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The Exploitation of Misery: Reflections on Suffering as Capital

Updated: Apr 3

Iftekhar Sayeed was born, and lives, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Danforth Review, Postcolonial Text (2004, 2008) and Dalhouse Review. He teaches English. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” - George Orwell 


Bengali Nationalism Versus Islam


In a democracy, Muslims would have been a deprivileged minority (see Hindutva), but for Pakistan, created in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. East and West Pakistan, separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory, were Bengali-speaking and polyglot, respectively. Bengali nationalismas antithesis to the Islamic identity of Pakistan reared its head in the fledgling country. Sheikh Mujib turned out to be the champion of Bengali nationalism, and his Awami League (AL) party its political vehicle. The culmination of Bengali nationalism was the civil war between the two wings of Pakistan in 1971. India invaded East Pakistan, routed the Pakistan army, and created the new country, Bangladesh. 

In 1975, Major General Ziaur Rahman (known as Zia) came to power in a military coup. He speedily reversed the secularism and nationalism of Mujib and gave recognition to Islam with his political vehicle, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).  Zia was assassinated in 1981. In 1982, Lieutenant General Hossain Mohammed Ershad became chief martial law administrator, and assumed the presidency.

However, in 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Western donors, no longer needing pro-capitalist dictators, threw Ershad under the bus and ushered in democracy in 1990. A decade of peace and stability came to an end.

Now, there were two major political parties: the BNP headed by Zia's widow, Khaleda Zia (women in Pakistan often adopt their husband's most commonly addressed name as their surname), and the AL headed by Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina. The two dynasties plunged the country into violence. Skipping the intervening years, Sheikh Hasina and her AL assumed power in 2008 and has continued in power to this day.

Bengali nationalism, or Bengalism, had come to stay.


The Mother Of The Muses


Bengalism exploits the memory of the suffering of 1971 exactly the way Zionism exploits the memory of the suffering of the Holocaust. The ruling party, the AL, calls any protest an act of betrayal of the "spirit" of 1971. Estimates range from 500,000 to 3 million killedthe former number informed through opinion of David Reynolds (2000). Bina D'Costa has pointed out that "an upper figure gave the new country greater legitimacy."

Bengali nationalism cannot afford to remember the famine for it occurred under Sheikh Mujib, and therefore constitutes an antithetical narrative. Forgetting precludes the addition of autogenocidaire to his honorific Bongobhondu (Friend of the Bengalis). Mujib, and now his daughter Hasina, literally incorporate Bengali nationalism.


A Sleep And A Forgetting


After the floods of 1974,  “The government did not make available to the hungry people large quantities of rice that were available, and merchants exported it to India" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988). The official death toll was a meagre 26,000. Willem van Schendel, in his History of Bangladesh, observes (2009): “ is thought that the excess mortality resulting from the 1974 famine may have been near 1.5 million. In demographic terms it was quite as stunning a disaster as the war of 1971:


“By the end of the year, the Bangladesh government stood exposed as inept, indifferent and heartless….Seventy distinguished Bangladeshi economists, lawyers and writers issued a statement saying that the famine was man-made and had resulted from ‘shameless plunder, exploitation, terrorization, flattery, fraudulence and misrule.’ They added that the government was ‘clearly dominated by and…representative of smugglers and profiteers’" (Van Schendel, 2009).



Rise, Memory!

Finkelstein rejects the explanation that Jews did not talk up the Holocaust because they were too traumatized: "The problem was that Americans didn't want to listen" (2001).


The BNP, on the face of it,  must be admired for not touting the number of the dead in the famine under its rival, the AL. However, its silence reflects a wider reality. “Not only can breaking a conspiracy of silence hurt a group’s public image, it can destroy its very fabric,” observes Eviatar Zerubavel (2008), the group here being the nation-state of Bangladesh.


In the introduction to The Americanization of the Holocaust (Flanzbaum, 1999) the author points out that discussions about the Holocaust were rare among Americans, Jews, and others after the war. This observation often led to references to The Diary of Anne Frank. However, it is noted that the play's producers, who were Jewish, believed they needed to reduce the emphasis on the play's Jewish aspects to appeal to a broader audience, as they were driven by considerations of what would be commercially successful. They felt compelled to "tone down" the play's Jewishness (Flanzbaum, 1999).

"In early American cinematic responses to the Holocaust, not only was the Jewish homeland notably absent but so was the [n]azi genocide itself," writes Sara Horowitz (1999).  

“While you were listening to your Mozart, my mother and my father were marched to the gas chamber where they were killed,” narrates the Jewish girl in  Morituri. The details are left to the imagination. In the same year, in Return from the Ashes,  a Jewish doctor returns from Dachau, brokenbut Dachau remains off screen. 

