#WeWantJustice

Protests led by youth are met with violence;

attempts of dissent are suppressed.

In Bangladesh, mass outrage over two teenagers killed in a road crash escalated into a social movement, with high school students stepping out on the streets, holding placards demanding for road safety and the resignation of the Shipping Minister, Shajahan Khan. Shajahan Khan’s insensitive remarks about the death of the students sparked the outrage. Road safety is a major issue of concern in Bangladesh. Research indicates that last year more than 4200 people lost their lives in road accidents in Bangladesh.

Over the past few days, several images and videos have gone viral on Facebook, which testify to the allegations of brutal violence committed by the police and the Bangladesh Chhatro League (the student wing of the Awami League). BCL has been accused of thrashing and molesting journalists. On Saturday, August 4th, mobile internet was suspended for 24 hours and many complained about a lack of connectivity. Many believe this was done to suppress the dissent, since the issue was not being covered enough by local media and subsequently protesters and supporters of the movement went online to share updates, using Hashtags and tagging international media houses’ social media accounts. Many social media influencers reported that they received thousands of emails and messages from Bangladesh. Some social media influencers, including Drew Binsky, uploaded videos expressing their solidarity and concern.

Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and social activist, told Al Jazeera that the movement is not solely being driven by the demand for road safety: other issues too are causing public dissent. The latest update that Shahidul Alam was detained—as reported by Dhaka Tribune—has since been shared by many people on social media. However, according to Dhaka Tribune, the police have denied these allegations. Earlier the same day, Aparajita Sangita, an online activist, was detained but released afterwards—as confirmed from her Facebook account.

We, at the Hague Peace Projects, express our solidarity with the youngsters and condemn the attempt to suppress the voices of dissent through brutal violence, arrest and the suspension of the internet. 

References:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/bangladesh-officials-restrict-internet-student-protests-180805071428323.html

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/08/05/btrc-no-directive-issued-to-suspend-broadband-internet-service

https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2018/07/31/minister-shajahan-khan-apologises-for-insensitive-remarks-about-deaths-of-students-in-crash

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/bangladesh-mass-student-protests-deadly-road-accident-180802174519088.html

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/dhaka/2018/08/05/photographer-shahidul-alam-picked-up-from-his-home

https://www.facebook.com/drewbinsky/videos/1859932040710383/

“Why me—Why not me—Why not you?”

Simple narratives can be deadly: how I recovered from a terror attack | Bonya Ahmed | TEDxExeter

At the Ekushey Book Fair, in Dhaka, 2015, Rafida Bonya Ahmed and her husband, Avijit Roy, were targeted by Islamist terrorists in a brutal attack, leaving her gravely injured and Avijit dead. The attack was not an isolated incident. In 2015, individuals branded as “atheist bloggers,” including Washiqur Rahman Babu, Niloy Chatterjee, and Ananta Bijoy Das, were targeted and killed. After Avijit Roy’s death, his publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan, who ran Jagriti Prokashony, was hacked to death in October, 2015.

People grieve differently,” Bonya points out. As she tells us in this TEDx presentation, grappling with the complexity of the situation was at the core of her recovery. Bonya encourages others to resist simple narratives by going beyond the self and seeking an understanding of complexity. This has the potential for real change, she encourages. Religious violence is not rooted in religion,’ as some claim, it is complexly rooted in history and politics, through the corruption of power, oppression, poverty, and creeping social prejudices. Furthermore, the rise of systematic Islamization over the last few decades is not reducible to regional phenomena, it has been supported by local and Western governments.If we want a just and peaceful world, we need to resist the simple stories.We can easily accept simple narratives, or stay silent (like so many secular governments do), but we then fall prey to hate and ideological intolerances.

“Please understand our world in its rich and messy complexity; hold your politicians responsible; inform yourself, question, and deepen your understanding; and support the journalists and the people who are putting their lives on the line by helping us to make sense of this complex world—it matters. Avijit Roy was silenced, but I have a voice. Why me—Why not me—Why not you?”

 

Rafida Bonya Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American author, humanist activist, and blogger. Bonya is the widow of Avijit Roy, a well-known writer, blogger, and activist who founded Mukto-mona. Avijit was murdered when they were attacked by Islamists during a book signing trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2015. Bonya was gravely injured during the attack. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

References: Rafida Bonya Ahmed via Youtube and Wikipedia.

