Monday, May 05, 2008

Is Bangladesh becoming Islam hater?

Photo: Radical mullahs engaged in violent protest against equal rights to women in Bangladesh development policy document


IT SHOULD be like a fresh breeze for the anti-religion, secular, Communists and non believers in the world to note that, for past several weeks, Bangladesh government is continuing to push an issue related to women´s rights, which according to religious clergies and believers are against the commandments of Koran. But, it must frighten a larger section of the global family to think that such tendencies only would open new avenues for Islamist militancy to grow as well as militancy in the name of religion.

For last several days, Bangladeshi press is rather filled with news, commentaries, statements and counter statements on the issue of National Women Development Policy.

According to latest news from Dhaka, the Ulema Committee formed to review the National Women Development Policy has strongly opposed equal rights to women, recommending deletion of six sections of the policy and amending 15 others as they said these sections "clash" with the provisions of the Koran and Sunnah.

There are several sections in the policy which are "very objectionable", said Mufti Mohammad Nuruddin, acting khatib (Grand Clergie) of Baitul Mukarram National Mosque who headed the review committee.

"A woman cannot enjoy rights equal to a man's because a woman is not equal to a man by birth. Can there be two prime ministers--one male and one female--in a country at the same time?" Nuruddin told press after submitting the seven-page report to Law and Religious Affairs Adviser AF Hassan Ariff on Thursday.

The 20-member committee asked the government to clarify the phrase "women's equal rights to earned movable and immovable properties" and follow Islamic provisions on inheritance if the earned properties include inherited properties.

Suggesting inclusion of guidelines "in the light of the KOran and Sunnah" while taking any decision regarding women's rights, the ulema recommended abolishing the section that suggests steps to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Asking the government to withdraw Bangladesh from the convention, they said many sections in it go against the belief, spirits and culture of the Muslim ummah.

The ulema committee also opposed and asked the government to eliminate the provision for keeping reserved seats for women in parliament and local government bodies and direct elections to those.

"This policy has strongly hurt the pious Muslims of the country since many sections of it clash with the Koran and Sunnah...It does not go with Bangladesh's constitution, religious traditions and culture," the report concludes.

Adviser Hassan Ariff expressed hopes that the recommendations will remove the "language or interpretation gap" created surrounding the Women Development Policy.

The committee members did not support the attempts by a section of opportunists to create chaos by taking advantage of the situation, he told reporters.

The Recommendation:
The committee said 15 sections of the National Women Development Policy are against Islam and should be revised or corrected while six sections should be eliminated.

The Islamic scholars said not only is it impossible to establish equal rights for men and women in the country, but in some cases, giving women equality would deprive them of their rights in many sectors.

They proposed replacing the phrase "equality, equal rights and affirmative action" with "just rights".

The committee also said the ambition of eradicating "existing disparities between women and men" is unclear and should be replaced by the phrase "existing disparities between women and men in light of the Koran and the Sunnah".

On the section that asks for giving women equal human and fundamental rights such as political, economic, social and cultural, they said "just rights" should be ensured for men and women in light of the Koran and Sunnah.

They said the government must ensure participation of ulema and muftis alongside women's law experts while drawing up or eliminating or amending any "existing discriminatory" law.

They proposed inclusion of religion experts in a committee to resolve any inconsistency regarding women's interest arising from misinterpretations of provisions of those religions.

They also opposed the provision of a child's being identified by both the mother and father, saying it "encourages sexual abuse" and pre-marital cohabitation. They recommended identifying a child by "legally married" parents.

The committee observed that the policy's proposed penalty for child marriages is not in line with Islamic policy as the legal marriage age of 18 should not apply here because Islam states that a girl can be married as soon as she has "come of age".

It recommended replacing the phrase "child marriage" of the section concerned with "discourage underage marriage".

The committee opposed inclusion of women in peacekeeping missions, saying it would make women insecure and it could tarnish Bangladesh's image. The ulema proposed canceling the provision.

