This article investigates the seemingly Islamophobic editorial policy of the Dhaka Tribune, and relates it to the deeper question of why Bangladesh’s current ruling elite have such an aversion to the Islam and Muslim culture of their subjugated population. It is high time that this state of affairs was transformed.
‘The Matrix’ that is Bangladesh: Which pill will you take, the red pill or the blue pill, reality or rhetoric?
Two Worlds Apart
In late February 2014 two meetings were held on the rights of ‘indigenous’ people. One was held in Dhaka at the Cirdap auditorium, the other in London at King’s College. Both were talking about the rights of indigenous people, the threats they faced and depictions of Islam.
The Bangladesh conference talked in alarmist tones of the epidemic of indigenous children being converted shock horror, to Islam in Muslim majority Bangladesh. There was no mention of Christian missionary activity, but only Muslims propagating their faith. In the imaginary world of the organisers, Islam is not a universal and dynamic tradition, but a static religion established 1400 years ago, it became the second largest religious tradition, purely on the reproductive abilities of its original adherents.
This view runs against the everyday reality experienced by Muslims in their lives and throughout their histories. From the earliest community, lead by the Prophet (pbuh), down to the Sufi giants of the Indian subcontinent, calling people to God has been one of the essential foundations of the faith and community. Frustration at the double standards applied towards Muslim vis a vis Christian missionary work in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region was expressed in Hefazat e Islam’s tenth point in their first set of demands last year.
Stop anti-Islamic activities in Chittagong propagated by several NGOs and Christian missionaries under the guise of religious conversion.
The Dhaka gathering stood in stark contrast in attitude to the one held in London by Reprieve, a human rights organisation that works for fair trials and justice for the most vulnerable and powerless against the most powerful states. Reprieve’s intervention aimed to highlight the plight of large communities in the tribal areas of Pakistan who live under constant fear of extrajudicial killing from drone attacks by the United States with the complicity of sections of the Pakistani state and wider society. Theirs is risky work, their key speaker, journalist Kareem Khan, whose son and father had been extrajudicially killed in a drone strike in December 2009, had been kidnapped then released in Pakistan only days earlier. The 2012 report Living Under Drones is well worth digesting for more background. The key difference here was that neither the participants nor their western liberal audience viewed Islam as an anathema, but instead as a source of strength in the struggle for universal humanity and rule of law. From Kareem Saheb’s opening prayer with the prayer of the Prophet Moses before facing his Pharaonic stepfather, to the supplications of solidarity he extended to the victims of state crimes in Dhaka last May. Kareem Saheb, took the same message of shared humanity, universal rights and pride in Islam to the European Parliament. The European Parliament showed their approval of the message by passing a resolution demanded European Union Member States not to “perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states” and called on them to “oppose and ban practices of extra judicial targeted killings.
Comparing both conferences, what I found incredulous were not the views expressed in Dhaka, Muktasree Chakma Sathi is entitled to her opinions, misunderstandings and key performance indicators. There is a need for more genuine, faithful interfaith space in Bangladesh, and in the absence of justice for any majority, minorities are vulnerable to co-option, division and rule. I was dumbfounded at how these views could be produced and published in the Dhaka Tribune without any challenge or right to reply.
‘Crusading’ Churnalism from Dhaka to London
‘Crusading’ journalism at the Dhaka Tribune proving indeed that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
This is not the first time the newspaper has run a negative, irrational news story on Islam and Muslims. Over its short lifespan of a year, there is a recurring pattern of negative and irrational attitudes toward the belief of the Muslim community in Bangladesh. From cursory, non-scientific search of the stories run by the Dhaka Tribune using the adjective Islamic, between a third to half of the stories are related to violence, militancy and terrorism. This gives any reader, prone to believing what they read in print, the impression that Islam is a regressive and violent religion, with a large section of its adherents engaged in militant terrorist activities.
It is worth scratching the skin of a particularly smug example or the irrational Muslim meme. On Language Day the Dhaka Tribune published an article with the title ‘New Fatwa deems Mars Trips Haram’. It was a story that clerics in the UAE had given a legal opinion that it is prohibited for a Muslim to fly to Mars, deliberately distorting the facts by a fatwa to the Mars One mission. The actual relevance of the story to Bangladesh I am yet to figure out (answers on a postcard please), but the psychic intention is clear. The Dhaka Tribune claimed that following the fatwa, ‘Muslims banking on a holiday to Mars will have to cancel their plans on space travel.’
