Zafar Sobhan: Who killed the Bangladeshi bloggers? Don't just blame the fanatics

Dhaka: To my mind, the truly scary part of the recent murder of Oyasiqur Rahman, the second killing of a free-thinking writer who was critical of religion in a month, was the complete lack of contrition and remorse on the part of his killers. Their official statements in custody and the look in their eyes in the photographs of them that have been published in the media say the same thing: They are absolutely convinced that they were doing God’s work. They truly believe that someone who insults the Prophet and Islam deserves to die. They truly believe that they will be rewarded in Heaven for their righteousness.

Now, it is easy enough to place the blame for this mind-set on the madrasas where they were educated, and there is no question that educational institutions which teach that murder is an acceptable response to someone whose words offend you or whose beliefs you oppose, and that it is acceptable to act as judge, jury, and executioner in such cases, are very much a part of the problem. For too long Bangladeshi governments have tolerated the growth of so-called educational institutions that are anything but. For too long, we have allowed venom and hatred to be taught to impressionable boys and girls, under the guise of moral instruction, when it is anything but.

What is taught in these places -- not all madrasas, mind you, but a large number of them -- is the precise opposite of education and religious instruction. The boys and girls there do not learn how to think critically, how to think for themselves, or, apparently, that killing is wrong. They are taught intolerance and hatred, self-righteousness and bigotry. They are taught to be arrogant and judgmental. They are taught to believe in their own moral superiority, and their compassion and human decency is systematically beaten out of them.

Equally problematic, they are taught no skills that can help them earn a living or make their way in this world. Even if they want to break free of the narrow, cloistered world in which they are brought up, they have no ability to do so due to their lack of any kind of useful training or education. It is hard to pin down just how many such young men and women there are in Bangladesh today, but there can be no doubt that they constitute a ticking time-bomb.

But the more difficult truth is that that is not at all the real problem here. The problem is that many people who share this mind-set come from among the most educated in our society, and that a good education is unfortunately no bar to thinking this way. Now, let me stipulate that only a tiny minority of people in Bangladesh would actually take it upon themselves to slaughter another human being in cold blood, regardless of what they thought of him or what he might have written or said.

But the number of people who believe that someone who insults the Prophet and Islam deserves to die is much, much higher. Most people in Bangladesh believe that Islam cannot and should not be questioned or insulted in any way (though they do not necessarily extend this courtesy to other religions, and are often very scathing of other religions in private conversation, often enough in public). In fact, this special protection for not having one’s religious sentiments offended is enshrined in law. You can offend any other kind of sentiment with impunity, but not religious sentiments (though, funnily enough, I have never seen this law applied in Bangladesh to defend any religion other than Islam).

Most people feel that one’s Muslim faith should be above question, insult, and offence. They believe that atheists should keep their mouths shut, and that anyone who questions or is critical of religion (meaning Islam) gets what he has coming to him. If a large number of people feel this way, is it any surprise that a small number will take it upon themselves to actually act based on this understanding?

Part of what emboldened the killers of Avijit Roy and Oyasiqur Rahman was the tacit societal approval for what they did. I am not saying that society approves of their killing -- though such approval is far more widespread than we are willing to admit -- but that our society (and the law) holds that it is unacceptable to question or criticise Islam, and that one does so at one’s own peril.

It is easy to point fingers at benighted madrasa students who do not know any better. It is much harder to look in the mirror and ask whether our own belief system and narrow-mindedness could in any way have contributed to the atmosphere of intolerance that allowed for such a crime to be committed. But it is a question that needs to be asked if we are ever to really get to the bottom of this cancer that is eating away at our society. The problem is not simply semi-educated madrasa students running amok. The problem is that we believe -- as do the killers -- that insulting Islam is beyond the pale. The only difference between us and them is how far they are willing to go to defend Islam’s honour.

It is not enough to condemn the killings. We need to understand how our own intolerance of free-thinking and of questioning religious belief and thought contributed to a climate conducive to such an atrocity. Make no mistake: We are all complicit in Avijit and Oyasiqur’s killings. That is a hard and unpalatable truth, but until we come to terms with it, we will not be able to stem the rising tide of extremism that takes moral sustenance from our own intolerance for questioning or criticising religion.

Zafar Sobhan is the editor of Dhaka Tribune.

See also
NB: The Jamaat-i-Islami Hind is the sister organisation of the Bangladesh Jamaat. In March 2013, a mass demonstration by an Islamist coalition demonstrated in Kolkata against the trials & convictions of war crime perpetrators in Bangladesh. Supporters of the Shahbag movement in Bangladesh were threatened, & calls made to prevent Sheikh Hasina from visiting Kolkata. In light of the systematic violent attacks on Hindus & Buddhists in Bangladesh, & the strange logic by which the Jamaat blames non-Muslims for each & every political setback, it is time for the Jamaat-i-Islami Hind to make clear its position on the vicious deeds of Bangladeshi Islamists & distance itself from them.
 The Abolition of truth - (on the 'parivar's celebration of Gandhis murder)

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