Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hurting Religious Sentiments

Posted : 05 Oct, 2014 00:00:00  AA-A+
Hurting religious sentiments and political consequences
M. Serajul Islam
A good number of ministers of this government are like loose cannons. They are serious embarrassment and danger to it in the manner they speak to the media. This has been flagged many times and over a long period of time. The government has never paid any heed to these concerns. The reason for the government's lack of concern about such ministers is that they speak as they like in public as part of, what seems to be, a deliberate political strategy to attack, humiliate and ridicule the opposition. They are doing a good job of it, attacking and ridiculing the opposition 24/7. In fact, bashing/ridiculing the two major opposition parties is a daily routine of a number of ministers of this government.

No serious government can expect to do itself - let alone the country - much good by such a policy of free license to the ministers who speak to the media all the time to attack and humiliate the opposition. The danger of boomerang of such a policy has always been there. In fact, if research were done on the ministers' opposition bashing/ridiculing and its impact on the ruling party, it would show that instead of affecting the opposition adversely in public view, the ministers concerned have instead contributed to the falling popularity of their party. It would further show that their mindless and senseless ranting has harmed their party much more than the opposition.

Finally, at a time when it is under pressure at home and abroad on the issue of legitimacy because of the January 05 elections, a minister has landed the present government in a deep political black hole. Senior Minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui in a meeting organised for him by the New York association of his home district Tangail, said that the followers of the Prophet of Islam were "dacoits". He laughed and ridiculed at Hajj, calling it a huge wastage. His body language in the speech was ridiculous. The video of his address that went viral on the Internet shows him uttering the obscenities in a manner that leaves no one in doubt that he relished his Islam-bashing. That a minister of a government of an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country would utter such obscenities at Islam is something that no one could have imagined even in the worst of nightmares.

No Muslim anywhere in the world utters the name of the holy Prophet without saying "peace be upon him". This Minister, with the deliberate intent to hurt the Muslims, referred to Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) simply by his name. He thus chose two of the most sensitive and delicate aspects of the great religion of Islam, namely its Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and Hajj, one of the five pillars of the religion, to ridicule Islam and hurt its followers. The minister attacked Islam to incite its followers in the meanest, basest and utterly indecent way possible.

Quite naturally, the minister's speech, its contents and the manner in which he gave it reached Dhaka via the social media almost as soon as he had left the venue of the meeting. And equally naturally, the reaction has been as expected. The Islamic parties called him a "murtad" and demanded his banishment from the cabinet. They also asked for his apology, arrest and punishment under the law. Former President HM Ershad of Jatiya Party in a public meeting went the farthest, demanding that the minister be hanged. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that has already threatened a movement against the government to force it to hold new elections and looking for issues to encourage the public to stand behind it has received the minister's unbelievable speech as a heaven-sent opportunity. It has given the government time until October 15 to take all appropriate actions under the law against the minister that included his sacking and incarceration. The religious parties have threatened that unless the minister is seriously and severely punished, they would call hartal on October 25 and continue with their movement until the government punishes the minister to satisfy their demands.

Readers would recollect that in the 1970s, poet Daud Haider was banished from the country for ridiculing Islam and now lives in Germany. Taslima Nasrin faced a similar fate for her book that ridiculed Islam. In this case, the offender is a minister.  Millions have seen the video of his speech and found his offence more serious than those of Daud Haider and Taslima Nasrin. The offence has international connotation. It will deeply upset the Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. It will also seriously embarrass the Prime Minister with the West because in her recent trip to New York she has taken the line that Bangladesh is facing Islamic terrorism for which the western world must support her government that is fighting such terrorism. The minister's action has placed that stand of the Prime Minister into doubt because the minister's speech will be construed in the West as the greatest provocation to help the Islamic fundamentalists.

The government has thus been handed a political problem of humungous proportions that would need extremely deft handling for it to come out of it unscathed. It is not an issue that the ruling party would be able to handle with action by security forces or by ridiculing the opposition, as it is in the habit of doing in recent times. At a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister stated that a process under the provisions of the country's Constitution was underway to remove the minister concerned from the cabinet as well as the ruling party, Awami League. The moot question now is: would that meet or fall short of the demands from different quarters for his arrest and the punishments under the law? The issue is explosive and has, as many Awami Leaguers have openly admitted, the potential to trigger opposition movement for fresh elections and resolution of many other issues in the public domain. The impending Eid may be only reason for the ruling party to take some comfort. Nevertheless, the period after Eid will be critical because this issue will not go away unless resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui may feel surprised that his party is gearing to take such severe actions against him because he has said or done things far worse before. Many other ministers have also acted the same way and got away without even an eyebrow being raised by the Prime Minister or by the party leaders. This Minister has fallen in trouble this time because it is Islam that he chose to offend. This underlines Islam's undeniable force in the politics of Bangladesh. Hence the AL may have to think twice in just sacking this minister from the cabinet and the party and leaving his case there. These actions may not be enough. And for the long-term future of the party, the AL already on the back foot on Islam because of its earlier strong support to the Shahbag bloggers some of whom were considered by the religious parties as being blatantly anti-Islamic, cannot afford to be seen soft on this minister.

This brings to the organisers of the minister's meeting. The top leaders of the North American Awami League were present in the event. None of the organisers or those present protested the unbelievable diatribe of the minister against Islam. These organisers are now faced with a double jeopardy. They have become party without protest to something that could land the AL in deep political trouble. More importantly, they gave the minister the forum to ridicule Islam and its Prophet that only a group of Islam-haters of the worst type imaginable, would. They should keep in mind that there is a digital imprint of this unbelievably anti-Islam meeting. The Minister could plead insanity or, as one organiser has said, he was "not natural" and perhaps will get away with his crime. What about them?

The writer is a retired career diplomat and Ambassador.

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