Muslims or Heretics?
A Film on Minority Repression
AASHA MEHREEN AMIN
Newspaper reports of the Ahmadiyya community being victimised by religious extremists have managed to rankle the conscience of some people, for a while at least, but have not gone beyond evoking the momentary indignation that is all too soon lost among the other horrific news of the day. Yet the enormity of the crime against a minority cannot be lessened by the apathy of the majority. The facts remain for months members of the Ahmadiyya community have been systematically stalked, attacked brutally, intimidated, their place of worship burnt down, their books banned and members murdered in cold blood.
All this happened in a country where the Constitution guarantees that every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion (Article 41, 1a) and that every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions (Article 41, 1b).
It is precisely to combat collective desensitisation towards horrendous injustices that a medium like film is so crucial. Naeem Mohaiemen, a media activist from New York with the help of Drishtipath, a human rights organisation based in the same city and Drik Picture Library (Dhaka), has made a documentary Muslims or Heretics? on the anti- Ahmadiyya movement that threatens the very basis of a democratic nation. The documentary presents the imagery and information necessary to keep reminding us that such crimes continue unhindered and must be protested, not by a handful of conscious citizens but by the silent majority.
Directed by Naeem Mohaiemen, who, among other things, is editor and Associate Editor of online news networks Shobak.org and AltMuslim.com respectively, the film traces the anti- Ahmadiyya movement to the late 50s. During this time the Jamaat-i-Islami (of Pakistan) launched a campaign that continued sporadically leading up to the banning of Ahmadiyya books in Pakistan and the state declaration that they were non-Muslims. In 1986 the Blasphemy Law was passed which proclaimed death to any kind of blasphemy against Islam. This obviously could stretch to include divergent views in Islamic doctrines that did not conform to majority Muslim thinking.
As the documentary projects, history is repeating itself, this time in democratic, apparently pluralistic Bangladesh. Religious extremists have taken the law into their own hands, that too with tacit state acquiescence.
The images are indeed frightening. A frenzied cleric at a congregation in Brahminbaria, where much of the violence took place, rants Get ready to give blood. We must take over the Ahmadiyya mosque. His tirade is greeted with applause. A young girl in an interview says how a village elder prevented her and her classmates from attending school just because they were Ahmadiyyas. Even the teachers would not correct their copies. In another clip the cleric threatens We will make sure they cannot stay, they are bastard Ahmadiyyas. Again roars of encouragement from the crowd.
There are more shocking images. Severely wounded victims lying in hospital. Stills of dead bodies. One victim describes how he was first beaten with sticks by a group of women who stalled him until reinforcements of male attackers came to try and finish the job.
But the most heartrending story is that of a young girl being interviewed about the antecedents of her fathers murder by anti-Ahmadiyya militants. As she starts to relate how her father was beaten to death because he refused to bow down to their demands, she breaks down and can barely speak. She says she knows who they are they were her neighbours.
Interspersed with the horrific accounts of the victims are interviews with Ahmadiyyas in various professions. An Ahmadiyya missionary comments that the kind of Taleban-styled Islam these religious zealots are promoting, pose a threat not only to the Ahmadiyya community but for the nation as a whole. He explains that the notion that our prophet (PBUH) has endorsed such a militant version of Islam is not correct. The prophet (PBUH), he says, never asked for or pursued state power, rather it was the political circumstances that placed state power upon him. In any case, continues the missionary, the prophet always promoted a peaceful, tolerant Islam.
The 40-minute documentary was shown at the Russian Cultural Centre on May 1 and was followed by a discussion between the viewers and a panel including Faustina Pereira, a human rights lawyer, Naeem Mohaiemen, the films director and Swadhin Sen, a lecturer of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University.
It was during this session that a member of the audience, Kavita Chakma, of Hill Womens Federation, reminded everyone that similar repression had taken place on the Jummo people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts with little protest from the Bangali public. Even during these incidents, the plight of the marginalised community was treated with indifference and insensitivity.
Naeem Mohaiemen, before the film began, in his brief address, argued that Bangladeshi Muslims have not taken any lessons from the stark example of oppression of Muslim minorities in the US. Instead Muslims are committing the same crimes against minorities in Bangladesh.
The film therefore, declares some unpleasant home truths. That in spite of our label of democracy we are moving towards fascism and communalism. That minorities continue to be marginalised and oppressed with the implicit state approval. That we are becoming more and more passive towards gross violations of human rights happening right before our eyes. Naeem Mohaiemen, who has been a virulent opponent of the US occupation of Iraq, has taken a courageous step in projecting a disturbing issue few people are comfortable about addressing.
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