Remembering Shahzahan Bachchu

Rest in Peace

Maybe I’m No Human*

By Nirmalendu Goon, Translation by S M Maniruzzaman

 

Maybe I’m no human, humans are different;
They can walk, they can sit, and they can wander room to room
They are different; they are afraid of death, scared of snakes.
Maybe I’m no human. Then how can snakes raise no fear within me?
How can I go standing alone all day long like a tree?
How can I sing no song watching a movie?
How can I go without drinking wine with ice?
How can I pass a night without closing my eyes?
Indeed I feel strange when I think about
The way I go alive from morning to eve.,
From eve to night.
When I’m alive,
I feel strange.
When I write,
I feel strange.
When I paint,
I feel strange.

 

Maybe I’m no human;
If I were a human,
I’d have a pair of shoes of my own,
I’d have a home of my own,
I’d have a room of my own,
I’d get warmed in the embrace of my wife at night.
On the top of my belly my child would play,
my child would paint.

 

Maybe I’m no human;
Were I a human,
Why do I laugh
When I see the sky empty like my heart?

 

Maybe I’m no human
Humans are different;
They have hands, they have nose,
They have eyes like yours
Which can refract the reality
The way prisms refract light.

 

Were I a human,
I’d have scars of love on my thigh,
I’d have the sign of anger on my eye,
I’d have a mother,
I’d have a father,
I’d have a sister,
I’d have a wife who’d love me,
I’d have fear of accidents or a sudden death.

 

Maybe I’m no human; If I were a human,
I could not write poems to you,
I could not pass a night without you.
Humans are different; they are afraid of death,
They are afraid of snakes,
They flee away when they see snakes;
Whereas instead fleeing away, mistaking them as my friends
I approach them, embrace them.

 

 

Secular humanists and LGBT activists and publishers continue to be persecuted in Bangladesh for their free speech. On June 11th, 2018, Bengali poet and free thinker, Shahzahan Bachchu, was shot dead in Munshiganj district, at Kakaldi, near Dhaka. Shahzahan was a political activist, a former general secretary of the Munshiganj district unit of the Community party, an outspoken secularist, a published poet and a writer of books on humanism. He is also the founder of the Bishaka Prakashani (Star Publishers) publishing house, which specialises in poetry. Shahzahan was sitting at a tea stall in Kakaldi, his home village, when four men on motorcycles rushed at him. He was killed immediately. Shahzahan was previously at risk, living in hiding after receiving death threats from militants and fanatics, through phone calls and messages.

 

Since 2013, dozens of others, like Shahzahan, have been targeted and killed by Islamist extremists, for their secular non-Muslim views. The government has been slow to respond or condemn this violence. Since 2015, the reported murders and attacks for secular views have included the deaths of Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananto Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel (friend of Shahzahan, who was murdered just days before him). Government officials, including the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, blame these attacks on the victims themselves, for their criticism of religion. Secularists are held by the government under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which has recently been expanded upon – and allegedly has been misused – for the criminal prosecution of ‘blasphemous speech’ that ‘hurts religious sentiments,’ as well as for any criticisms that are made against governmental actions or policies.

 

Along with PEN AMERICA, we support this urging of the authorities to investigate and do justice; we support this urging for no more impunity by the government. Reporting from the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report (Bangladesh chapter), the IHEU President, Andrew Copson, said:

We are devastated that the spectre of violence has returned to the freethinking community in Bangladesh. Every humanist writer and secular activist and freethinking publisher who has been killed in recent years has been a defender of the rights of others, a lover of humanity and reason and justice. Their murders stand against all these universal values. We once again call on the government of Bangladesh to root out the Jihadi networks perpetrating these crimes, and on the international community to bring pressure to bear on Bangladesh to protect and defends its humanists and human rights defenders.

 

 

Cross-posting from:

https://iheu.org/freethinking-writer-politician-shot-dead-bangladesh/

https://pen.org/press-release/murder-of-secular-publisher-and-writer-shahzahan-bachchu-an-attack-on-free-expression-in-bangladesh/  

https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/bangladesh-ict-act-the-trap-section-of-57-1429336 

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/maybe-i-m-no-human/

 

Interview Parvez Part 2: Freedom of Speech in Bangladesh

This is the second part of the interview with Parvez, the coordinator of our Bangladesh project, and organiser of the Freedom Book Fair. Click here for the first part of the interview.

What is the current situation in Bangladesh related to freedom of speech?

