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Freedom of expression in Bangladesh : the case of Abu Karim

Edit Date:7/21/2010 12:00:00 AM


Shimul Chaudhury
18 March 2010

Left-leaning and pro-AwamiLeague intellectuals and university teachers in Bangladesh have been typically vociferous on the debate of 'freedom of expression' on a regular basis. It began with the Salman Rushdie affair which was followed by Taslima Nasrin's defamation of Islam and the Qur'an, the Danish cartoons and the few other sarcastic and derisive writings on the religion of Islam and on the Prophet Muhammad — both nationally and internationally. On all such occasions when the Muslims around the world were shocked and thunderstruck for the psychological devastation those vicious attacks wreaked on their beloved religion and Prophet, secular pro-AwamiLeague intellectuals in the Muslim-majority Bangladesh tried to show their defiance by raising their voice in favour of the ‘freedom of expression’ of the writers like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. 

They did the campaign for Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons in a sotto voce fashion, as Rushdie’s affront against Islam and its prophet was too obvious and the escalated grievances over the Danish cartoons too heavy, and as the public sentiment of the Muslim-majority Bangladesh too wounded. But when Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja was banned, many left-leaning and pro-AwamiLeague intellectuals of Bangladesh took to the streets and shouted slogans against the then BNP government. They generally ignore the religious feeling of the majority and use the catchphrase of ‘freedom of expression’ to defend Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasrin, when most of the people feel their religion is being targeted and their faith taunted. 

For example, a young pro-Awami teacher of Dhaka University branded BNP as “a usual ally of the fundamentalists” in his article “Under the gaze of the sate: policing literature and the case of Taslima Nasrin” in which the writer promotes Taslima Nasrin’s putative bravery to hurt the feelings of the Muslims of her country, and vehemently criticises BNP for banning her offensive book Lajja. No wonder that such writings are published in the West, as many Western publishers maintain a particular fascination for such kind of writings though they have little room for the ‘other’ view. 

But recently Awami League came back to power, Sheikh Hasina became Bangladesh’s Prime Minister and a poet had to lose his highly-prestigious government job for practicing ‘freedom of expression’. He was one of the top-most civil servants of the Government of Bangladesh and most talented secretary to the Ministry of Information. ATM Fazlul Karim alias Abu Karim was force-retired from his post of information secretary for writing a poetry book titled Baganey Phutey Achhey Oshonkho Golap (Innumerable Roses Have Blossomed in the Garden) in February 2006. In his poetry, the poet uses some fictitious names and satirises Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and some his family members in the same manner as many Western writers do with regard to their living and dead political leaders. 

After Awami League came to power after the general elections of 29 December 2008, Abu Karim was sent on compulsory retirement on 23 February 2009. The Suchipatra Prokashona, the publisher of his book, is now under a perceived threat of closure, which will mean job losses of a number of people working for the publishing house. Under the circumstances, one can easily imagine the fear and intimidation under which Sayeed Bari, proprietor of the Suchipatra Prorkashana, is passing his days. Both Sayeed Bari and I myself know that dozens of people have been lynched and killed by Awami activists since the party won the last general election few months ago. For the same reason, no wonder, I am using a pseudonym to write this humble essay. 

Awami bigwigs and intellectuals for the time being remained forgetful about the catchphrase ‘freedom of expression’ and used a not-previously-known Awami leader Hazrat Moulana Mohammad Elias Hossain Bin Helali, the president of Bangladesh Awami Olama League Central Committee, to file a case against Abu Karim with the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in Dhaka on 22 February 2009. Again on 5 March 2009, Moulana Mohammad Ismail Hossain, President of Bangladesh Olama League, filed another case with the same court against Abu Karim and Sayeed Bari, the proprietor of Suchipatra. 

This time, the streets of Dhaka have not had the privilege of experiencing any pro- freedom of expression demonstrations. Nor did they have the touch of the feet of the many Dhaka University professors who were quite active and loud while promoting the case of Taslima Nasrin. In previous cases, the target of the ‘freedom of expression’ was the prophet of Islam; hence, that ‘freedom’ had to be maintained and promoted! This time, the target is Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; hence, the ‘freedom of expression’ should be stopped and punished! Such double standard is not surprising in a country like Bangladesh where ‘intellectuals’ are mesmerised by the ‘glamour’ of rebuking their religion (Islam) with the hope that such a stance may earn them Western approval of their academic standing and secular orientation. 

Lastly, it is interesting to note that Awami League used two ‘Moulanas’ (Islamic clerics) – not any secular intellectuals – to file the cases against Abu Karim and Sayeed Bari. Such a strategy serves another purpose: it is always the madrasah-educated religious obscurantists who are against the freedom of expression and go to the court to stop a poet! By using the apparently Islamic clerics like Hazrat Moulana Mohammad Elias Hossain Bin Helali and Moulana Mohammad Ismail Hossain, they want to reinforce the supposed association between Islam and the absence of freedom of expression. Or shall we believe that the secular intellectuals in the rank and file of Awami League did not bother to file any case against Abu Karim and Sayeed Bari? Was it simply because of these two Moulanas that Abu Karim lost his important government job? If not, why these two Moulanas?

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