[Cross posted at E-Bangladesh]
The first word in the Holy Koran is "Read". When I was a child growing up in Bangladesh, my parents hired the imam of the neighborhood mosque to teach me how to read the Koran. Twice a week after school the imam, an old man with a kindly face, would come to our house for an hour to give me lessons. He would ask me to read out loud certain passages from the Koran, and as I would be reading, he would slowly drift off into a sound sleep. At the end of the hour I would wake him and thank him for the day’s lessons. Although the imam taught me how to read the Koran in Arabic, he did not teach me what the words meant. One day I asked him what the words of the Koran meant. He smiled and replied that I would have to learn the meaning myself. He said Islam was about knowledge and the first word in the Koran was an instruction to Muslims to acquire knowledge.
Growing up in Bangladesh you learn tolerance. I am a child of genocide. My identity, and that of the country of my birth, Bangladesh, was forged by resistance to racial and religious hatred. Three million Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani military and their Islamist collaborators in the name of "God and a united Pakistan". We were killed for not being "pure" enough – for being Hindus, or converted Muslims, or Muslims who sympathized with Hindus or converted Muslims; in short, we were killed for being Bengali. Yet we resisted, and at a cost of three million lives, we created a free Bangladesh with the dream of a secular state where Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews and others could live without fear of intimidation or persecution.
Over the years the Islamists have crept back into Bangladesh. Yet they operated at the margins amongst a populace who had fresh memories of the killings and rapes of Bengalis at the hands of these Islamists. Democracy in Bangladesh ensured that as long as the people had a voice the Islamists would remain at the fringes.
Today with democracy and fundamental rights suspended, and a ruthless military regime at the helm, the dream of Bangladesh is under threat. Today a young Bangladeshi man, Arifur Rahman, is behind bars for a cartoon he drew. His cartoon offended the Islamists and the military government obliged them by putting the young cartoonist in jail. The military government has suspended publication of the magazine that published the cartoon and its editor, one of the most important voices in the Bangladeshi media, has been forced to publicly apologize to the leader of the Islamists – an apology facilitated by the military government’s Information and Law Advisor. Out of fear, no lawyer dared to defend the cartoonist in court as he was shipped away to jail.
The editor and publisher of Prothom Alo, the newspaper that published the cartoon, have been charged with sedition and blasphemy. No publication in Bangladesh has dared to defend the cartoonist. In fact, the most progressive English language newspaper in Bangladesh, The New Age, published an editorial yesterday that offered no support to the cartoonist and backed the government’s decision to jail the young man for retelling a joke that even Islamists themselves have published before:
Alpin’s controversial cartoon seems to have been a product of the pseudo-liberal minds and the editorial authorities of the daily have rightly offered unqualified public apology for hurting the ‘religious sentiment’ of the Muslims at large. And that the Prothom Alo authorities do not subscribe to the pseudo-liberal idea of the cartoonist was also apparent, at least for now, in the administrative measures that they took against the person/s responsible for publishing the cartoon. The government, on the other hand, has justifiably confiscated the particular issue (September 17) of the fun magazine, and taken legal steps as regards the cartoonist. The matter should end here, while the cartoonist, already arrested, should be ensured justice within the framework of the law of the land.
When The New Age newspaper, a paper which has been outspoken against the military in spite of constant intimidation, capitulates and cannot find the voice to defend a cartoonist for drawing a cat, Bangladesh has succumbed to a climate of fear.
To add to the climate of fear created by the military government and the Islamists, another publication was banned yesterday because it contained an article that apparently hurt "the religous sentiments of the people."
Demonstrators gathered at the north gate of Baitul Mukarram national mosque and brought out a procession after the juma prayers, demanding ban on Prothom Alo and arrest of the editor and publisher of the daily.
Protestors clashed with police as lawmen prevented them from marching towards the newspaper’s office at Karwan Bazar. At least 50 people were injured when the police used clubs to disperse the protesters, witnesses said.
Demonstrations were also reported in Chittagong and some other district towns. Copies of the newspaper and effigies of its editor and publisher were burnt in Dhaka and Chittagong.
The clash broke out in Dhaka at around 2:20 pm when a group of activists, apparently belonging to Hijbut Tahrir Bangladesh, tried to cross the barbed-wire barricade near police control room at Shahbagh crossing. Later, some other groups joined the Hijbut Tahrir, but the police chased the demonstrators and used batons to disperse them.