The Bangladeshi community blog tradition is in decline for some time now. I would say that the Bangla community blog as we knew it before, is dead now. There are still many Bangla blogging platforms which are well and alive, but they do not have the same kind of priorities on public engagement. So the interactive community nature is lost. Online writers who prefers more public interaction spends more time in the Social Media, especially in Facebook. Most of these bloggers write to their personal audience. However, now there are many other emerging platforms in Bangladesh. They are not exactly blogs. I mean, the original Bangladeshi community blogs were public spheres and many different kinds of people were engaged together. Now there are more specific platforms, like certain bloggers coming together and writing on one single platform and for specific audiences. There is not much engagement between the different groups.  The only form of public debate remaining in the public spheres of Bangladesh are certain discussions. In fact, there is more propaganda than discussion and it is everyone against everyone, because there are radicals in all groups. Even among the free thinkers. I would say the current trend of online engagement provokes more conflicts than solving them.

What is the best that could happen to Bangladesh?

The best that could happen is when the country would go back to a more democratic environment. When this happens democratic values like freedom of expression will get more respect. These two are very related and in my point of view and are necessary to move into a prosperous direction. As well as I think it is important to have space for dialogues for the young people from the different groups where they can discuss freely and solve their problems. I think so, because people of older generations idolizes intolerant politics more than the youth. For example, a leader who is the head of the leading party is hailed for being uncompromising by the older generation, because they consider uncompromising attitude as a political virtue.

What do you like the most about the Netherlands in general terms?

Well, one thing I like that it is also a river delta, similarly to my home country and this country is also very green. I am also from a green country and my hometown Dhaka is also surrounded by rivers.

Is there something you do not like about the Netherlands?

I come from a place, where it rains a lot too but it is too much here.

The European countries, populations and leaders are afraid of Islamic terrorists, for example in The Netherlands, France and Germany. And there are also right wing movements in rise in all these countries. What do you think, how severe is the danger posed by terrorists and right wing movements for the population of Europe?

Islamic terrorism is dangerous obviously and there are some terrorism problems in Europe, but they are not comparable to what is going on in Syria or other Muslim countries, for example. If we talk about the terrorism threat, the western countries are the least endangered. This is proved by numbers and statistics as well. Moreover, the western airplanes are bombing different parts of the world as well. Luckily that kind of atrocity is not happening here. In comparison to the deaths and killings around the world, Europe is a very peaceful place. It is an important topic to worry about, but the western politicians made it look like more intense than it actually is here in Europe. We are living in a world which is considered globalized. It is foolish to think that the war that is raging in the middle east would not affect other parts of the world at all. Especially if the other parts are somehow engaged to these conflicts in the middle east, then it’s very likely. You are not safe even if you don’t have a stake in this war. Think about Bangladesh, we have no oil business in the middle east, Yet I would say we are more affected by this war than European countries, both economically and by the terrorism threat.

Right Wing movements are often accompanied by hate speech and Islamophobic behaviour. With the recent rise of terrorism, many common people are afraid of Muslims and the western right wing groups are feeding their fear and anger. Any comment about this phenomena?

First of all, Radical Islamism is also part of the right wing movements. Islamists are the right wings in the Muslim world. Rather not forget about that. Anyway, The main thing I want to focus in connection with the far right populism in Europe, is that it’s not a new thing here. It was not considered mainstream since the 2nd world war. But it never vanished from Europe. They were simply side-lined by the mainstream politics. Now they are back. If you look at the current world situation, there are many totalitarian, populist, right wing governments coming to power and the movements are getting more and more popular. The whole world is facing it and the whole world is also moving towards a right wing direction. For example, in Europe with the Brexit, Trump in the USA and now western Europe is afraid. So nowadays we have a global crisis, the neo capitalistic global world order is in crisis. And if you look at the history, whenever capitalism is in crisis, right wing politics emerges to mix up capitalism and right wing ideals to divert people’s angers towards imaginary enemies such as ‘jew’, ‘muslim’(which is the new jew in europe), ‘communist’, ‘atheist’, ‘infidel’, ‘crusedar’(a popular enemy invented by the extremist islamists). And they turn the state more powerful, in to a totalitarian machine that fights the crisis of capitalism using hatred and brute force. Right wing populism does not focus on the real problems. Why are people losing jobs? Why is recession? Why are people afraid? How can economic inequality be solved? They tell that minorities are taking their jobs, for example. That is what right wing populism does, it names the wrong reasons and problems. It diverts people´s anger to something else. It also protects the unequal economic structure we have to the benefit of certain people. In Bangladesh, the Islamists also have this kind of populist discourses against other minorities, like Hindus.

