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Home  Worldwide  Bangladesh  April, 2004  Fiddling while Bangladesh burns
Fiddling while Bangladesh burns

The Daily Star
Vol. 4 Num 325Tue. April 27, 2004


Fiddling while Bangladesh burns
Naeem Mohaiemen

On January 8, the government caved in to religious extremists and banned “all books” of the Ahmadiyya Muslims. Faced with widespread condemnation, the government’s weak excuse was that the step was taken to ensure “safety and security” in Bangladesh. Whose security was assured by this was not made clear -- however, it is clear that the Ahmadiyya community’s safety has worsened after the ban. Emboldened by the government decision, the International Khatme Nabuwot (Last Prophet Movement) has taken a series of escalating steps which may ultimately lead to national pogroms against the Ahmadiyyas. Meanwhile, the secular-liberal intelligentsia continues to respond in slow-motion, labouring under the illusion that polite statements will be effective against a rabid movement that uses violence, intimidation and street mobs to carry out their programmes.

While we had been politely sipping tea on the rooftop of Goethe Centre and discussing our plans, the zealots were ten steps ahead of us, launching a massive rally aimed at taking over the Nakhalpara mosque.

Since January, a series of incidents have upped the ante in the campaign to declare Ahmadiyyas non-Muslim. In February, the environment of hate was amplified by the publication of the book “Why Qadianis are Not Muslims?” (Global Publishing) by Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee. On March 5, Imam Salauddin of Ambarnagar village (Noakhali) issued a post-Jumma fatwa declaring Ahmadiyas non-Muslim and calling for a boycott of the community. The particular target of the fatwa was the family of retired high school principal Morshed Alam Chowdhury.

Since the declaration, local thugs surrounded the house and refused to allow anyone to leave the house. No relatives were allowed to visit the family. When a servant was sent from the house to shop in the local market, he was beaten and threatened with death if he continued to work for the family. Thugs cut down the trees on Chowdhury’s property and stole fish from his pond. When asked about the fatwa, Imam Salauddin retorted he had done this in accordance with a fatwa signed by 117 Maulvis in June 2003.

A week later, a more violent programme was launched in Kakuka union (Barguna). The programme was announced at a two-day rally of the International Khatme Nabuwat. Inspired by the rally, zealots prepared to attack the 1,000 Ahmadiyyas who had been living in the areas for the last 50 years. The incident attracted coverage from national media including Bhorer Kagoj, Jonokontho and Prothom Alo. It was also reported in the Daily Star that Madrasa students were being organised with the intention of razing the Ahmadiyya neighbourhood which accommodated 100 Ahmadiyyas and their mosque. Spurred to action by the media presence, the district police administration intervened and prevented the takeover of the Ahmadiyya mosque. Although the police played a positive role in Barguna, a more chilling story emerged on April 6 from Shalkiri village (Ponchogorh). In that village, the leader of the local chapter of Khatme Nabuwat, Maulana Abdul Karim, arrived at Ahmadiyya houses in a police jeep and conducted searches for publications. When contacted by the media, Karim admitted that no magistrate had accompanied them on the searches.

The progressive Bengali response to this escalating chain of events has been slow and reactive. This can be best highlighted by a personal experience. On April 15, the Dhaka premiere of our documentary “Muslims or Heretics?” was held at the Goethe Centre. Everyone was pleased by the standing-room only event, especially the presence of large number of young faces. The documentary was followed by a spirited discussion and the repeated slogan, “We must do something!” Yet, newspaper reports on April 17 only highlighted how far behind we are in the battle to rescue Bangladesh from the extremists. Alongside dutiful reporting of the film screening, Prothom Alo carried a much larger headline, “Khatme Nabuwat rally, two books seized from Ahmadiyya mosque.” While we had been politely sipping tea on the rooftop of Goethe Centre and discussing our plans, the zealots were ten steps ahead of us, launching a massive rally aimed at taking over the Nakhalpara mosque.

This incident is direct evidence of how much the Khatme Nabuwat has been emboldened by the government ban. In November, when Nabuwat first attacked the Nakhalpara mosque, police fought pitched battles with them and successfully defended the mosque. By contrast, on April 17, police escorted five members of Khatme Nabuwat into the Ahmadiyya mosque. Led by Nayebe Amir Nur Hossain Nurani, the Nabuwat leaders seized copies of the Quran and Bukhari Sharif. On Channel I evening news, a Nabuwat leader was seen examining the books, while the police followed him obediently.

I stated before that progressive activists’ response to the current crisis is too slow and hesitant. After the documentary screening, a film forum representative asked us about organising a screening in October. I stared at him in disbelief! October is six months away — did he really believe the zealots would be moving so slowly? At an April 6 press conference, Khatme Nabuwat leaders announced a programme to “liberate” Ahmadiyya mosques throughout the country, including Hobiganj, Narayanganj, Brahmanbaria, Ponchogorh and Munshiganj. According to their spokesperson, there were 91 Ahmadiyya mosques in Bangladesh, several of which had already been “liberated.” Speaking at the press conference, one Nabuwat leader said, “Because we haven’t been able to create enough pressure on the Prime Minister, we haven’t been able to extract our main demand [of declaring them non-Muslim]. This time, we will fulfil our demands through an unstoppable movement.” They also declared a new deadline of June 30 for the government to declare Ahmadiyyas non-Muslim. With ruthless efficiency, Khatme Nabuwat, which has a 33-member executive committee, is rolling out sub-committees in upazilas and districts to implement these demands.

Given the speed at which the anti-Ahmadiyya movement is gathering momentum, progressives need to respond with a sense of crisis and urgency. Bangladesh is the land of “dofa” and “dabi”, but we should have only one “dofa” — and that is the withdrawal of the ban on Ahmadiyya books. It is also essential that this be a non-partisan effort, otherwise the government will refuse to cooperate. Sensible members of the ruling coalition can be allies in this movement to protect religious freedom. Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) has filed a “Demand of Justice” notice with the government, asking for an explanation of the ban. Similar and stronger actions must follow quickly from a wide variety of organisations.

At the risk of repeating myself from an earlier article, I quote Safdar Hashmi -- the Indian playwright who was beaten to death by government thugs in the 70s. “Halla Bol (Raise Hell)! And get results.”

I will keep repeating myself until all of us wake up.

Naeem Mohaiemen is the associate editor of

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