Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Human Epistemology

With the evolution of human species over the past tens of thousands of years from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens to Modern Humans, human intelligence and skill continued to develop sequentially through the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and then on to Industrial Revolution.

At the earliest of times, human beings were subservient to some presumed superior intelligence or powers and that subservience was based on pure belief. That belief gradually transformed itself to faith. The faith is a collective, communal mental undertaking. Faith, once established, is difficult to root out as it comes as a joint undertaking, although each one individually holds the strands of that faith. The ownership of the faith is then taken up individually as well as collectively and it becomes part of their collective identity. A ‘faith’ can then easily transmute to a ‘religion’. When the group size becomes large enough or a significant number of groups coalesce together to form a community, the ‘faith’ becomes truly a ‘religion’. 

The German historian of religion, Rudolf Otto, in his book, The Idea of the Holy, stated that the feeling of ‘numinous’ was the basis of religion of devotion. This ‘numinous’ feeling placed human beings to subservient position and at the same time uplifted the mystical powers of the unknown to higher levels. This feeling predated the period of human knowledge and understanding and hence, any attempt to explain things such as the beginning of life on Earth and everything on Earth had been passed on to the superior, unknown powers.

Religions of bewildering varieties started to evolve in various parts of the world. Shinto in Japan, Daoism in China, Buddhism in India, Hinduism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Paganism in Europe and other places, Abrahamic religions (all three mono-theistic religions) in the Middle East, the Sky-God in Africa and many more evolved at various times on Earth. It is estimated that altogether more than 10,000 religions evolved on Earth, but most of went extinct or merged with the more dominant religion.  

The main point here is that there is virtually no substantiation that any of these religions originated from the presumed creator. However, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism and few more religions do not rely on single creator or divine authority as the source of the religion. Buddhism believes in eternal cycle of life and death until terminated by nirvana.

On the other hand, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a bewildering variety of sects within these religions believe in Yahweh, God or Allah as the creator who is assumed to be all-powerful, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient and incomprehensible. God is ineffable, beyond any query, and any aspersion or derision of this powerful creator is blasphemous. All knowledge derives from Him and all praise to Him. However, Judaism and Christianity have gradually moved away from blind adherence to such theological doctrines. But Islam or more particularly the Sunnis have maintained total reliance of such narrative. Allah created human beings, there is a day of judgement, heaven and hell awaits life after death etc. Human beings are composed of body and soul – body perishes on death but soul returns to God!

As mentioned above, Judaism, the originator of monotheism through Abraham, had moved away from strict submission to scripture dealing with life after death. Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies, said in a speech in 2012 that the question of life after death is non-sensical. But he believed that soul is a living thing which goes back to where it came from, probably to heaven; but body perishes and goes back to soil. He also held the view that heaven and hell don’t exist, but if someone wants to believe in these things, he has the right to do so.

The Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and Islam, both Shia and Sunni, believe strongly in life after death; because without it the whole edifice of the religion incorporating the final day of judgement; existence of heaven and hell etc would collapse. The question may be raised that how the body of the dead person would be revived, at what age and in what condition etc would that revival be and it remained unanswered in these religions. 

These two religions along with Judaism proclaim that the creator created the vast universe, made every animate and inanimate thing follow certain orders etc. The traditional creator had been assigned in these religions essential attributes – He must be present right from or even before the beginning and will last until or beyond the end of creation. He is all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent and He is not accountable to anybody; He can see past, present and future. Any derogatory or disrespectful remark or any question about God’s authority is blasphemous.

The Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza’s (1632 – 1677), view of God was totally dismissive of all these gobbledegook. He showed through the power of logic that God and Nature are one and the same thing. He started from the fundamental logic that there must be a single self-subsistent entity that must be the creator and the creation. This unity of cause (source) and the consequence (creation) must be there to remove the inexplicable question that if creator created everything, then who created the creator? The creator and creation must be merged into one.

Thus, in one big swoop Baruch Spinoza dismissed the fundamental basis of monotheistic religions that there is a transcendent creator who created everything. He argued that the creator and the creation is one in Nature and it is infinite in its expanse and immanence. He held the view that human being is a composite entity of body and mind; body being the material object in space. The movement of the body is due to physical laws of motion whereas thought is a mental state.

