Dhaka Tribune, May 1, 2016
by Habib Khondker
It doesn’t matter where it comes from if it threatens us all
Religious extremism is simply a form of fascism from below
A simple equation differentiates democracies from authoritarian systems. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, it can be said that, in a democracy, the government is fearful of the people, and in an authoritarian system, the people are scared of the government.
Fascism is an extreme version of authoritarianism infused with an ideology with attendant spread of a culture of fear. When sections of people are scared to death of other sections of faceless people, it can be conceived as “fascism from below.”
Fascism from below may or may not be directly linked to groups or organisations inside or outside the country. Given their Medieval mentality and choice of weapons, they seem to be home-grown and may have loose links with external groups. What, however, binds them to external extremist hordes is their extremist belief. A belief that is toxically intolerant of differences, devoid of humanity and love.
Conventional fascists are products of modernity and extreme rationality unhinged from morality and humanity. Existing fascism from below denounces modernity, progress, and enlightenment. Their goal is to reject, deconstruct, and destroy civilisations and civility. They hate heritage, art, culture, music, poetry, cricket, cinema, literature, and, most of all, differences. They want to annihilate everything decent folks in the 21st century like.
Not only are sections of the people afraid of them, the government is scared of them, the main opposition political parties are scared of them, the super NGOs are scared of them, hence the fascists from below have won this round.
None of the above-mentioned groups came out to issue a strongly worded protest to condemn the murders of the innocent professors, writers, and publishers. The NGOs should not be put on the spot for not voicing their protests — they have to be judged by their actions. The varieties of development work they initiate provide a bulwark against the spread of such a grassroots variety of fascism.
The government and the civil society need to leverage NGOs in spreading enlightened values of tolerance and freedom. Sadly, sometimes, the government takes the NGOs to task without properly assessing their contribution in the long run. The faint voices of talk show guests, some members of the civil society, and the students and teachers who took to the streets, registered an extraordinary bold statement and provided the only ray of hope.
The state lacks real power to stand up to the fascists from below. The state knows its many limitations (too many to list here) one of which — relevant to this discussion — is the sympathy or lack of antipathy of many within the state towards the home-grown fascists. That’s precisely why some statements of the state elites end with a “but.”
The government’s growing intolerance of the freedom of print media also sows seeds of suspicion in the minds of the people. The discussion of progressive disappearance of the space for critical debates and the erosion of democratic values and spirit gets traction among the intelligentsia.
The link between a “democracy deficit” and the rise of fascism is more complicated.
This is a classic case of ecological fallacy. Yes, an erosion of democracy is taking place. Bangladesh, probably, had very little substantive democracy to begin with. The veneer of unraveling procedural democracy has a complicated relationship with the rise of bottom-up fascism, which is more directly linked to a failure in governance.
The government (not just the present one) has been consistent in its inability to administer a system of justice and criminal administration that would instill a sense of security in the minds of the people. The culture of immunity is an expression of sustained failure in establishing good governance with regard to administration of justice.
In fact, an efficient, smart, and non-democratic government — as many examples from Asia corroborate — would be better equipped to rein in criminality at the grassroots level.
There is a possibility that the rise of fascism from below will make an authoritarian democracy even more authoritarian, with a heavy cost of diminished human rights. It is time to re-think simplistic categorisation between democracy and authoritarianism. Most democracies carry within them a good many authoritarian tendencies and vice versa. Democracy continues to be a running target.
In a fascist state, the Gestapo or the Black Shirts knock on your doors in uniforms, the fascists from below strike at random — they lack uniform as much as a face. They could be anyone — Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique’s student or a friend of the student or a stranger who took note of the civility of the professor and his love for music.
Think about the depth of vulnerability that a great majority of Bangladeshis are in right now. For them, fear and compliance to the wishes of the fascists from the below is an understandable strategy. And this survival strategy may snowball into the dominant norms of a society.
Rather than blaming political rivals in a predictable fashion — playing the blame game and making comparisons with crime in other countries — one should look inward and try to understand how we got here. A conversation between the political society and the civil society is the need of the hour.
Inclusion of forces against fascism will yield better results than internecine conflicts among the protagonists of rationality and freedom regardless of their political affiliations.