“The Holocaust” is an ideological representation of the [n]azi [H]olocaust (Finkelstein, 2001). "Through its deployment, one of the world's most formidable military powers, with a horrendous human rights record, has cast itself as a 'victim state'"  (Finkelstein, 2001). He notes the complete silence over the subject of the genocide as he was growing up: his parents were survivors. "This was not a respectful silence. It was simply indifference" (Finkelstein, 2001).

Finkelstein rejects the explanation that Jews did not talk up the Holocaust because they were too traumatized: "The problem was that Americans didn't want to listen" (2001). He argues that the real reason behind the silence was the conformist policies of the Jewish American leadership and the political situation of postwar America. American Jewish elites hewed close to American domestic and foreign policy, thereby acquiring power (2001). 

In 1956, Israel, Britain, and France together launched an attack on Nasser's Egypt for nationalizing the Suez Canal. President Eisenhower pulled back the aggressors  (Finkelstein, 2001). After Israel displayed its military might in 1967, America claimed it as an asset. American Jews would now represent western civilization against "Arab" barbarism. The 1955 and 1965 entries for Israel in the New York Times Index each filled 60 column inches; in 1975, it filled 200 column inches (Finkelstein, 2001).

The explanation that American Jews' anxiety for the existence of Israel in 1967 roused their memory does not square with facts. Israel's existential crisis occurred in 1948, when the Jewish state well-nigh disappeared under Arab onslaught but for a timely supply of Czech weapons through the intervention of Joseph Stalin (Kramer, 2017).

According to Reynolds: “Soviet arms and training helped the Yishuv circumvent the Anglo-American arms embargo and played ‘a key role in saving Israel from military defeat in the initial stages of the war’" (2000).

Finkelstein quotes Peter Novick: "It was when the Holocaust was freshest in the minds of American leaders - the first twenty-five years after the end of the war - that the United States was the least supportive of Israel" (1999, as cited in 2001). 

When reading The Americanization..., one is struck by the absence of any mention of the Roma (Gypsies) or the handicapped. The Reich killed approximately 400,000 Roma. And not many are aware of the T-4 Program. In fact, the genocide began as an euthanasia program for the mentally ill. 

The Holocaust is apparently exceptional and “unique.” Parallels between suffering and Jewish suffering  make an "immoral equivalence" (Finkelstein, 2001).

The Holocaust is also used as a justification. Finkelstein notes (2001) the murder of a million Iraqi children through UN sanctions imposed by America and Britain to punish "Saddam-Hitler" (the actual figure was 1.7 million). Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright blithely announced that, "the price is worth it" (Frankopan, 2016). 


Recollection And Community


The logic of the nation-state requires drawing  blinds to its own wickedness, in addition to the urge to homogeneity through forced assimilation (the Turkish Kurds) or forced emigration (Palestinians and the Rohingyas  from Myanmar).

Ishan Tharoor of The Post chronicles the denial and amnesia of nationalists writing/rewriting their history, from Russia under Putin to India under the Bharatiya Janata Party to China under Xi Jinping. This phenomenon can be understood in the context of social identity theory, as developed by Henri Tajfel and others. Social identity threat, as explained in this theory, can arise when individuals feel that their group is not adequately recognized as a distinct entity with its own unique characteristics. This identification with a group can significantly boost the self-esteem of its members. Additionally, when combined with a sense of victimhood, whether real or perceived, it serves as a strong support for an individual's ego.

David Houghton elaborates on this concept in his work Political Psychology: Situations, Individuals And Cases (2009). A unique type of social identity threat arises when a group's moral conduct is scrutinized. This form of threat can affect even those members of the group who bear no personal responsibility for the group's actions (2009).


Meanwhile, The Economist journalists highlight Henry Kissinger's different perspective. Mr Kissinger, like many Republicans, [is] worried that American education dwells on America’s darkest moments[.] In order to get a strategic view you need faith in your country….'” In Wolf Lake, a conscientious deserter encounters a patriotic American. The deserter, suffering from what we would today describe as moral injury,  epitomizes Kissinger's nightmare because he holds no nationalistic sentiments (for further reading see The Post’s The Bengali Blood on Kissinger’s Hands.)  


"The higher the death toll rises…the less people seem to care." Juliette Lennox, in Al Jazeera on Gaza, makes this observation. The sentiment reminds one of the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.”  The previous attribution resonates more for Bangladesh: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”. 


Lennox refers to our “cave men” ancestry “when we lived in much smaller circumstances [and had] no concept of 20,000 people.” As hunter-gatherers, we lived in  groups of twenty to thirty (Haywood, 2011). 


