Report: Voices of Dissent: Persecuted Non-Religiosity and Threatened Religious Diversity in Bangladesh

On Sunday 26th February 2017, The Hague Peace Projects, held a discussion titled “the Voices of Dissent; Persecuted Non-Religiosity and Threatened Religious Diversity in Bangladesh”, as part of the Hague Freedom Book Fair in Het Nutshuis in Den Haag.  The event was well attended with over 60 participants.

The event began with a documentary from Frontline Defenders titled Victim Blaming, Bangladesh’s Failure to Protect Human Rights Defenders. This short film was a comprehensive introduction into the difficulties surrounding freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The panel featured Bob Churchill, the Director of Communications for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Bob has had a long-standing interest in secularism, humanism, ethics and epistemology. He previously worked at both the British Humanist Association and Ugandan Humanist Association. Caroline Suransky, who is a board member of the organization Humanistisch Verbond, and professor at the Universiteit Voor Humanistiek. Caroline was previously also a board member for the Foundation for Humanist Education Formation. Her interests lie in strengthening inter connections between partners in the Humanist Alliance. Her time in South Africa formed her world views regarding the personal and political side of ‘human dignity’ and ‘living a humane life’ in a world with differences and inequalities. Olof Blomqvist, who works for Amnesty International as a researcher on Bangladesh and the Maldives. He was previously a press officer for the Asia Pacific region, has worked in Afghanistan for Amnesty International, worked for Doctors Without Borders and The International Crisis Group. Our final panelist Erin Kilbride is a journalist, human rights activist and media coordinator at Front Line Defenders. She works with HRDs to create protection strategies utilizing digital print and film projects. She was previously a gender and juvenile justice researcher in Bahrain, the Gulf & Yemen, Editor at alongside a community organizer with the Iraqi refugee population in the US.

The discussion began with Bob calling upon Bangladeshi bloggers Parvez Alam, Asif Muhudin and Nastikaer Dhormokotha sharing their personal accounts of their struggles with freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Parvez spoke of living low profile and described the increased victim blaming from both the police and government. He explained that the civil society in Bangladesh is failing to unite together against censorship due to deep ideological differences. The situation is unlikely to change for the public until adequate laws are put into place by the judiciary. He urged that there should be increased dialogue to protect the freedom of expression. Asif explained he was one of the first bloggers to be attacked in 2013 and stabbed nine times in the shoulders and back. He was punished for blasphemy by the government for his blog and was imprisoned for three and a half months. Whilst in prison, he had the strange experience of meeting his attackers and soon came to the realization that they were victims of Islamic extremism. His attackers had in fact never read his blogs and acted solely upon the word of their religious leader who told them Asif was anti-Islam. He is still suffering from psychological damage alongside pain in his shoulder. Finally Nastiker spoke of maintaining a very low profile, which involved discontinuing his writing and controlling his movements, as he was aware his name was on the hit list. His panic escalated with every murder he read about, to the point he was scared to leave his house alone. When he heard of Neeloy Neel’s murder, he decided to leave the country. He first moved to Myanmar and then the Netherlands. He described how his trauma is still prevalent, as when he sees large groups of people he still gets nervous. He felt it was vital to explain that he does not categorize Muslims as terrorists as he believes they have been subject to Islamic fundamentalism and are victim themselves. He expressed concern for the numerous Bangladeshi bloggers who have currently fled the country and are in limbo, with no idea of what their future hold with ever decreasing aid from NGO’s. He believes the international community’s attention should be focused on helping these people.

Consequently the panel discussion began with the panelists introducing themselves. The three main topics of discussion were the ICT Prosecutions Act, the phenomena of rising extremism and suggestions on how NGO’s and the international community could do more to put pressure on domestic and international governments on the blogger issue. The ICT Prosecutions Act was explained to be passed by the BNP government in Bangladesh and a text book example of how repressive law works. It was described to have very strange and vague wording about hurting religious sentiments and could be interpreted by anyone to mean anything. It has been used on numerous journalists, civil society activists and even a case where citizens were sharing songs, which were perceived to be anti Islamic and thus ended up in jail for seven years under this act. Initially it was very rarely used but recently its use has sky rocketed. Over the last year there has been some acknowledgment for the need for change regarding this act. The government is considering replacement of this act with a new digital security act, however this is perceived by the international community to have even worse implications than the current act. The panel suggested that the solution would be to push the Bangladeshi government to make a law that meets international standards.

The link between different extremist nationalism was broken down to into two questions, reasons and explanations for what is happening worldwide and why there is more political repression within civil society. The panel explained that reason behind the increasing repression by the authoritarian regimes worldwide is partly due to globalization. Governments fear the bloggers because of their wide readership, national and international connections. To the Government, bloggers are consequently undermining their own national agendas. It would be interesting for the international community to think about the consequences of such actions against activism and the media in their own countries. Erin also spoke of the over simplification of what it means to be an atheist in the Bangladeshi context. She explained that the very strong intellectual and rational rights based justifications that writers are presenting have been largely ignored. The notion of being an atheist or a human rights activist has been blurred into one category, when they should remain separate. She mentioned how the ICT Act is the clearest example in which we can call out the hypocrisy of the Bangladeshi government, as they state they want to eradicate extremist groups however is implementing legislation with the exact stated objectives of extremist groups, resulting in restricted open spaces for persecuted religious minorities.