The protests were led by Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist political party that aims to create an Islamic Caliphate. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a media savvy Islamist group that has tentacles in many Muslim and European countries. In August of last year, I wrote about them in a post entitled "Meet The Enemy". Hizb ut-Tahrir was at the forefront of the Danish cartoon protests and never misses an opportunity to exploit controversy to push its Islamist agenda. Until now, however, their reach and their influence has been limited in a largely secular Muslim country such as Bangladesh. Last year I wrote:
While bin Laden hides in caves Hizb ut-Tahrir takes its message freely to the young people of the Muslim world. It targets colleges and universities in the Muslim world looking for recruits to its idea of jihad and of an enduring Caliphate. For example, in Bangladesh, which is a largely secular Muslim majority country, Hizb ut-Tahrir is starting to make inroads with university students and intellectuals.
The group’s presence as a political party in Bangladesh is small but nonetheless vocal. It markets itself as a discussion group to university students and openly holds weekly meetings at the country’s leading universities. It feeds on political unrest in the country and presents itself as a utopian alternative to all the country’s ills. It capitalizes on Muslim grievances and focuses hate and anger toward the West and the country’s own government.
The tactic is always the same: blame the West and then find a way of tying the country’s government to the West. In many cases, the grievances are legitimate. That is exactly where Hizb ut-Tahrir’s appeal lies. It first voices a legitimate grievance and then pivots the rhetoric into hate.
Hizb ut-Tahrir are masters at capturing the media spotlight and magnifying the smallest hint of a controversy. During the Danish cartoon controversy, it was Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bangladesh and elsewhere that engineered the protest marches for the benefit of Western cameras
In a largely secular country like Bangladesh, Hizb ut-Tahrir will not garner much support and will likely remain in the fringes. However, it need not have a huge following to mobilize hate. Its target audience, university students who are looking to channel their frustration, are the engine that fuel the armies of hate. [Emphasis added.]
The situation in Bangladesh has changed dramatically since last August. Democracy has been squelched and the country is now under military rule. Dissent has been criminalized under draconian laws passed by the military government. The secular political parties have been silenced. In this environment, where the will of the people becomes irrelevant, Islamist parties thrive.
Military governments in South Asia come to power at the cross-section of three forces: the "civil society", the Islamists, and the military. It is "civil society" that makes a military coup viable. In a naive and arrogant hope that they can substitute their wisdom for that of the masses, "civil society" enables the military to overthrow the "corrupt" political leaders. Once the military comes to power it is "civil society", in the mistaken belief that this time the military will "fix" the system, that enables the military as they implement more and more draconian policies and roll back more and more fundamental freedoms. There is however no room for "civil society" on the autocratic end of the "J curve" and at some point disillusionment sets in as the military turns on "civil society". At the same time, the Islamists inevitably benefit from military rule as dissent and the free flow of ideas are stifled. Islamists provide a ready constituency for the military and in return the Islamists get what they crave from the population: silent obedience. This pattern of military rule has happened in Bangladesh once before and has been the norm in Pakistan for most of its history.
In Bangladesh, it was "civil society" types like Motiur Rahman, the editor of Prothom Alo, and Mahfuz Anam, the publisher of Prothom Alo and the editor and publisher of the leading English language newspaper The Daily Star, who were the most fervent supporters of the military coup last January. Today both Motiur Rahman and Mahfuz Anam find themselves facing the wrath of the Islamists, the beneficiaries of the regime they helped bring to power. When Motiur Rahman, once one of the most powerful editors in the country, begged forgiveness on bended knee to the leader of the Islamists the capitulation was complete.
The Islamists now have the upper hand in Bangladesh. With the military government’s help they have managed to silence the very outspoken Bangladeshi media. They have bred fear in the hearts of the population. They have set Bangladesh on a path of both militarization and extremism. Tolerance, the essence of a stable society and the founding dream of Bangladesh, has vanished from the streets of Bangladesh. Hizb ut-Tahrir and other Islamists are today burning newspapers and anything else they can find that hurts their "religious sentiments". The first instruction of the Holy Koran, to read – to acquire knowledge, is being abandoned in Bangladesh.
With the mainstream media cowed into silence, the Bangladeshi blogosphere is raising its voice. Today the battle is joined. Brave Bengali language bloggers from inside Bangladesh are speaking out at Somewhere In blog and at Sachalayatan. Expatriate English-language Bangladeshi bloggers like Rumi Ahmed, Dhaka Shohor and Rezwan are spreading the word to the outside world, and group blogs like E-Bangladesh (where I also write) and Deshi Voice are giving voice to those who are living in fear.
I ask you the reader to join us in spreading the word about the slow death of the dream of Bangladesh. The real war on terror is being fought on the streets of Bangladesh. It is not a war between the West and Islam – it is a war between knowledge and willful ignorance; between freedom and persecution; between reason and insanity. It is a battle in which all of us have a stake.