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Bangladesh: We must talk about hurting ‘religious sentiments’

Saturday 7 May 2016, by siawi3

Source: The Daily Observer, September 23, 2015

By A Rahman

Four freethinking bloggers have been murdered in the country this year alone. The jihadists who murdered them claimed that their writings demeaned Islam. The killers and their cohorts are of course a tiny minority in society. There are, however, many more Islamists in the country, who might not want to wield an assassin’s knife themselves, but would still like to punish those who ‘hurt the religious sentiment’ of the people, a term which is both more inclusive than ‘demeaning Islam,’ and more commonly in use. Its Bangla rendition, dharmanubhutite aghat (hurting religious faith) has gained quiet currency.

But what do people mean when they say that their religious sentiment has been hurt? There is no acceptable definition of the term, partly because it involves the matter of emotion, which itself is notoriously difficult to define. One has to make do with examples. Here are a few.

Suppose it is the month of Ramadan and you are fasting, and I am not. And I am smoking in your presence. Would my smoking be considered hurtful to your religious sentiment? Would you smack me? Or, consider this situation: News spread that a shoe factory has embossed the word Allah in calligraphic Arabic on the sole of a batch of shoes it has produced. Would that so enrage you that you would perhaps join a crowd on its way to the factory to burn it down? Finally, suppose a prominent personality has publicly uttered words that seemed to derogate some of the acts of piety that are considered fundamental to Islam. Would you wish to see that the severest punishment is meted out to him, hanging not excluded?

All the examples are based on facts, as most readers of this piece would recognise. I experienced the fallout of smoking in my very young days, while avoiding the slap. The example of smoking leads to another. During Ramadan, most restaurants remain closed. Some arrange to serve lunch behind heavy screens to avoid giving offence to the fasting public. The other examples above are too thinly veiled to be unrecognisable.

It is also easy to recognise hurt sentiments that lurk behind each case. This is something that is on many minds; but we do not talk about it. The subject is often considered delicate. It is not that nobody utters a word about it. The words that emerge are, however, sparse and even of the wrong kind, as will be presently shown.
But there are various ways of looking at ‘hurt’ sentiments. The question of attack on any sentiment should, for example, raise a corresponding issue of strength to stand the attack. This is particularly relevant in the present case. A sturdily built fortress can be seen as withstanding any attack on it. The same must be true of faith. I believe most Muslims would on reflection accept that their faith is unassailable. Most will agree that his or her iman (faith) is unassailable by mere cigarette smoke. Otherwise, they will concede, it is not worth having. Yet many Muslims are offended by a whole range of situations some of which I just mentioned.

Or it could be that the real problem lies elsewhere? Could the ‘hurt sentiment’ be merely a proxy for visceral resentment of non-conformism? A fasting man detests one who is not fasting, because he is not conforming to given codes of conduct which call for fasting; or the crowd is out for the scalp of one who seemed to have caricatured the Prophet of Islam (SA), and no such caricature is allowed in the rules of conduct; and to say that the hajj, for example, is a waste of time and money, is seen as a brazen case of non-conformist attitude.

The question of the need for conformity brings in a range of other questions: authority, and political power to enforce conformity, for example. In a significant number of cases, protests generated by allegedly hurt religious sentiment have been heavily tinged by political motives. One needs only to remember how a movement of freethinkers, launched at ganajagoron Mancha at Shahbagh a few years ago came under violent attack from Hefazat-e-Islam, that soon took an unmistakable political turn. It also had a bloody aftermath.

That appears to be the core of the problem. But we do not talk about it much. As one freethinker after another is killed by obscurantist forces, we protest, and rightly so: we form a manab bandhan (human chain), we march, and shout slogans to demand the arrest and punishment of the murderers. The culprits are never brought to book. Another murder follows soon and we start the process of protests all over again. And we still do not talk, or do not talk often enough, about the perils from the march of forces that silence dissent and freedom of thought, forces of which the assassinations are a special manifestation. Voluminous columns churned out in the print media every day contain very little on the topic. More often than not, unconventional writings are stanched by pusillanimous publishing policy.

We do not very often even ask why the problem is largely absent among followers of other major faiths. Bengali Hindus do not go berserk over comments about their deities that would be considered indecent. There are many Bengali Hindu writers who gleefully satirise members of the Hindu pantheon. Even the staunchest adherents of the faith do not ask for their heads. In the Christian world, Jesus Christ is often depicted in unflattering light in literature, the arts, and the movies. Nobody calls for the scalps of the authors of these depictions.

One wonders also, for example, why, when it comes to hurting sentiments, one sees a one-way flood of denunciation of free thinkers from the proponents of literalist Islam. People who may have ideas that do not exactly match traditional thoughts and habits are routinely denounced as kafirs and, even worse, atheists, as naastik. Few seem to care whether this hurts the feelings of those denounced. They too have sentiments.
We normally do not hear from policy makers on the threats to freedom of thought and expression: that freedom does not seem to be of the utmost importance, notwithstanding its high place in the country’s constitution. We hear from them only when a dissenting voice is silenced by assassins. And that too very often comes as one-liners which are unhelpful, or even worse. We tend to hear, for example, after each murder that Islam is a religion of peace and does not support such killings. One can seriously question whether this alone fills the need for challenging those who would brook no dissent. And of course we are also told on such occasions that nothing that hurts the religious sentiments of the people will be tolerated. Whatever else this might have been meant to convey under the circumstances, it clearly does not buttress the right to dissent. And we are also told that the state cannot afford to be seen supporting atheists. Let us recall here that the constitution of the country safeguards all schools of thought, including those that do not involve God.

Finally, the murder of blogger Niladri Chottopadhay prompted some to suggest, among other things, that it is inappropriate for anyone to criticise ‘others’ religion.’ I do not think I was the only one to be taken aback by the comment. Niladri did not write as a Hindu. None of the Hindu freethinkers murdered cared much about their own religion. By no stretch of the imagination, were they Hindus taking issue with Islam. To colour them with the brush of communalism must be the unkindest cut of all.

Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations economist and author of several books