The discussion ended with the moderator asking the panel for suggestions on how NGOs and the international community could do more to put pressure on Bangladeshi and international governments to protect freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The panelists were united in suggesting that the removal of the ICT Act is necessary, which they believe has criminalized the freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Additionally it was suggested that NGO’s and western governments could do more to promote and further support Bangladeshi activists and the citizens of Bangladesh. Finally it was highlighted that the relation between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia needs to be addressed as it is having a ripple effect on the crackdown of human rights activists in Bangladesh.

Photo’s: Ugo Boss Photography ©






Review Turkish-Kurdish dialogue afternoon with film director Asli Özarslan

At 26th of march 2017 the Kurdish-Turkish working group of The Hague Peace Projects organized a dialogue afternoon with film director Asli Özarslan. She was in The Netherlands for the screening of her film ‘Dil Leyla’ at Movies that Matter Festival. The moderator Nora Ledrhem interviewed her first, and asked Asli Özarslan about her ideas to make the film. Asli said that she got interested in the story of Leyla Imret: a Kurdish woman who grew up in Germany and for whom the troubled situation of her people played a big role in her life.

The goal was to make a portrait of a woman, who decided to leave a safe environment and moved to a poorly developed region. Asli and Leyla did not expect at all that the film would end like this. After te war started in 2015, life in Cizre became extremely difficult and made it impossible for Asli to have contact with Leyla .

‘This was for Layla and also for me the hardest thing I experienced in my life’, Asli said.

The protagonist Leyla Imret was born in Turkey and lost her father there. He was a combatant for the Kurdish PKK and was killed by state forces in a village in the nineties. Leyla and her family immigrated to Germany where she grew up. 21 years later she returned to the city of Cizre and became the mayor, being democratically elected for the HDP.

In following Leyla , Asli observed a strong woman, who was trying to process the trauma of her childhood. In the few moments Asli actually could speak Leyla in Turkey, they were both happy to speak German with each
other, the language in which they feel themselves most comfortable to speak.

When Asli was asked to describe the production, she mentioned that filmmaking in Turkey is hard and brought her her first grey hairs. One obstacle was language. She and Leyla could talk German but to get in contact and get the film permission in the region 4 translators were necessary and very often Asli Özarslan needed to concentrate on the feelings of the people, not understanding a single word. With “Dil Leyla” Asli Özarslan presents her diploma movie and after several screenings in Amsterdam, Greece, Germany and Prague most critiques are positive. This film documents the struggle of Kurds, but is unique in the sense that it is not ‘just another’ documentary in which the ‘conflict is explained’. Asli asked the public: ‘how can I explain such a conflict? The focuspoint was a portrait of a woman who tried anything for her people. She didn’t knew all the answers either.’ That is what she wanted to do. To humanize the victims and by doing that presenting some kind of hope in an hopeless situation.

After a short break the dialogue continues with Rosh Abdelfatah talking as a Kurdish-Syrian filmmaker about his projects in the past and how he saw the situation got worse in Turkey since the Syrian revolution broke out. ‘My stay in North-Syria was much safer than the south-east of Turkey when the war broke out there’.

The second speaker was Zeynep Cesin. A Kurdish-Dutch teacher from the The Hague who founded an organization (Günesin Cocuklari) to collect clothes, food and money for people in need in the Kurdish areas. She also went to all these places when the war was going on and is planning to go again.

From the audience a question came: ‘Why did you go and were you not afraid?’ Zeynep takes some time and says: ‘Yes, when the war started in the summer of 2015, here in the The Hague, we were just sitting and talking about it, we watched the horror on facebook and television. But one time I asked, ok, we are talking about it. But what are we doing actually? Nothing! So I took the decision to go in December 2015. People were in need of shoes and clothes.’ What triggered Cesin the most was a Facebook post of a fellow-teacher asking for help.

Her journey was not without trouble and tensions. Many people thought she was from the Turkish secret service. And the fact that a woman ‘all by herself’ came all the way from Holland for Kurds, was something they couldn’t believe. But when they started to trust Zeynep they were very thankful. During her visits, she saw terrible things, men and women who died in front of her, shot dead by snipers, traumatized people and children who are always afraid of attacks.

The audience listened silently. Zeynep sometimes stopped talking. And than: ‘Sometimes I have moments of flashbacks. But I am glad that I went. I felt satisfied. That I did something. What are these people saying? They want peace.”

Another question from the audience: ‘You have seen all these things. But then you return to Holland, and the discussion is you know, the same as ever? What do you feel about that?”

Zeynep: ‘Its difficult that Turks do not support us. It’s just Kurds who support each other. I mean, I’m asking, don’t you feel what we feel?’