I think that the liberal democratic values in politics and the liberal economy are not interdependent. Even if we feel that they are interdependent, they are not. In fact, you can have a brutal regime of medieval proportion with successful capitalistic economy, like Saudi-Arabia. We can see it in the recent development in Bangladesh too. The rise of Islamists and the economic development goes together as well.

Because of the worsening situation of writers and freedom of speech in Bangladesh you organised the Freedom Book Fair. Any news about the next edition?

We have organised two Book Fairs in The Hague, but in 2018 we want to expand it more. We would like to have a book fair for seven days from the 21st February until the 27th February to cover the national mother language day and the death of Avijit Roy at the 26th February 2015. The international mother language day at the 21th February was introduced from the mother language movement in Bangladesh. We just want a bigger international book fair with more publishers of different languages bringing their books to the event. It is important to continue some discussions we started this year, for example on the situation in Turkey. In the future we also want to include more countries in the discussion.

So Avijit Roy is a very important person in connection with the event?

Yes, he is. He was a popular writer, also a popular thinker, who encouraged many young people in Bangladesh. He also encouraged me when I was younger. Also his project ‘Muktomona’ (free thinkers) encouraged many young Bangladeshi people to have a critical mind.

In connection with the book fair I want to ask what can you tell about the Bangladeshi working group of HPP?

It is still in a developed process. We are connecting to more Bangladeshi people. Moreover, the book fair helped to make connections that might lead to a South Asia working group.

To finalize this interview, lets come back to your person. What are your personal future perspectives?

I want to continue and grow as a writer. Also as an activist by being involved in organisations like HPP. I am a political animal. That’s why I like to be engaged in peace building. Politics is not always about being ready to go to war, as some would say. But the opposite, I think. Human are political animals. It’s natural for human to be political, as Aristotle would put it. Politics is a matter of living in a family, in a tribe or a city. It’s about living with others in peace. Peace building and politics are the same thing for me. And that’s why I am with the HPP.

If you want to learn more about Parvez, checkout part 1 of the interview.

Miriam Reinhardt

19.08.2017, Den Haag

 

 

Freedom Book Fair Report 2017

From 24 February to 27 February 2017, The Hague Freedom Book Fair took place in Het Nutshuis in The Hague. With the participation of 15 publishing houses and book shops from Netherlands, Bangladesh, Turkey and Somalia, the book fair attracted hundreds of people. The book fair showcased censored books from Bangladesh and Turkey, books on censorship in different countries written by persecuted and censored writers themselves, and other regular books. Click here to read the report of the Freedom Book Fair 2017.

During the four days of the book fair, we also held four different panel discussions related to freedom of expression, one Somali and one Bengali poetry night. On 26 February, we also commemorated Avijit Roy (it was the anniversary of his death), along with other Bangladeshi bloggers, writers and publishers who were murdered in recent years. The panel discussions were about freedom of expression in Bangladesh and Turkey, the contemporary debate regarding freedom of expression and hate speech and LGBT freedom in religious societies. Experts from
Bangladesh, Turkey, Netherlands, UK and USA were present as panelists in these discussions. More than 500 people physically attended the discussions, and we were able to reach an audience of more than 90 thousand people via Facebook livestream.

The book fair successfully brought together diverse group of individuals, publishers and organizations to address the recent global crisis of freedom of expression. The event can be considered as laying down the foundation of a crucial network that can uphold and promote a dialogical method in solving the crisis of freedom of expression in the current world.

Interview with Parvez Alam – Part 1

Dear Parvez, could you first introduce yourself to the audience?

Photo credit Baki Billah

Photo credit Baki Billah

I am from Bangladesh. I am a writer and activist. In Bangladesh, I have been writing regularly in different blogs, newspapers, magazines and I wrote a few books. Most of them are about history of knowledge and more specifically about the intellectual history of Islam and also the political history of Islam. I have been working with several non-governmental organisations and activist groups in Bangladesh. We had a community library there, where I worked for 9 years. As well I was working with several human right groups focussing on minority rights mostly. I came to the Netherlands during 2015.; I had to flee my country because I was seriously threatened because of my writings, like many other critical thinkers from Bangladesh.

How did you get involved in The Hague Peace Projects?

