Islam and Genocide:
The Case of Bangladeshin 1971
In 1971 Pakistani army carried out a genocide in East Pakistan. According to Adam Jones at Gendercide, “the mass killings in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971 vie with the annihilation of the Soviet POWs, the holocaust against the Jews, and the genocide in Rwanda as the most concentrated act of genocide in the twentieth century.” Unfortunately, it remains little known and studied, nonetheless.
Millions were killed and ten million refugees fled to India during the genocide that lasted nearly nine months. Bengali Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Muslim minorities were killed indiscriminately.
Ruling West Pakistani elites abused Islam to subjugate and punish East Pakistanis for their desire for justice and regional autonomy; the latter sought freedom from being treated like a colony.
Western countries supported Pakistan in general, albeit sometimes chiding its military regime. The USA went much further, supporting the army both politically and militarily, despite vehement protest from its diplomatic staff in East Pakistan. [Hitchens, 2001]
Pakistan claimed to be the first Islamic Republic of the twentieth century post-colonial era. The Muslim world favored the Republic's propaganda mostly--internationally as well as domestically, remained ignorant or silent about the genocide.
This was probably the only genocide in modern times where a so-called Islamic Republic committed genocide against Muslims, even though minorities, especially the Hindus, were targeted. Islam served as the foundation to slice Pakistan from British-colonized India. It was abused in committing this genocide. There may be legitimate questions about abuse of Islam for genocide; in context of the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, we'll explore them.
A Historical Overview
Islam arrived in South Asia in two strains: (a) from Arab merchants and Muslim sages, saints, and preachers; and (b) Arab military expedition, when some Muslim merchants on a ship were taken hostage and all efforts to have them released had failed. The Mughals were outsiders who chose to settle in India. They along with the British, who came afterward, helped shape the new India, which some fanatical Hindus may now consider as “akhand bharat.” (indivisible India) These rulers has no legitimacy according to Islam, as the Qur'an and Prophetic legacy call for a system based on Shura (mutual consultation) as well as a representative, participatory, and accountable framework of rule. India nonetheless developed and prospered considerably under Mughal rule. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, observed:”…culturally the contact of the Arabs with the people of India had great results.” [Nehru, p.154]
When Muslims were just merchants or preachers, communal problems remained marginal. “It was only when in the eleventh century Islam came to India in the guise of a conqueror,sword in hand, that it produced a violent reaction, and the old toleration gave way to hatred and conflict.” [Nehru, p. 154]
Mughal rulers, bar one exception, were fair and respectful of the non-Muslim majority. Some Muslim rulers came to only invade and plunder, which added to the resentment of the majority. Regardless, history must record their general tolerance toward non-Muslims and their interest to preserve pluralism and tolerance in India. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate economist of Indian/Bengali origin comments: “the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies very much to Islam as well. … The Mughal emperors in India, with one exception, were not only extremely tolerant, but some even theorized about the need for tolerating diversity.”
Hindu-Muslim relationship, affected by the Muslim-minority rule over Hindu-majority, was already strained by the time the British conquered and colonized India, serving not only to exacerbate it but also channeling it to maximize colonial interests. During the two centuries of British colonial rule, its politics played a divisive role for India. When they departed, India was looking forward to its independence as two sections: a primary homeland for Muslims and another one for Hindus.
The 1947 partition occurred amidst Hindu-Muslim hostilities, with massacres and displacement of millions on both sides. Islam was a key rallying point for Muslims for independence; after the partition, it remained on the center-stage for Pakistan.
The Two Nation theory - that is, Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations and, given the power and other dynamics of the region, Muslims might not be able to secure or expect their rights and fair share in an undivided India - was pivotal in polarizing both Hindus and Muslims, galvanizing support for a separate Muslim homeland.
The seed for Pakistan's subsequent split in 1971 was sown in its conceptual framework. The Muslim League in East Bengal initiated the movement for Pakistan. Concentrated in East Bengal, Bengali-speaking Muslims made up the majority there.
