20th December 2020   •   opinion
British Bangladeshi Muslims shouldn't have to choose between heritage and faith

Image: by David Farrer @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
What does the diaspora understand of its heritage, except it is slowly losing it, piece by piece, generation after generation? Unless one goes for consistent holidays back to the motherland, how do you keep those ties intact?

Most British Asians in the post-9/11 world seem to have swapped culture for religion without really doing it as a conscious act.

Take my community for example - British Bangladeshis. This thought came to me last week when, on 16th December, we commemorated victory over Pakistani forces in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

The first generation that came here were still anchored firmly in their Bengali identity. But the second has a weaker hold on it, with a lot of gaps filled by flawed perceptions of what the Bengali culture supposedly is. Many subscribe to the idea that culture conflicts with religion, that it gets away in the way of faith unity. Someone will usually invoke the Prophet Muhammad’s warning against excess nationalism as a sign of this.

But there’s a lot of history to being Bengali that challenges the notion that culture is the death of religion. In 1971, Bangladeshi genocide was partly facilitated by the terrible nature of the Partition of India and the subsequent refusal of Pakistani governments to recognise Bangla as a language of Pakistan. As Jinnah put it, Urdu and Urdu alone would be the language of Pakistan.

How do you tell Bangladeshis who say culture comes after religion that too much blood was spilled for our cultural identity to be made irrelevant to our identity?

Perhaps you tell them of the Bengali Language Movement that fought for the language, of the students who were fired upon by the police on 21st February in 1952 – a day now commemorated by the United Nations as International Language Day – to acknowledge the sacrifices made by brave Bengali students.

How do you tell that this brotherhood in 1971 murdered three million Bengalis, systematically raped women, massacred Hindus and targeted the Bengali intelligentsias? How do you remind them of General Yahya Khan – then President of Pakistan – who said: “kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands”?

I was a young adult when I finally pieced different recollections of my mother’s memories to understand how traumatic war was for her. For me, religion and culture was a seesaw and could never exist in balance, and for a long while my sense of self has been shaped by the immutable, irrepressible roots of a culture rather than a religion.

In Bangladesh today, young people are being seduced by religious fanaticism to the point where they will protest a cricketer attending Diwali or plans to build a sculpture of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujib Rahman. I once had a conversation with a young member of the Jamaat Party who acknowledged that Bangladesh’s building blocks had been secularism and democracy, but now they had to be replaced with religion.

When 16th December or 26th March come round, there will be many who emphatically celebrate being Bangladeshi, but then return to lecturing others for enjoying aspects of their Bangladeshi culture.

Fortunately, for a growing generation of diaspora Bangladeshi Muslims, cultural and religious identities do not outweigh each other. At a time when religious fanatics are demanding a puritanical interpretation of their faith, that should be welcomed.
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Left-wing Muslim writer. Researcher on social cohesion and integration.
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