They also opposed the provision that women "must be given equal opportunities and participation in wealth, employment, market and business", saying it clashes with the Koran's teachings. They proposed giving women equal opportunities and participation in these sectors in light of religious dictums.

The committee specifically said one's inheritance rights should be determined by their own religions.

The ulema asked the government to cancel the initiative to reserve one-third parliamentary seats for women to increase women's participation in parliament and its application in local elections.

A few Islamist parties started staging demonstrations immediately after the chief adviser announced the National Women Development Policy 2008 on March 8.

On March 11, the law adviser told the ulema that the caretaker government had not passed any law regarding inheritance and there is nothing that contradicts the Quran and Sunnah.

The next day, Women and Children Affairs Adviser Rasheda K Choudhury asked people to refrain from unnecessary criticism of a progressive document like the policy without going through it.

On March 27, the government formed the 20-member committee to identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and suggest steps.

Commenting on reactions from the devotee in Bangladesh on government´s initiatives in amending the law to provide ´enhanced´ rights to women, Dhaka´s leading English language newspaper The Daily Star wrote "It was a pathetic sight. It was a despicable display of use of a religious and venerated place by the so-called protagonists of Islam, to vent their anger at the government.

What we witnessed last Friday, inexplicable acts of violence and vandalism, by people believing that whatever they were doing was to safeguard the interest of Islam. Their protest was against what they believed to be certain provisions of the recently declared women's policy being inconsistent with the provisions of Islam related to the issue.

What they failed to realize was that their violent behavior was itself inconsistent with the teachings of the religion whose interest they were claiming to protect. Little did they realize that their vandalism had done little to enhance the image of Islam, if anything, their actions, beamed worldwide on the electronic media, have helped reinforce the misperception of those that are disposed to see Islam as an intemperate religion where violence happens to be the only expression of dissent and no room is ever given to those perceived as opposed to their views. Mosques become bastions of protests -- a result of malicious thoughts demonstrated through depraved actions.

Their actions have served Islam very badly and must have made those that are prone to paint Bangladesh as a country going down the road to radicalism very happy indeed. Ignorance and wrong political motivation have much to do with all that transpired on the Friday afternoon, which witnessed pitched confrontation against the law enforcing agency directed by alleged supporters of some Islamic parties, although I am loathe to believe that those we saw on the street wielding bamboo staffs and throwing brickbats at the police, are actually what they claim to be, and I am even less convinced that the party that they claim to belong to really believes in the tenets of Islam and the teachings of the Holy Prophet.

One is at a loss to reason what their protest was about. If it was against the said policy, which its opponents believe proposed equal share in the inheritance rights of both men and women, then there is enough ground to believe that it is either ignorance or some other ulterior motives that have motivated these people to resort to violence.

On both counts there are reasons to be concerned. There is nothing worse than actions, particularly destructive ones, initiated on the basis of wrong premise or ignorance of facts. The situation is more compounded when the issue is one that has to do with the deep-seated belief and practice of the majority people of the country.

If there are other compulsions stemming from ulterior motives that led to them resorting to the hostile acts, merely legal actions against the perpetrators of the violence is not enough. What is it that they want to achieve and what is the benefit that they would want to derive from an already unstable situation caused by a degree of political uncertainty and spiraling prices in the country?

But if these radical elements are responsible for the violence that we saw, the government must also shoulder its share of responsibility for allowing the situation to develop in the way it has in the first place, and then to see it pass last Friday.

Since the policy was declared -- a policy that is not this government's brainchild, but an inheritance from the past regimes, expressions of dissent were heard from the religious parties in the country. And to my mind these were based on misperception of the provisions that they believed were in contravention of certain Islamic decrees. And in this regard I have no reason not to take the advisor for religious affairs at her words when she said in unequivocal terms that the proposed policy does not have anything that is anti-Shariah. And it is only a policy and not a proposed ordinance. However, one must admit that reports, appearing in certain newspapers the day after the announcement regarding the proposed policy was made, did convey the impression that there were indeed certain provisions that were inconsistent with the existing Islamic law. But that was clarified subsequently by the relevant advisor.