The politics during 1940-47 resulted in a major betrayal of Bengali Muslims. Bengal with Muslim majority did not become independent as a nation. Instead, it was split into halves along the religious line--one forming the eastern wing of Pakistan and the other, West Bengal, a part of India. This contradicted the Lahore Resolution of 1940, which outlined an independent country for Bengal, along with several other contiguous areas with Muslim majority. It was not to become a part of Pakistan. It also contradicted subsequent partition plans, which did not call for a split for Bengal.
Thus, partition of 1947 at its core had Hindu-Muslim issue and so did the partition of Bengal. Pakistan became a unique independent nation with two wings almost 1100 miles apart, and a large, rather hostile country in the middle. Cross-migration of Muslims and Hindus due to religion was both voluntary and coerced, marking an ugly, gruesome and shameful chapter for both. In addition, East Pakistan had a rude awakening right from Pakistan's inception, of neglect and contempt from its counterpart-minority in West Pakistan. From language to almost every other aspect, West Pakistani elites followed policies that relegated East Pakistan into a colony. [Payne, p.8; Jahan, 1997]
The people of East Pakistan made sincere efforts to reconcile with West Pakistan. Yet, the Language Movement of early 1950s, its military vulnerability during India-Pakistan war in 1965, the neglect of West Pakistani leadership during 1970 cyclone that killed 200,000 people culminated into a pronounced demand for greater regional autonomy.
After a sustained period of military oligarchy, Pakistan seemed progressive toward democracy. In 1970 a free and fair general election was staged. The Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the majority; for the first time, this would have enabled an East Pakistani party form a national government. Unfortunately, the jubilation or relief felt by East Pakistan was premature. The ruling military elites of Pakistan already decided against transfer of power to the democratically elected government.
“The People of East Pakistan, by declaring for regional autonomy, had assumed the role of the enemy in the eyes of the military elites in West Pakistan. They must therefore be punished, and the punishment would take the form of a general massacre. It was believed that the shock of a general massacre would bring the East Bengalis to their senses. [Payne, p. 31]
As the show of political games continued, the military proceeded to beef up its presence in East Pakistan, with more forces and equipments from its lair in West Pakistan. On March 25, 1971, began a preplanned massacre, aiming to suppress East Pakistan's legitimate demand for regional autonomy and punishing them for their aspirations.
“For month after month in all the regions of East Pakistan the massacres went on. They … went about their work mechanically and efficiently, until killing defenseless people became a habit like smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. Before they had finished, they had killed three million people. Not since Hitler invaded Russia had there been so vast a massacre.” [Payne, p. 29; emphasis added]
Beginning on March 25, the events of 1971 marked the final labor hours of an eventual birth, as people of (now) Bangladesh realized this was a marriage headed for divorce. That it would be this painful and ugly was underestimated significantly, nonetheless.
Genocide 1971: Some Pertinent Aspects
Modern genocide studies have helped better understand general aspects of the phenomenon. In the context of this genocide, several key aspects can be identified.