This particular piece came just days after the right wing anti-immigrant Daily Mail published the story in the UK. The Daily Mail is currently being investigated by the UK Press Complaints Commission after it published a racist and Islamophobic op-ed piece ‘satirising’ a private community visit to a children’s theme park. The piece, which wrote of busses, with Muslim children on, blowing themselves up, was met with right wing revelry and public revulsion. More than 25 national Muslim groups wrote a letter of complaint to the editor with regards to the paper’s piece on Islam and Muslims, arguing that the piece has increased the risk of attack on Muslims from far right groups.
The story, printed by both the neocon Daily Mail and ‘progressive’ Dhaka Tribune for similar effect is patently untrue. A rebuttal was issued from the UAE, explaining that the answer was to a kamikaze-like, one-way trip to Mars. Given the Muslim moral abhorrence of suicide, the answer was a prohibition rather than an affirmation. The entire episode is lampooned elsewhere on the internet.
It begs the question of why the Dhaka Tribune would publish a story so clearly negative about Muslims, of no relevance to Bangladesh, echoing a right wing anti immigrant newspaper, and which was based on a cruel twisted half truth. To put the impression this gives of Dhaka Tribune’s professionalism, integrity and agenda even more clearly, the Daily Mail piece in the UK was actually much better. They at least buried the correct context of the story in the text beneath their sensationalist Muslim-negative headline, whereas the Dhaka tribune further spun the story out of context with its own Fatwa saying it meant that flying to Mars was morally reprehensible (haraam).
The American Muslim cleric Musa Furber, argued the episode demonstrated a deliberate media distortion of facts. He stated, the type of voyage Mars One plans is not analogous to the type of voyage presented in the article. Mars One aims to establish a permanent and sustainable human colony on Mars, as is apparent from its mission goals, roadmap, and the risks and challenges involved. It is obvious that this isn’t the type of voyage addressed in article, nor is it the type deemed impermissible in UAE fatwa authorities clarification.
The Ignorance Multiplier Effect and The War on Terror Economy
Needless to say, the story underscores the ignorance, and ignorance multiplier effect of the Dhaka Tribune on Islam, as it was misleading its audience that a fatwa issued in the UAE was somehow a binding space-exploration legislation upon all Muslims over all time and space, like the equivalent of a Catholic papal bull. The exact opposite is the truth and as this is a recurring error, briefly outlined next.
A fatwa is nothing more than a personal legal opinion, optional for everyone else to follow and morally binding only upon the person who issues it. An analogy might be made to the issue of legal opinions from courts in common-law systems. Fatwās generally contain the details of the scholar’s reasoning, typically in response to a particular case, and are considered a binding precedent by those Muslims who have morally bound themselves to that scholar, including future muftis. Mere rulings can be compared to memorandum opinions. The primary difference between common-law opinions and fatwās however, is that fatwās are not universally binding. The Islamic legal traditions are not universally consistent nor are they hierarchically structured. Contrary to what some would have us know, fatwās do not carry the sort of weight that secular common-law opinions do.
A well-trodden social response to the editorial policy of the Dhaka Tribune, would be to judge that its editor, staff and proprietors are anti-Muslim. A similar accusation was raised by a staff member at the paper, arguing that the paper was promoting intellectual attacks on Islam. Proponents of such a view might point to editor Zafar Sobhan’s facebook page where he suggests Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, a book banned in Bangladesh, to be one of his favourite.
Zafar Sobhan’s facebook page is a regular portal for the Dhaka flatterati to pay tribute.
Such arguments are too blunt for the challenge at hand, but have indicative value. They are dismissed, by the religiously indifferent of course, with statements like ‘but there is a prayer room in the Gencom building’, or some derivation of ‘brown people can’t be racist’, and ‘how can he have an irrational antipathy towards Islam when he was born Muslim?’ Vocal objection to this publication’s apparent approach to perhaps the majority of its reader’s, if not their parent’s din might even be met with the well worn liberal-sounding excuse of “Well if you don’t like it, nobody is asking you to read it.”
Yet it is very much in the public interest to dwell on the matter for longer. As the War on Terror economy booms in Bangladesh, it becomes steadily more deadly and systematic as corporate media and corrupt scholarship seek more control over our intellects, bodies and relations with each other. We must penetrate deeper than observation and frustration at systematic bias, to examine the broken record that plays us for fools.
