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Home  Worldwide  Bangladesh  June, 2004  Debating the Ahmadiyya ban
Debating the Ahmadiyya ban

The Daily Star
Vol. 5 Num 18Tue. June 15, 2004


Debating the Ahmadiyya ban

Naeem Mohaiemen and Zafar Sobhan

The two recently engaged in a free-spirited debate about the Ahmadiyya book ban and the state of human rights in Bangladesh.

Mohaiemen: Our government must come to its senses and lift the ban. What is accomplished by this ban? Peace and stability has not been restored. The Khatme Nabuwot has actually increased its campaign since the ban. Now they have given a June 30 deadline of declaring Ahmadiyyas non-Muslim. They have started calling themselves the “International Khatme Nabuwot” (makes you wonder who is funding them?). They have formed an executive committee with 33 members which had pledged to go from village to village in Bangladesh until all 91 Ahmadiyya mosques are liberated. In Rangpur, they kidnapped and tortured 15 Ahmadiyyas, forcing them to do tawba and renounce Ahmadiyya Islam. What kind of Islam is this? Did the Prophet Mohammed (SM) teach us to torture in the name of Islam? Khatme Nabuwot is perverting the meaning of Islam and giving a black eye to all Muslims. The government cannot be a passive spectator. They must step in and arrest the zealots of Khatme Nabuwot. And they need to take quick actions to remove the ban.

Sobhan: Let’s call a spade a spade. This is not a question of being a passive spectator. The ban is law. It was promulgated by the government. The government is therefore — whether it intended to be or not — an active participant in the persecution of the Ahmadiyyas. And as you point out, there is a direct connection between the ban and the emboldenment of the extremists which we are now seeing play out in Rangpur and elsewhere. And to the extent that the government does nothing to protect the Ahmadiyyas, it is again at fault. Government inaction is not passivity. It is an active choice. The government could easily protect the Ahmadiyya communities if it wanted to. It has the capability. Are you telling me that the KN has the numbers to even bring Dhaka to a standstill, let alone the country, as they have threatened? Last time I checked, the government was actually rather efficient — some might say a little too efficient — in putting down demonstrations against it.

Mohaiemen: One journalist made an excellent point at a screening at the Goethe Institute. He said, “Any time there is any sort of communal trouble, our liberal Muslim neighbors come forward and say, ‘We will protect you.’ But why should people need to protect people? That is the state’s role. Only if the state mechanism is broken does this sort of ‘people protecting people’ need to happen.” I agree with that. The state needs to play a positive role in safeguarding minorities. And the state has done that at times. When some major riots happened in India, the Bangladesh government played a positive role in making sure retaliation riots didn’t happen here. But the state has failed in the case of Ahmadiyyas and given in to the extremists. Why it has abdicated its responsibilities here is a mystery.

Sobhan: As you have pointed out, the government has successfully protected other constituencies in the past. And news reports make clear that when the government does take affirmative steps, such as in Barisal and Patuakhali recently, they have successfully stopped programmes of persecution. So I think that it is pretty clear that the government is actually unwilling — not unable — to do more to stop the persecution. The government is in hock to its extremist coalition partners who want their pound of flesh. They are beholden to both the JI and the OIJ, without whose support and electoral alliance they would not have come to power, and they owe them big-time. And the religious parties have decided that this is the issue they want to push. There are always political points to be scored by beating up on a minority. Sadly, it remains a sure-fire way to get votes. In Rangpur, for instance, the persecution has taken place in a constituency which is at present controlled by the Jatiya Party and has been targeted by the four-party alliance in the next election. The anti-Ahmadiyya campaign is their first shot at establishing a presence there with the ultimate goal of taking the seat.

I fear, too, that some of the BNP leaders are not merely motivated by politics in not opposing the extremism of their alliance partners. They actually feel the same way. Their attitude is that Ahmadiyyas should be declared non-Muslim and have their books banned, and if they get burned out of their homes or raped or murdered as a result … well, that’s not our fault, right?

Mohaiemen: Let’s talk about Christine Rocca’s visit, during which she brought up the Ahmadiyya book ban. It actually infuriates me that the government will respond to US officials when they complain about this issue, yet we Bangladeshi activists have been protesting about this for over six months. The government doesn’t feel any need to respond to domestic human rights activists. ASK and others filed a “Demand Of Justice” notice the day after the ban, yet the government has yet to respond to that petition.

