An interview with Naeem Mohaiemen
In Rangpur, they kidnapped and tortured 15 Ahmadiyyas, forcing them to do tawba and renounce Ahmadiyya Islam. What kind of Islam is this?
Naeem Mohaiemen is the New York-based director of Muslims or Heretics? a documentary about the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims. He previously co-produced Rumble in Mumbai, a documentary about globalization. Muslims or Heretics? screened for five weeks at different venues in Bangladesh and is presently screening at festivals in the US. The Daily Stars Zafar Sobhan recently caught up with Mr. Mohaiemen to ask him a few questions about the Ahmadiyya issue.
DS: What was your main intention with the film? What do you hope to accomplish?
NM: The main intention is to build up public opinion in Bangladesh against the governments ban on Ahmadiyya books. Our government must come to its senses and lift the ban. The government claims they imposed a ban for the sake of law and order. Well, law and order has not been restored by this ban. The anti-Ahmadiyya group 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 also started calling themselves the International Khatme Nabuwot which makes you wonder who is funding them.
Khatme Nabuwot now has 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 action to remove the ban.
DS: What sort of responses did you get at the screenings? Were audience members urging government action in this matter?
NM: 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 states role. Only if the state mechanism is broken does this sort of people protecting people need to happen. I agree with that sentiment. 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 didnt happen here. But the state has failed in the case of Ahmadiyyas and given in to the extremists.
When the police and local administration takes take affirmative steps, such as in Barisal and Patuakhali recently, they have successfully stopped persecution of Ahmadiyyas. But for the most part, the government has not taken any steps to prevent attacks against Ahmadiyyas, and certainly they have not reversed the book ban. The problem is, this coalition government is beholden to both the Jamaat and the Islami Oikko Jote. The religious parties have cunningly decided that this is the issue they want to push. There are always political points to be scored by beating up on a minority. 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.
DS: Recently [US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia] Christine Rocca visited Dhaka, and expressed concerns about the ban on Ahmadiyya books. What are your feelings about this sort of visit, especially since you live in the US?
NM: 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 doesnt feel any need to respond to domestic human rights activists. ASK and three other organizations filed a Demand Of Justice notice the day after the ban, but the government has yet to respond to that petition. Ultimately, Bangladeshs problems have to be solved by us. You cant 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 dont want my work co-opted by those who would divide the world into us and them. I am fighting religious extremists, but I dont consider Bushs Pax Americana project to be my ally.
DS: How does the Ahmadiyya issue intersect with your other work as a political activist?
NM: In the context of the US role in todays 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 its a double standard.
DS: Any theories as to religious political parties and their sources of strength?
NM: One disturbing trend is that a lot of people in Bangladesh 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 in Dhaka brought out large rallies against the Iraq war. In fact, this is the failure of the Bangladesh left. Why couldnt they bring out massive rallies against the Iraq war? Kolkata had a very strong anti-war movement. They even mobilised a very successful boycott of American products. But the Kolkata left organized this, not the religious parties.
In fact, there are many ways to resist imperialism. In America, some of the strongest voices against the war have been families of GIs, Vietnam vets, labor unions, artists, musicians and black and Latino groups. So I have found other allies in the fight against imperialism, I dont feel any need to cozy up to the religious parties.
Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.