'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Sunday, April 5, 2015
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
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.