Battling Islamists in Bangladesh

Mashuqur Rahman

Mashuqur Rahman

[Mashuqur Rahman, USA.]

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.”

Today in a show of force Islamists demonstrated in Dhaka against the Prothom Alo newspaper. They demanded the execution of both the editor and publisher of the newspaper:

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.

Islamists threat in Bangladesh.

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.


Mashuqur Rahman [http://www.docstrangelove.com] is one of the highest read Bangladeshi-American bloggers. Critically acclaimed for his incisive analysis on Bangladesh, US foreign policy and dedicated advocacy of human rights.

[Read posts by Mashuqur Rahman]


17 Responses to “Battling Islamists in Bangladesh”

  1. Kaiser Kabir

    Remember what a bold stand PA took against JMB? Well, where is that stand now? Have the Advisors been dictating the contrite posturing of PA? As far as I know, most of the Advisors are not religious. So, is this pressure to yield to these Mullahs coming from the military?

    I cannot recall the last time the mainstream media apologising to religious fanatics. This capitulation by the PA is a devastating blow to secularism.

    The military should be well-advised against supporting these Mullahs. Most Bangladeshis abhor religious fanaticism. We

  2. ANON

    “No Crime Remains Unpunished”

    Its true. Whether you believe in God or not it

  3. Iconus Clustus

    As I wrote in another post of mine in this forum, I think all of these are linked (and, find Biddut’s take above quite misleading, though in good intention).

    Mash – let me thank you whole-heartedly for a well thought though saddening post. The coup has started to show its colors now… The civil society, with all its elitist apprehensions of how a society should be, is finding itself cornered with a gun in the back of its head in the face of jubilant Islami extremists with laughing faces!!!

    But, honestly – we knew these people before, didn’t we?

    Dr. Yunus.
    Dr. Kamal Hussain.
    Motiur Rahman
    Mahfuz Anam
    Sirajul Alam Khan (though we don’t see or hear him as we do the other guys…)

    And then there are people in the civil part of the CTG…
    Moinul Hussain
    Dr. Fakruddin
    Gen. Motin

    And to keep all things in checks and balances, there is the great all-powerful ruler of the land –

    GENERAL Moin U

    with Gen. Mashud and a host of other Gens…

    Whatever it is… we can’t really be surprised and find an excuse in ignorance, ’cause we really did know what was going down and we thought it was BETTER.

    Edikey takai, o dikey takai, kintu
    Kothao pother shondhan meley na
    Meley na kono ashar alo
    Barei barei aj money porchey…
    ar karo na… Daud Kaider er e kotha –

    Jonmoi amar ajonmo pap!

  4. Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh

    Concern over deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh in the wake of Prothom Alo cartoon issue

    We have noticed with deep concern recent street agitation in Bangladesh sparked by a cartoon published in the supplement of the Prothom Alo, the popular daily vernacular news paper. Any knowledgeable and reasonable person understands that the cartoon does not carry any message contending religious belief or values. In the meantime, the editor of the newspaper has made a very sincere overture by meeting religious leaders and expressing deep regret for publishing the cartoon that has affected individual

  5. Imran

    Mash, an excellent piece. You have jotted down what most of the alarmists of current Bangladesh feels. Things are moving the wrong way. The positive aspect of all this, I believe, is that the worse it gets and the faster it gets worse, the better it will be for the downfall of this authoritarian rule under the guise of a hermit.

    Look at Debapriya? He joins hands with these military rulers after talking big all these years on behalf of our so-called civil society. What a shame!

    Deshi bloggers. We love you. Its Mash, Rezwan and the other Bangladeshi bloggers who should uphold the beacon of the freedom to speak the truth until this beacon can be handed over to the bearers of another democratic Bangladesh. Until that day of glory for freedom lovers, write the truth and expose the evil.

    We demand, “FREE Arif now!”