Introducing the Three Bankruptcies of Islamophobia in Bangladesh
The irrational antipathy the paper has towards Islam and Muslims in Bangladesh, emanates from a three pronged bankruptcy: intellectual, economic and moral, which have their origins and development deep in history. It creates an anaesthetising alienation and a homebrew Southern Comfort for the powerful and the privileged.
It is a crying shame that the self proclaimed liberal elites of Bangladesh do not deem it fit to extend such values of tolerance and compassion to their less advantaged neighbours. Instead of honouring their expensive educations by partnering with fellow citizens in tough predicaments, they continue to lap up the global war on terror narrative to preserve the status quo, keeping their neighbours, and themselves, in their place.
This is in sharp contrast to the acts and works of Professor Akbar S Ahmed, who in his latest volume The Thistle and the Drone, advocates the rights of ordinary citizens on the periphery of modern states who have found themselves victimised like the Pakistani tribesman by drones, the Age of Globalisation’s most terrifying kill technology.
The Islamophobia manifesting through the Dhaka Tribune is more insidious than Bollywood, and its buzz reverberates amongst many within the current power elite and ‘polite’ circles that Mr Sobhan services. It is the result of internalisation of a racist 19th century Britisher argument which at it core says that one cannot be both a Liberal and a practicing Muslim. It is as if they are two static, mutually exclusive categories. According to such a warped development indicator, one measures progress by the distance one keeps from living Muslim traditions. It is an outdated, bankrupt ‘essentialist’ view of Islam, ignoring its diversity and dynamics, gaining inspiration from the dictum of the imperialist British poet Rudyard Kipling: ‘OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…’
Do as I say not as I do: J S Mill was one of the founders of modern liberalism, who also worked in the British Imperial Indian Civil Service
This argument has its roots in the works of J S Mill, who made it clear in On Liberty and Representative Government that his views there could not be applied to India, because Indians were civilizationally, if not racially inferior. This powerful view continues, tacitly and explicitly, despite vivid contradictory evidence, from Reprieve’s work with Pakistanis against drones, to Hasan Suroor’s recent study with Indian Muslims. It is an opinion that sheds more light on the insecurities of its advocates than the inadequacies of non-European civilisations.
Revis(it)ing Two Economies and The Song of Bangladesh
Indian fiddling while Dhaka burns: Bengal Classical Music Festival (BCMF) held at the Army Stadium from November 28 to December 1 2013 – during which time when opposition party members were being rounded up and killed by security services for their agitation for free and fair elections.
The Dhaka Tribune, with its combination of op-ed declamation, hypnotic kitsch history, mass choreography of facts and dramatic partisan lighting finds its model in a party street rally rather than the liberal newspaper it purports to be. A construction of a grandiose theatre rather than debate, its readership are offered images of themselves as the editorials want, with little correspondence with reality.
It would appear that Mr Sobhan is trying to recreate a spectacle of a Bangladesh in his reader’s mind that shall forever be Calcutta, and a second-rate one at that, with a colonially capital driven and Muslim-lite metropolis extracting resources and cheap labour for global markets from a Muslim rural hinterland. A century on and The Song Remains the Same.
In this two (cultural) economy theory, Eastern Bengal (Bangladesh) has a dependent and binary relationship with its Western half. According to the theory, the ruling elites of Bangladesh, in return for economic concessions and precious foreign exchange, purchase kitsch manufactured cultural products, political attitudes and certainties from a Delhi directed West Bengal. This attitude is exemplified in the newspaper’s favourable attitude towards the Indian government and turning a blind eye to the increasing Indian interference in domestic politics and domination over the economy.
The paper’s metropolitan myopia barely picks up the looming environmental crisis in rural Bangladesh, amongst other factors caused by the unilateral construction of upstream dams by the Indian government. A recent classical music festival is given more coverage than barrages and rivers in a country where millions are displaced environmental refugees. Multiple environmental crises are devastating certain parts of the rural economy and society, causing rural depopulation and driving desperate throngs into the crowded slums of Dhaka, where many are compelled to accept dangerous working conditions for meager wages. It is a labour market where wages are artificially kept low by the ruthless clampdown on dissent, as witnessed by the brutal torture and murder of labour activist Aminul Islam by individuals linked to the security forces. The Rana Plaza industrial disaster and its production are not the exception to the rule, but a tip of the iceberg of the two economies of Bangladesh.
It is a familiar image, but with different technology, of the absentee landlord, his rent collector and the tenant farmer, a return to the supposed ‘cultural’ heydays of British Raj following the 1793 Permanent Settlement, where centuries-old flexible land tenures were unilaterally appropriated then handed over by the British to a select, pliant moneyed class. This fundamental, multi-generational mutilation of social and ecological relations fueled the much celebrated 19th century Bengali renaissance that rested on the back of dispossession and pauperisation in the countryside.
