Saturday, October 18, 2008

Religious extremists shouldn’t be encouraged


THIS IS absolutely shocking news. Government pulled down the sculptures in the face of pressure from a group of obscurantist Islamists.

There was an international outcry, when the Taliban destroyed two Buddhist statues including others in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001.The two statues in Bamiyan, 175 and 120 feet tall, were hewn from the side of a mountain. The largest, carved in the third century AD, was thought to be the world's tallest standing Buddha. But the then Islamist Taliban government decreed that the statues, which had survived for over 1,500 years, were idolatrous and un-Islamic.

After seven years, everyone who witnessed and came across the news, was surprised and incensed when the military-controlled interim government of Bangladesh was forced to pull down a monument of bauls (folk singers) on the roundabout at Zia International Airport in Dhaka.

As part of the city beautification programme and to uphold the rich Bangladeshi heritage, the Dhaka City Corporation decided to erect a monument in front of the airport so that each and every foreigner along with other local countrymen could know the rich baul tradition of Bangladesh. According to the sculpture Mrinal Haque, the sculptures of five bauls holding ektaras were about to finish as eighty percent of the work had been completed, but the Muslim bigots were able to force the authorities and took part the demolition job on Wednesday, October 15, 2008.

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Cultural heritage is based on aspects of our past that we want to keep, appreciate and pass on to future generations. These elements reflect our history, and can evoke special meaning for us as individuals or as members of a community.

The culture of Bangladesh has a unique history, dating back more than 2500 years ago. It has evolved over the centuries, and encompasses the cultural diversity of several social groups of Bangladesh. There is an enormous amount of influence of folklore in the old and modern Bengali literature. Baul songs, the mystic folk songs of Bangladesh can be compared with any other of the world rich in folklore. Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition used as a vehicle to express Baul thought. Bauls are a very heterogeneous group, with many different streams to the sect, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnavite Hindus and Sufi Muslims. Baul songs always propagate humanism and tolerance.

During Pakistan period, cultural struggle for national identity of Bangladeshi, starting from language movement of 1952, has always been integral part of national struggle. As a result, struggle of Bangladeshi people from language movement of 1952 to armed resistance in 1971, lead to emergence of Bangladesh as secular democratic nation in the world.

The religious extremism has been growing in Bangladesh for decades now. Although these forces were put in total disarray after their defeat in 1971, they have managed to regroup due to subsequent political patronage. They were further helped in their revival by the confrontationist politics of Bangladesh. The recent demolition of those sculptures is not only an example of destroying the secular fabric of Bangladesh’s tolerant heritage but also a slap on humanity and one of its superheroes. And the worst part of it is that the extremists were able to force the government to fulfill their fundamental ideologies. Like its predecessors, this incident raised the question about the present government's commitment to protecting Bangladeshi culture, upholding non-communal spirit and democratic values.

Protesters from other side including freedom fighters, educationists, cultural activists, politicians and general people, who believe there is a conspiracy against the country's Liberation War, culture and its secularist character, are raising voice to secure the country’s secularism, but the extremists seem more strong as no one with authority is ready to stop patronizing obscurantism and bigotry and to realize the idiocy of this kind of action. "We will not accept anything but a hajj minar at that place and its design must be finalized upon our consent within October 23," said Mufti Nur Hossain, Committee Chairman of Bimanbandar Golchattar Murti Protirodh Committee after succeeding in demolition. The bigots further demanded the immediate release of Mahbub Jamil, special assistant to the chief adviser, for taking initiative to erect the sculptures.

These obscurantist were succeeded to send Arifur Rahman to behind bars, cartoonist of daily Prothom Alo for drawing a cartoon which according to them was against the spirit of Islam whereas a similar piece of cartoon was published in one of their mouthpiece magazine (Kishore Kantha by Chattra Shibir, November 1998 issue), but none of Islamists groups did utter a single word against that cartoon. Matiur Rahman, editor of Prothom Alo and recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, had to offered unqualified public apology more than once and appealed to the agitating Islamists for compassion.

Even a similar group of extremists recently forced the government to review and amend the sections of a drafted women development policy 2008, which ensure equal rights for women under the law. On October 17, 2008, a new fresh threat came when chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote Fazlul Haq Amini declared that all statues in different places of the country would be pulled down if Islamists would come to power. He pronounced Shikha Onirban, the eternal flame in Dhaka Cantonment in memory of the military personnel martyred in the liberation war, is an anti-Islamic symbol. Every time they were gathered in such an organized way, particularly under emergency where all the democratic forces are barred to conduct overt political activities, to advance their common obscurantist politics, which eventually aims at setting up of theocratic state in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim democratic country, but this type of activities may tarnish the secular image of Bangladesh as fundamentalism is the belief in absolute religious authority and the demand that this religious authority be legally enforced. Fundamentalism is the product of a clash between religious belief and the ‘modernity’ of the society. The clash is based on fear – fear that the secularized nature of society will lead to the destruction of their religion and seduce them and their loved ones to the path leading to Hell . . . and leave them bereft of meaning and hope in this life. Fundamentalism is incompatible with democracy. Democracy is based on the belief that people with radically different beliefs and cultures can live together in peace if they respect each other’s right to disagree. As Bangladesh is heading towards democratic transition this December, its cultural heritages, social values and secularism must be maintained.

We believe that the present government is very much concerned about these extremists’ activities and determine to keep peace and harmony in the society in any way, but as long as the concern of spirit of the birth of Bangladesh, any such extremists shouldn’t be encouraged or tolerated so that they can able to deter the democratic norms of Bangladesh. #

First published on October 18, 2008, New York

Ripan Kumar Biswas ( is a freelance writer based in New York