The Ghosts of Al-Hajjaj in the Muslim World

A dervish, whose prayers met with answers, made his appearance, and Hajjaj Yusuf, calling him, said: ‘Utter a good prayer for me’, whereon the dervish exclaimed: ‘O God, take his life.’

 He replied: ‘For God’s sake, what prayer is this?’

 The dervish rejoined: ‘It is a good prayer for you and for all Muslims.’

— Gulistan: Shaykh Sa’di

Al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf al-Thaqafi (40-95 A.H.) was a tough military general who later became governor in the service of Umayyad rulers. In 73 A.H. he was sent by Abd-al Malik ibn Marwan to Makkah to bring the territory under Umayyad control. His seize of Hejaz resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent inhabitants. Although he was a brilliant orator, a highly gifted man of literature and an effective administrator, history remembers him mostly for his cruelty whose campaign had killed such Islamic luminaries as Abd-Allah ibn Jubayr (RA). So, it is not difficult to understand the prayer of the saint, quoted by Shaykh Sa’di.

The Muslim experience since the days of colonization of their vast territories, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century has been anything but a pleasant one. As the colonizers left –” forced out or negotiated, new states emerged with new flags under new leaders from Indonesia to Senegal, each promising to better the lives of their citizens. And, as if by some odd design or bad karma, they failed miserably to deliver their promises. Of course, there are some exceptions, but the gain achieved in the post-colonial era was more like a zero-sum result for vast majority of the people.

The new leaders governed, borrowing rules and traditions that seemed to have worked well for their former masters, but were a total mismatch for the new states under the new environment. What was worse, the very religion that has had always induced its adherents to seek equity, truth and justice was even misused by the newer leaders that soon replaced the old guards. Mindful of the role of religion in Muslim society, Islam came to be falsely portrayed as a religion that is not at odds with monarchy, dictatorship and all other mumbo-jumbo systems.

As the ruling system strayed away from the dictates of Islam, the Muslim world was visited by military rulers like Yahya Khan, Suharto, Zine ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, let alone the kings and emirs that even bought security for their very existence from their former colonial masters. Many of them were al-Hajjaj in spirit. They forgot the advice for good governance so many times uttered by men of piety: “Know that subjects are God’s dependents, and he who wrongs the people has wronged God. Among the rights of subjects are that (the ruler) prevent them being wronged either by himself or by his agents; that he keep the roads safe, protect caravans on the highways, and punish thieves and brigands; that he give justice to the oppressed and support the poor; that he not conceal himself from them …; that he enforce the command of what is right, strengthen the qadi [judge] and the muhtasib [officer in charge of detecting and punishing offenders of the Law and public morals], and respect strangers. – [Bahr al-Fava’id]

As these Muslim rulers enriched themselves with wealth beyond imagination denying the due share to their people, they promoted cronyism by creating a class of sycophants. The best of those who protested were killed, and the good ones were either forced out to a life of exile or left to rot inside solitary prison cells. So the landscape that once produced revolutionary leaders like Husayn bin Ali, Mus’ab and Nafs-e Zakiyah in the early decades of Islam became a land of the silent majority and wicked few under the neo-Pharaohs and neo-Nimrods.  

Truly, the post-colonial experience in the Muslim world has been a history of shame imposed upon the people who deserved better.

It is no surprise to find that the Arab world, which had a glorious history of resisting occupation, tyranny and injustice, is now trying to correct its sad past by overthrowing its despots. Two have gone, and others are trying to avoid joining their queue by acting like al-Hajjaj. Many of these despots are inherently bad. They inherited bad genes and are now showing their real evil selves through the massacres that they are committing against their own people. So when push came to shove the son – Seif Al-Islam al-Qaddafi is found to be no better than his half-educated father. He even has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. What a waste of education!

And look at the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad! More than 400 people have died since demonstrations began two months ago. On Monday, the Syrian Army stormed the city of Dara’a, the center of the popular opposition. Phone, water and electricity lines have been cut and journalists barred from reporting firsthand what is really happening there. Bashar’s father Hafez was a butcher of Hama that killed some 40,000 people nearly three decades ago, and if needed, the younger British-educated ophthalmologist will have no moral qualms in surpassing his father’s murderous records.

And what about the Arab League, which has issued a statement declaring that pro-democracy protesters “deserve support, not bullets” without even mentioning Syria? If the Arab League and its leaders want to be taken seriously, including in their own countries, they have to do better; better than what they did for Libya. They must also come against the murderous regime in Bahrain without any equivocation.

The silence to condemn the Syrian massacre is simply inexcusable. The UN Security Council hasn’t even been able to muster a press statement. The International Criminal Court should investigate the Syrian and Bahrain governments’ abuses. It is good to see Obama administration’s push to have the United Nations Human Rights Council spotlight Syria’s abuses in a session on Friday. This welcome gesture shouldn’t and can’t excuse its earlier hypocritical stand with the findings of the Goldstone report, prepared by the same UNHRC that found Israel guilty of war crimes in Gaza in 2008-2009 (days before Obama was sworn in). Ultimately, Syrians will determine their country’s fate. Others can either choose to support them or simply stand like an immoral bystander.