  6. Akash

    A very thoughtful and incisive piece. For those who are still in the magic thrall of the CT/whatever government, the current event in Bangladesh should be a wake-up call. Analysts in Dhaka and foreign media have spoken before of the danger of the political void filled up Islamists types. And the CTG — army backed, supported, led — is facilitating that, either in a planned manner, which would be quite a dangerous reality indeed (Note: Jamaat not touched in any way), or as a consequence of their brash and arrogant game of dismantling the structure of the main political parties. The result of either is the same anyway. As far as I see, the country is in a mess and is heading towards more because of the militarized environment where laws are being made whimsically, brandished arbitrarily, and deployed mercilessly. No matter how it sweetly it may have started, the CTG simply has derailed the country.

    The photograph of the meeting of the three is most telling. Please notice the facial expression and body language of the

  7. Sid

    The New Age editorial is a spurious, willfully obtuse piece of propagandising. Who do they think they’re fooling? New Age is openly aligning themselves with the perpetrators of the fallacious assertion that the cartoon is anti-Prophet (SAW). Anyone with a brain and a cursory exposure to Bangla culture knows that that’s a lie and therefore a piece of propaganda. New Age is aligning itself with the Khilafists and they have the temerity to call others “pseudo-liberals”. This is yellow journalism at it’s worst.

  8. Mash

    I noticed that a couple of right wing American blogs have linked to E-Bangladesh and the cartoon controversy. Just to give you a feel for the the kind of bigotry and hate we are dealing with on both sides, read this comment on this right wing blog.

    These mullahs in Bangladesh do a true disservice not only by their outrageous actions but also by their overdeveloped sense of outrage at anything and everything. They are outraged at everything — by doing so they take away the middle where legitimate dialogue can take place. What you are left with is genuine debate stifled and bigotry and hate coming from the two extremes. The wingnuts on the American right propagate the same kind of bigotry that we see from the Islamists — the two extremes are quite similar.

    Now, for those people in Bangladesh who were “outraged” by the cartoon about the cat, please read the comment I linked to above and tell me if you understand the difference between hate speech that insults the Prophet and a cartoon. (I’ll give you a hint, the cartoon was not insulting the Prophet).

  9. Muhamad

    An admirable article Mash bhai. I read the Koran, begrudgingly, at the age of 8/9, and I’m yet to derive any import out of it. The Koranic injunction to “read” isn’t applicable to everything, e.g., pre-Islamic erotic literature of Arabia. Let’s not forget what was done to a mere poetess.

  10. Munia

    Its easy to talk so many things, its great to think such a way for the welfare of Bangladesh but its really hard to do something from so far, living in USA!! People go there to make their own life and talk about the prosperity of Bangladesh…really very amaging!! Please come here and utilize your merit, efforts etc to do something….

  11. Frank Hatch

    Dialectical Logic of Islamists:

    “Dialectical logic is found in the core of Eastern and Western thouight. It is a common flaw to the human species. Although the various human cultures have developed their own methods of using this flaw, it is not simply a cultural defect. However, since each culture uses this flaw to defend and to define itself, every attempt to correct the flaw is perceived to be an attack on the culture itself. Islamists are particularly sensitive to this perceived attack; because the dialectical Absolute of the Koran is found in the attempt to synthesize the Old and New Testaments.” (The Lost, page 9)

    Best Regards,

    Frank Hatch
    Initial Mass Displacements

  12. Blind Watchmaker

    Hardliners all over the world do not bend to logic or reason. Fanaticism in the name of theology is wired into the minds of Christian, Jew, Muslim and other religious hardliners. It definitely has something to do with their upbringing or genes or both. It may be a multifactorial process. It should find a place in the new DSM-5.

    To me it doesn’t seem to be normal. Why would people choose a self-destructive apoptotic process to realize their animal instincts. Animals are actually better in many ways. They only kill for food – an absolute necessity.

    How will this self-annihilating process end? We have to wait and see its consequences in Pakistan and other flash points.

  13. Afrin

    Hiding bin Laden in Pakistan has helped the ISI acquire billions if not a trillion dollar in aid from the US to fight terrorism in South Asia and the rest of the world. The whole money is unaccounted for. Laden’s safe haven in Pakistan points to the fact that a major part of that money is siphoned out by the Talibanized ISI into propping up killer suicide bombers and other terrorist networks operating globally.

    Its time that the US looks at its foreign policy more realistically and intelligently. The US foreign policymakers of today are too amateurish and naive. For crooks it would be very easy to sneak through the US designed anti-terrorist fish net.

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