Beginning of a new dark age 

Irtishad Ahmad 

“Those to whom intellectual freedom is personally important may be a minority in the community, but among them are the men of most importance to the future.”  - Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science.

A new dark age, it seems, has befallen on Bangladesh.  Theocracy is threatening to strangle all rational thinking.  We are witnessing a sad and strange phenomenon, reminiscent of the barbaric Middle Ages.    

Mr. Matiur Rahman, the editor of a leading vernacular daily, Prothom Alo, offered a ceremonious apology (tauba) to the Khatib of Baitul Mokarram Mosque.  Two distinguished advisors of the Government of Bangladesh as well as several other newspaper editors were with him at the well-publicized ceremony.  The clerics, distinguished citizens (the editors), and the members of the ruling clique all were present.  As if it was a scene from the Athenian persecution of intellectuals.    

The oddity is obvious but nobody seems to be questioning:

  • What authority does this Khatib have under the law and constitution of the country?  Why did Mr. Rahman go to the Khatib for begging his clemency?  Even if it were a crime in the eyes of law, what authority did the Khatib have to pardon him?

  • What is the big hoopla about?  Why should the religious feelings of some people be hurt by this cartoon? 

  • Under what circumstances it is reasonable to complain about hurting one’s religious feeling?

  • Who should be held responsible, the cartoonist; or, the unreasonable, uneducated religious hate mongers that are used to throwing a tantrum for insensible reasons?

  • Why should the society, in general, and the government, in particular, appease these religious extremists? Why should they even be tolerated?

  • Why are these fundamentalists being given upper hands by the government? Is there any hidden agenda here?

  • What is the civil society (intellectuals, journalists, politicians, professionals, lawyers, editors, and teachers) silent on this issue?  Are they terrorized?  Is our worst fear coming true then? Is Bangladesh turning into a Taleban-type theocratic state? Are we leaving in a police state, where common people are terrorized by the state machinery?

These questions are leading us to yet another interesting but very important question about who is really running the country; the clerics, the Care Taker Government, or the Army? 

Arifur Rahman, a young man only twenty years old, drew a cartoon that involved the name Mohammad, not necessarily the Prophet.  It was an innocent and funny cartoon, somewhat childish, though.  Arif landed in jail for this “crime.”  Sumanta Aslam, the editor of Alpin, a weekly magazine of Prothom Alo lost his job.   Alpin is now suspended.  There are two pending lawsuits against the Editor and the Publisher of Prothom Alo.  The just-released Eid issue of a very popular weekly Shaptahik 2000 has been declared banned by the authority citing religious insensitivity.  The fallout is enormous and out of proportion; despite the fact that, this sort of cartoons is very common.  A similar cartoon appeared in 1998, in a children’s magazine published by Islami Chatra Shibir as we came to know now.  Nobody seems to have even noticed, no one complained about hurting anybody’s religious sensitivity (See Mullah’s double standard, Shamim Chowdhury, September 20, 2007,

The current accusation is absurd and farcical.  It has been said, “religious sensitivity” of the majority Muslims is hurt – what does this really mean?  Why the “religious sensitivity” of the majority Muslims is like a feeble air-filled balloon waiting to be poked by a pin (no pun intended)?  Where is the strength of faith or Imaan?  Why should the Prophet’s image be so fragile that it gets threatened and shattered by a trivial cartoon of a 20 year old?

The mention of the word “majority” gives rise to some obvious questions when the issue of “religious sensitivity” is discussed.  What about the minorities?  Is it okay to hurt their feelings by declaring Islam as the state religion?  Is it okay to disrespect their religious sensitivity by adding “bismillah” in the constitution?  Logically then, it should be acceptable to the Bangladeshi Mullahs if India is declared a Hindu state since Muslims are a minority there and, it should be fine if a sermon from the Bed or the Gita is inserted in the constitution of India.  Because the religious feeling of the minority does not count!

Some, including the Honorable Advisor for Legal Affairs, are discovering a deep conspiracy behind the now-infamous cartoon.  Although, any reasonable person would be hard-pressed to find any message in Arif’s cartoon, let alone a conspiracy.

What we are seeing in the aftermath, however, convinced me that there was indeed a conspiracy – the cartoon was not the result of that conspiracy, it was the other way around. The conspirators found an opportunity in the cartoon they could use to pursue their ill motives. They could have used something else, and would have no difficulty finding something else, had this cartoon not been published. It is obvious that the real reason behind this mayhem is not the cartoon itself but the political motive of the fundamentalists assisted by their agents in the government and bureaucracy, and tolerated by the so-called civil society of Bangladesh.  These conspirators can never gain state-power, nor can they stick to it, by an electoral process.  Their only hope is to gain power and remain powerful by creating chaotic situations in the country.  The cartoon offered them an opportunity to create such a situation.  

Meanwhile, Arifur Rahman is languishing in the prison.  Poor boy, he probably did not even know what his crime was.  He was not defended by any attorney in the court.  None in Bangladesh demanded his release yet.  Not even the Prothom Alo Editor, Mr. Rahman; although he apologized for himself and his newspaper.  Well, Mr. Rahman may have succeeded in saving his back and belly from the wrath of fundamentalists, but what is going to happen to Arif?  By harassing and punishing him for no logical or legal reasons, what kind of message the government and the judiciary of Bangladesh is sending to our youth, to our youngsters?  Our future depends on them, yet we are telling them not to think freely, not to question authority; we are telling them to live in fear, and in terror.  What kind of future generation are we building? 

Miami, Florida

September 21, 2007