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Bangladesh has its very own Muhammad cartoon controversy. Two days ago the leading Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo published a cartoon in its weekly supplement "Alpin". By today the military government of Bangladesh had arrested the cartoonist, banned the cartoon, confiscated all copies of the newspaper issue, and forced the newspaper to fire the editor responsible for publishing the cartoon. Prothom Alo has also apologized profusely to its readers in two front page editorials.
The Bengali language cartoon entitled "Name" ("Naam" in Bengali) depicts a conversation between a Muslim man and a boy:
Man: Hey boy, what is your name?
Boy: My name is Babu.
Man: It is customary to say "Muhammad" before saying a name.
Man: What is your father’s name?
Boy: Muhammad Abu.
Man: So what is on your lap?
Boy: Muhammad cat.
For the record let me say that I found the cartoon to be quite funny. It made me chuckle and remember the countless times when people would inadvertently add "Muhammad" – a very common practice in Bangladesh – to the beginning of my name.
What the Islamists find offensive about this cartoon is that the Prophet Muhammad’s name is being used to describe a cat. Somehow that is considered offensive even though the Prophet Muhammad was apparently very fond of cats. Presumably these very same Islamists did not find it offensive that the man who piloted a plane into a skyscraper causing massive loss of innocent life was named "Muhammad Atta".
Opportunistic Islamist politicians in Bangladesh have jumped on this cartoon to try to silence a newspaper that has often been critical of them. The Islamists have found a ready partner in Bangladesh’s military government. Islamist politicians met with the military government’s Law and Information Advisor Mainul Hosein and got what they wanted:
A delegation led by the Baitul Mukarram mosque’s khatib, Obaidul Haque, called on the law and information adviser, Mainul Hosein, and demanded cancellation of the declaration of the Prothom Alo and arrest of its editor, along with others concerned, before this Friday ‘for showing disrespect to Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (pbuh)’.
The cartoon ridiculed the prophet by adding his name (Mohammad) before an animal, they said.
‘It is a conspiracy to destabilise the country. We are very concerned over the issue,’ Mainul told reporters after the meeting.
The conspirators wanted to throw the country into a chaotic situation, he claimed.
The adviser asked everyone to remain alert against the plot so that the conspirators cannot be successful. [Emphasis added]
It is alarming that the unhinged Information Advisor sees a "conspiracy" in the cartoon. This is the same military government that saw a "conspiracy" when mass protests broke out in Bangladesh last month. Those protests were promptly crushed by a brutal response from the military that included beatings of students and journalists, and the ongoing arrests of university professors.
Since it took power in a coup last January the military in Bangladesh has suspended fundamental rights, intimidated and censored the media, purged the political parties, and created a climate of fear within the country. In this climate of fear the Islamist political parties have been left largely untouched while the two major political parties have been decimated by arrests of their top leaders. In what was a largely secular Muslim majority democratic nation, the Islamist parties played at the fringes – only managing to share power by joining in coalitions with the larger secular parties. However, with democracy and political activity suppressed by the military Islamists have a disproportionate voice. This has been the case in Pakistan through successive military dictatorships, and today Bangladesh is on a similar path.
The military government’s validation of the Islamists’ absurd complaints over a harmless cartoon amply demonstrates the symbiotic relationship the military and Islamists share in South Asia. They both reinforce each other’s paranoia and intolerance for dissent. When democracy is suppressed Islamists thrive in the vacuum. It is then vitally important to restore democracy in Bangladesh.