Some years previously, French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) advocated mind-body dualism. Descartes’ (pronounced as Dekorta) philosophical view was that mind and body have separate existence within the body. This led to the belief that whereas body was material in character and would eventually decay away on Earth, the soul is subliminal and lives on eternally! It chimed or had been made to chime with the religious views. This philosophical basis remained extant until Spinoza vigorously opposed such un-scientific epistemology.

The most prominent German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, produced his most important contributions to phenomenology and existentialism in his book called ‘Being and Time’. In that book, he argued that ‘Das Sein’ meaning ‘Being’ is the reality of our existence here. After being ‘thrown’ into the world, we strive to move from inauthenticity to authenticity. We strive to gain freedom from social milieu, freedom from archaic prejudices and practical necessities that are not our own making and move away from ‘they-self’ into ‘our-self’. Getting the freedom of ‘our-self’ releases us to attain our ‘Being’ here. But all Beings are inter-connected and there is the ‘unity of Being’. Our authenticity arises from ‘unity of Being’ with all things, making the ‘common Being’ with the universe. So, Heidegger was saying effectively that the ontology (the sense of being that exists as self-contained individual) encompasses the ‘unity of Being’.

One may find a strong resemblance, almost an echo, of Tagore’s philosophical discourse, which he argued when he met Einstein in July, 1930 in Berlin that as individual atoms or molecules join up to form a smooth congruous substance, so does the humanity of individuals form the universal humanity and human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth; without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.

Where does the religion fit in the epistemology of existentialism and human truth? Religion, any religion for that matter, is fundamentally dogmatic, sectarian and divisive. The edifice of religion is based on unproven axiomatic assumptions and social provincialism. It is no wonder that when Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he answered that he believed in Spinoza’s God “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”.

Thus, he upheld the belief of God as the Nature itself that provides universal humanity.

– Dr Anisur Rahman is an author and columnist.

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Tagore’s and Einstein’s views on Science and Spirituality

On July 14, 1930, Albert Einstein,the most prominent physicist of the 20th century and a Nobel Laureate, welcomed at his home at the outskirts of Berlin, Germany the most prominent Indian philosopher, musician, poet and a Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The two proceeded to have one of the most stimulating, intellectually challenging conversations in the history of science and philosophy exploring the age-old divergence between scientific views and religious perception. This conversation took place at the juncture when a new Renaissance was sweeping across India and a brutal reality was knocking on the door in Europe. The two intellectual giants from two continents representing two different human achievements slogged it out.

A part of the conversation which is modified here a bit was as follow:

EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the universe is Human Truth.

Let me take a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may feel continuous and solid. Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to human world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.

EINSTEIN: There are two different perceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity; (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.

TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.

EINSTEIN: This is the purely human perception of the universe.

TAGORE: There can be no other perception. This world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.

EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.

TAGORE: Yes, one of eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.

EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?

TAGORE: No.

EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.

TAGORE: No.

EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this perception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth.

TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through Man.

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove that my perception is right, but that is my religion.

TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness — how else could we know Truth?

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a Truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.

TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth – at least the Truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute Truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity (সীমার মাঝে অসীম তুমি). But such a Truth cannot belong to science only. The nature of Truth which we are discussing is an appearance – that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.

EINSTEIN: So according to your perception, which may be the Indian perception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.

TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore, the entire human mind realizes Truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.

EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.

TAGORE: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of Truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.

EINSTEIN: The problem begins whether Truth is independent of our consciousness.

TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.

EINSTEIN: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.

TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the Universal Mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.

EINSTEIN: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same — but this is already illegitimate from your point of view — because we cannot explain what it means that our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.

TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time, it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.

In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper, literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.

EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.

Although it may outwardly seem that these two great intellectual giants of the 20th century held divergent and sometimes conflicting views on science and spirituality, truth and beauty, but following deeper inspection, one would find that their views were remarkably similar and almost convergent.

For example, when Einstein was asked some years later whether he believed in God, Einstein replied that he believed in Spinoza’s God. His full answer was, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world; not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.”

