From Bengal and Persia

So I tend to like most things Persian – Kiarostami, miniature paintings, khoresht, the excessive use of nuts and saffron in “polow” – and almost all of whatever I have been exposed to – of Persian architecture, arts and literature. I also love how Farsi sounds.

I was chatting with a Professor of Islamic History and he pointed to me, how political Islam has had an uneasy relationship with both Iranian and Bengali society. Perhaps.

I suppose the presence of long secular cultures, very productive in the arts and literature, true for both Bengal and Persia, might create problems for certain kinds of Islamisms. Of course, the history of political Islam in any Muslim country is nothing if its not inconsistent and checkered. So it’s hard to generalize.

Another interesting analogy between Bangladeshi and Persian societies is the central role Dhaka and Tehran University have played in defining their states’ religio-political cultures.

 Dhaka University, founded soon after the first Partition of Bengal, to uplift the Muslim masses of East Bengal, went from strength to strength and played a pivotal role in nationalist politics leading up to 1947. After 1947, the university changed character dramatically, as many Hindu Bengalis vacated faculty positions and were replaced by an expanding Bengali Muslim intelligentsia. An intelligentsia that was increasingly secular in the way it imagined a raison d’etre for East Pakistan, and if not that, at least culturally very proudly Bengali. In 1952, the University became a central hub of demonstrations against the Pakistani State. Again, in the ’60s, throwing their weight behind an increasingly outspoken Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the University students and faculty came under the radar of the Pakistani State. Little wonder then that many of the Pak Army’s worst atrocities were carried out on the campus during Operation Search Light.

Tehran University was founded roughly sixty years before Dhaka University. The University was formed by integrating various independent faculties and schools. Initially, heavily influenced by French curricula, after WWII, it tried to Americanize its system more. Tehran University also became a battleground on which various religious and political skirmishes were fought by those struggling for state power. Of course the students have been more than pawns in these great games – they have played a central role in them.

In 1979, when the world watched a revolution as momentous as the French or Russian, a lot of impetus to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s anti-Reza Shah rhetoric came after mass-atrocities on the TU campus. The campus fell under the control of anti-state guerrillas who made weapons and Molotov cocktails . Of course, the agitation had deeper roots. The leftist, liberal Tehran University elements also witnessed the 2,500 year-old celebration of the Persian Empire as Reza Shah threw a party to end all parties. Pro-American, anti-leftist, anti-Islamist, Reza Shah alienated many, and as draughts raged in Baluchistan and Sistan, he had two hundred chefs flown in from Paris, served a ton of caviar and spent between $50 to a $100 million dollars for lots of corporate guests, both Western and Iranian. Students of Tehran University weren’t very impressed.

Of course, the students of both Dhaka and Tehran University continue to be politically active. Although politically conscientious voices are fast disappearing on the DU campus, as Shibir cadres are increasingly ensconcing themselves there. Still DU remains a hot-bed of anti-state politics. As does TU, witnessed by the violent protests against against the closing of the reform-minded newspaper, Salam, and more recently against Mr. Ahmadenijad.

Academically, both universities are formidable with a former alumnus/a in each case, bagging a Noble Peace Prize recently: Shirin Ebadi in 2003 and Muhammad Yunus in 2006.