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

 

 

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.

Meet journalist Iffet Subasi

Iffet Subasi is 27 years old, Turkish and lives in Rotterdam. She joined us since last november, here’s what you should know about her!

Can you tell us something about your background?

I am born in the Netherlands and study journalism. My parents were born in Turkey but my mother came to the Netherlands for the first time, when she was 4. That was in the 70´s. Later she married my father in Turkey and came back here.

How did you join the HPP?

I have got a Facebook message from Tayfun, the Turkish-Kurdish working group coordinator. He asked me if I wanted to speak on the second Turkish Kurdish dialogue at the 12th November 2016. I participated and told my story in Rotterdam. I was also a speaker during the last working group meeting with a session on the Turkish referendum (watch the live stream).

What are you going to speak about?
As a journalist I follow the debates among the Turkish community as well as in the Dutch context. In these debates, I observe sentiments and how people treat each other. Because of polarization, people do not listen to other speakers and opinions very often.

What do you think about the Turkish Kurdish Dialogue in general?

It is a really good initiative because every participant can get a whole picture of the other side. It is not like medias, that often spread a negative, incomplete image of ‘the other’. I think it is very important to facilitate and promote exchange and dialogue because people live more and more in their own bubble.

What is your opinion about emancipation and the role of women in Turkey?

I see myself as liberal because I live individually. The women in Turkey are going to school, they study, work, even in politics or become teachers so I think Turkey is leading on this issue among Islamic countries. The government really enforces emancipation.

Do you have an important message to spread?

As already mentioned: We have to keep investing in dialogue. That is why I am joining the events of The Hague Peace Projects!

 

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