Compare that with Tagore’s view on spiritual being. He said that as atoms join up to form a continuous solid substance, so do individual humans join up to form the universal humanity in human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth. Without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.

Thus, Einstein’s God (God of Spinoza) and Tagore’ God (God of human universe in harmony) are remarkably similar.

(This article is an adaptation of the write-up by Maria Popova on ‘When Einstein met Tagore’, dated 27 April 2012 )

Dr A Rahman is an author and a blogger.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

IPCC issued a ‘code red’ alert

Human-induced climate change is ravaging our planet and every country, including Bangladesh, is struggling to deal with its impacts

As the world battles record-shattering heat waves, calamitous droughts, deadly floods and landscape-altering wildfires, a roughly 4,000-page report released on August 9, 2021 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spells out, in unequivocal terms, how anthropogenic climate change is ravaging our planet. Prepared by IPCC’s Working Group I and described by its authors as a “code red for humanity,” the report warns that global temperatures will likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040 if warming continues at the current rate. This is the threshold value agreed upon in 2015 at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris.

Key takeaways from the IPCC report
> Climate change is a reality and it is going to get worse
> Humans are responsible for the “widespread, rapid and intensifying” effects of climate change, and some of them are irreversible
> Extreme weather is on the rise and will keep getting worse
> Oceans have warmed, their acidification has increased, and there has been a drop in Arctic sea ice
> Glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace
> Sea-level rise will be worse than once thought
> We must cut greenhouse gas emissions now, before brutal weather becomes more prevalent and more destructive
> Tipping points, or cut-offs—which, when exceeded, will set off self-perpetuating irreversible loops in the natural world—have a “low likelihood,” but they cannot be completely ruled out

After the report was made public, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” Many media outlets did not mince words to describe the nightmarish scenario painted in the report about the future of our planet. The frontpage headline in The New York Times read, “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us.” The Atlantic described the crisis with two words: “It’s Grim.” One of the authors of IPCC’s 2001 report told CNN, “Bottom line is that we have zero years left to avoid dangerous climate change, because it’s here.” On the other hand, in an opinion piece in the conservative The Wall Street Journal, a physicist expressed scepticism about coverage by the media. He wrote, “Despite constant warnings of catastrophe, things aren’t anywhere near as dire as the media say.”

Eight years in the making, the report essentially validates the seemingly bleak future that many of us foresaw with trepidation. It also confirms what scientists had predicted even before coal-fired power plants were built. In 1856, American scientist Eunice Foote was the first to describe the extraordinary power of carbon dioxide—the driving force of global warming—to absorb heat. The first quantitative estimate of climate change influenced by carbon dioxide was made in 1895 by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist and Nobel laureate.

For the general public, physicist James Hansen of NASA sounded the alarm about climate change after his testimony to the US Congress in June 1988 on the detrimental effects of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Yet in 1995, the IPCC is on record stating that the ability to connect climate change to human activities is “currently limited.” This time around, the IPCC admits that they can now link recent natural disasters with climate change in a way that they have not been able to before. What an about-turn!

The latest IPCC report is a stark reminder of what we are experiencing today—scorching summers roasting millions of people worldwide, out-of-control wildfires, protracted droughts, widespread famine, killer storms, torrential rainfall followed by cataclysmic floods, and more. These are among the most visible and damaging signs that the Earth’s climate is changing for the worse as a result of burning fossil fuels. And all these weather-related events are happening because the world warmed by a “mere” 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, with each passing day, these events will become more intense, turbocharged, amplified, and worse.

Thanks to the report, many Republicans in the US Congress, who for decades disputed the existence of climate change, no longer deny that the Earth is heating up because of greenhouse gas emissions. Or perhaps the statement from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—that July was the world’s hottest month ever recorded—forced them to acknowledge climate change. However, they are still unwilling to abandon fossil fuels.