A reminder of the true human cost of Bengal under the British is recorded in Noam Chomsky’s, World Orders Old and New:
“A British enquiry commission in 1832 described the effect of sponsored government created through Permanent Settlement Act of British Parliament. The commission found “the settlement fashioned with great care and deliberation has to our painful knowledge subjected almost the whole of the lower classes to most grievous oppression.” In the words of Director of East India Company, “The misery hardy finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India” Nevertheless Governor-General of India, Mr. Bentinck, was unmoved and observed, ” The permanent settlement, … has this great advantage, at least , of having created vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of the British Dominion and having complete command over mass of the people.”
Let them eat culture: (l) An illustration of famine victims of the Permanent Settlement Acts, and (r ) the 19th century Bengali Renaissance was result of a joint venture interaction between British Administrators and their Bengali Zamindari (feudal) colleagues.
The fear, and reality, of economic bankruptcy is an under-explored driver of human behaviour. Politically produced famines have claimed the lives and hopes of millions of our forefathers and mothers through 1770, 1943 and most recently 1974. In the shadow of such absence, this verse of Joan Baez’s haunting lament over our most recent military war is given new layers of meaning.
The story of Bangladesh
Is an ancient one again made fresh
By blind men who carry out commands
Which flow out of the laws upon which nations stand
Which is to sacrifice a people for a land
Morality and The ‘New’ Anandabazar School of Journalism
Intellectual, economic and moral factors intermingle in the messiness of real life, but the moral sphere is our next zone of interest. For those who can remember as far back as 2007, Mr Sobhan once reimagined the theatre of Bangladesh using the Christian Biblical story of Original Sin. Exhibiting symptoms of the Clark Kent ‘Ubermensch’ syndrome, Sobhan urged his countrymen to, ‘cleanse the poison from our bloodstream’. Since taking power in 2008 the Awami League government has obliged, we continue to see a rising number of political disappearances and deaths, not to mention mass incarceration and criminalisation of opposition activists.
This concept of Original Sin is opposed by the Qur’anic narrative and Muslim world view of Adam (ah) and his progeny – us – of original innocence, forgiveness, spiritual equality and personal responsibility. Original Sin is a fatalistic doctrine of Western Christianity, which is an anathema to and challenged by the egalitarian spirit of Islam.
A more apt Qur’anic and Judaic narrative that speaks to the reality of Bangladesh would be that of Cain and Abel. Cain, who killed his brother Abel the herdsman, and built a city, prefigured the modern call one hears from the polite circles of Dhaka, of the necessary cost of ‘progress’. The story gives us a framework to understand how ‘civilised’ people like Zafar Sobhan can dehumanise and applaud brutality against their fellow citizens, as we saw from the Dhaka Tribune’s production and coverup of the 6th of May Massacre.
In an interview for the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan extols the virtues of media ethics and modern technology, stumbling ( choking? ) over a reference to his paper’s live blogging of “May 5th, 6th… the Hefazot in Dhaka”.
This attitude reenacts the tragic history of the bloody fields of Plassey in 1757 in modern day Bangladesh. At the heart of the tragedy lies the betrayal by Mir Jafar of Siraj Ud Daulah, a tragedy we replay time and again, one betrayal after another, of brother against brother, all in the name of a misconceived notion of ‘progress and development’.
The onward march of ‘progress’ in the history of the Bangladeshi people: (l) From the fratricide of Cain and Abel, to the (c) 1757 betrayal at Plassey and a (r) scene from the May Massacre in Dhaka .
Following in the footsteps of Zafar Sobhan in the use of Christian Biblical terms, the best summation of the Dhaka Tribune and its editor is:
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?
(King James Bible, Genesis 4:9)
or as Sher e Bangla Fazlul Haq is reported to have said:
‘I worry the day when I see that the Anandabazar* has printed something positive about me, because that is the day I understand that I have done something against the interest of the Bengali Muslims’.
The Lion of Bengal ‘Sher e Bangla’, A K Fazlul Haq, founder of the Krishak Praja Party (Farmer’s People’s Party) and the first elected premier of Bengal
* Anandabazar Patrika is a Kolkata based Bangla daily newspaper, founded in 1922, it was then seen as representing the interests of absentee landlords against their mainly Muslim tenant farmers.