Another from the audience commented on that: ‘Because that place is the centre of the PKK’. This led to little friction in the room, but
then someone mentioned something about the words we use: ‘It’s important to develop a common narrative in which more sides can fit in.’

The whole afternoon was recorded with live stream on Facebook, that is still available on the page of The Hague Peace Project.

Miriam Reinhardt, Tayfun Balçik
30th march 2017


Interview with Varduhi Balyan

This interview was made after the panel discussion “Freedom of Expression in Turkey. Challenges for dialogue & peace” during the Freedom Book Fair 2017.

Varduhi Balyan is a writer for Agos bilingual weekly newspaper based in Istanbul. She is also a MA candidate at the Instanbul Bilgi University in the department of Civil Society Studies. She writes about many topics including human rights, freedom of speech, democracy, civil society, Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and conflict regions. (Speaker description of the program booklet of the Freedom Book Fair 2017)

Could you tell us a little more about your background and your family?

I was born in Armenia and grew up there. At the end of 2013 I moved to Turkey. My family is from Muş, that is a part of Turkey today. They had to leave the region before the Armenian Genocide because of the political pressure and went to Shamkhor, which is part of Azerbaijan today. In the end of 1980’s they had to migrate to nowadays Armenia because of the tensions. Therefore, my family has a kind of migration history. This might be the historical background of how I am connected to Turkey and the reason I am involved in the dialogue process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is it the reason to work for the Armenian newspaper “Agos”?

No and to be honest it is not even about the newspaper being an Armenian newspaper. But I like the line it is following and the work it does. It is not a traditional newspaper. I like its views and I share them mostly.

Actually, do you study and write a Master thesis?

Yes, that is right. I am doing my masters, currently working on my thesis on the civil society involvement in Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process.

How did you get involved in the Freedom Book Fair?

I met Tayfun and Bedel in Switzerland on a conference about peace and justice. Then they invited me to be part of this project and share my experiences for which I am very happy. 

What does the event Freedom Book Fair and the panel discussion mean to you?

You do not have a lot of opportunities to speak about peace so every time there is a space with people who work on peace and a space where you can share your thoughts and ideas, you should be happy to be part of it. As, unfortunately, in our days there are not many platforms to speak about peace. That is why it is really important for me to be here.

During the panel discussion, you have mentioned that it is important to create space of dialogue and peace. Which kind of methods would you use to achieve this?

First of all, we should change the language we use. We need to clean up the language of hate speech. The role of media in this is big. It can create peace atmosphere by simply using dialogue language, changing the language of hate. We need to bring people together and they need to have more personal contacts. That is the thing that really works. It is not the fastest way to resolve a conflict but it does work. I believe person to person contact is really important for peace building.

What are your future perspectives?

I never set up clear plans and just go with the flow mostly and then I decide what I want to do. I hope to continue working on these topics either in academia or journalism, or both.

What gives hope to you?

All events like this one by the Hague peace project and the idea that there are others who struggle for the same values, for peace.

What is your message for the world?

Even if we do not agree in the political views, we should leave space for others to speak out and to build a space for dialogue.

Interview: Miriam Reinhardt


On Saturday 25th February 2016, The Hague Peace Projects, held a discussion on the Challenges of LGBTI Activism in Religious Societies, as part of the Hague Freedom Book Fair in Het Nutshuis in Den Haag.  The event was well attended with over 110 participants.

The panel featured five LGBTI activists, Dino Suhonic, the director of the Maruf Foundation in Amsterdam, who is dedicated to helping the position of Muslim LGBTI’s in the Netherlands. Dino is also a teacher, opinion maker and queer activist and writes about queer Muslims, Islam, sexual diversity and gender identity.  Michiel Leezenberg is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He has published numerous books on Islam, the most recent of which is De Minaret van Bagdad. This book describes the changes in how people in the West perceive Muslims and also the changing sexual attitudes and practices in the Islamic world. Marie Nagadya, is an LGBTI activist from Uganda, a social worker and researcher on same sex practices. She has been involved in numerous LGBTI activist organizations in both Africa and Europe. She is co-founder of out and Proud Netherlands and is the Assistant Director of Eddoboozi Human Rights Defenders Network in Uganda. Rasel Ahmed, was the editor of Roopbaan, the only LGBTI magazine in Bangladesh and aclose friend of the now deceased founder of the magazine, Xulhaz Mannon and our final panelist was Mohammed Mofar, a member of the LGBTI refugee group, The Rainbow Group in the Netherlands.