Since the 1980s, emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide, have ballooned to unprecedented levels despite repeated, and at times frantic, warnings from scientists about “civilisation-shaking” catastrophes. Scientists at the International Energy Agency say that emissions of carbon dioxide “are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021, the second-largest increase in history, reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Climate is controlled by how much of the Sun’s heat arrives at and remains trapped near the Earth’s surface. Because the Sun is expected to shine at the minimum for another five billion years, we can envisage no major changes in the incoming heat for many thousands of years to come. Thus, the changes we will see in climate from now until 2050, a cut-off year determined at COP21 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, will mostly depend on how much of the arriving heat is retained by the Earth’s surface.

Having said that, even if the goals of COP21 are met, the Earth will still be warmer in the future than it is today and the warming trend will continue because it takes a long time for the Earth’s climate to adjust to the changes in its energy budget, resulting from increased greenhouse gas concentrations. Besides, if emissions of carbon dioxide dropped to zero tomorrow, climate change will continue to play out for centuries because the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere have lifetimes of hundreds and thousands of years. Given this circumstance, we can still keep warming below catastrophic levels by going carbon negative together with zero emission. Carbon negative means removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than adding to it.

Climate change and Bangladesh

As for Bangladesh, it is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Although the global share of carbon dioxide emissions by Bangladesh is a meagre 0.21 percent, climate change has already been inflicting untold miseries on its people. The government has identified floods, cyclones, droughts, tidal surges, tornadoes, river erosion, water logging, rising sea level and soil salinity as major hazards that are behind a shift in migration and increasing poverty.

Bangladesh has a hot climate, with summer temperatures that can hit 45 degrees Celsius. In a world that is hotter by 1.5 to two degrees Celsius, heat waves will break new records, with more than half of summers being abnormally hot. Northern Bangladesh will enter a new climatic regime, with temperatures above levels not seen in the past 100 years. In light of this fact, the government is rightfully demanding that industrialised nations, who are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, reduce their planet-warming pollution without further delay, compensate poor countries for the damages caused, and fund them so that they can be better prepared for a perilous future.

In the past few years, the Bangladesh government made significant advances in disaster risk reduction. It has constructed a series of multi-purpose buildings that are used as storm shelters during cyclones, significantly reducing mortality. Notwithstanding, the damage and loss of income due to climate change is on the rise. Nevertheless, if Bangladesh wants to become a middle-income country, the government should focus on mitigation along with adaptation, and move away from coal-fired power plants.

On a different note, the amount of methane emitted by Bangladesh is so high that the country is now becoming a significant contributor to environmental degradation. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can cause 28 times as much warming as an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide over a period of 100 years. According to IPCC, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

Melting of glaciers and ice sheets

A few words about the effects of global warming on one of the primary sources of fresh water are in order here. Out of the 71 percent of water that make up the Earth’s surface, the vast majority, over 96 percent, is non-drinkable saline water in seas and oceans. Just 3.5 percent is fresh water, but a minuscule amount—approximately one percent—are in freshwater lakes, streams and in the atmosphere. The bulk of the fresh water, almost 70 percent, is trapped in ice and glaciers. While most of the ice is in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland, some are scattered as glaciers in the mountains around the world.

The glaciers we see today are remnants of the past Ice Age, an alternating period of melting and freezing that lasted about a million years. Yielding only to the warmth of the Sun’s rays, these giant rivers of ice grind their way to the sea, crushing everything in their path, scouring the landscape, shaping mountain peaks and carving broad valleys.

Considered to be the “gold standard for measuring climate change,” glaciers are a natural data bank. In between their thick layers of compacted snow, glaciers hold records of volcanic eruptions, chemicals in the air and changes in the atmosphere. They reflect variations in the pattern of weather and climate over long periods of time.

Glaciers feed many of the world’s important river systems, including the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus, and directly or indirectly supply millions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes. Communities living at the foothills of large mountains use glaciers as a source of water.

Across the high mountain region from the Hindu Kush to the Himalayas, which stretches from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, air temperatures have risen by nearly two degrees since the start of the 20th century. In response, glaciers are melting and retreating, permafrost is thawing and weather patterns are becoming more erratic, disrupting previously reliable water sources for millions and triggering more natural disasters. Scientists are worried that the impacts will hit not just those living in the mountains, but also millions of people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan living in the river valleys below.

