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.