Michael Leezenberg opened his discussion by introducing the notion of Islam and homosexuality. It was said that the idea of homosexuality as a concept, did not exist in Islam and the rise of modern nationalism and the nation-state had important implications in defining gender and sexuality including homosexuality globally, also in the muslim world. Rasel Ahmed spoke of his experience in Bangladesh, as editor of Roopbaan, which was the only LGBTI magazine in the country, founded by the now deceased Xulhaz Manon. The magazine gained popularity and provided a great platform for the LGBTI community in Bangladesh. A turning point for the community was the pride rally organized on Bengali New Year, which was severely criticized by the conservatives and soon the LGBTI community were receiving death threats and arrests. As a result of these threats, Rasel was forced to flee the country out of fear and a few days later heard of the hacking of his close friend and colleague Xulhaz, by Al Qaeda.  Due to continuous persecution, the LGBTI movement in Bangladesh has now been forced into hiding, for which Rasel feels responsible and would like to reunite them, but is at loss on how to do so under the present political situation. Dino Suhonic highlighted the challenges of being a bicultural homosexual, whereby the country in which one is residing is friendly towards homosexuality contrasting with one’s home country which is very strict. The demography of LGBTI Muslims is very complex, as they feel defeated by their own communities, countries and societies and much more must be done to help them with these challenges and change mindsets. Maruf Foundation tries to help and assist with these issues.

Mohammed Mofar spoke of his personal difficulties coming out, as homosexuality is considered a sin in his home country of Sierra Leone.  After having met a partner and with the help of the Rainbow Group, Mohammed managed to openly admit his homosexuality.  Marie Nagadya described homosexuality to be a taboo in Ugandan society as the society is still based upon conservative cultural, traditional and religious values.  Marie encountered discrimination at university for researching and showing interest in the topic of homosexuality. She faced obstacles created by both her family and the society, the challenge was even greater as Marie herself was not homosexual. It was interesting to learn that many LGBTI activists in Uganda have become homeless due to the negative comments and hatred from society. It was suggested that the role of the church was fundamental to changing the views on the LGBTI community in Uganda, as it encourages only heterosexual relationship. Scott Livelys visit to Uganda, was emphasized, where a conference with local pastors was arranged, to discuss issues surrounding the taboos of homosexuality. The conference resulted in extreme aggression from the public and a statement from the Archbishop of Uganda stating that he was disappointed with the constitution. The conference led to a proposed homosexuality bill in 2009, which was later passed in 2014. Marie concluded by stating, that homosexuality is considered to be a western notion and therefore is perceived to have no space in Ugandan society.

To conclude the event, the moderator asked each panelist for a suggestion on how to spread more acceptances of LGBTI communities. Marie suggested to love and to not give up.  Rasel proposed that the problem lay in intersectional identity, whereby people are not accepted because of their identity. Being Muslim and being gay is a big challenge and therefore the solution should be intersectional. Mohammed suggested unity of the LGBTI community around the world. Michael felt he was not in a position to comment on what people should do. He explained that he felt dialogue was crucial and the fact the audience were present and discussing these issues, was already a great step forward. In Dutch society, you can either be religious or gay, not both therefore it was interesting to note that this panel and audience was a very good example of everyone being both religious and gay, proving that it is possible to be both at the same time. Finally Dino suggested communities should be empowered, that we should create allies through education and engage with people who are opening up spaces for LGBTI communities.

Help, ik stem tegen het Turkse referendum. Ben ik nu een terrorist?

Op de eerste dag van de stemmingen voor (of tegen) het Turkse referendum, organiseert The Hague Peace Projects ‘Help, ik stem tegen het Turkse referendum. Ben ik nu een terrorist?’. Het zal u vast niet zijn ontgaan, maar ook in Nederland zijn mensen met een Turkse nationaliteit van plan om (van woensdag 5 april tot zondag 9 april in Amsterdam, Rotterdam of Deventer) een ja of nee stem uit te brengen. Het gaat om een grondwetswijziging die de weg vrijmaakt voor een presidentieel systeem in Turkije. De huidige president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wil dat heel graag.

So far so good. Mensen zijn vrij om ja of nee te stemmen. Maar wat is het een hectische campagne geweest met aan de ene kant een furieuze Erdoğan die nee-stemmers voor ‘terrorist’ uitmaakt. En aan de andere kant een opmerkelijke rol voor de Nederlandse regering die juist niks van een Turkse ja-campagne wil weten in Nederland. In dit alles voelt het voor de Turkse Nederlanders steeds meer alsof ze tussen twee vuren zitten. Hun ‘gehoorzaamheid’ aan Nederland of Turkije wordt van verschillende kanten steeds vaker getest.

Wij willen bij The Hague Peace Projects een vrije discussie hierover voeren. Zoals we elke eerste woensdag van de maand als werkgroep doen. Hoe ervaren mensen de spanningen tussen enerzijds ‘Wit Nederland’ en ‘Turks Nederland’ en anderzijds tussen ja-stemmers en nee-stemmers binnen de Turkse gemeenschap?

Het evenement is gratis, maar u dient zich wel aan te melden via eventbrite.

