasingly influential. In parallel numerous secular minded bloggers have been murdered for voicing criticisms of Islam. The assertion of Islam as more than just an identity and way of life has strained the country's secular tradition.

Tahmima Anam reflected this with subtle symbolism and masterful storytelling craft in her book. The Good Muslim follows her first book, A Golden Age, which was set on the liberation war in 1971.

It follows a family of three who seek their own ways to process the grief and trauma of genocide inflicted upon them by the West Pakistan military. The main protagonist flees to India where she helps women before eventually her heart pulls her back home. It is a troubled home in more than one sense, as her country falls to a military dictatorship by 1984 and her brother has turned his back on national pride and leftist radicalism and found God and piety.

The flow of the prose never suffers throughout the book and is charged with an emotional tone that deepens the protagonist’s sense of urgency and despair in witnessing her brother’s conversion to faith.

The book works well to symbolise the difference between faith and religion: one that works as personal salvation and one that is the rope tied around the neck of millions when it begins to shape politics and society. Anam cleverly ties up the story arcs of multiple characters from the previous story, whilst showing what the war cost them, and what cannot be retrieved.

There is the foreshadowed hint of a tragedy waiting to happen and the protagonist’s own realisation that sometimes the saviour and the oppressor can be the same thing.

The Good Muslim also highlights that education isn’t necessarily the death of faith. The protagonist’s brother held a degree but the conviction of his faith in a new Bangladesh was swept away at the end of the war when the human price, and the toll on his own (now decayed) morality became clear.

Bangladesh is an increasingly educated country with a young middle-class but faith remains a persuasive element in the lives of millions as the protests against Macron showed. They might have resisted the religious imposition of West Pakistan but they subsumed the values themselves, something the protagonist could not, until the very end, begin to understand.

A fitting symbolism for how the personal mirrored the political in this book were the closing lines:

"She recognises the wound in his history, the irreparable wound, because she has one too. His wound is her wound."
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Left-wing Muslim writer. Researcher on social cohesion and integration.
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