THE RED HERRING
Ironically, the principles of freedom of speech enabled Jamaat to start making a comeback. In this they were helped by the removal of the principle of secularism from the constitution in 1979
It’s time to take our country back from such terrors Photo- Dhaka Tribune
– SALMA SOBHAN –
To paraphrase Voltaire: “If Taslima Nasreen did not exist, the Jamaat would have had to invent her.” The focus by the international media and national and international human rights and feminist activists on her plight – the threat to her life and the warrant for arrest for a statement which she denied having made – was very necessary and needs to continue despite her recent surrender to the court and release on bail.
However, posing this issue in terms of yet another manifestation of Muslim intolerance, rather than seeing it as the deliberately orchestrated assault by fanatics and zealots it was, played into the hands of obscurantists who use religion for political purposes. A political party of the religious right, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been the prime mover in this matter. To understand the significance of what has been happening in Bangladesh over the last few months, it is necessary to explain the background to all these happenings.
While the Jamaat has very little public support and has gained few seats in fair elections, they wield an influence out of proportion to their numbers because successive governments have pandered to their claims for fear of being seen to hurt public sentiment instead of challenging the Jamaat’s claim to speak for Islam.
The Jamaat never supported the Muslim League before 1947, during the struggle for independence from the British. The Jamaat opposed the Muslim League’s demand for a homeland for the Muslims in India. However, once Pakistan came into existence they started to campaign for political power in the new state by demanding the introduction of Islamic Law, the contents of which would be defined by their theologians.
Pakistan had two wings, the west wing which alone constitutes present day Pakistan and an east wing, East Bengal in undivided India, which attained sovereignty in 1971 after a war of liberation against the western wing. The new state was Bangladesh.
All wars are brutal. This was particularly so because of the political use of religion to marshal forces against the Bengalis. The Pakistani army was mobilised against the citizens of East Pakistan. The Jamaat not only collaborated with the army but they were directly responsible for many atrocities.
They were thus totally discredited when Bangladesh became independent. This experience crystallised the determination in Bangladesh never to allow religion to be used for political purposes and secularism was written in as a fundamental principle of the new Constitution.
It is beyond the scope of this article to catalogue the strategies of the Jamaat to become politically acceptable again. Ironically, the principles of freedom of speech and democracy enabled them to start making a comeback. In this they were helped by the removal of the principle of secularism from the constitution in 1979, the removal of prohibition on the use of religion for political ends, and finally the introduction of Islam as the State religion in 1988.
In the political movement against General Ershad’s autocratic regime in 1990, the Jamaat did not make its earlier mistakes but joined in the mass demonstrations against Ershad’s government. As usual, they did not win many seats in parliament but they were again in business up front.
In 1992 a member of the Jamaat tabled a bill to amend the Penal Code to allow for draconian punishments to be inflicted on persons presumed to have spoken disrespectfully of the Prophet Muhammad (SM) and the Quran. This tabling was not publicised until mid 1994. The bill has been copied word for word from a bill passed in Pakistan in 1986.
Thus the campaign for a so-called blasphemy law (so-called because disrespect to the Prophet Muhammad, however provocative and injurious to the sensitivities, is not blasphemy as Muslims do not arrogate divine status to the Prophet) which appeared to have started because of Taslima’s alleged utterances was, in fact, one that would have had to be mounted sooner or later debate. Without having whipped up a sufficient public hysteria to intimidate the parliament there was little chance of the successful passage of the bill through the legislative process. Which is why one started off with Voltaire’s famous aphorism.
Let us look at the sequence of events. Taslima was already being targeted by fanatics because her novel, “Lajja,” on the communal riots in Bangladesh in 1992 showed that Bangladeshi Hindus had been targeted in retaliation following the destruction of the Babari Mosque in India by Hindu fanatics. The book was banned by the Bangladesh government “in order to preserve communal harmony.”
It was used by a communal Indian political party, the BJP, which had instigated the destruction of the mosque. They got it translated into several Indian languages and started a massive promotion campaign to create a hysteria among the Muslims in India. This further exacerbated the government who confiscated her passport.
All this was very useful to the Jamaat. Their opportunity came when having successfully got her passport back, Taslima on a visit to India was misquoted in an interview with the Statesman. Her interview was not reported in Bangladesh, and she issued a refutation immediately afterwards. However, the extreme rightist paper Inquilab ran the alleged statements and launched their campaign for the introduction of a blasphemy law using Taslima’s alleged remarks as a basis for their campaign.
The question may be asked: Why campaign for a blasphemy law? The law is really a law against free speech. It has nothing to do with religion. It is worth noting that the Jamaat transliterates the word blasphemy into Bengali rather than using the religious (Arabic) term: Kufr, which has a very clear connotation and would not cover the occasions for which the Jammat would use the law.
The answer is that the Jamaat is after power, and anything which brings this within their grasp is grist to their mill. The women’s movement is under continual attack from the Jamaat who are well aware that if they can control one section of society they will be able to shackle all of society.
The point to be borne in mind is that Taslima was central to the Jamaat’s campaign not because their religious sentiments were outraged but because to them free speech is an outrage. It was unfortunate that so much of international media accepted uncritical statements about the nature of Islam made by those who are engaged in using religion to further personal agendas of political control.