Locatie: Paviljoensgracht 20, Den Haag
5 April, 19:00 – 21:00


On 27th February we held a discussion about Bangladesh titled “freedom of expression, Dialogue and conflict resolution in Bangladesh”. Among the panelists, there was Sultana Kamal, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist from Bangladesh who have worked for a longtime on women and minority rights. There was also Bonya Ahmed, editor of Muktomona, who a researcher on Islamic Fundamentalism. Bonya was also the wife of deceased Bangladeshi writer and blogger Avijit Roy, she herself carries wonds from the brutal attack that killed her husband. Nasrin Siraj, an anthropologist from the VU university who is an expert on the conflicts of the Chitagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh is also feminist blogger and film maker, was also a panelist. We also blogger Nur Nobi Dulal, the admin of popular Bangladeshi blog Istishon, who recently had to flee the country. His blog Istishon has faced with several censorship in Bangladesh recently. The panel was moderated by Dessi Damianova, the Asian director of Free Press Unlimited.

Dulal started his speech with a quotation from Avijit Roy that expresses a humanistic view of a rational and peaceful world where people from all sort of belief can be friendly towards each other and everyone will stand up together against oppression of any kinds. He also mentioned how Bangladesh atheist bloggers and secular writers are being persecuted both by religious extremists and the Government. He also gave a brief account of the threats and harassments he had faced in Bangladesh that forced him to flee the country. He mentioned how the government closed down his office and how the police never came to any help when he was threatened by the religious extremist.

Desi Damianova asked the vital question of how the people Bangladesh who rejected religion based nationality in the 60s and gave birth to a country based on secular and liberal democracy have recently experiencing the rise of Islamic extremism in such a level that writers, religious minorities and foreigners are getting murdered by followers of AQ and ISIS. More precisely she wanted to get a historical perspective behind this big change in a relatively shorter period of time. She also asked the experts what they think is the most primary conflict at the moment in Bangladesh and the roots of the conflict.

Sultana Kamal answered by stating that to understand the historical context we need to start from the end of the British colonial period. India and Pakistan was born As a result of the two nation theory that became popular during the British period which insisted that Pakistan will be a country for the Muslim and India for Hindus. However the division among a communal line was not successful as many Hindus remain in Pakistan and vice versa.  Bangladesh (back then east pakistan) later separated from Pakistan mainly because of discrimination. The seeds of division were sawn just after Pakistan was born, and especially the language movement that started in 1948 laid the foundation of Bengali nationalism that promoted the idea of nationhood based on language rather than religion. During the Pakistan period many progressive movements supporting minority rights and also women rights came in to being which powered the Bangladeshi independence movement. During the liberation war the leading political parties tried to define a new nation based on liberal democracy, secularism, and socialism but also unfortunately on a kind nationalism which was very narrowly defined and only based on Bengali ethnicity. Anybody who was not a Bengali was not included in the formation of this national identity. So the identity formation was not inclusive enough. Bangladesh only emerged as a secular democracy in its formative period; a secular democratic country was more of an aspiration of the people. But after the change in political power 1975, Bangladesh moved in to a totally opposite direction. The military regime since then moved the country forward to a Islamic identity under totalitarian military rule. So even before the country could form in to a secular democracy it took a different direction from 1975 to 1995 Bangladesh was under the leadership of those who ruled the country as an Islamic country. To understand the shift we need to look closer to the existing political identities that are not inclusive.

Nasrin started by problematizing the idea of freedom of expression. Sh thinks when we talk about freedom of expression without taking consideration of the historical context and political terrain, then the concept becomes oversimplified. She wanted to focus on the discourses of freedom of expression. She thinks it is not just a Bangladeshi problem but a global problem. We understand democracy dominated by liberal discourses that essentialises liberal democracy. We Bangladeshi people also adopted such discourses without giving much thought about how discourses are regulated by neo liberal economic order. It sounds very good to hear that everybody have equal rights, but the world is developed unequally. We are governed by states and states formations are not the same all over the world. When we talk about freedom of expression in Bangladesh, most of the time we talk about freedom of expression of the middle class. When political spaces are not equally distributed among people, the chances are great that those who think they are not being heard equally to resort to violent mean to express themselves. When there is deep antagonism in the public space where powerful groups are always developing discourses around ‘us’ and ‘them’, the conflicts are not going to go away. When freedom of expression is regulated by the discourses of the new liberal economic order, it becomes difficult to find ways for reconciliation as opposing groups consider each other illogical. So if we only look at freedom of speech in term of neo liberal discourses but do not consider the political terrain then we will never be able to find ways for conflict resolution. Islamists in Bangladesh are claiming the political spaces using the anger of those people who think they are denied political spaces. This is actually not too different than what is happening in USA as Trump also won using the anger of those who thought they were denied political spaces.