And that is what begs the question. Why did the government fail to convince those that were apprehensive about the proposed policy? And why is it that it did not take adequate measures to dissuade or prevent these parties from taking precipitate action that they were threatening they would take, following the announcement of the proposed policy?

The handling of two matters has raised questions about the government capability to address serious issues.

The undue haste with which the government constituted a committee formed of religious scholars gave one the impression that it was not sure about the substance of the policy. That it did not anticipate the reactions that it might generate suggests that adequate time was not given to study the issue. One wonders whether it was for this government to announce a policy that required to be studied in details before it was finally formulated. And if inputs of the Alems are being sought now why were they not sought during its formulation and before it was announced?

Its handling of the religious parties has raised the question whether the government is not too soft on them. While holding of public demonstration under the EPR is prohibited, these parties seem to do it without any hindrance. Not only in the recent instance, on a few previous occasions too, demonstrations organized by some religious parties were allowed to traverse many kilometers of the road despite police presence. One would like to ask why these elements were allowed to stage demonstrations last Friday outside Bait-ul-Mukarram in the first place. And it is from these demonstrators that the attack on the police was launched initially, before the mayhem started, lasting almost 3 hours.

There may be genuine reservations about the policy. And many that have doubts about it are not all radicals. If there are suspicions about the provisions than there is a more Islamic way, a more civilized way of addressing it -- and that is through dialogue. And the government must initiate a discussion on the issue without delay or make public the proposed policy in its entirety.

But for the government it is important, too, to remove the public perception about its being tough on some political parties while softening its attitude towards others."

A number of socio-cultural organizations, political parties and non-government organizations (NGO) have demanded cancellation of the committee formed to review the Women Development Policy 2008 and immediate implementation of the policy.

Samajik Protirodh Committee at a protest meeting yesterday urged the chief adviser to implement the Women Development Policy after canceling the review committee, ban political activities in religious institutions, and clarify the stance of the government on the matter. Dr Hamida Hossain presided over the meeting held at the Central Shaheed Minar. It may be mentioned here that, Dr. Hamida Hossain is the wife of Dhaka´s eminent lawyer Dr. Kamal Hossain.

Karmojibi Nari has also demanded cancellation of the review committee and implementation of the policy. It also urged the government to initiate trial of war criminals after forming a special tribunal.

Organization President Shirin Akhter (member of a left win political party too) and General Secretary Sharmin Kabir (active member of Bangladesh Socialist Party) in a joint statement said, "The Women Development Policy is a significant step by the current government for establishing equal rights and respect for women. But the fundamentalists and war criminals in the country are opposing the policy terming it an anti-Islam policy."

Workers' Party of Bangladesh (believing in Socialism and Communism) has condemned the review committee's recommendations for omitting six sections and amending 15 others of the Women Development Policy. It also called upon the government to implement the policy for establishing the rights of women.

"When the entire nation is vocal about trial of war criminals, a certain quarter is trying to create anarchy in the country in the name of religion," the party politburo said in a statement. The Workers' Party urged the government to take actions against those responsible for instigating violence near the Baitul Mukarram Mosque.

Samajtantrik Mohila Forum (another leftist organization) has condemned the move for amending 15 sections and bringing changes in the Women Development Policy.

Those who oppose the idea of establishing equal rights for men and women are against the democratic rights, it said in a statement.

A faction of the Bangladesh Islami Oikkyo Jote (IOJ) yesterday demanded that the government ban all kinds of meeting and procession in front of the Baitul Mukarrum Mosque and its adjoining areas.

