(This article was originally published in Huffington Post)
The gunmetal silver Lotus Roadster thunders into the car park of the 12th largest shopping centre in the world, the Bashundhara City Mall. The boys and girls smoking and flirting in the more commonplace GT-Rs and Toyotas nod in respect, in time to the new Prodigy album that comes screeching in its wake. It’s just the kind of thing to get everyone in the mood for Mad Max: Fury Roadshowing upstairs at the giant StarCineplex.
The young girl behind the wheel raises her Maui Jim shades and tuts impatiently. He’s not here. The boy with the Jonny Bravo Redux haircut beside her swipes his Droid Razr and is in the process of leaving a curt message when a longhaired biker rocks up next to them, flashing them his 24-carat gold studded smile.
The yaba he has for them is fresh from Myanmar, even if the scent of chicken bhuna in the tiffin box they’re concealed in makes the girl scrunch up her nose. The wild-eyed dealer and the beautiful young things in the Lotus may come from wholly different backgrounds, but they agree on a few fundamental issues. Money is good, the way Crystal Meth is portrayed in Breaking Bad isn’t quite like how they experience it, and that the long bearded man in the Islamic galabiyya dress in the corner creeps the hell out of them.
For those who hear Bangladesh and immediately picture fly-ridden kids with fat bellies and skinny arms drowning, this may seem like the stuff of fiction, but it’s a normal enough scene for young people in its major cities, most noticeably so in the capital, Dhaka. That’s not to say the country doesn’t have its share of children starving, bigots preaching hate and men who beat their wives, but hey, so do we in the UK.
It’s easy to imagine Bangladesh as yet another hotbed of Islamic extremism, and the recent lynching of Ananta Bijoy Das (the third atheist blogger to be hacked to death in as many months) certainly gives Muslim bashers something to meme about, but the point needs to be stressed: to everyday Bangladeshis, the Islamists are as much of a pain in the arse as they are to us over here.
Bangladesh is officially a secular democracy. The two Prime Ministers who keep tug-of-warring the top job between them since 1991 are both women. Yes, 80% are Muslim and as a people they are fiercely patriotic, but there’s little interest in the idea of a united Islamic world (from politics and food to cinema and cricket, their affinity is with their Hindu neighbours in India and the Islamists’ sworn enemy of America, while being in total contempt of all things Pakistan). The preferred way for Bangladeshis to make their mark on the world is by making a bomb, not setting them off. And right now, Bangladesh is booming.
Your heart would have gone out to the poor sweatshop workers in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory tragedy; perhaps it left you feeling guilty for shopping at retailers like Primark, H&M, Zara and Gap. Well, here’s something you might not have considered.
It isn’t as though companies like PVH (who owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), Benetton or Abercrombie and Fitch keep sending someone out to Bangladesh with the mission to find cheap buildings and fill it with low-paid workers. It’s actually a myth that all these giant western corporations love nothing better than a good old sweatshop. No. What happens is all these giant western corporations give Bangladesh’s numerous textile business moguls shedloads of money, and it’s these textile business moguls who hire teams of middle managers who find the cheap buildings and fill it with low-paid workers.
The thing is… it works. The supply-side economics so dear to Ronald Reagan, championed on our shores by Thatcher and still being peddled by the current government despite its absolute failure to help the poor in anyway but screwed, is actually doing wonders for Bangladesh. The money really is trickling down.
Forget Muslamic Rayguns. It’s Reagan all the way from the top right down to the bottom.
Ask anyone who’s recently visited Bangladesh and they’ll tell you how they were struck by the visible reduction in the number of beggars. They’re working in sweatshops now, and as a cursory look at the label on your clothes will testify, there are thousands upon thousands of them all over the country. And ever since the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and M&S signed an accord on fire and building safety, with most of the big players in retail joining in to pledge big bucks, conditions, while still hardly fantastic, aren’t as bad as they used to be. And to be unfair, even when conditions were officially bad, it still beat begging on the streets of what once was the poorest country in the world.
Luxury malls, sports cars, top-of-the-range gadgets, trendy boys and girls cut from the same cloth as Mumbai fashionistas – this is the capitalist’s wet dream that is Dhaka today, with other cities like Chittagong emulating it in full force. They’ve conquered textile, now the focus is on the other big T: tourism. Bangladesh Tourism Board was set up in 2010, and there are now over a dozen five-star hotels in the country (a suite at the The Radisson Blu Water Garden Dhaka will set you back £450 a night). It’s clear they mean business.
Only nothing takes the shine off tourism quite like a bunch of machete wielding Islamists hacking people to pieces in the streets. I’ll say it again: to everyday Bangladeshis, Islamists are a pain in the arse.
For any Islamophobe who still maintains all Muslim countries share the unified vision to bring down the west and let sharia rule, I invite you to visit one of the many non-hardcore Muslim countries (the difference between the psycho beheading variety and the rest of the non-fighty billions is explained beautifully by the scholar Reza Aslan in this now legendary interview). Whether you choose to go shopping in Dubai or Marrakech, or soak up the history in Turkey or Egypt, or laze on the beach in Bali or Langkawi, you’ll realise one thing very quickly. Everyone you meet – in the souks, in the restaurants, in the streets offering transport, or pointing the way to the finest entertainment and accommodation – they’re not out to spit on your kuffar graves. To sell their carpets, kebabs and camel rides, they kind of need you alive.
Sure, as Muslims they believe the ultimate path to heaven lies in praying to Allah. But as individuals, they’ve long made peace with the notion that day-to-day happiness on earth comes from making money. And whether that’s a street hawker in Cairo or a yaba socialite in Dhaka, they are all too aware that when it comes to embodying the capitalist dream, the Islamist is a pain in the arse.