When I came here I came into a project of the NGO Justice and Peace. A friend of mine worked for the NGO and for HPP at this time and we have spent a lot of time together because she was really interested in Bangladeshi bloggers in exile in Europe. So, I connect her with some Bangladeshi bloggers and together we developed the idea of the book fair for HPP and I was involved for the first time in a HPP project in February 2016 when the first book fair took place. In Bangladesh, there is an annual book fair in February as well, but many writers and publishers can´t be there as now they are in exile. In 2016 there was the chance that Avijit Roy’s (who was murdered a year before in front of the book fair) book so we wanted to do a symbolic book fair in The Hague. It was kind of a protest against the attacks, censorship, book bans and exile of publishers or writers. Another intention was to bring the exile writers of Bangladesh together. And from September 2016 I am working more intensively together with the HPP.

How would you describe the development from the first book fair in 2016 to the second in 2017?

When I look back I can say that the development was enormous. In 2016 we have had a half day of book fair without selling any books. Only couple of publishing house was officially involved, and we just displayed some banned books and also books written by Avijit. We had one panel discussion. It was a start and this year we planned everything for months. The result was a book fair with several publishers being present, from and for different countries like Bangladesh, Somalia, Turkey and Netherlands. Moreover, we had several events, books were sold and it lasted for 4 days.

Did you promote the opening for other countries where writers are banned as well?

Yes, I did. The expansion was one of the first things we decided during the planning process, because the situation in Bangladesh is not unique. It is connected to developments in other countries as well. The rise of censorship and the decline of freedom of expression are similar to many other parts of the world. We thought we should bring more countries, more publishers together and have discussions about freedom of expression. Maybe this can be the foundation concept for future book fairs in The Hague, city of Peace and Justice.

The Interview is continued in Part 2 with some more information about the coming book fair and Parvez´s political opinions.

Parvez was interviewed by Miriam Reinhardt.

16-8 Film & Discussion: Rampal Coal plant: a deception of development

Join us on Wednesday 16 August for a film and discussion about Bangladesh at Nutshuis from 6:30 till 8:30.

The world’s largest mangrove forest is under treat of coal mining. The Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC), an energy partnership between India and Bangladesh, is building a massive coal fired power plant called ‘The Rampal Rampal Power Plant’ just 14km from this UNESCO world heritage site – a home to the last populations of critically endangered Royal Bengal Tigers. By damaging the Sundurbans with a coal plant, not only would this take away their livelihoods, and the natural resilience that millions of people in Bangladesh depend on, but it would mean burning more fossil fuels and creating more carbon emissions. This is exactly when the world should be leaving fossil fuels in the ground and be getting behind renewable energy alternatives.

Discussion:
Pro-environment activists group in Bangladesh have been protesting the coal power plant since its inception. Activists from India and other parts of the world also have joined in protest and solidarity. UNESCO also expressed its concern and asked the Government of Bangladesh to halt the project. However, despite nationwide protests and international outcry, the Bangladeshi government is hellbent on going through the project. Police brutality and arrest have become part and parcel of the anti-Rampal Power Plant movement in Bangladesh, and leading activists have faced death threats.

Anu Muhammad, the member-secretary of NCBD (the organization leading the anti-rampal protests in Banlgadesh) will join us in a discussion in ‘Het Nutshuis’ in The Hague. Anu Muhammad is a prominent Bangladeshi economist, public intellectual and political acticvist who has been in the forefront of the green energy movement in Bangladesh for years. He had faced arrest, police violance and several death threats along the way. Also activists and experts from both Bangladesh and Netherlands will join this discussion.

Deception of Development:
Bangladesh has entered a critical stage of its development in which the vocabulary around the understanding of development has gone seriously problematic. The Bangladesh state and the media both have gradually separated the idea of social and environmental equity from the vision of development, just like many other parts of the world. While the state continues to be obsessed with high-profile big development projects, farmers, laborers, poor communities, rivers, trees, forests, cultivable fertile land in this process, are perceived to be mere bunch of collateral damage that is expected to be ‘sacrificed’ in this very process towards ‘progress’. The state and the media has been displaying an one track obsession over high GDP growth as the standard of progress. The health of people, cleanness of water, fertility of soil, the quality of food and air are not considered to be worthy enough to be a part of the index of development. In the backdrop of such flawed understanding of development and such disregard towards preservation of environmental resources, it has become necessary to challenge the so called idea of development that does not perceive it necessary to preserve environmental and human integrity. ‘Deception of Development’ is an attempt of as such.

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 Muftah.org 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 ©

 

 

 

 

 

CHALLENGES OF LGBTI ACTIVISM IN RELIGIOUS SOCIETIES

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.

FREEOM OF EXPRESSION, DIALOGUE AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN BANGLADESH

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.