Ultimately, Bangladesh’s problems have to be solved by us. You can’t solve these problems through external pressure. Even if external pressure causes something to happen, it is a temporary fix. We have to build up the infrastructure and support for human rights and tolerance from inside Bangladesh. Also, I don’t want my work co-opted by those who would divide the world into “us and them.” I am fighting religious extremists, but I don’t consider Bush’s “Pax Americana” project to be my ally. Those who do, like Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis, are losing their own credibility with their “enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy. I am reminded of the Asian Dub Foundation song: “Enemy of the Enemy/Is a Friend/Until He’s the Enemy Again.”

Sobhan: I disagree. The way I see it, whatever pressure can be put to bear on the government is a good thing. I am not worried about the hypocrisy of the US government — in this context it is not my problem. In fact, to me, this argument is a bit of a red herring thrown up by those who don’t want change — they can now say, well, you know, who is the US to be telling us what to do? This is total avoidance of the real issue. The only problem I have with Rocca speaking out is that it may delegitimise the struggle and could be used by the anti-Ahmadiyya activists to discredit the Ahmadiyyas. But I wouldn’t want to play into that.

Your main frustration is over the government response to Rocca. But isn’t that what governments do? They act in their own self interest and respond to those parties which have leverage over them. They don’t respond to human rights activists because they don’t see the need to. To make governments responsive, they have to fear negative repercussions — and the only thing any government really fears is being thrown out of office. So the thing for activists to do is to raise awareness to the level that it becomes an electoral issue.

Mohaiemen: In the context of the US role in today’s world, I am always interested in making linkages and parallels with other global situations. One of the things I have talked about at these film screenings is my own experience working with people like Blue Triangle and Not In Our Name in the US. These groups work to protect the civil rights of Muslim immigrants. In fact, Muslims are victims of the same racial profiling that tormented black Americans for decades. Now, in the post 9/11 hysteria, Muslims have become the new disenfranchised minority in America and Europe. Yet, in our own country where we Muslims are the majority, we do not hesitate to disenfranchise our own minorities. So, global activists cannot condemn only oppression against Muslim minorities in America. We have to speak out against oppression being carried out by our fellow Muslims. Otherwise it’s a double standard.

Sobhan: I couldn’t agree with you more. I find it ironic that we here in Bangladesh can get so outraged — rightly — over what is happening in Iraq or Palestine or the US, but can be so complacent about what is going on right under our noses. This is not to excuse the policies of the US or Israeli governments, but merely to point out that we should reserve a little more outrage for injustice that directly affects us and that we can actually do something about. Let me mention the case of Abdur Rob, Deputy Director of Proshika’s Cultural Department, who has finally been released on bail, but has made credible allegations of torture while in custody. I found it very telling that we are so upset about torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, but have been so silent about torture and abuse in our own jails. Abdur Rob isn’t the first person to raise credible allegations of torture in custody — which is almost always politically motivated — but the outrage over these atrocities pales in comparison to the outrage registered by events abroad.

Mohaiemen: One disturbing trend is that a lot of people in Bangladesh and elsewhere think the religious parties are the only ones resisting neo-imperialism. Therefore, they tolerate and quietly support the religious parties. I keep hearing how the mosques and religious parties brought out largest rallies against the Iraq war. In fact, this is the failure of the Bangladesh left. Why couldn’t they bring out massive rallies against the Iraq war? Kolkata had a very strong anti-war movement. They even mobilized a very successful boycott of American products. But it was all organized by the Kolkata left, not the religious parties. In fact, there are many ways to resist Empire. In America, some of the strongest voices against the war have been families of GIs, Vietnam vets, labor unions and black and Latino groups. So I have found other allies in the fight against imperialism, I don’t feel any need to cozy up to the religious parties to resist Empire.

Sobhan: Well, the left parties did protest the recent visit of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as did the religious parties. But one thing to keep in mind is that the left in Bangladesh has been almost wiped off the face of the Earth. So even when they do take action, it has little impact. The worrisome thing is that there is a strong anti-imperialist, anti-Western, anti-globalisation constituency in the country, and many of their grievances are legitimate and deserve to be addressed, but in the absence of a healthy and durable left-wing in the nation, the only parties speaking to this constituency are the religious parties. This is something the more mainstream parties must address unless they want their base of popular support to continue to decline. The anti-Ahmadiyya movement, is, in my opinion, ultimately an electoral strategy, but it is only one of many that the religious parties are pursuing in order to consolidate and enhance their power.

Naeem Mohaiemen is the New York based director of Muslims or Heretics? (, a documentary on persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.

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