a. Racism or a sense of superiority
Almost all genocides seem to reflect forms of racism, manifested by the perpetrators' over display of superiority. In this case, the ruling elites of Pakistan were evidently condescending of the East Pakistani people. A Sunday Times reporter working in Pakistan for 23 years wrote: “Blind contempt for the Bengalis has always been a common failing of the colonially-minded administration.” [Mascarenhas, p. 83] Ayub Khan, a military dictator of Pakistan, “thought of them as the conquered people, while the inhabitants of West Pakistan were the descendants of conquerors.” [Payne, p. 41] Even religiously, the Muslims of East Pakistan were not as good, rather “half-Muslims”. [Mascarenhas, p. 18]
b. Demonization, deception and brutality
It requires considerable indoctrination, including but not limited to demonization of the victims, to instigate otherwise ordinary people to kill indiscriminately. In this case, indoctrination of West Pakistani military “consisted of a short course on the psychology of the Bengalis, who were depicted as weaklings, traitors, and subversives who loved India more than Pakistan and who were not true Muslims. Their instructions were to put down a rebellion that was expected to occur in the near future.” [Payne, p. 13]
Pakistani soldiers “had been brought from the West with a ‘mission of killing kafers (infidels),' but they soon realized that the military authorities had them against who cannot be called religious enemies.” [Chaudhury, p. 159]
The newly appointed military chief for East Pakistan, General Tikka Khan seemed bent on executing the plans of the ruling military establishment by teaching Bengalis--Muslims and non-Muslims—a lesson they would never forget. He boasted of “erasing a race of bastards in Bangladesh”, by destroying their Hinduite culture” and teaching them how to be “true Mussalmans”. [Chaudhury, p. 70]
c. Dichotomized view based on hatred and prejudice
Environment for genocide is often framed by estrangement of people based on a dichotomized view of “us vs. them.” [Stanton, 1996; Waller, p. 238] Minds are ambushed by a devious psychosis: “either you are with us or against us.” Such worldview or perspective could turn airplanes into objects of terror, striking people randomly and indiscriminately. Similarly, an entire nation can be held hostage through sanctions, causing almost a million deaths including children's, to punish a former friend and ally butcher (like that of Baghdad). [McDowell, 1998]
In case of Pakistan, Bengal's Muslim-majority was at the forefront of the struggle for independence. Their sacrifice for a united Pakistan was disproportionately high, even though the original Lahore Resolution called for independent states (plural). Regardless, the people of East Pakistan were marginalized soon after partition, exploited, and over time treated as a colony. They became “them” for the ruling and military elite of (West) Pakistan.
In this dichotomy, the core hatred in India's Hindu-Muslim relationship affected the ties between Pakistan and India, spilling over to those between East and West Pakistan. Orthodox religious establishments on both sides served to exacerbate it. Thoughts of some orthodox Muslims did not help, either; elements of such thoughts and understanding were manipulated by those not seeking truth, justice and peace, but justification for or validation of vile, parochial agendas.
d. Lack of democracy
R. J. Rummel, a noted genocide scholar, argues, “There is a high correlation between the degree of democratic freedom a people enjoy and the likelihood that the government will commit democide. Modern democratic governments have committed virtually no domestic genocide. Those governments that commit the most genocide have been totalitarian governments, while those that committed lesser genocide have been partially or wholly authoritarian and dictatorial.”
The genocide of 1971 offers a textbook example of inverse correlation between authoritarianism and democracy. Since its inception, Pakistan had never experienced meaningful, sustained democracy. As soon as an outcome of democracy appeared to favor the neglected and exploited majority, its military proceeded to kill it. [Mascarenhas, p. 26]
Islam and Crime against Humanity
Because the genocide was carried out under the pretext of defending the united Pakistan, supposedly created “in the name of Islam,” the issue of Islam and genocide deserves greater scrutiny. Although a detailed examination of pertinent issues--whether a “theological warrant” for genocide or “legitimation of genocide in the sacred texts and its consequences” in Islam, for instance--is beyond the scope of this essay, it may be useful for more detailed work later.
