The Politics Of Religion And Blasphemy In Bangladesh

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It all began with a remark made by Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islam Dhaka city leader Rafiqul Islam Khan. Since Sheikh Hasina’s government came into office in early 2009, it has been thwarting political activity of Jamaat and of its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir and harassing the leaders and activists of these two organizations in the street and in their offices and residences.

In such a context, in a discussion programme organized by Shibir on the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Dhaka on 17 March 2010, Rafiqul Islam Khan tended to compare the difficulty the Islamic party people were facing to that of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions in the seventh century. He also reportedly said that Jamaat chief Motiur Rahman Nizami was made a target of political vendetta by Sheikh Hasina’s government, and in this respect he pointed to the fact that Prophet Muhammad also faced a comparable situation when he was preaching Islam.

That was all – a simple statement.

Bending Truth To File a Court Case

The ruling party Awami League got the cue and apparently used a man called Syed Rezaul Haque to file a blasphemy case against Shibir’s leader ASM Yahia and against four topmost prominent Jamaat leaders: Matiur Rahman Nizami (Jamaat Chief), Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (Jamaat Secretary General), Delwar Hossain Sayedee (Jamaat Deputy Chief) and Rafiqul Islam Khan (Chief of Jamaat’s Dhaka city unit and the party’s Acting Secretary General). The plaintiff Syed Rezaul Haque filed the case on 21 March 2010 and claimed that Rafiqul Islam Khan compared Nizami to the Prophet Muhammad and thus hurt the religious sentiment of Muslims. Before the case was filed, few people gave any heed to what Rafiqul Islam Khan had said in the small gathering of 17 March 2010.

People in Bangladesh were flabbergasted for the obvious reason that Jamaat-Shibir people are the ones who regularly protest against any offensive remarks on Islam or on its holy symbols. Ironically, in that court case the same group of people were accused of the crime against which they generally inveigh whenever there is an occasion for protest. No secular media (local or international) regarded Syed Rezaul Haque as intolerant or as a man with anti-free-speech tendencies. No secularist commentators wrote in the print or electronic media or appeared on the television to defend the freedom of expression.

Eventually, Sheikh Hasina’s government used Syed Rezaul Haque’s case and arrested all the accused. Surprisingly, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed were not even present at the 17 March 2010 meeting in which Rafiqul Islam Khan made that fateful remark. The four topmost Jamaat leaders eventually landed in jail with the charge of blasphemy, and gradually the government kept bringing other charges against them, the most fatal being the charge of crimes against humanity allegedly committed by them four decades ago during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Including those four, now altogether nine Jamaat leaders have been incarcerated on the alleged charge of crimes against humanity.

Surprisingly, since Sheikh Hasina’s government came to power in early 2009, there have been many incidents of blasphemous remarks in various parts of Bangladesh. Most of these have been against the Prophet Muhammad and many of them have been reported in the Dhaka-based Bangla vernacular daily Amar Desh. Perhaps coincidentally, most of the blasphemers in different parts of Bangladesh who have been making offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad are Hindu school teachers. And the Hindu community in Bangladesh is proverbially regarded as a vote bank for Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party. I mention below some examples.

1. On 14 July 2011, while teaching English to Year-10 students, a Hindu high school teacher asked one student a question which the student did not understand. The teacher Sankar Biswas scolded the student and called him a goat. When the student protested that he was not a goat, Mr Biswas said human and goat are similar as both have beard. The student then asked the teacher whether Rabindranth Tagore was a goat since he also kept a beard. Mr. Biswar became infuriated and said the Prophet Muhammad was also a goat as he kept beard. (Amar Desh, Dhaka, 16 July 2011, amardeshonline

2. In a teachers’ meeting at Dhaka’s Dhanmondi Government Boys’ School on 26 July 2011, a Hindu teacher named Madan Mohan Das commented on the Prophet Muhammad as someone who used to marry whenever he saw a beautiful woman. He added that Muslims do not need to go to Makkah to perform hajj, as they can do that by visiting the house of a man who has married 15-16 women. (Amar Desh, Dhaka, 31 July 2011, amardeshonline

3. A another Hindu school teacher named Pradip Kumar Das in the district of Moulvibazar went to a local shopping mall to repair his mobile phone on 30 July 2012. At one point he got engaged in an argument with the mobile phone shopkeeper. Since the shopkeeper was a Muslim, Mr. Das made an offensive remark on the Prophet of Islam in order hurt him. (Amar Desh, Dhaka, 1 August 2012, amardeshonline

4. Another Hindu school teacher named Ujjal Kumar Dey made a sarcastic remark on the Prophet Muhammad while teaching students at a school in the district of Jessore on 27 September 2012. He also told students not to share that with anyone outside the class; otherwise he would give them a lower grade. (Amar Desh, Dhaka, 30 September 2012, amardeshonline.

All such blasphemous remarks were probably isolated.

