On Tuesday, September 18, Arifur Rahman, a 20-year old, was picked up from his Uttara residence, interrogated by police intelligence, and then sent to jail. His offense? He was the author of a cartoon that appeared in Alpin, the weekly satire supplement to Prothom Alo, the largest circulation Bangla newspaper in Bangladesh. The sub-editor responsible for Alpin was fired from his job.
The government banned the edition of Alpin and the Law Advisor told a gathering that included members of the Islamic Oikyo Jote, an Islamist political party, that there was a conspiracy to destabilize the government.
The implication was clear: Arifur Rahman was part of such a conspiracy.
The actions against Alpin and Arifur Rahman have been justified on the grounds that the cartoon offended the religious sentiments of Muslims.
Why are we a people so prone to exaggerate? So ready to create storms in a teacup? Anyone who lives here knows how small our teacups are.
When Prothom Alo, in its Tuesday morning edition, asked forgiveness for the cartoon, condemning it as unacceptable, I wondered what cartoon they were referring to. On Monday morning I'd read Alpin and tossed it into my pile of old newspapers. No cartoon in that issue had struck me as outrageous.
So I went back to pick up my issue of Alpin. Perhaps I violated the ban order against the magazine by doing so. Perhaps my duty, under the law, was to hoist the magazine with rubber gloves, put it in a polythene bag, and deliver it to the nearest police station.
When I re-read the cartoon, I remembered laughing at it. But I don't remember thinking it so humorous that I forwarded it to friends, what you usually do with jokes that you really really find funny.
I can't reproduce the cartoon — after all, it is banned. But here's the exchange it depicts. A tall man in a cap asks a young boy holding a cat, "What is your name?" The kid says, "Babu." The man says, "You're supposed to say Mohammed before a name." And he asks the boy again, "What is your father's name?" The boy says, "Mohammed Abbu." Then pointing at the cat, the man asks, "What's that in your hands?" You can guess the rest.
The same day Prothom Alo retracted its cartoon, it carried a column by Syed Abul Maksud. In one section, he remembers the time in the 1980s when camels first appeared in Dhaka. They were kept in a field in Kalabagan. It seems hundreds of believers showed up there to collect the urine of the camels and take it home with them. They apparently believed that the camels came from Arabia and since Arabia was the land of Mohammed, the camel urine must carry Allah's blessings. Then the news came out that the camels came not from Arabia but from Pakistan. That didn't deter the faithful. After all, Pakistan is to the west too, not far from Arabia. Finally it was revealed the camels really came from Rajasthan in India. Evidently Shamsur Rahman and others wrote in the press that time that we have retreated into the Middle Ages.
As this cartoon controversy shows, we are still there.
The newspapers print the names of leaders of Islamic political parties claiming the cartoon insults religious sensibility. They apparently find it blasphemous.
But even if you're a believer, examine the cartoon. It's not about Islam or Mohammed. Instead the cartoon depicts a certain sort of believer and shows a child's bemusement at that sort of believer. Muslims around the world have many, many names, yet there is a certain kind of believer here that a true Muslim name must have Mohammed before it. The cartoonist didn't invent this kind of believer – they exist in our society.
It's a strange business, this charge that the cartoon insults the religious sensibilities of Muslims. Two things occur to me.
One. Is the belief of the faithful so weak that this cartoon poking fun at a kind of murkho believer can shake it? If so, the faithful should be advised to not read satirical magazines. Or newspapers. They are bound to find many things there that might disturb their faith.
And if Prothom Alo really believes what it admitted, then it should realize that it regularly prints many things that offend the sensibilities of some believer or other. The columnist who mentioned the camel story – he should go. Perhaps he already has. Many columnists that used to write regular columns no longer seem to have a place in the newspaper. And what about all those photos of women showing skin? Maria Sharapova should go. I'd never seen the lady until I came to Dhaka. I'm sure for every person who buys the newspaper for those photos, there's someone else who's offended. Perhaps even the same person.
Two. Many heinous acts are committed by people using the name of religion. We became independent in a war that Pakistan conducted in the name of defending Islam. And how many politicians are sitting in jail today accused of looting and corruption who repeatedly went to perform Hajj and Umrao at Mecca? In fact the very leaders of the Islamic Oikyo Jote who met with the Law Advisor to demand harsh punishment for the cartoon were part of the same government that set world records in corruption. That government mouthed religious words more than any other government in our history.
One would think that the deeds of such people who commit crimes while mouthing religious words does more harm to religious sensibilities. But we don't see the Islamists ever claiming that.
This isn't the only example here of an odd sort of faith. Take the greeting Allah Hafez that seems to have become so beloved by some people here. I remember hearing it first on a Bangladesh Biman flight in 1995. I wondered then where it came from.
It turns out it is not even a result of Bangladeshi Muslim creativity. It was imported from Pakistan.
Many Muslims have for long been saying goodbye with "Khoda Hafez." The greeting is Persian in origin and has a long history in the subcontinent. Some geniuses in Pakistan one day realized that Khoda is Persian. Believing that Arabic is God's closest language — ignoring what this means about a universal being reigning over a planet rich with hundreds of languages — they changed Khoda to Allah. But they kept Hafiz, the other half of the greeting, in Persian. Now we have a half Arabic, half Persian greeting. These geniuses in Pakistan also did not seem to realize that Allah is not a word unique to Muslims. I understand that Allah is simply Arabic for God. Arabs who believe in some sort of God call that deity Allah, whether they are Christian or Muslim or something else.
And what of our 'moderate Muslim' liberals? Faced with the first blast from the self-appointed guardians of faith, they caved in. Shame on Prothom Alo. Either they are too worried about drops in their circulation or they really believe in their actions. In either case, they have stepped away from the fight against ignorance or the need to defend freedom of the press. They have put their feet on a slippery slope. Now watch what new demands come their way.
The honorable thing for the newspaper to do, if they really wanted to recognize the opinion of the critics, would have been to publish their statement explaining why they found the cartoon offensive. The critics should have had to explain, not simply assert. And they needed to give it as their opinion and not something in the name of multitudes or an entire religion.
The honorable thing for the government would have been to ignore the affair as unworthy of official attention, urge the hotheads to calm down, and leave the matter, if it deserved, as something that can be debated in the press, without resort to bans and arrests.
The last word: Arifur Rahman deserves to be freed.