First, the 20th century has logged numerous genocides, rationalized by explicit or implicit “ideological warrants.” As Kuper argues,”The religious facilitation of genocide is only one of the many available legitimizing warrants.” Other non-religious ideologies, such as the Nazism, Communism, Capitalism or ideologies of colonization, may or may not have explicit warrants, but nonetheless has essential ingredients for inciting genocide. [1990, p. 354]
Second, religion by itself has not been a common factor to cause genocides. “It is clear from the … case studies of genocidal conflict that the theological warrants for genocide, or other religious beliefs which might facilitate genocide, do not operate in isolation from the societal context. They interact.” [Kuper, 1990, p. 375]
Third, Islam served as rallying cry to galvanize Muslims' support for Pakistan as their separate homeland, but since inception, its foundation did not include Islam. Mascarenhas wrote:
“Pakistan, indeed, did have an ideological basis, but it has certainly not developed into an ideological state in the accepted sense of the term. … If the contrary were true, … [T]he world would … not be witnessing now the horror being perpetrated by a Muslim army from West Pakistan on the Bengali Muslims of the eastern part of the country.” [pp. 7-8]
Robert Payne explains about Pakistani military elites:
“It was against the Muslim creed to drink spirits, but they drank prodigiously. Islam frowns on excess, and demands that all men should live in humble servitude to God, and they were the least humble of men. The essential egalitarianism of Islam, by which the slave becomes the equal of the master, had no meaning for them. They observed the outward formalities of Islam if it pleased them or if it suited them, but did not feel bound to them. They were above the law, even the moral law.” [p. 37]
Nevertheless, they identified no reason to suspect God won't be on their side simply because they did not follow or uphold Islamic principles or guidance. Indeed, as if to defile Islamic historical legacy, they recruited and organized armed groups of militias after names of importance in Islamic history. One such group was Al Badr, named after “the battle of Badr, which Mohammed fought successfully in A.D. 624 with three hundred of own followers pitted against a thousand Meccans.” [Payne, p. 46] With this Islamic veneer they took up the mission: “The green of East Pakistan must be painted red,”—that is, drowned in blood. [Payne, 47]
Fourth, let us now briefly address the four pertinent aspects of 1971 genocide mentioned above: a. Racism or a sense of superiority; b. Demonization, deception and brutality; c. Dichotomized view based on hatred and prejudice; and d. Lack of democracy.
a. Anti-racism is one of the pristine aspects of Islam. The Qur'an is categorical against any artificial superiority of a human being over another based on race, language, color, status, age or gender. “Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (the person who is) the most God-conscious.” [49/al-Hujurat/13] The Last Sermon of the Prophet included this clarion call to humanity: “'O people, Remember that your Lord is One. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a black has no superiority over white, nor a white has any superiority over black, except by piety and good actions. Indeed the best among you is the one with the best character.” Yet, just because Islamic message is egalitarian, it does not assert that those claiming to be its adherents would uphold it. Anyone who looks down upon other human being, whether fellow Muslims or non-Muslims, defies Islam at the human level. [Farooq, June 8, 2003]
b. Islam is also against demonization, deception, or brutality. Islam categorically rejects the human tendency to succumb to one's hatred and prejudice and treat others unjustly. "O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do." [4/an-Nisaa/135]
Regarding cruelty and brutality, Muhammad could not have said it more clearly and emphatically: "God will definitely enforce the settlement of all the dues to those entitled to receive them on the Day of Judgment, even the wrong done to a hornless goat by a horned goat will be addressed." [Riyadus Saleheen, #204] Yet, people's inflicting systematic, brutal tortures on fellow Muslims and non-Muslims is a perversion in the name of Islam.
c. The problem of a dichotomized worldview is endemic, irrespective of religious or secular ideologies. This is a major vulnerability of Islam as well. Islamic orthodoxy did develop a worldview based on a dichotomy between Dar al-Harb (Abode of War) and Dar al-Islam (Abode of Peace). Both in the contexts of India-Pakistan and West Pakistan-East Pakistan, such view was promoted to further demonize “them”-- the people of East Pakistan. Bengali Hindus were dehumanized and demonized and Bengali Muslims were portrayed as semi-Hindus, half-Hindus or not genuine Muslims. The effect was the same for both Muslims and Hindus of East Pakistan, who stood up against the colonial, hegemonic rule of West Pakistan and especially those who participated in, supported or sympathized with the independence movement.