Bangladesh government has opened its own International Crimes Tribunal that is hearing cases of war crimes in 1971. Included amongst the accused is a BNP MP by the name of Salauddin Qader Chowdhury (SQC) for his all too well-documented roles during the War of Liberation. He was personally responsible for murder and torture of many Bangladeshis. His residence was a torture house in which he himself inflicted unbearable pains to many freedom-loving college students.  If it had not been for the post-Mujib military backed regimes that came to power, he would have been tried and found guilty for his heinous crimes decades ago.

I had the opportunity to meet SQC in Prime Minister’s Office in 2005 when he and his son Fayyaz were directly involved in land-grabbing attempts of my parents’ real estate in Chittagong. During my meeting, I found out what a habitual liar and a sociopath he is.

The published reports last week suggest that SQC put up another theatrical performance in the courtroom. He is a master of deceit. Thus, I am not at all surprised with his latest theatrics in front of the media to draw sympathy. He will try everything possible to save his skin.

There are many former criminals and torturers who later modify their evil ways by renouncing violence and setting a better record as truly repentant humans; but to expect such a change of heart with this evil man was like asking for miracles. Thanks to the nasty hate-filled partisan politics in Bangladesh, he even became the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliament Affairs during the BNP rule, which bestowed him a state ministerial rank. And this, in spite of widely held beliefs that he had murdered a student leader who had belonged to a rival wing of the same party! Only in Bangladesh can one expect to see such political circus.  Over the years, as he renewed his old ties, further solidifying his political comeback, he was able to behave like a Mafia Don with a ready supply of criminal cadre that would do his dirty jobs, which stopped at nothing –” from land-grabbing to money-laundering to harassment and killings.

In April of 2005, using a notorious fraud and Rajakar by the name of Jaker Hosain Chowdhury as his front-man, while he was Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s adviser, SQC abused his official power to grab the real estate properties of my parents in Khulshi, Chittagong. His notorious son Fayyaz called the prominent industrialist Mr. Salman Ispahani of the Ispahani Holdings, living next doors seeking permission to trespass our properties. When denied such an illegal access, Fayyaz and hundreds of his armed goons, with tacit support from a bribed Police Officer in Charge (O.C.), broke into our properties. Within hours his goons evicted 16 tenant families –” many college professors –” that had lived for decades in some of the one-story bungalows within our plot. Over the next ten weeks, Fayyaz and the criminal cadre terrorized my parents, siblings and our remaining tenants, living in the six-story house “Aranika Bhavan.’ In early May, Fayyaz’s goons, demolished ten homes and cut down hundreds of costly trees, once planted by my father.

The criminal land-grabbing activities of SQC and his front-man Jaker were widely covered in all major newspapers in Dhaka and Chittagong in April –” June, 2005. While in late June of that year the properties were restored to our family we continue to be threatened by SQC’s criminal land-grabbing syndicate.

As I see it, SQC is a criminal psychopath with no bite of conscience, which he never had and will probably not have in the future. So, now after all these years, it seems destiny has eventually caught up with him. And something that should have happened some 39 years ago, trying people accused of war crimes is taking place now in Dhaka. It is a welcome event to most Bangladeshis who are tired of being victimized and abused by the powerful criminal Dons who behave as if there is no accountability for their horrendous crimes.

I am very hopeful that justice would be served, and the matter of shame to the memory of Bangladesh’s valiant freedom fighters and martyrs would eventually be erased.

However, I am disappointed with the media coverage on this matter of national importance. Some newspapers are even acting like the devil’s advocates to draw people’s sympathy for the accused war criminal –” as to how degradingly he was brought into the courtroom. Forgotten there were SQC’s deceits, let alone crimes in the last 40 years against his victims, including my own family.

The hateful partisan politics has an all too familiar corroding effect in Bangladesh. Many in opposition are questioning the validity of the tribunal as if it was an attempt by the ruling Awami League (AL) to marginalize its opposition. They forget that it was a mandate with which AL won the last election. What’s also so absurd is the all-so-evident attempt by certain news media groups to stop anyone from voicing their support for the tribunal! When Bangladesh Expatriates Council, an advocacy group comprised of non-resident Bangladeshis living in the USA, sent its rejoinder last week to two most circulated English dailies, both of these have avoided thus far in publishing the piece, as if they are afraid of the Mafia Don. What a shame to journalism!

Bangladesh’s news media can better serve the interest of her people by publishing the sad saga of the victims of crimes rather than trying to draw sympathy for the ghosts of al-Hajjaj. As the maxim goes: to show kindness to a venomous snake is to harm the peasant. Sooner we understand that ‘forbearance with the wicked only increases their iniquity’ the better we are prepared never to allow a repeat of our humiliation.