According to Bonya, we have to think everything globally in this 21st century. It is true that there is a rise of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism in Bangladesh. It is a big problem not only in Bangladesh but all around the world. At the same time we have seen the rise of right wing populism in the west recently. For Bangladesh, we have to look both to the local context and also the global connection to get the bigger picture. Bangladesh has always been a religious society, a Muslim majority society, but the country was way more secular and tolerant in the past. There was no utopian harmony in our society but we haven’t seen violence of this kind in the past. Also it is not only about religion, there is also a political autocracy in Bangladesh. The persecuted bloggers in Bangladesh has the feeling of being between a rock and a hard place. At one hand they are being killed by the Islamists on the other hand arrested by the Government. And if we look at the global rise of Islamic extremism we cannot also forget how AQ was groomed in Afghanistan by the US to fight against the Soviet Russia. If Iraq was not invaded, maybe ISIS wouldn’t have come in to being. Wahabism was confined in to a very small part of the Middle East, but now it’s one of the most dominating versions of Islam after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established backed by the western powers. Saudi Arabaia has sent millions of dollars to countries like Bangladesh in establishing religious institutes that harbors fundamentalist and extremist ideals.  She thinks it’s very important for us to talk about the roles of the imperialist powers behind the rise of Islamic extremism. We need to talk about how Islamic fundamentalism has been used and groomed by the western powers for resource accumulation and for the sake of the neo liberal world order.  But we also can’t just blame western imperialism and solve this crisis. The solution also needs to come from inside the Muslim’s themselves. She wanted to ask the moderate and liberal Muslims if they are fulfilling their duty in standing against the rising Islamic extremism and violence. When someone raises a question about Islam and gets hacked because of that, the Muslim has a lot to do too. If we want to understand the conflict and want to look for ways of its resolution then we need to talk about all this things.

Part of the audience mentioned that, we need to challenge the extremists about their version of Islam; we need to ask them where in Islam they find legitimacy for their deeds. There was also a proposition that the basic teaching of every religion including Islam is peace, not violence. And we need to stay strong on this.  Bonya replied that Religions also have some very violent basis. We have seen war and genocide in the name of crusade and Jihad in the history. We have come to a point when the Muslim’s need to rethink and reevaluate their scripture and its interpretations to stand against violence committed in the name of Islam. There are peaceful verses in the Quran, but at the same time verses that promote violence and undermine the concepts of modern humanism.  The discussion went on between the panelists and the audience and it was suggested and agreed upon by few that the Muslim needs to say that the verses promoting violence are context specific and do not imply in our time. There are different forms of Islam and some are violent. We need to recognize that rather than staying in denial. Sultana Kamal finally stated that, we have to probably accept that there are elements of violence in every religion. But are we firm enough to say that we will have peace and we will give up violence anywhere, within religion or outside religion?

Desi brought the important question of why is there an acceptance of such violence against irreligious people among some Muslim? And How to activate a bigger solidarity among moderate Muslims? There was an opinion from the audience  that Religious fundamentalism is also is in rise in India where people are being beaten for eating beef, students being persecuted for showing dissent, university campuses has been raid like the emergency period of the 70s. Anti Government posts are being removed from the facebook. In Pakistan journalists are getting killed by extremists. Leiden University lecturer Roshni asked is it not the time to solidify ourselves beyond the national boarders within the south asia?  Sultana Kamal agreed that we need to solidify our solidarity across boarder.  There was also suggestion from the audience that a human to human dialogue is more necessary than dialogue between religious and ethnic divides. If we cannot do that then we are doomed.

Desi summarized the experts view that three are different things needs to be considered while understanding the conflict in Bangladesh. We need to understand the national context, the connection of the conflict with the bigger international picture, and also with some versions of Islam that legitimizes violence in the name of Islam.

The inherent inequality of the neo liberal economic order that makes many people feel excluded both in Bangladesh and international political arena has also greatly contributed in the rise of extremism both in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world. So is the dubious and questionable alliance of the western powers with Islamic fundamentalism.

It was agreed by everyone that, dialogue among conflicting groups and also in an individual human level is necessary to find solutions. Solidarity among those who stands for peace beyond national boarder is also necessary as the conflict in Bangladesh is not exclusive from the conflicts the whole world is facing now, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. Also Muslim they have a role to play in strongly standing against violence in the name of Islam and in being a part of the larger alliance of people for peace.

Peace and War through Spoken Word

On the evening of the 24th of February, around 140 people attended the Somali Poetry Night. From Sayid Abdullah also known as the Mad Mullah by the British, to modern day poets as Hadraawi and Idaajaa, all have used poetry as the main method of communication in times of War and Peace.

The speakers  were Zaynab Dahir and Abdirahman Abtidoon. Zeynab is educationalist and author of several children books and educational books. She is an activist and promoter of the Somali language among Somali children raised in the UK. She runs her own organisation, Galool Somali, which publishes teaching materials for learning Somali. Abdirahman Abtidoon is a promoter and an activist of the Somali language, art, storytelling and educationist as well as the writer of several books. He is an avid linguist and grammarian as well poetry reader. Both had an introduction into the background of Somali poetry an the role it played during the different episodes of war and oppression in Somalia.

After that came the real poets: Susu Amina, Malique Mohamud, Qali Nur and Nawal Mustafa all shared their own poetry or famous songs and poems by others. Between the different parts of the program, Abdi Baadil, a famous Somali poet, sang songs and played on the Somali lute.