Melting of glaciers has another effect. More melting means more water pools in lakes on top of the glaciers or at their lower snouts. Since the late 1970s, the number of glacial lakes across the Himalayas in Nepal has more than doubled. These lakes are often growing so fast and hold so much water that they have gushed through the rock piles holding them back, resulting in devastating floods. Additionally, steep slopes that were locked in place by frozen soil have thawed, causing rockfalls, collapsing terrains, avalanches and mud slides.

Because of global warming, ice sheets are melting at breakneck speed and will continue to melt. Indeed, a historic heat wave in July melted ice in Greenland large enough to flood the entire state of Florida with well-nigh two inches of water. At the same time, extreme flooding from higher sea level will continue to get more frequent, and the sea level itself will continue to rise well into the next century, mainly because of thermal expansion due to the amount of heat the oceans have absorbed so far.

Widespread loss of ice sheets will likely alter climate in other complex ways. For example, their white surfaces help to keep our climate relatively mild by reflecting the Sun’s rays. When they melt, darker exposed surfaces will absorb and retain more heat, thereby raising global temperatures.

It is now a truism that global warming begets more warming. Therefore, the effects of climate change will worsen with every fraction of a degree of warming. Even if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the kinds of extreme weather events we are experiencing this year, in winter and summer alike, will become more severe and more recurrent. Beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists say the climate system will be unrecognisable. In all likelihood, it will lead to the disappearance of small island nations and low-lying coastal countries, as well as unleash tens of millions of climate refugees upon an unprepared world.

What will be the response of our leaders and policymakers after they read the IPCC report? It will not be an exaggeration to say that world leaders, who are under tremendous pressure to deliver on promises made at COP21, cannot distinguish the divide between rhetoric and reality. Hence, at COP26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland later this year, we should not expect any firm commitment from them to save the world. Instead, their speeches will be like the ones given at past climate-related summits—”full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Finally, the well-researched and well-intentioned report on climate change and recommendations for mitigation and adaptation contained therein can, metaphorically speaking, be characterised as a “recovery mission” rather than a “rescue mission.”

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

America’s one-dimensional policy and its consequences

The United States of America (USA – in short, America) still is world’s number one superpower, but nobody can say how long it is going to last. By all accounts, the end is not too far off. As the adage goes, what goes up must come down. Going up is tortuous, but coming down is simply sliding down or tumbling down.

America had risen to the status of super-power only after World War I, when Allied and Axial powers of Europe and Asia had embarked on annihilating each other, destroyed each other’s towns, cities, industries, infra-structure etc., whereas America escaped with little or no damage to its homeland as the country was physically isolated by two huge oceans, one on each side. Winning the war with such minimal damage and benefitting subsequently from the industrial revival was the root of America’s greatness!

Then came the World War II within a short space of time (within just twenty years). Admittedly, America did not jump onto the European war bandwagon straightaway, not because America had visceral abhorrence of war, but because America needed time to assess which party had the upper hand and in the mean time doing a roaring business trading in arms and ammunition with both the warring parties! Nearly half way down the war, America joined in. With minimal suffering and damage to man and material, she romped home to victory. To save lives of few hundred American soldiers in Japan, she dropped two atom bombs in two cities in Japan killing nearly 200,000 innocent Japanese outright and that made Japan’s surrender inevitable!

After the war, America became the undisputed leader and superpower of the world, not because of her war skills or war sacrifices, but because of her ruthless aggressive stance and no moral inhibition. War is perceived in America as a way to establishing supremacy and enhancing superiority.  

America acquired the mindset that it is the master of the whole world and its dictum must be followed. When Saddam Hussein tried to defy American hegemony, he was a target for regime change. America invaded Iraq on the concocted narrative that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Of course, America supplied chemical weapons and other items which can be called WMD previously during the Iran-Iraq war, but Saddam Hussein destroyed them. Despite his repeated denial and despite international weapon inspectors’ failure to find any evidence of WMD whatsoever, Iraq was still invaded and no WMD of any description had ever been found in that country. But that is beside the point. If America said something, that must be true!

During that invasion of Iraq, a number of Hezbollah soldiers from Lebanon were spotted in Iraq and an American General declared that no foreign soldiers would be tolerated in the country. America does not consider her troops in Iraq as foreign! Moreover, to give a religious flavour to the invasion of Iraq, George W Bush revealed that he was, in fact, asked by God to invade Iraq and he just carried out His orders!

