Limits of satire

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.


Looking backwards: 1947 and after


Brushes with Faith, Sin, and the Weird


  1. thank you for finally explaining the allah hafez thing. i didn’t understand why suddenly everyone in bangladesh this time around had decided to say allah instead of khoda. and the fact that it’s now half persian half arabic is pretty funny.

    great article overall. so many good points. so many things to lament.

  2. RK

    The mullahs and their student published a similar joke a few years ago in one of their publications

    The hypocrisy of the Mullahs
    A joke published in Islami Chatra Shibir’s Magazine 1998 Edition Page 87
    Under Children’s Voices
    Courtesy of

    Teacher: Kalu what is your father’s name?
    The Boy Kalu: Sadek
    Teacher: You impertinent boy! You should say Mohammed before a name.

    A few days later
    Teacher: Kalu what has your mother cooked today?
    Boy: Mohammed Kodu

    Sent in by Muhammad Masud
    MMEC Madrassa, Feni

  3. S. M. Shahed

    You are right in pointing out that the cartoon makes fun of murkho believers NOT of Mohammed or of Islam. The murkhos, unable to accept that, wrap themselves in the religious cloak just like George Bush wraps himself in the flag. There is so much common among all these fools. Mohammed, a Muslim name – NO. Mohammed was given his name before he declared Islam. Allah a Muslim god (as if god is Muslim) – NO. Mohammed’s father’s name was Abdullah, long before Islam. These are fairly common pre-Islamic, historical names. True, the concept of pre-Islamic Allah and post-Islamic Allah are quite different. Same word, different concept. Khuda also kept the same word but accepted the concepts included in the new Allah.
    This Mohammed is an atheist – same name, different persuasion.

  4. sorowar

    I think, the writer is bit carried away from the main topic, mentioning camel urine, sharopova, khoda hafez..etc. Atr first, we should recall how the most south Asian Muslim name bears Mohammad as first name. During British rule in Indian subcontinent, Muslim and Hindu cultured mixed together and Muslims were taking Hindu names. That’s why scholars at time suggested keeping “Mohammad” as first name. So, it was purely religious matter to distinguish from Hindu. You won’t find this trend in Middle East countries. Most of us forgot the root of Mohammad name.

    Last time, Danish editor, Flemming Rose was telling in BBC HardTalk that they caricature Aeral Sharon in response to Prophet (PUB) cartoon issue. We often don’t realize or don’t like to realize that Prophet Mohammad is different from others. He is like an institution/symbol of Islam. Generally, every true Muslim believer loves Prophet more than their lives or thier kids. So, putting Sharopova, camel urine story are not relevant in this issue.

    Regarding, prothom Alo cartoon issue, the cartoonist or Editor must aware what is happening in the world. Muslims are victims every where. Far-right parties in the West whose basis is on “attacking islam” are gaining popularity. As a result, we can see recent cartoon issues in Sweeden, Danmark, Netherlands (where, lawmakers are asking for Quran to be banned). So sentiment is running high among true followers. Track history of Prothom Alo is not that good as well. It is a common trend in Bangladesh that staunch secularists like to attack Islam in guise of attacking Jamaat/shadhinota birudi. We must know that Jamaat is NOT the representative of Islam. Personally I don’t like their ideology. Cartoon seemingly looks innocent but it was that NOT innocent. Cartoonist is very talented. So, I cant take it as a normal cartoon only. There are countless topics in the world to make fun or to satire.

    If people don’t protest, in future they will start to caricature our Prophet in bad manners.It needs to stop. We understand the value of national flag. We won’t happy if someone disgraces it. Many of us fail to understand the value of Prophet (PUB). It’s not related to weak faith. It’s related to honor. Historically, from un-islamic point of view, Prophet (PUB) was one of the enlighten man in human history. He does not deserve any sorts of criticism even in a tacit way.

    For ur info, Khoda is a Farsi word, not the Hafiz (in urdu Hafez). Allah is Arabic. So Allah hafiz in Arabic phrase which means “May Allah protect you”. You can say khoda/Allah as God. But there is difference between Allah, Khoda and God. So, some famous bishops/fathers suggested to Pope to change their GOD name as Allah. Saying Allah hafiz does not merely means as Bangladeshi Greeting, it has religious touch


  5. Nadiya

    that the mullahs will react that way – unsurprising. that a newspaper, supposed to be a bastion of freedom of expression, should kowtow to ignorance and intolerance-mongering is much more surprising and saddening.

  6. sorowar

    Why should we defend our prophet at any cost?