This evening  was not only about the various forms and uses poetry and enjoying different forms of poetry such as Gabay, Geraar, Buraanbur and Heeso. But especially it was about bringing together a community: the large majority of attendees were young people with a Somali background. The athmosphere was very open, lively and warm.

Report of the discussion “Freedom of Expression in Turkey: Challenges for Dialogue and Peace”

On 25th of February we held a discussion about freedom of expression in Turkey which was part of The Hague Freedom Book Fair 2017. In the light of the recent events in Turkey we found it necessary to have a discussion over journalistic freedom, democratic liberties and the overall situation in Turkey.

The discussion panel was supposed to consist of six prominent speakers, but apparently one of them – Hüda Kaya (a writer, civil rights activist and a member of the parliament for the HDP) – was not able to attend the discussion. She was recently arrested in Turkey for unknown reasons. Even though now she is released, she is still not able to leave the country. This illustrates perfectly the necessity of addressing the problem.

Luckily all other panelists could make their way to The Hague. The panel consisted of Uğur Üngör (a historian who teaches at the Department of History at Utrecht University), Muhammed Cihad Ebrari (a researcher at the political and social research centre SAMER and human rights activist affiliated with the
“anti-capitalist Muslims”, also known as the “Muslim left’”), Marloes de Koning (a journalist for the Dutch paper NRC, who used to work in Turkey for 3 years), Ragip Zarakolu (a Turkish writer and publisher, Nobel Prize nominee in 2012 and iconic advocate for the freedom to publish and write in Turkey and beyond) and Varduhi Balyan (a journalist working for the weekly Turkish-Armenian newspaper AGOS).

Compared to some other very passionate discussions held during The Hague Freedom Book Fair, where the panelists and the audience did not always agree with each other, the discussion about freedom of expression in Turkey was more of the one where at least in the beginning everyone seemed to agree.

First, Uğur Üngör gave a great overview of the main issues on media in the history of Turkey. Then the current situation in Turkey was discussed and every panelist was also sharing their own story. It was interesting, but also rather emotional to hear what each of the panelist has experienced.

Ragip Zarakolu shared how he has been arrested in the past for his activities as a chair of Freedom to Publish Committee and is now living in Sweden. Muhammed Cihad Ebrari told even more detailed how he and his family was detained and how they even experienced torture committed by the police while prisoned.

On the other hand, Varduhi Balyan expressed very hopefully and beautifully that she is trying to use the language of peace to fill the gap and create the dialogue. Marloes de Koning told her personal experiences as a Dutch journalist in Turkey and shared the practical problems of it: how it was hard to find people to work with you as they do not want to be seen with you, they do not want to talk with you and do not want to show their faces. But she also expressed a more optimistic opinion about Turkey: It is a very dynamic country with a very young population. Right now it is an immature democracy, but it can definitely have a brighter future.

Besides the journalistic freedom the situation of academics were also discussed, as both – the journalists and academics – are seen in Turkey as a danger to the society. Academics are fired for carrying political opinion and this has caused a brain drain, because the academics flee abroad, even these who work in natural science and their work is beyond the politics. They are actually the brightest minds who can contribute to the development of Turkey, but they are rather seen as a real threat to the society.

Also, the background of the problem was discussed. If this regime is causing so many problems to the Turkish society, how come it is still elected and supported by the people? Is it because of the fear? In the view of these questions the status of democracy was discussed. It was concluded that nowadays very often democracy is used to destroy the democracy: the society is democratic during the elections but afterwards the real democracy ends. Also, it was discussed whether the peace process was put in fridge or rather in freezer or whether it was just a fake game.

After a while everyone seemed to agree at least in the fact that the situation in Turkey is serious and something needs to be done. Therefore, the audience and the panelists were invited to come up with ideas and solutions to the problem. Many solutions were actually named. Protest is definitely one thing to do, but there should also be a legal and political process. One idea shared was giving up the identity politics. Anyone who is in the political arena in Turkey is currently fighting for one identity: Islamist, Kurdish Islamist, Turkish Islamist etc. The simple answer is to give up defending your position and rather trying to see the power from other perspective. Furthermore, the power needs to redefined and find out how the power influences people. There is a need for transparency in the society. Last but not least, there should be more public debate.

It seemed that basically everyone attending the event was pleased to end the discussion with the thought that at least this one evening we were all contributing to the better future of Turkey, as we were discussing the problem and having open debate about it.

Photo’s: Ugo Boss Photography ©

Report of the discussion “Freedom of Speech vs Hate Speech”

At the first night of The Hague Freedom Book Fair, on 24th of February, a passionate and controversial discussion on the relationship between freedom of speech and hate speech was held. The panel consisted of Paul Cliteur (Professor of Philosophy of Law at Leiden university), Marloes van Noorloos (Assistant Professor and hate speech expert at Tilburg University) and Leon Willems (director of Free Press Unlimited).

First of all, the speakers gave speeches that included an overview of themselves and the topic in general. Paul Cliteur introduced the Dutch legislation regarding hate speech and stated that the core problem with free speech in contemporary world is the incitement to violence on the basis what people believe, have said etc. He also raised the question what has to be done. We have to promote tolerance and learn to live in a world where people have fundamentally different ideas. Problems should be discussed openly in a way of dialogue.