Encouragingly, contemporary Islamic discourse is rejecting the classical orthodoxy's dichotomized view of the world as unwarranted from an Islamic viewpoint, reformulating Islamic position to be more inclusive and pluralistic. [AbuSulayman; Mafoot; Farooq, Aug.-Sept. 2002] The reformulation is definitely more in harmony with the vision of the Qur'an and the legacy of the Prophet. Unless people take the Qur'an in a fragmented manner and use or abuse in pursuit of their interest and agenda, the Islamic norm of relationship with everyone is based on this unambiguous verse: “... Let there be NO HOSTILITY except against those who practice oppression." [2/al-Baqara/193]
d. That Islam is against any form of racism or demonization/dehumanization may not be sufficient to prevent violence, persecution, massacre or genocide, since human beings are going to do what they are bent upon. This is exactly what happened in history, including that of the Muslims, and the genocide of 1971 is a glaring example of this reality. Even though there may not be any “theological warrant” in Islam, in the hands of literalists, extremists as well as the authoritarian abusers of powers, similar to any other ideology or people, Islam can be used to turn Muslims against Muslims as well as against non-Muslims: a reality as demonstrated through the 1971 genocide. Let alone the major western powers, that the entire Muslim world stood silent or remained ignorant about the genocide and that a sizable segment of Muslims in East Pakistan even collaborated with the genocidal army make the case all the more compelling that like any other religion or ideology, Muslims need a collective mechanism and framework to counteract such destructive tendencies.
The Qur'an is categorical against any hatred or prejudice that detracts people from being just. "O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and LET NOT THE HATRED OF OTHERS TO YOU make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do. [5/al-Maidah/8] But that did not prevent the genocide in 1971.
Therefore, while definitely a better formulation and articulation of Islam from a more tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic viewpoint and a new culture and understanding on that basis are needed, there still would be a critical need of democratic environment and institution in governance. Indeed, this particular genocide centered on the issue of democracy and subversion of the democratic process. A powerful, entrenched and maniacal military regime was willing to go to any extent to deny the result of democracy.
The legacy of Islam during the immediate post-Prophetic era was on the foundation of a representative, participatory and accountable form of governance, which was overthrown in a counter-revolution after the period of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs ending with Ali, the fourth Caliph. A system based on Shura (mutual consultation) of the people was replaced with hereditary, autocratic rule. Even the Prophet's own grandson and a number of his family members were brutally massacred. Muslims themselves ought to be familiar with the ills of autocratic rule and genocide like that of 1971 is a glaring example of how power can be abused in the hands of authoritarian regimes.
As an Islamic as well as a human imperative, Muslims need to rebuild the foundation of their societies, such that the governance, in keeping with Islamic and democratic spirit, is representative, participatory and accountable. [Farooq, May 2002] Democratic societies are less prone to commit domestic massacre, as powerfully argued by R. J. Rummel. Democracy may still not provide complete guarantee that genocides against the “others” would not occur, but it may be essential as part of our arsenal against potential genocides in future.
One of the reasons genocides have occurred in distant and not-so-distant history is because human beings have often lost their own humanity and their faith in humanity; consequently, treating fellow human beings, Muslims or non-Muslims, communists or non-communists, Jews or non-Jews, Armenians or non-Armenians, Bengalis or non-Bengalis in inhuman manner seemed acceptable. If our faith, philosophy, ideology, creed, conviction do not guide and inspire us to rise above our parochial and exclusivist views and attitudes to see these matter at the human level, we may not have seen the last of genocides.
Hence, as a Bangladeshi, I can't care about only the genocide committed against the Bengalis. As a Muslim, I can't care about only the genocide committed against the Muslims. As an Asian, I can't care about only the genocides committed against the Asians. As human beings, we need to care about any and all genocides committed against any group of humans by other groups.
Whoever the perpetrator(s) and whoever the victim(s), a crime against humanity is a crime against humanity. "...if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people." [The Qur'an/5/al-Maida/32] This should provide our common ground for the entire humanity to stand steadfast against any crime against itself. Being inspired and anchored in the universalistic principles of Islam and joining the hands with the entire humanity, Muslims can prevent themselves from being either victims or perpetrators of human rights abuses or crimes against humanity.
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