By Mahfuzur Rahman
November 05, 2015
There aren't many things that greatly surprise me nowadays. But the expression of grief on the part of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, former President of the country and leader of the Jatiya Party, over the murder of publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan did amaze me. That was because only a few months ago Mr. Ershad called for the hanging of an ex-minister of government for some of his public remarks that appeared to hurt 'religious sentiments'. The killers of Dipan too condemned him for exactly the same crime. Why, then, is Mr. Ershad shedding tears for the latest victim of the jihadist rampage? And, looking just a couple of years back, he called for the annihilation of atheists, the term he used to describe participants of the burgeoning Gonojagoron Moncho.
Perhaps one should not read too much into the remarks of a practically defunct politician, except as a reminder that his responsibility for Islamisation of politics in the country is perhaps greater than anybody else's. But his stance here tells us much about the dismal state of our society and polity that allows murderers to stanch the right of expression of heterodoxy.
First, the former president is not alone in shedding fake tears. He is in good company. Every time a free thinker is murdered, voices are raised to condemn it. But this is quickly followed by silence. And then comes the inevitable oblivion.
Second, it is important to remind ourselves that jihadist Islamists do not grow out of thin air. They emerge from our society. This sounds like a platitude. But look around and into the past and an overwhelming fact presents itself: intolerance of free thinking has been growing in our society for decades now and perhaps has now reached dangerous proportions. And this has not come about on its own. It is the harvest from seeds of intolerance that had been sown a long time ago and continues to be sown in the present day. None of these seeds have been inadvertently sown; it was all policy-driven. The number of intolerant people today exceeds that of the recent past. It must be noted though that many of those who shed crocodile tears are among those who helped sow the insidious seeds. But there is no hard empirical gauge of the extent of intolerance in society today.
A great despondency now prevails among liberals in the country in the wake of the killings, of which we have seen more than half a dozen in the past year alone. Despair comes from the utter failure of law enforcers to bring the perpetrators to book. The police seem clueless. We hear from police spokesmen themselves that the police are ill-equipped to deal with these murders. We hear that a special anti-terrorist unit is needed to deal with this kind of crime. Then what is holding the government back from creating such an outfit? No amount of resources should be too much to create an efficient machinery to deal with the present dire situation.
More importantly, policymakers seem to be taken up with the task of protecting the 'religious sentiment' of the people. The question of the fear of hurting religious sentiment is, on the other hand, crucial. On reflection, it may appear that the plea for protecting religious sentiment is basically a demand for conformity. It is not so much that your smoking in the holy month of Ramadan in my presence 'hurts' my 'religious sentiment', as that I feel I am the righteous one and you should do as I do. The analogies for the quest for religious conformity can be stretched to the actual setting of a fully-fledged Islamic state which enforces conformity over all aspects of an individual's life. Such issues, the crux of the problem, are not discussed in our society. We see occasional crocodile tears instead, with predictable results.
Mahfuzur Rahman is an economist who has written extensively on the Islamist threat.