America was not mature enough in the world stage to assume the position of a superpower; it was thrust upon her unequivocally after the WWII. Consequently, American foreign policy became lop-sided and unidirectional. Nearly 40 years ago (in 1979), when Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to keep America off from its backyard, American’s immediate reaction was to take revenge and drive Soviet Union out. It was a blatant display of America’s superpower arrogance and desire to avenge its cold war rival, the Soviet Union. How best it could be done was not a consideration for the mighty superpower.

Force must be met with force was possibly America’s guiding principle and its unidirectional policy. She started giving large quantities arms and ammunition to the Islamic fundamentalists, called Mujahideen, disregarding the fact that these fundamentalists also vowed to take revenge against the west.  Pakistan, a fundamentalist Muslim country, was trusted with the Jihadi operation and plane load of money from America, Saudi Arabia and Qatar started pouring into that country. American arms industry was also having a bumper period selling arms to the government, who then shipped them to Pakistan for distribution to Afghan Mujahideen. Within nine years Soviet Union had been bled dry and militarily brutalised. The Soviet helicopters could simply be plucked out of the sky by the Mujahideen with American shoulder launching stringer missiles. America boasted when Soviet Union had to withdraw in disgrace saying, “The Soviet Union had been taught a very good lesson”. Pakistan also bragged, “We defeated Soviet Union and that may have caused the break-up of Soviet Union”.

The same Jihadi group (Mujahideen) with Pakistan’s tutelage became Taliban in less than five years and started attacking American and western interests worldwide. That Mujahideen could become Frankenstein and turn the guns on Americans did not come to American heads; driving Soviet Union out was the one-dimensional approach of America. A superpower with such short-sighted blinkered military strategy is unthinkable. Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other Jihadists around the world had flocked in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule. Within five years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, twin-towers in New York had been blown-up, when the scheme was hatched by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Islamist terrorists must have felt grateful to America for creating a safe haven for them in Afghanistan.

In fact, Mujahideen, Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, FSA (Free Syrian Army) and many more Jihadi groups owe their existence to American patronage. Money and material were supplied by America through various sources to these groups to fight Russia and other countries who are not in America’s good book. That America was creating Jihadi monsters that may one day devour the creator did not come to its consciousness.

Following the attack on twin-towers in New York by al-Qaeda operatives on the 11th of September, 2001, America embarked on a revenge attack on Afghanistan. America issued a demand to Taliban government within a few weeks of 9/11 attack that Osama bin Laden be handed over to America henceforth. Taliban asked for evidence of Osama bin Laden’s involvement in twin tower attack before he could be extradited. America, with her arrogance and rage, would not provide any evidence and issued an ultimatum. When Taliban rejected the ultimatum, America with Britain and other western democracies invaded Afghanistan in December 2001 and systematically started destroying Afghan government infrastructure and Taliban offices. Within few weeks Taliban had been dislodged from power and America took over the country. But there was no trace of Osama bin Laden, as if he had just vanished into thin air!

A decade later, America’s foremost terrorist, Osama bin Laden had been found, not in Afghanistan but in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Pakistan, who was America’s close ally and confidante and who benefitted from shedload of money from America all these years, had a duplicitous role. Osama bin Laden was killed and dumped at sea, but Pakistan’s role in giving sanctuary to him and then denying his presence in the country remains an enigma. 

For 20 years, America and its allies had been fighting a losing battle against the Taliban. The Taliban with a large number of war veterans from Mujahideen during the Soviet era had been lodging a war of attrition against the west. America, in those 20 years, had been pouring in arms, ammunition, tanks, planes etc as well as training Afghans to fight a modern warfare. But the newly trained Afghan soldiers could not or would not fight against the Taliban and just melted away when faced with Taliban. Now Taliban are in control of Afghanistan with all military arsenal that America had amassed and with all freshly trained soldiers. It may also be pointed out that corruption in the Afghan government as well as among American contractors and arms suppliers was simply unprecedented.     