"The so-called Islamic scholars backed by war criminals dishonored the national mosque while staging protest against the Women Development Policy," IOJ chairman Misbahur Rahman Chowdhury told reporters at the party office in the city's Motijheel.

The IOJ chairman demanded removal of the home adviser for failing to ensure security of the people who went to the mosque to offer prayer. He said Director General of Islamic Foundation Fazlur Rahman must be removed for allowing political activities in the national mosque.

Now, my readers have seen with interest that most of the organization voicing in favor of the proposed law on rights of women are basically leftists and Communists. But, why an Islamist like Misbahur Rahman Chowdhury also joined that queue? This man was a front ranking figure opposing the war of independence of Bangladesh. After the liberation of the country in 1971, Misbahur reportedly took part in numerous social and otherwise crimes, including grabbing of properties of religious minority groups. His party is the most minimal segment of mainstream politics in Bangladesh, having the ability of hardly getting a single seat in any of the future elections. But, now, he wants to become either a scape goat or lapdog of leftists, seculars and Communists to salvage his own entity from a possible disaster if Bangladesh begins trying the war criminals.

An extremely complicated situation is gradually getting ripe in Bangladesh. Already some elements are continuing to conspire to push the entire nation towards confrontation-turned Civil War by raising the issue of trying War Criminals. I have already discussed this matter in previous write up. Now another section in the same society is trying to push the believers and non-believers towards bloody confrontation.

Does Bangladeshi government really understand or at least assume the ultimate result of such situation? I think they don´t. That is why, a very well orchestrated effort is continuing in the country to ultimately prove Bangladesh to be a country in civil war.

There is anyway no argument on the fact that terrorism (be it religious or otherwise) is a crime against humanity, and its aim is to spread fear in society by killing innocent people. Unfortunately, we live in a time when violence, hostility, vandalism, sabotage and greed have become common phenomena. Innocent people's lives have become valueless in most cases. Terrorism has threatened peace and security in societies as well countries around the globe.

Different ideologies have resorted to terrorism in the past. In 1794, Robespierre first used terrorism by sending thousands of people to the guillotines. From 1870, the racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the United States ruthlessly used violence, oppressing African Americans and other religious, social or ethnic groups. Racial terrorism came to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Nazis implemented a bloody policy of terror against those whom they thought were opposed to their ideology, beginning with Jews.

The term terrorism came into wide usage only a few decades ago. One of the unfortunate results of this new terminology is that it limits the definition of terrorism to small groups or individuals. Terrorism, in fact, spans the entire world, and manifests itself in various forms. Its perpetrators don't fit any stereotype. An individual, irrespective of his or her religious belief, who blows himself or herself up on a civilian bus or in any other place, has committed an act of terrorism.

I know, the believers in general are against terrorism and they even confront religious extremism and religious hatred. But, in Bangladesh, if you look into the statements of those anti-believer political elements or news media, you may start believing that, in fact Islam is the problem and all Muslims are rogue people. No, this is not any campaign carried by any American or even Israeli media. This is how Bangladeshi media is continuing a massive media war on believers. Although Dhaka always feel inclined in continuing to maintain its anti-Semitic sentiment for years, it is really according avenue for some Communists, leftists, seculars and non-believers in spreading poison against Islam, Muslim and faiths through political statements or newspaper commentaries. And you know what? Bangladesh Awami League has also joined the voice of non-believers by expressing open solidarity to anti-faith actions continuing in Dhaka. #

First published in American Chronicle, April 18, 2008 Sunita Paul was born in 1952 in an affluent family in Kochin, India. She obtained her twice Masters in Political Science and journalism. Later she worked with a number of research institutions and started writing for nuemrous newspapers and periodicals in India and overseas. In recent times, her works have appeared in Sunday Ledger, African Times, Global Politician, Jerusalem Post, Women's World, Insight Magazine, Europe Post, The Asian Tribune, Countercurrents, American Thinker, Intelligence Reporteur etc. She could be reached