Religion: A Challenge to Media & Society?

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Bangladesh was born in 1971 as a secular state following nine months of bloody liberation war against Pakistan, a state founded on the basis of a theory that Muslims in the subcontinent must have a separate nation. The birth of Bangladesh was thus in some ways a rejection of the idea behind having a separate nation entirely on the basis of religion. In case of Pakistan, Islam was thought to be the unifying factor in the creation of a nation-state. Even though Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) is separated from West Pakistan by 1,000 miles the founders of Pakistan believed that Islam would hold the two parts together. The emergence of Bangladesh as a free nation in a war supported and later participated by India had proved the founders of Pakistan absolutely wrong.

Since secularism had been part of the guiding spirit of Bangladesh liberation war, this principle of respecting all faiths but not favoring a particular one became one of the four pillars of the state. However, there had been some grumblings from the right-wing political parties and religious groups (including even the moderate ones) about the principle of secularism in a Muslim-majority nation. Some of these elements started propaganda saying the principle of secularism tantamount to undermining Islam, the religion of the majority of the population. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh, had strongly disregarded the protests and went ahead with his commitment to making Bangladesh a secular state as opposed to Pakistan.

Bangladesh’s first constitution passed by the parliament in 1972 recognised freedom and equal rights of all religions. Similarly, the constitution recognized the freedom of the press and it promised to ensure that every citizen is allowed to express his/her views and opinion without any obstruction and fear in a free society.

However, this positive trend did not last long. With the assassination of Sheikh Mujib Bangladesh had witnessed sudden changes in its founding principles and political ideology. The principle of secularism became a principal casualty and the post-Mujib military government replaced it with a phrase: Faith in Allah. Later in the 1990s another military ruler included Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh. This had signaled the beginning of the erosion of secularism in Bangladesh. This also had demonstrated the lack of tolerance towards the religious minorities. The declaration of Islam as the country’s state religion was also seen as an encouragement to religious extremists and bigots. They seized the opportunity to press for more gains from the military regime that had adopted the policy of appeasing the majority Muslims to validate its illegally-grabbed power. Unfortunately, the secular political parties which replaced the military regime through pro-democracy movement did not dare restoring secularism as a state principle mainly for fear of losing Muslim votes.

The decade since 1979 when the then-Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan saw the emergence of Mujahideens also in Bangladesh. Militant groups began sending volunteers to fight alongside foreign mujahideens against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Even though the Soviets eventually quit Afghanistan in 1989, many of the Bangladeshi Mujahideens returned to Bangladesh to start a pro-Islamic militant campaign. Though Bangladesh’s main Islamic fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, then treated as a moderate Islamic group, had not been directly involved with the Afghan war veterans, its ideology worked as an inspiration to the militants.

Serious Islamic militant groups began emerging in Bangladesh since early 1990s and by 2000 these groups turned into real threats to the society as well as the independent media. The emergence of militant organizations like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideens or JMB was credited mainly to the patronization of a section of the then government leaders. The then-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia did not accept JMB or such militant groups as a threat to democracy until the August 17 simultaneous bombings in 63 of the country’s 64 district towns. Even though JMB and its associates were later banned and its top leaders were hanged to death, their remnants remained.

The emergence of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam (HUJI) is another example of the emergence local militant groups having foreign connections. The Bangladesh chapter of HUJI, with reported links in Pakistan, has been accused of a series of bomb attacks in Bangladesh, including a couple of them targeting Sheikh Hasina, when she was the opposition leader.

The lack of religious tolerance and the expansion of Islamist forces in Bangladesh has been best exemplified by the series of violence against the peaceful Buddhists in southern Bangladesh _ Ramu, Ukhia and Cox’s Bazar on the midnight of September 29 in 2012. A rumor that a face book posting had desecrated the holy Quran, thousands of Muslims took to the streets vandalizing Buddhist temples, monasteries and homes. At least 22 temples and monasteries and 50 homes were destroyed. The FB posting using the name of a fictitious Buddhist young man later turned out to be fake and motivated. Before it was discovered, the centuries-old religious harmony in the region had been shattered almost beyond repair. The government has rebuilt the temples, monasteries and homes. But it will take many years to rebuild the trust and faith among the religious groups.

Consider the murder of Ahmed Rajiv Haider, an atheist blogger killed by Islamic zealots near his house in Mirpur on the night of February 15, 2013. Using his pen name Thaba Baba he used to make comments in his blog against religious fundamentalism, which were seen as offensive by Islamic militant groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam or Protection of Islam, reportedly an offshoot of Jamaat-e-Islami. In March detectives arrested four youths in connection with Rajiv murder and they reportedly belong to a newly-formed militant group Ahsanullah Bengali Team.

On May 5 in 2013 Hefazat-e-Islam mobilized thousands of supporters, mostly from the Saudi-funded madrashas or Islamic schools in a massive anti-government rally. When journalists, mostly TV reporters, including women, went to cover the rally the bigots attacked them with iron rods and rocks injuring some of them. The bigots attacked and harassed a female reporter shouting, ‘You Dirty Woman, Why Have You Come Here?’

These instances show how dangerous these militant groups can turn when media exposes them and their real intentions.

In spite of this disturbing trend of rising militant groups, Bangladesh still remains far from becoming an Afghanistan or Pakistan, where militant groups like Taliban have long been campaigning against liberal principles and secularism.

Free media normally should have no problem with Islam, a religion of peace, harmony and democratic principles. The problem is with religious extremists and bigots who thrive on hate campaign and lack of tolerance.

The media in Bangladesh is engaged in the fight to keep the extremists off its way and help the secular moderate forces to flourish in the interest of democracy.

The article was read out at a seminar on challenges of press freedom in Bangladesh last week, sponsored by Washington-based Media Project and Dhaka-based News Network.

Article Source: Dhaka Courier

 

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