Organizing Blasphemy

However, the culture of blasphemy took off in an organized fashion in Bangladesh with a rally in Dhaka’s Shahbagh where on 5 February 2013 a big group of pro-Awami League and left-leaning chanters started to gather to press home their demand to have Jamaat leaders executed for the alleged charges of crimes against humanity. Other than shouting for the death sentence for the Jamaat leaders, the Shahbagh rally organizers were involved in two types of cultural activity. Firstly, they performed stage dramas featuring and caricaturing Islamic personalities and institutions. Secondly, they waged a cyber-war and posted blasphemous remarks on Allah (God), the Prophet Muhammad and various Islamic rituals. I quote below remarks that some of the bloggers made against Islam:

During the February 2013 rally at Shahbagh, using the pseudonym Tamanna Jhumu, Ami Rahman Piyal in a post asked whether Allah would appear from the seventh heaven to save Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee from hanging. In response, another blogger named Rana Roy posted: “If Allah appears, He will be hanged as well.” Another key organizer of the Shahbagh rally Ahmed Razib Haydar termed the Prophet of Islam as “Mohammak” (great idiot) while making obscene remarks about Islam.

A Dhaka-based vernacular newspaper Amar Desh reported blasphemous remarks that the Shahbagh rally organizers made previously. Some of them are:

On 29 July 2010, blogger Arifur Rahman said: “Mad Muhammad in his hallucination used to think that Zibrael visits him, that’s how he invented imaginative stories of Allah and made a religion called Izlam.” On 26 August 2010, blogger Asif Mahiuddin posted: “Shame! Allah lover Brothers, you were making Allah to smoke marijuana up until now.” Using the pseudonym Satan, blogger Biplab Pal posted on 1 July 2010: “I urinate on the religion of razakars [a derogatory term he used to describe Jamaat people in Bangladesh].”

I have mentioned only few blasphemous remarks and, for the sake of decency, ignored a number of other more offensive postings which are highly obscene and loaded with erotica. Such remarks may not sound too offensive in a western setting, but in a country like Bangladesh these are extremely unacceptable.

My question here is not whether one has the right to post such remarks or not. And, considering the scope of this essay, nor do I want to engage in the discourse of the freedom of expression here.

Inconsistent Governance

What I want to argue here is that, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been highly inconsistent and self-contradictory in her handling of blasphemy incidents in the country. She facilitated the incarceration of Jamaat leaders for the 17 March 2010 remark of Rafiqul Islam Khan. However, in all other cases she has been either silent or complicit with blasphemers. She is not known to have taken any effective action against all those Hindu school teachers who made sarcastic remarks on the Prophet Muhammad. Moreover, she offered whole-hearted support and patronage to the blog blasphemers who have been associated with the February 2013 Shahbagh rally. Recently, after huge public anger over the culture of blasphemy among the Shahbbagh bloggers, the government has arrested few of them, which Bangladeshi people believe is simply eyewash.

Influential ministers of her cabinet and leaders of her Awami League party attended the Shahbagh gathering to show their support. In a statement in Bangladesh parliament on 11 February 2013 Sheikh Hasina expressed solidarity with the Shahbagh chanters many of whom are blog blasphemers. As one Dhaka-based English day reported: “Expressing solidarity with the movement, she [Sheikh Hasina] said she has absolute support for the spirit of the young generation, but she is worried about their nighttime security” (Daily Star, Tuesday, February 12, 2013, thedailystar

Sheikh Hasina Makes A Special Point

The blog blasphemer Razib Haydar was killed in Dhaka on his way back from Shahbagh rally on 15 February 2013 allegedly for reasons related to his extra-marital affairs. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited his home on Saturday 16 Feb 2013 and regarded him as a Shahid (martyr of Islam). As Daily Star reported: “Hasina reached Rajib’s tin-roof house at Palash Nagar in Pallabi at about 3:45pm and stayed there for about 20 minutes. She consoled Rajib’s bereaved family members and assured them of justice” (Dhaka, 17 Feb 2013, thedailystar

There have been hundreds of incidents of kidnaps, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and the police shooting people dead in the street in Bangladesh since Sheikh Hasina came to power in early 2009. She rarely visits the residence of any victims. But in the case of the blasphemer Razib Haydar, she made an exception. Sheikh Hasina initiated the prosecution and penalization of dozens of Bangladeshi citizens for making critical remarks against her and against her father even though such remarks in any democracy in the world are completely tolerated. For details, see the daily Amar Desh (21 Feb 2013), amardeshonline

Sheikh Hasina’s government arrested Jamaat leaders for one very small remark by Rafiqul Islam Khan (very few people will consider the remark as blasphemous). Conversely, she showed unconditional sympathy to the hardcore blasphemers involved in the Shahbagh movement. This complicates her view of the sanctity of Islam and her handling of blasphemy cases. More so, this may cast doubt on the intention behind her practice of wearing the Islamic headscarf. Many Bangladeshis believe that the headscarf in her head is to attract voters. This group of people also believes that Sheikh Hasina is involved in doing politics with Islam and blasphemy, as she used these two interchangeably for political purposes.

Shimul Chaudhury is a journalist from Bangladesh who specializes in news and issues related to Bangladesh.