|The Condemned Cartoonist|
|By Mridul Chowdhury and Sikder Haseeb Khan|
|Tuesday, 30 October 2007|
Page 1 of 2
Last month, the military-based government in Bangladesh jailed Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist for a Bengali daily newspaper, Prothom Alo. The cartoon, published in a supplement of the newspaper, and subsequently banned, was said to have offended religious sentiments. Extremists organized furious protests around the country. Fitting nicely into a caricature commonly made in the West, some began to demand the execution of the cartoonist.
The editor of Prothom Alo apologized profusely to sections of the Muslim clergy, saying that it was a “mistake” to publish the cartoon and that no offense was intended. Photos of him holding the hands of religious leaders and begging for forgiveness, in the company of government mediators, were published widely to placate the extremist reaction.
How do we interpret this? To us, three issues about the incident are especially worrying. The first concerns the clergy. The photo of the editor of the most-circulated Bengali newspaper pleading for mercy provides a telling symbol of which direction the balance of power may be tilting in a historically moderate Muslim society. We waited for a moderate section of the clergy to emerge, but alarmingly, there was none.
Second, the role of the government—promptly banning the publication, arresting the cartoonist and jailing him without charges, sponsoring a formal apology by the editor—leaves open questions. Was it a pragmatic move that averted instability, or was it symptomatic of a wider problem, especially when one considers that the government’s anti-corruption and political reform drives have been lenient with members of Islamist parties while cracking down hard on the mainstream political leadership?
Third, and most worryingly, the defense of freedom of speech has been woefully weak. No major newspaper came out to defend basic rights. No editorial spoke of the integrity of the media. No commentary and op-ed was published that took a principled stand. No prominent lawyer took the risk to point out what the constitution allows a cartoonist to do. In the age of fear and self-censorship, the only voice in support of fundamental rights was in a handful of blogs.
The irony of lessons forgotten
Let us take you back about 35 years ago, when Bangladesh was just a newborn nation. There was a widespread feeling of optimism and hope for creating a nation based on social justice and equity – a nation that would value religion as every citizen’s personal choice, a nation built on tolerance even towards those who actively fought against the notion of an independent Bangladesh during the liberation war. Although controversial, a General Amnesty declared by Bangladesh’s leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, arguably helped to squelch a potentially bloody retribution against war criminals and collaborators. The seed of tolerance was sowed at the very initial period of this nation’s history.
Now, let us go back some 1600 years ago, during the initial years of Islam when Prophet Muhammed (SM) lived. One of the core ideals of his life was tolerance towards those who humiliated him at many points in his life and mercy even towards those who murdered his immediate family members. It is well documented how he forgave the person who brutally murdered his uncle, Hamzah. He led his life in a way that epitomized the following verse from the Quran: “Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant” (Quran 7:199). There are many who believe that he even offered prayers of forgiveness for those who scorned him with the reasoning that they were doing wrong only because they were ignorant.
More than three decades after the birth of Bangladesh and more than fourteen centuries after the emergence of Islam, how much of the core values that constituted their respective origins do we see practiced in one of the largest Muslim countries in the world?
The cartoon by Arifur Rahman is a source of grievance of scores of Islamist activists in Bangladesh who have risen up in arms to see Arif severely punished – some have even felt it their ‘sacred’ duty to declare death sentence on him. Isn’t it ironic that we are defying the very teachings of the Prophet in the name of trying to uphold his respect? Isn’t it a disgrace that we have ignored the peaceful and tolerant teachings of Islam and the Prophet (SM) to the point of making Islam look to the outside world like an intolerant and barbaric religion?
What the government decides to do about cartoonist Arif should be based on the common thread that created Bangladesh and initiated Islam – tolerance and justice. While Arif may be ‘ignorant’ and has no doubt hurt the sensitivities of many Muslims, he is not a criminal, and thus deserves to be forgiven, as our Prophet Muhammed (SM) would have done. If we are really striving for democracy and freedom, then these should be defended vigorously when they are most threatened.
If the government fails to free Arifur Rahman and give him adequate protection for his life, it will only fan the fire of religious bigotry and ignorance in the country. If unchecked, this fire runs the danger of extending to proportions that we see in some other Muslim countries, hampering our international relations and jeopardizing our image as a ‘moderate Muslim nation’ that can serve as an example for others. We hope that this government will be prudent in taking a decision on this matter since it is not just an issue of freedom of expression but one that goes to the very fabric of who we are as a nation.