Marloes van Noorloos tried to explain the real meaning of hate speech. According to her, the power relation between groups should be taken in account while defining hate speech. It is not just an objective criticism. It is a speech against people, not against a religion or an ideology. This difference can be hard to make, but it is necessary to do it. Even though we have the right to freedom of expression, hate speech should be prohibited. But there should always be a good reason to criminalize a certain speech. The reason for criminalizing hate speech is the negative imagining. If you constantly spread negative information about a certain group then it may result in violence and discrimination. Hate speech laws are meant to protect the powerless minority groups against powerful groups. It is very difficult to say what is powerless and what is powerless group. For instance, Muslims are so diverse – some leaders within religion might be very powerful, but it does not mean that everyone is. Freedom of expression is the marketplace for ideas and should be as open as possible.

Leon Willems presented some pragmatic observations from his work. The freedom of expression is an inalienable human right, but the protection of it through the courts can take many years. He addressed the question of dissent. Dissent is deeply rooted in the Dutch society, because it is multicultural and people have the right to have different thoughts. The dissent is the decision to disagree, but still respect other person’s opinion. And this is a very big problem nowadays in many places. He emphasized that words do cause violence and harm people, but violence is not the necessary outcome of a debate. Once violence starts, it creates trauma and breeds violence.

After the speeches a very passionate discussion started. One problem brought up against freedom expression in the current world was religious fundamentalism. By Paul Cliteur it was seen as one of the biggest challenges and a major threat we face right now. There is a need of more religious criticism, critical analysis of the fundamental dogmas of the world religions. For instance, Catholic church used to have severe sanctions, now such sanctions are more prominent in the Muslim world. In the history courageous people have challenged the problems of Catholic church. Therefore, nowadays we have to help free thinkers in problematic societies.

The audience referred that the panelists forgot to define Islamic fundamentalism before addressing the problem. The person stating this considers herself an Islamic fundamentalist and for her it means going back to the fundamentals of Islam. It was of course a misunderstanding between the panelists and the audience, because the panelists found that in Islamic fundamentalism everything is accepted what god commands. If god commands death, it is justified. But this causes constant danger to the society in general. Leon Willems noted that even if you go back to the fundamentals, you still have to do it with critical mind.

By the audience it was also criticized that the problem of the current discussion and also in Dutch society is that people tend to generalize and concentrate only on the extreme forms of Islam.

Last but not least, the solutions to hate speech were discussed. Problematic societies should move towards a society where different opinions are peacefully spread, but where also critical thinking exists. There has to be exchange of thought and debate about problems. The Netherlands is a good example of a very productive society with different opinions.

Leon Willems addressed the problem of dissent and stated that we should have movement against Facebook and ask them to get things in order. Facebook is making profit over free content and is spreading hate. It is not being corrected.

Marloes van Noorloos stated that all people should realize that freedom of expression is also important for these persons we do not agree with. Very often people call it out only for their own opinion, but not for others. Leon Willems agreed that the true meaning of freedom of speech comes also with respect and with the space for critical thinking of minorities. This space for critical thinking is shrinking everywhere in the world.

In conclusion, it was agreed by everyone that the solution against hate speech is more speech. Law is not the best way to deal with hate speech and legal solution should be the last resort. It does not only mean a friendly discussion, but also a critical debate where people do not agree with each other, but still respect each other’s opinions.

Photo’s: Ugo Boss Photography ©


Turkish-Kurdish dialogue with the film director Asli Özarslan

Upcoming Sunday (26th of March) we hope to see you all at our Turkish-Kurdish dialogue afternoon with the film director Asli Özarslan, who is in the Netherlands for the Movies that Matter festival for the screening of her film Dil Leyla.

This event will be moderated by Nora Ledrhem, who has worked as a reporter for FunX radio and as a editor for the Dutch National Station (NPO).

14.15h Q&A with film director Asli Özarslan
15.00h Short break
15.15h Dialogue session with personal stories of
Zeynep Cesin & Rosh Abdelfatah

For the dialogue session we will talk about the situation in southeast Turkey and the dialogue between Kurdish, Turkish and Armenian communities. We want to give all the participants space to express their feelings and share their story with the group.

– Asli Özarslan was born in Berlin in 1986, and spent her childhood in Germany. From 2007 to 2011 she studied theater and media at the University of Bayreuth and philosophy at the Université Sorbonne IV in Paris. She has participated in film workshops in Israel and Turkey. 2012 she studied documentary directing at the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg. She has received several prestigious scholarships, including a grant from the Academy of Arts and, in 2016, a grant from the Cultural Academy Tarabya of the German Foreign Office. Dil Leyla is her diploma film.

– This event is for free, but you have to register through:

– For more information about the movie Dil Leyla and Movies that Matter Festival please visit:…/progr…/film/2108/dil-leyla/