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By Mridul Chowdhury and Sikder Haseeb Khan   
Tuesday, 30 October 2007
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The Condemned Cartoonist
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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.

Three worries

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.

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Police disperse a rowdy protest against the cartoon. Image (c) The Daily Star
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?

Defend tolerance

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.

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Press freedom in the world, according to scores by Reporters Sans Frontiers. The bluer shades are more free and redder shades have more restrictions. Image used by GNU License.
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.


Image  About Mridul Chowdhury | About Sikder Haseeb Khan





Comments (40)
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1. 30-10-2007 21:20
 
excellent article. i completely agree. the defense of human rights has been really poor in bangladesh. everyone is worried to protect her/his own back. we need a national spine unfortunately (there was some spine left still when sk. hasina was out, even with all her other flaws)
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Meenikat
2. 31-10-2007 09:50
 
well-argued! but you should be practical- knowing what this "Government" really is?!... 
let's work on some basic issues like how to move further from this situation!? only criticism won't do much- of we're really looking ahead for any "change"! 
i could elborate if you would like to continue this diaogue!?
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3. 31-10-2007 13:28
 
I too was utterly dismayed by Prathom Alo's grovelling acqiscence in failing to defend the content of the cartoon and the cartoonist Arif. 
To pit the concept of "freedom of speech" against the fatuous construct of 'hurt religious feelings of millions' is a winning card in the hands of religion-brokers all over the world. We've seen the worst spectacle of it during the Rushdie Affair. This time in Bangladesh the secularists were flummoxed, and an artist is rotting in jail. A mighty shame! 
I will write more on the matter.
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4. 31-10-2007 15:58
 
Fayaz (comment no. 2), I would like to know your thoughts about moving ahead. I think others will be interested also. My feeling is moving ahead depends on government action. No one is willing to face the gun of the government and so the government needs to give signal that it will respect freedom of press and freedom of speech. But look at how it is forcing BNP to change, how it is sheltering Jamatis. It is going after corruption of some politicians but it is silent when Jamatis lie by saying there was no genocide in 71. I think the decision is in the government. Mr. Mridul and Mr. Sikder wrote "What the government decides to do.. should be based on the common thread that created Bangladesh and initiated Islam – tolerance and justice." But the government is ignoring things like demand for freedom that created Bangladesh and indirectly supporting Jamati conspiracy. I would like to know your thoughts.
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Moktar Amed
5. 31-10-2007 20:37
 
great piece. i'm glad PB and other blogs have not given up on this issue. keep it up. you guys will make some difference
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Zeeshan
6. 01-11-2007 09:34
 
CTG government has bad record with journalists. So I'm nervous about its commitment to democracy. Look at what RAB did to Akash. 
 
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Matthew
7. 01-11-2007 09:34
 
Sorry forgot to post the link if you want to read more about Akash's story. 
 
http://www.drishtipat.org/blog/2007/10/30/meet-the-tipu-sultan-of-2007/#more-1415
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Matthew
8. 01-11-2007 13:51
 
Big brother is watching journalists. This is from today's Daily Star. 
 
Concern over detective body's move to collect info of journos 
Staff Correspondent 
 
Sangbadik Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad, an organisation of journalists and media employees, yesterday expressed concerns following reports that a detective agency is creating panic by collecting the details of journalists across the country.  
 
They, at a meeting at the press club auditorium, called on the government to stop such move and ensure the environment so journalists could conduct their professional duties freely.  
 
The detective agency, the meeting said, is distributing a 26-point questionnaire, mainly in the northern region, to collect 34 pieces of personal and family information.  
 
The agency has already gathered personal and family details from journalists working in Nilphamari and Kurigram districts, it said adding that now the operatives are working on obtaining such information from newspeople in Rangpur area.  
 
Gripped by panic, the journalists have been reluctant to conduct their professional responsibilities.
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9. 01-11-2007 14:23
 
the government is not going to free arifur rahman. actually i think fakhruddin did the right thing. arif's life was under threat. fundamentalists wanted to kill him. govt did the right thing by keeping him in jail. because he will be safe. its a practical decision.
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antipolitics
10. 01-11-2007 19:48
 
When it comes to politics and decisions based on political expediency, ideals often fly out the window. This article is an attempt to discuss the idealism that this country was built on and that we are increasingly losing in the process of moving from one ruler to another.
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11. 01-11-2007 23:16
 
Gov't is one thing, we can't trust its motives. but i am apalled by the role of the media. they just didn't come forward to the cause of even their own people. There are so many hypocrats everywhere. Thanks for your idealism.
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Meenikat
12. 01-11-2007 23:59
 
Couple of interesting comments about this on drishtipat blog where some parts of this write-up was posted. 
 
Iqbal Says:  
November 1st, 2007 at 8:25 pm  
this is like the 50th time this topic has been posted. While I don’t object to it, where were you when all the attrocities against businesses by the Government was being carried out. 
 
Where were you when a car dealer committed suicide because he did what was considered normal, sold cars given a valid MP license? 
 
Yes you report, but you are never outraged unless its one of your people. That is the sad thing. And no doubt this comment will by “moderated”/censored. Its all good when you “moderate” but not when the government continues to do so. 
 
DhakaShohor Says:  
November 1st, 2007 at 11:29 pm  
I’ve been writing about Arif non-stop since he’s been incarcerated.  
 
I am neither related to him, nor have I worked for either DS/PA or any newspaper in Bangladesh. Nor am I a cartoonist. Pretty sure that goes for almost everyone on UV too. So I really don’t see the basis of calling him “one of your people”. Mr. Iqbal, educate us, what about Arif makes him one of “our people”? Who’s this “we”? 
 
Like him, I’m a Bangladeshi, that’s the only similarity I see. By that token, I take it he might be YOUR people too. 
 
Yes, we haven’t posted about the car-dealer committing suicide (links?). But as you may know, following the line of causality from government action to suicide is much harder than following the line of causality from government action to arrest.  
 
Please go through the UV archives, you will see robust defences of the rights of businesses to operate without government intervensionism. Your accusations therefore are absurd.  
 
And yes, once again I ask: who do you think “we” are that Arifur suddenly becomes one of “our people”?
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13. 06-11-2007 15:46
 
oh stop complaining for god sake. one time something good is happening to the country and you whiners are off complaining. i guess its because you cant be corrupt anymore. it's not easy, right?
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antipolitics
14. 07-11-2007 13:39
 
antipolitics, what you call "complaining" others call demand for justice, rights, and due process. one day if you're in trouble, you'll need "complainers" too.
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Purana Paltan
15. 09-11-2007 10:39
 
Mridul, Do you think CTG is acting with idealism in mind? I don't know but it seems like after 1972, idealism was thrown out. Some think that AL has some idealism left. But AL cant come out of the current crisis without being practical. In the meantime cartoonists and teachers and innocent people and also some politicians and businessmen are suffering
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Zeeshan
16. 04-01-2008 11:13
 
I am hearing rumours that the cartoonist is released secretly? Does anyone know anything?
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