Cartoon Row in Bangladesh: Sentiment That Dies Hard
22 Sep, 2007
“Human being is not born with any religion or religious sentiment; but upon birth the religion (or religious sentiment) of his/her family becomes proactive on him/her and s/he is included in the religious circle of the family. Father-mother, relatives, surrounding, religious rituals, from school to university, textbooks, newspapers and the state instills upon his/her mind religion and religious sentiment; guard him/her like a cop; replacing creativity, cultivates irrationality in his/her mind. If the religion s/he belongs to happens to be a religion sponsored by the state, then his/her religious sentiment becomes acuter day by day.”
- Humayun Azad,*1 Bengali author/linguist/critic
1. Let me share a small childhood anecdote with the readers. In our village we had a friend named Malek. One holiday in the afternoon I went to Malek’s house and was calling him by his name aloud from outside his house. Malek’s uncle, an elderly man in his 70s, came out, saw me and then came nearer me telling,” Don’t call someone just Malek. It’s a sin and you know why?” I acknowledged my ignorance. “Malek is one of the hundred sacred names by which the Almighty Allah is called. Hence, it’s sinful to utter the name in truncated form. You should, rather, say, ‘Abdul Malek.’“
I see that as an isolated incident which happened many years ago; Islam was not yet declared the state religion of Bangladesh. Majority of people were Muslims as they are today; Bangladesh was not then a breeding ground of the Taliban-inspired radical political Islamists. But it seems to me (I am sure I am not alone in this thought) now, we have come to a stage where I believe even the above-narrated circumstance with little twist and turn would be enough to put someone to jail without bail in today’s Bangladesh. At least that’s what I have been thinking after reading news about the arrest of young cartoonist Arifur Rahman of daily Prothom Alo and so called controversy surrounding his otherwise plainly-intended cartoon*2.
2. In the satirical supplement (Aalpin) of daily Prothom Alo, cartoonist Arif has drawn a small cartoon with a brief conversation between a small boy and an elderly bearded Muslim man (or, someone popularly called Hujoor/Maolana in Bengali Muslim culture) where the cartoonist tried to invoke some laughter in reader’s mind using the word Muhammad. Unless someone has a predilection (like our current Law and Information adviser Mr Mainul Hussain) to see signs of devil’s conspiracy in every little things in this world, any one reading the cartoon would understand that the cartoonist cracked a joke purely in a cultural context. Much like the words Ram, Narayan, Jagannath, Ishwar or in English Matthew, Luke, John--the word Muhammad, regardless of its historic affiliation, is also a common name in almost all predominantly Muslim societies. Bangladesh is no exception. Thus picking up a common name to invoke some fun in readers mind cannot be a crime for a cartoonist! Let me give another example. In USA, people are usually called by their first name. Many Bangladeshi (and other) Muslims living in USA are officially called Mohammad as this is what their first name is. Let’s assume one such Muhammad is very handsome, hero-like. During informal conversation it is not unusual for an American colleague, or friend to tease Muhammad and say things like “Muhammad, man, you are a lady killer!” Will it amount to an insult to the prophet Muhammad of the religion Islam? Well, none but a blockhead will think, it will. But unfortunately, even in twenty first century we have Bangladesh where just a small threat from the Taliban-inspired Islamic fundamentalists and the government sympathetic to them is enough to bring together editors of country’s almost all leading newspapers to kneel down before Mullahs and apologize to them for hurting people’s (or Mullah’s?) religious sentiments. What a disgrace!
3. Some readers believe- as a mainstream and “pro-democracy” daily, Prothom Alo had been fundamentalist gang’s target for long time (one possible reason could be publishing investigative series reports about the activity of militant Islamists, Bangla Bhai and his Jamaat connection, etc) although many secular and freethinkers accuse Prothom Alo and its editor of being opportunistic and ideologically compromising in many instances. Fundamentalist gang has used cartoon issue just as a pretext to bring down Prothom Alo from the top of the list as the highly circulated daily. That’s what some people I personally spoke to believe. They cited example that when similar cartoon in the magazine of Islami Chatra Shibir (radical student wing of Jamaat Islami Bangladesh) was published in 1998*3, it triggered no reaction from any fundamentalist or government authority.
Art, aesthetics, be it of any kind, is always an anathema to the eyes of fundamentalists. Of the many havocs caused by the Talibans upon seizing state power in Afghanistan during early 90s, one was total demolition of a thousand years old giant historical Bamiyan statue of Buddha. We were shocked but not surprised to hear that. We know what logic (!) worked in the minds of Taliban. It’s very likely, Taliban could not tolerate and demolished Buddha statue because it hurt their religious sentiments. It hurt their chauvinistic and jingoist mindset. They celebrated its destruction. Similarly we saw how Hindu fanatics in India took delight in destroying a historic mosque of several hundred years, because it was allegedly built at the site of the temple of Rama, a Hindu God. But we do not believe in destruction. We believe in creativity, humanism and positive growth. Hence we must resist these charlatans and their pretext of religious sentiments.
*1 “Dhormanubhutir Upokotha ebong Onyanyo”/Myth of Religious Sentiment and Others (The quote has been translated from Bangla – J.A.)