Now over 32 years after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, it is American turn to withdraw. During the past 20 years, America gave the most up-to-date arms and ammunition to Afghan forces, which have now become Taliban’s property. If al-Qaeda, ISIS or any other terrorist group does coagulate in Afghanistan, America would have no guts to go back. Taliban have now become too strong to kowtow after owning all the advanced weapons, tanks, planes of various types etc that America left behind. On top of that, America will have difficulty forming a coalition of partners after the present debacle of unilateral decision to pull out, whereas a collective decision was taken to form a coalition in 2001. America may well also remember the great adage ‘Once beaten, twice shy’. Russia may even have the last laugh and say, “American has learnt a very bitter lesson.”

America can now look forward to its time of ‘progressive nationalism’, as Joe Biden professes and huddle back home as Taliban have completely clipped off its wings and even chopped off its fuselage. Within two years of Soviet Union’s withdrawal, that country disintegrated losing a large number of constituent republics. What fate awaits America’s withdrawal is only future to tell. But undoubtedly reputational damage to America due to its financial weakness, reliability and trustworthiness is simply beyond reckoning. It would be a miracle if America can recover from this debacle with its reputation intact. After all, one must remember that when something starts to slide down, it slides down and down, it never slides up.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, International, Political, Religious, Uncategorized

Three concerns about Taliban 2.0

Taliban fighters at the Afghan Presidential Palace

The Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan. The spectacular fall of the US-backed government has caught everyone by surprise, although for years it was implicitly assumed that the war was lost in Afghanistan. Yet, the US continued its presence and pursued a failed policy of engagement. However, within the past weeks, city after city fell like dominoes to the advancing Taliban forces as the Afghan Army either surrendered or abandoned their posts. This led to the fall of the capital without any resistance. The hasty and unplanned evacuation of the US embassy in Kabul was reminiscent of another ignominious defeat of the United States—Saigon in 1975. Often referred to as the “Saigon Moment”, this came to life one more time, bringing an end to the US military operation launched 20 years ago after the terrorist attacks in the US by Al Qaeda, which was hosted by the then ruling Taliban. The Taliban was dislodged from power in a few weeks and two decades of US presence began.

Since the fall of Kabul on Sunday, the events leading to the moment have been analysed in extensive detail all around the world, and there have been emotionally charged discussions in the Bangladeshi media as well. Many have expressed their delight at the defeat of the US; some praised the Taliban for their success. Since the Taliban blitz began a few weeks ago after US President Joe Biden declared the timeline of the US withdrawal, and it became evident that the Taliban’s victory is all but certain, security experts and analysts of Afghan politics expressed an array of concerns.

These fears have been rejected by those who are optimistic of a new beginning in Afghanistan and want to give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt. They are suggesting that this is Taliban 2.0. Implied in the statement is that the Taliban has transformed. They argue that these concerns are only a part of the anti-Taliban campaign on behalf of the West. These explanations and concerns warrant our attention, particularly now that Taliban rule has become the reality.

A common explanation of the Taliban’s victory is that the people of Afghanistan have rejected the foreign power, as they did the British and the former Soviet Union before. Instead, they have chosen their political representatives. This characterisation of the Taliban as a nationalist force has some merit to it. To some extent, the support for the Taliban among Afghan people can be traced back to their nationalist ethos, but it is not clear whether this brand of nationalism has transcended the deep-seated ethnic divide in Afghan society.

However, nationalist ethos alone does not explain the entire phenomenon; the failure of the US-backed government in Kabul bears some responsibility. The parochial nature of the Afghan elite, the lack of inclusive governance, the incessant factional wrangling among them, the rampant corruption and utter disregard for the larger segments of society—all of this together contributed to the emergence of the Taliban as the alternative. While trillions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money were poured in, there was a disconnect between reality and perception.

The nationalist explanation is also fraught with the problem that the Taliban alone does not represent Afghanistan—those who oppose the Taliban ideology are also part of the national fabric. Afghanistan cannot be imagined without Taliban followers, neither should it be imagined excluding those who do not subscribe to the Taliban ideology. But the most serious inadequacy of the interpretation is that it ignores the political disposition of the Taliban and its record of five years in power between 1996 and 2001.

