February 27, 2013 | National Post

Can a Scarred Muslim Nation Ever Get ‘Truth and Reconciliation’?

No one knows when or how Syria’s civil war will end. Nor Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban. Nor Pakistan’s struggle against jihadis in its northwestern border region. Iran seems set for bloody domestic strife in coming years, as does Lebanon and perhaps even Egypt. In all of these places, the winning coalition that comes out on top will preside over a population that is still mourning the dead and nursing wartime grievances.

Over the last 30 years, modern nations have developed a model for dealing with the legacy of great national traumas: truth and reconciliation. Canada has its Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Czech Republic has its Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. South Africa, most famously, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the investigation of crimes and policies committed under the Apartheid regime. According to one internet-catalogued tally, some two dozen nations have pursued fact-finding and a measure of social justice under the truth-and-reconciliation model.

But look down that list, and you notice just two majority Muslim nations, Morocco and Sierra Leone.

One reason is that the very idea of truth and reconciliation is a fundamentally democratic one — and until recently, democracy and Islam haven’t gone well together.

Dictators want history to be understood on their own terms, and have no desire for any sort of candid assessment of what they, or their minions, did on the way to seizing power. No surprise, then, that every nation on the truth-and-reconciliation list is either a democracy (or, as in the case of Sri Lanka, at least a pseudo-democracy).

There is another factor at play, too: Bloody conflict in Muslim nations, in recent decades at least, typically has involved different bands of Islamists fighting under this or that religious banner. (In Syria, for instance, the probable winner will be a loose coalition powered by a hard core of Saudi-supported Sunni extremists; their sworn enemies are largely Alawite Shiites.) This means that any truth-and-reconciliation exercise would involve scrutinizing actions performed under the banner of jihad — a fraught exercise that would involve one sect denouncing another, and shariah scholars accusing one another of apostasy and heresy.

In Western nations, even opposing factions generally speak the same language on human rights. The same is not true in most Muslim nations. Just imagine, for instance, a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood member from Syria debating a former Alawite military commander about the Hama massacre of 1982. One might as well ask Jews and Palestinians to convene a “truth and reconciliation” panel regarding the events of 1948.

It is with this background in mind that I’ve been following events in Bangladesh, where the government has been prosecuting war-crimes charges against veterans of the country’s 1971 civil war.

That 42-year-old conflict, which began in what was then East Pakistan, is obscure in the West. Yet it was the Syria of its time — perhaps even the Rwanda. Here is how a Time magazine reporter described events:

“The evidence of the bloodbath is all over East Pakistan. Whole sections of cities lie in ruins from shelling and aerial attacks. In Khalishpur, the northern suburb of Khulna, naked children and haggard women scavenge the rubble where their homes and shops once stood … Kushtia, a city of 40,000, now looks, as a World Bank team reported, “like the morning after a nuclear attack.” In Dacca, where [Pakistani] soldiers set sections of the Old City ablaze with flamethrowers and then machine-gunned thousands as they tried to escape the cordon of fire, nearly 25 blocks have been bulldozed clear … Estimates of the death toll in the army crackdown range from 200,000 all the way up to a million. The lower figure is more widely accepted, but the number may never be known. For one thing, countless corpses have been dumped in rivers, wells and mass graves … The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Moslem military’s hatred. Even now, Moslem soldiers in East Pakistan will snatch away a man’s lungi (sarong) to see if he is circumcised, obligatory for Moslems; if he is not, it usually means death. Others are simply rounded up and shot. Commented one high U.S. official last week: “It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.”

All of this would make Bangladesh a tragically perfect candidate for the truth-and-reconciliation process. Yet the war-crimes tribunal proceedings that have been playing out there since 2010 show the difficulties that this model presents: Abdul Quader Mollah, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison this month for his role in rape, torture, and the killing of 381 civilians, is also the assistant secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s leading Islamist party. Indeed, many of the country’s current crop of Islamist leaders are accused of allying themselves with Pakistan’s military in opposition to the emergence of a more secular, pluralistic Bangladeshi state in 1971. This fact has led to a furious backlash from Jamaat-e-Islami and a dozen smaller Islamist allies, which claim that the whole war-crimes tribunal process (which also is prosecuting eight other Jamaat-e-Islami leaders) is actually a politically motivated plot against the Islamist movement. (There also have been massive counter-protests by those who feel Mollah should have gotten the death penalty.)

Truth and reconciliation is always a wrenching trauma. But it is even more complicated in a place such as Bangladesh, where many Sunni Islamists — who are suspicious of the nation’s secularists, Hindus, Sufis and other minorities — rose up in opposition to the very idea of a pluralistic Bangladeshi state from the beginning. As a case study, it shows the world how the dogmatism and paranoia that always goes along with orthodox, militant Islamist movements will continue to hinder efforts at truth and reconciliation.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. This article was originally published by New Europe.

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