Lennox goes on to explain how “psychic numbing” and collapse of compassion occur. The way in which tragedies are felt and statistics are nodded to.

“Psychic numbing is often apparent when people are culturally removed from the context of a tragedy.” And there's evidence that empathy is racially motivated (Contreras-Huerta, 2013). Additionally, Robin McKenna  writes in the Oxford University Press blog:

“Humans are prone to bias, irrationality, and various forms of prejudice. From an evolutionary perspective, this is no accident. Biases can be viewed as adaptive responses to an environment that often rewards 'thinking fast' over 'thinking slow.' schIrrationality can also be adaptive, especially in contexts that incentivize group cohesion over accuracy.” 

The offer to Zionists of a generous slice of East Africa, accepted, and rejected, after nearly tearing the group apart, exemplifies the triumph of the irrational.

“At the heart of nationalismand among the most peculiar feature of its ‘grammar’ is its simultaneous treatment of the Other as everything and nothing,” observes John Keane. “The Other is seen as the knife at the throat of the nation. Nationalists are panicky and driven by friend-foe calculations; they suffer from a judgement disorder that convinces them that the other nation lives ."


“Thinking fast” was precisely the desideratum of the nationalist philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte assigned a special role for the German people (Hosle, 2017). He disallowed the turtle-like slow-thinking, reasoning individual, who, in their ivory towers, come in for savage attacks.

Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic noted that cohesion and solidarity often amounts to dehumanization. Fichte developed “one of the most anti-Jewish polemics in modern German intellectual history” (Hosle, 2017). Lennox adds to this and observes: “[The media] have been…selectively dehumanizing them….” An excellent rant appeared in The Atlantic, titled Against Barbarism: “The reality is that barbarians have attacked the margins and in some cases—as on 9/11—the core of the civilized world.” 


Malcolm X observed:  “But whites speak of Muslims almost synonymously with violence.”


“Anti-Muslim sentiment, measured in public opinion polls, hate crime statistics, and legislation, is reaching record levels (Oxford University Press note on Overcoming Orientalism, 2021).

“Islamism is a monster I know too well,” opines a Muslim physician, Qanta A. Ahmed, in The Post.

 Frantz Fanon observes that the settler regards the natives as inhabiting a bestiary. “The native knows all this, and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other's words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory" (Fannon, 1963).


Ten years at Parliament Square protesting the Iraq sanctions received scant attention for Brian Haw, who was “puzzled that so few others could spare the time to come.” Acknowledgement of the Iraqi child deaths would constitute social identity threat.

Perhaps no one showed up because of how deep dehumanization has seeped into the minds of neighbors. Palestinian people have been described as “Human animals”: the words used by Israel’s defense minister

Given all this, why do we commemorate astronomical numbers of the dead? For group solidarity. It may not be that we are faking it (as is the case in Bangladesh). On the occasion of the 400th Thanksgiving, The Washington Post observed that hardly anyone bothered to visit the  statue of Ousamequin, the sachem of the Wampanoag Nation. “Because while the Wampanoags did help the Pilgrims survive, their support was followed by years of a slow, unfolding genocide of their people and the taking of their land.”


"This was not a respectful silence. It was simply indifference.” The elite decide who and how many will be remembered, and who and how many will be forgotten. 


Contreras-Huerta, L. S., Baker, K. S., Reynolds, K. J., Batalha, L., & Cunnington, R. (2013). Racial Bias in Neural Empathic Responses to Pain. PLOS ONE, 8(12), e84001.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1988). Famine. (15th ed.).

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the World (C. Farrington, Trans.). Grove Press.

Finkelstein, N. (2001). The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Verso.

Flanzbaum, H. (Ed.). (1999). The Americanization of the Holocaust. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Frankopan, P. (2016). The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Bloomsbury.

Haywood, J. (2011). The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance. Princeton University Press.

Horowitz, S. R. (1999). The Cinematic Triangulation Of Jewish American Identity. Johns

Hopkins University Press.

Hosle, V. (2017). A Short History of German Philosophy. Princeton University Press.

Houghton, D. (2009). Political Psychology: Situations, Individuals And Cases. Routledge.

Keane, J. (1988). Civil Society. Polity Press.

Kramer, M. (2017, November 6). Who saved Israel in 1947? Mosaic.

Oxford University Press. (2021). Overcoming Orientalism.

Reynolds, D. (2000). One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945. W. W. Norton & Co.

Van Schendel, W. (2009). A History of Bangladesh (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Zerubavel, E. (2008). The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. Oxford University Press.

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