Explanations of the Taliban’s victory without considering its history and ideological position only offer a partial account, laced with emotion and devoid of the implications. There are those who are elated from ideological considerations, describing the Taliban’s victory as a victory of Islam. Whether Taliban rule is consistent with Islamic precepts is an open question at best. The Ulama have long rejected this claim.

The concerns about the future of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan can be broadly divided into three strands. First, the nature of governance to be introduced within the country. Second, whether Afghanistan will become a safe haven for international terrorist groups. Third, whether Afghanistan will emerge as a threat to regional peace and stability.

Taliban rule during 1996-2001 was marked by the absence of inclusivity in politics and governance. The notion of citizenship was absent, let alone their consent in governance. The basic human rights of citizens were absent. The so-called code of conduct was imposed by force, women’s fundamental rights were taken away, cultural activities were banned, the education system was restricted, and only religious education was given the status of education, and independent intellectual exercise was admonished. These were justified on the pretext of being distinct characteristics of Islam and Afghan society.

A particular interpretation of Islam was imposed as the only authentic and acceptable version. The Taliban did not acknowledge the presence of diversity, multidimensionality, or plurality of Islamic thought. Thus far, the Taliban have not given any indication that they would abandon those practices. This is not only a concern of Western nations, but is widespread among Afghans too. The possibility of such austere measures has already frightened people within the country. Even if the Taliban leadership makes promises, is there a guarantee that their followers will not continue the old practices in different parts of the country?

It is needless to say that Afghanistan was once an al-Qaeda base and training centre. Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan from Sudan around 1996 and under his leadership, al-Qaeda engineered and implemented attacks on US interests, in the United States and elsewhere. Although the Taliban have assured the United States, China and Russia that they will not allow Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups in the future, experts on Afghanistan believe that it will continue to maintain contacts with al-Qaeda, and the link is “unbreakable”. Dr Asim Yousafzai, a Professor of International Relations at the University of Maryland and an expert on Afghan politics and security, told the BBC that “no matter how much Taliban promise, their relations with al-Qaeda are still intact and al-Qaeda is fighting alongside the Taliban in battles against Afghan forces”.

Besides, such organisations can emerge without state support. There is no guarantee that the Islamic State or al-Qaeda will not build their bases, taking advantage of a chaotic situation and finding ungoverned spaces. This had happened in Sahel and Western Africa. Whether the Taliban will have the capacity to launch operations against such organisations is quite a valid question, as is the question of whether they will cooperate with any international initiative against such organisations. Will those within the Taliban with more extremist proclivity refrain from patronising the regional or transnational terrorist groups? These are the second strand of the concerns.

The third concern is how much will be the ideological impact of the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan on countries in South Asia and Central Asia. Harkatul Mujahideen (Huji), a Pakistan-based violent extremist organisation, came into being in support of the Mujahideen. Although the organisation was named Huji in 1988, it was already in existence for quite some time. By 1992, it had expanded into a regional terrorist organisation. Its official journey to Bangladesh began on April 30, 1992—after the fall of Kabul. The Taliban’s victory will energise the followers of its ideology throughout the region. In the past 20 years, the Taliban have been able to recruit members without being in power; now, their success is likely to attract more. Pakistan’s Taliban, which have helped the Taliban in Afghanistan so far, will gain further strength, and may seek return of their favour.

It is imperative to highlight and be vigilant about the use of the manufactured threat of terrorism by states in South and Central Asia to justify the persecution of opponents and silencing of contrarian voices. Authoritarian rulers of the region have been using the presence of violent extremist organisations as an excuse to consolidate their power and legitimise the use of various tools of intimidation. Two decades ago, authoritarian rulers around the world joined the bandwagon of the so-called War on Terror as it provided a carte blanche to engage in unlawful acts. It is necessary for the members of civil society and international community to remain vigilant and resist any kind of attempt to take advantage of the situation.

The ball is in the court of the Taliban. It is incumbent on them to behave as a responsible political actor and ensure that Afghanistan is not going back to 1996. It is also imperative to watch what the followers of their ideology are doing. And it is necessary to watch what other governments are doing under the pretext of the Taliban victory.

Ali Riaz is the Professor of Political Science at the Illinois State University.