Young men with broken dreams of a business career are turning to fundamentalism
By Jeremy Seabrook
You see them everywhere on the streets of Dhaka, Jakarta, Karachi, the boys with their qualifications: a Master's in personnel, a diploma in management, a degree in marketing. You meet them on the battered buses, in the dusty parks, in the flyblown eating-houses, clutching copies of their "biodata" in plastic folders. They are on their way from house to house, giving tuition to the children of the middle class. These are the representatives of the pinched under-employment of a generation raised on the promise that if only they study business, they will be sure of a managerial job, big money, a security greater even than that guaranteed by government service.
Business culture has seized the imagination of the young all over the world. It has brought new hope to a generation whose educational aspirations have been transformed by its revelations of wealth-creation. They carry textbooks, published in the US, pages of which they learn by rote. Many are from poor families, from small towns and distant villages, who have sold precious land or gone into bottomless debt for the sake of a better life for their children. For them, to study in the capital enhances prestige - distance from the homeplace, it seems, adds value, no matter how academically thin the object of study, no matter how shaky the institution.
It is already clear that most of these young men will not find the place they covet in the global economy. They are dupes of the latest fad to reach the third world, a reach-me-down form of study formulated in the west, and now a major export, of only marginal value to the countries whose young have taken it up with such zeal. Global business culture is calculated to pacify yet another generation of impatient young people. Bangladesh, Indonesia, India are full of unemployed graduates. Twenty-five years ago, their counterparts would have been studying politics and sociology, while their grandparents applied themselves to liberation and neo-colonialism. At that time, they would have been quoting Marx and Fanon, animated by a shining-eyed conviction that they would inherit the earth.
In the process they are committed to a learning as remote from their experience as the study of Tudor history was in the colonial era. Many of the devotees of business have already been disillusioned, embittered that their efforts have yielded no tangible reward. There are no prizes, no salary, no job. They prowl the streets of the capital, hungry, predatory, angry, their trousers frayed, fake logos on their dusty trainers, haunted by a social injustice which the dogmas of their teachings require them to interpret as personal failure.
One consequence of all this has been a profound disturbance to their sense of self. Some deal with this by a determination to leave the country, to find a job, any job, as long as it is far from personal witnesses to their humiliation - a driver in Riyadh, a security guard in Singapore, a cook in Abu Dhabi.
But other able young men have been readily enlisted by criminal gangs, often attached to political parties. Extortion, blackmail, protection money are part of the daily life of the slums. When the Bangladesh National party won the elections in October, the first big changeover of personnel was not in the ministries, but among the mastaans, or gangs, running the river ghats, railway terminals and bus stands.
Gang warfare, fallout from the corruption which occupants of real jobs (especially in the police, customs and excise, the bureaucracy, property speculation and transport) are in a position to practice, does sometimes lead to business opportunities for former students in the lengthening shadow-world cast by the market economy. Killings are to be made, it turns out, often literally: bodies are found on garbage dumps from kidnappings that go wrong, contracts for the murder of territorial rivals or disputants over smuggled goods.
But there is an alternative for those repelled by a world which has rejected their attempts at self-improvement. The politicising of religion offers another kind of self-expression. The money that has poured in from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the past two decades has led to the construction of thousands of madrasas (Islamic schools) and mosques, and the setting up of Islamic charities, many of which are informed by fundamentalist ideology. The courtyards of the big mosques are full of elderly beggars and orphans, the sick and disabled, leprosy and TB patients, who receive food and shelter provided by no other agency. The number of children educated in Islamic schools has increased dramatically, especially since governments have been under pressure from western financial institutions to implement structural adjustments, and have cut spending on education, health and nutrition. It is said that in government schools, the teachers don't show up.
Those who see symbols of decadence in western culture are led to the austere purification rituals of a backward-looking version of Islam. The "purely" economic prescriptions of the IMF, World Bank and WTO have repercussions far beyond the merely economic sphere: they profoundly affect social relationships, culture, religion. Many people see in these a fundamental assault on the sensibility and tradition of the people; a form of the very fundamentalism which they call forth in response, and which is met with astonished incomprehension in the west.
In this way, the very ideology of business serves indirectly as a recruiting agent for a vengeful fundamentalism, for versions of religion and faith unrecognisable to tradition and piety alike. The purveyors of these elegant doctrines of self-enrichment dissociate themselves from the consequences of their apparently secular preachings; with the results that we have seen.
There are, of course, other elements in the business development model and the reactions it provokes. In Bangladesh, the battleground of the warring ideologies of modernised colonialism and politicised Islam is an older, rooted Bengali culture. The Islam of Bengal was generous and inclusive. It co-existed, not only alongside Hinduism, animism, Buddhism and Christianity, but also the humanism of a thousand-year-old Bengali tradition, with its song, poetry and drama of Lalon, Nazrul Islam and Tagore, as well as the ancient music of the paddy fields of Bengal. This culture is being ground between alien ideologies, its antique beauty a dwindling force in lives to which it not so long ago gave meaning.
It was stated by the US and the coalition against the terror of September 11 that the response would be military, diplomatic and humanitarian. No question of any effort to deepen an understanding of the roots of fundamentalism; and for a very good reason. If it were our objective to anticipate, and perhaps even to forestall, such developments, this might require an acknowledgment of our own role in the creation of the cycle of hope, disappointment and anger. In the vacuum left by the extinction of socialism and the decay of secular cultural identities, people have found in the disciplined asperities of a regressive version of Islam a hopeful, and sometimes, murderous alternative.
It seems we are content to rest in an idle laissez-faire of the spirit, which permits events to take their course, and only then to seek to rectify them by intensifying a violence which we have already helped to unleash in the world.
Courtesy: The Guardian
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