    It’s a fashion that almost all anti-islamists/secularists are used to say the same thing “Muslim/ mullah’s faith is so weak, they make a chaos and become frightened that their religion is about to collapse when find any sort of insult/fun/satire against Prophet or Islam”.

    Many of us may think that Prophet always used to forgive the enemies and was so kind. So, we should leave the issue, like recent cartoon mockery. Making a fun regarding prophet’s name does not matters.

    But it should matter to a true Muslim when he sees, his prophet gets insulted by any means. Islam and prophet (PUB) are synonymous. It’s the symbol or identity of Muslim/ Islam. If someone questions your identity and say Bastard Mr. X, will you be angry or be so-called rational to hear that?? Bastard is merely a word. If you are NOT a Bastard, then of course it’s a matter of anger to you. But if you are, that may also drag the same degree of anger because it’s not your fault. Nobody tolerates anything questioning his/her identity. Do you tolerate, if someone insults your Mom?? In the same way, in Bangladesh, if someone address to a person as Razakar Mr. X. Will that person be angry or happy?

    From non-Islamic point of view, Prophet (PUB) was one of the great enlightened persons throughout the human history. Defending the prophet from any sort of ridicule is not related to weak faith. It’s the responsibility of a true Muslim who wants to defend his/her Muslim identity.

    Even in today’s modern/free world, some countries like Thailand and Turkey are protecting the honor of their “Father of the nation” by constitutional laws. If someone ridicules Kamal Ataturk, he will be in prison. It’s a law of that country. Irony, secularists of the same country do not brother to insult Islam or its prophet. Few months ago in Thailand, one Westerner was sentenced to 10 yrs in prison due to the insult towards King Bhumimol’s picture!

    We feel very sad, angry and dishearten when our freedom fighters get insulted/ ridiculed directly or indirectly. Why do we feel sad??? Of course, these types of insults can’t weaken the “spirit of freedom fight”. BUT a true patriot can’t keep quite without any protest/defending. As a consequence we can see a roar of condemnation in every national newspapers and burning effigy on the street when somebody raises “Pakistani Flag” during our Independence Day!

    Likewise, a true Muslim should feel very upset when their Prophet is ridiculed and must protest against it. Because, generally, a true Muslim loves his prophet more than his life or anything in the world. This is quite natural and rational. On the other hand, if someone who is a Muslim but does NOT feel anything regarding the honor of our prophet, there might be lacking of “Islamic spirit” inside him. I think, as a Muslim he/she should be ashamed of himself/herself.


    Sorowar, Singapore

  7. josé juan

    yes it is true that a lot of countries do not tolerate it if you insult the president or make fun of the flag. Likewise, it may seem offensive to some to have religious symbols and names of their god poked fun at. But without freedom of speech and expression, society becomes authoritarian and irrational. It is therefore important to defend freedom of speech. Political satire has existed throughout history and should be allowed to exist. I may not like people to speak badly about my mother, and get angry, and accuse them of libel, but I believe they have the right to give their opinion, especially if my mother is obnoxious and authoritarian. So, I believe society must have checks and balances at all levels.

  8. Natasha

    Thanks for this article and thanks for linking it up with other stories of the camel urine and “allah hafiz”. These are all linked and it shows how weak we are when it comes to our religious belief. Mullahs have their rights, they can announce “murtad” openly and we cannot protest and if we say anything against mullahs then it is blasphemy…. why?

  9. Advhut Meye

    People are so nirbodh and ondhobissashi! They never see the deeper meaning of an aspect but they rather run around with the simplest and stupidest fact. For example, I can guess that the majority of the people who protested against the cartoon aren’t even religous. They probably don’t even know much about the prophet. That cartoon does not even implies anything religious but they are trying to be so “dharmik” about it. Also, an islamic name has nothing to do with how a person will turn out. A name is just a name.

  10. shahpar

    got this news today:

    We can now confirm that cartoonist Arif has been freed and he is out of jail after languishing there for 6 months. We should mention, however, here that his release did not just happen painlessly. In this complex case, there were months of lobbying, advocacy and most importantly court battles that had to fought. Barrister Sara Hossain and her team, who fought for Arif and continued to remind us of his case deserve are heartfelt gratitude for their courage and persistence. Months ago when High court deemed his arrest illegal, there was a snide comment in this blog about how inconsequential these verdicts are. But what it failed to appreciate was that those were incremental steps towards a long legal battle in Bangladesh’s complex legal web. Solidarity to all who fought for his case in all fronts — via blogs, writing letters, faxes and through international lobbying and most importantly via legal battles. We should also mention the losers — the newspapers who refused to publish any op-eds or editorials asking for his release.

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